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Follow the Leader

The Confidence Factor

By Kaylee Anderson

Kaylee Dancing
It's Dance Fest day two, and I'm changing into my gorgeous new indigo-and-white standard dress as my hands start to shake. It's subtle, nothing like last year's DanceFest anxiety aneurism, but I can still feel the nerves thrumming through my veins as I pull the lycra sleeves up my sweaty arms and slip my fingers through the elastic loops at the ends. All this weekend I've been running on a dancer's high: I showed up early on Saturday to help with photography during Latin, and Smooth went exceedingly well, my partner and I garnering a 3rd in Advanced Bronze and semifinals in Silver. Rhythm this morning had been so much fun, and I barely noticed my sore feet as my other partners and I rocked out to the music. Now I feel like the doomsday clock is ringing ominously throughout the hall as I touch up my makeup. My shaky fingers try to blend out my sweat-streaked contour, but eventually I have to give up and head out to the main floor to meet my partner.

I never expected to do so well in Smooth, and now my brain is this awkward mix of what-ifs and well-maybes. All my partner and I have been working on was Standard, so what if we only do well in the styles we didn't practice as much? Maybe all out work in Standard was for nothing—after all, this is only the second time we've tried competing in it seriously. I try to smother the nasty thoughts swimming around my brain, but the dread in the bottom of my stomach still remains, settling like an icky black goo.

One of our mentors comes up to us as we're warming up and immediately makes a comment about my facial expression. He says something like, “You need to smile like you know you've got this in the bag. Smile like you know you belong on that floor with everyone else.” I try, but my heart's not in it. If you can tell anything from my school photos growing up, it's that smiling when there's nothing to smile about doesn't usually produce a great result with me. Funnily enough, he said nearly the same thing to me a year ago, at my first competition ever. Same competition, same expression, different year—you'd think my face would have figured it out by now.

My partner does his darnedest to lift my spirits in the on-deck area, and he manages to make me giggle a little as the first heat waltzes gracefully across the floor. I still think one of the best things about competitive ballroom is that you always have your partner to lean on when things are shaky. While they can't fix everything for you, sometimes a little outside perspective can really lead you in the right direction. Over the last year, my partner and I have grown a lot in terms of our partnership, and it's so amazing to have a base level for trust and dependency between partners. However, I tend to concentrate only on myself when my anxiety has taken root.

For Waltz and Foxtrot, my brain is firmly locked in the “technique zone.” One foot here, the other there, now spin, now glide, do your best to compensate for your shredded heel guards—every minute detail rushes through my mind like the frames on a roll of film. I know I'm overthinking things, that I'm only dancing with myself and not my partner, but I'm an addict clinging on to the only thing that will keep me from going over the edge. My brain is still going a hundred miles as minute as we step out onto the floor for Quickstep, and when my partner holds up his amazing frame like we've practiced a million times, something clicks in the back of my mind. My partner sees it too, because as we've previously established, my face is an open book. A spark of worry flickers across his face, but for once, there's nothing to worry about. This is Quickstep, I say to myself, my confident smirk blooming as I glide effortlessly into the arms of my lead. My nerves melt away, leaving behind a new me. What the hell am I worrying about? We've got this!

Leave it to Quickstep to save the day. Usually the terror of any Newcomer's repertoire, Quickstep is my partner and I's favorite dance to do together. It nearly always goes well, and while we certainly aren't experts in the subject, we do know it better than any of the other Standard dances. This is the leg up I was searching for. This is the inspiration I need to get my act together, my reminder that I know what I'm doing, and that I deserve to be on that floor with the rest of my teammates. And, amazingly, we progress. After every round we stare at the monitors until the callbacks are posted, and then we run back to the on-deck area at full speed, trying not to bowl everyone over with how excited we are. With every round my smile grows more and more authentic—I beam at my family as I am lead out onto the floor, my head high and my stride confident.

I don't think I've ever been more positive during a competition than at DanceFest this year. It's very strange to me because I'm used to undermining myself before I even start. If I set my expectations really low then there's no way I can be a disappointment, but ultimately that leaves me with little room to challenge myself. Seeing I'm capable of success has really helped me manage my performance anxiety, and I feel like I was able to level up because of that—literally and figuratively, considering my partner and I are feeling comfortable in Silver now. I started off the afternoon thinking I was going to have to dig myself a hole to wallow in self pity in, but instead we ended up placing 8th in Advanced Bronze Standard.

I've decided I'm done with expecting myself to stink at whatever I do. I'm allowed to be confident, and I'm going to put those feelings to good use with each new competition I do. Sure, I'll be nervous, and yes, there will be times when I feel like I'm in over my head, but now I have indisputable proof that I am a capable dancer. It's time to give confidence a try, because it's about time I believe in myself.