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It's a Matter of Trust

By Mary Beth Beckman

My favorite band is Placebo. If you've ever seen my back, the tattoo between my shoulder blades is essentially Placebo's logo. The title of this article is a line from the song "You Don't Care About Us," which I don't recommend, because most people can't tolerate Brian Molko's vocals in Placebo's most recent work, and this song is from one of their earlier albums where his voice is at its most nasal. (I recommend "Kings of Medicine" for newcomers. It's pretty fantastic.)

Anyway, the line is in my head because I've been practicing American rumba and international tango for the past few weeks to get ready to dance mixed proficiency at Minnesota Ballroom Blast on October 25th. I'm the less proficient partner. By a lot. My partner is a many, many-time national champion in three styles, and my claim to fame is getting first in some mixed-proficiency events a few times. We're in totally different leagues.

The most striking thing about the process is how much I can't see or feel. My partner will ask for a change, and I'll sit there with a series of question marks over my head and do something that I think approximates what he's asking for. Then he'll say, "Do you feel the difference?" and the honest answer (which I tell him, because honesty is important) is no. I don't feel the difference. I don't see the difference.

Most of the time, though, I do understand the difference conceptually. I get it. I get the physics and how the mechanics are different. But actually doing it, intentionally and consistently, is not in the scope of my abilities. Which is maddening.

But here's the weird thing. I'll take a few days off and then come back to practice and feel like I forgot everything. It will all feel super wrong and imprecise, and I'll be sad and ashamed of my backsliding (just keeping it real—I'm Minnesotan, and shame is our native language). But then my partner says something like, "This is looking a lot better. You've made a lot of improvement since Sunday."

Um. What? No.

My kneejerk response is to assume he's lying to me.

One problem is that your mental understanding of how a movement should work is always going to be significantly ahead of your physical ability to make it happen. Body awareness and control are painstaking and awkward to cultivate, and you will never catch up. Accuracy of implementation has an asymptotic relationship to accuracy of understanding, which means you'll never feel like you're as good as you could be. Because, hey, you're never going to be as good as you could be. Sorry. Them's the facts.

But that doesn't mean all improvement is a farce, and it doesn't mean people are lying to you when they say your dancing looks nice.

You'll always focus on your awkward duck feet or your weird arm flails (as someone who primarily dances standard, I have no idea what to do with my arms when they're not in frame), but in general, other people aren't watching your dancing to see where you're screwing it up. You know, unless they're your judges or coaches or partners. The average audience member or friend genuinely enjoys your still top line, or your pretty feet, or your excellent verticality. Half the time, they're admiring something you do really well that they can never seem to get right. So when someone says, "I loved watching your rumba. You looked so beautiful!" the appropriate response is always, "Thank you," and never, "Ugh, but my flailing arms and awkward duck feet."

When someone compliments your dancing and you then bemoan everything that was wrong with it, you're basically telling that person they're wrong for thinking you looked lovely. And that's a jerk way to repay a compliment, so even though it's sort of ingrained into Midwestern culture, cut it out. Break the habit. Your life will improve.

But I think it's also really important to take it a step beyond saying, "Thank you," instead of, "You're stupid and wrong because I'm the worst dancer ever and should just quit, boo-hoo." I think we all need to work hard on feeling that gratitude, the confidence boost, the joy at being seen and appreciated. We should take the compliment and use it to fuel our continued work. Hey, I may have awkward duck feet and flailing arms, but despite that, some people like watching me dance. Imagine how much better it would be if I could have pretty arms and feet!

In the end, I think I don't really care if my mixed-proficiency partner is lying to me when he says my dancing looks a lot better. Whether or not he's being truthful, the effect of that encouragement is visible in my dancing. I stand up straighter. I keep my head over my foot. I'm more confident the next time I do my tango drill or my rumba walks. I get more done in that practice because I feel that I'm actually capable of improving.

You'll get a lot more out of your practices and performances if you just trust people when they say you look great. You're not perfect, and that's liberating. It means you have room to grow.