Saturday, October 31, 2015

When does confidence boost performance in ballroom dance?

This week on DWTS, Season 21, we saw  training clips showing a self confident Tamar Braxton dancing the foxtrot  with partner Val Chmerkovskiy.  While it appeared to many viewers that her foxtrot was technically quite beautiful, she did not obtain the 10's in scoring that she earned the week before.  It causes one to wonder, is too much self-confidence taken as braggadocio by others,  and especially so with judges?  And does bragging about one's ability cause others to want to "cut them down to size"?  Tamar Braxton's foxtrot performance demonstrated expert technique in her beautiful posture, her lovely arm styling with shoulders down, crisp, jazzy characterization and clean footwork.  She showed intent visual connection with her partner, even if she missed some hand connections.  One wonders, if this were any other competitor, would the small misses have gone overlooked given the balance of her other strengths?  In addition, whenever they put the foxtrot to music that is not exactly the flowing 4/4 timing, the characterization of the dance seems to get lost.  Dancers seem to struggle to find their way when the music is not suited to the dance, and especially novice dancers rely on the music to help them execute their dance timing.  Tamar seemed to do a great job adapting the foxtrot to the music, but perhaps the judges faulted her somewhat because of this disconnect. 

The main point to derive from this is perhaps it is fine to believe in yourself and have confidence.  It's even fine to believe you are the best dancer out there.  But, it is another thing to articulate this in a broadcast in a public context or even in social media.  Others, particularly judges, or those in a judgmental position, may have the human reaction of wanting to put you in your place.  You ultimately do yourself a disservice by bragging in certain situations, and it's probably best to be conservative in this arena.   As the judges said, the best dancers show improvement, and it's not always improvement in dance technique that matters. Sometimes it's improvement in one's awareness and empathy to the social context that makes the difference.  Dance on.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Performance Anxiety in Ballroom Dance

Most Dancers who have ever entered a competition or prepared for a showcase encounter some form of performance anxiety.  We know this as the overwhelming jitters, nervousness, restlessness and agitation that precedes our performance.  You can watch as dancers prepare for their entrance by bouncing aimlessly about, a dazed "deer in the headlights" look in their eye, terrified and worried. Even some celebrities on Dancing with the Stars with years of experience in front of a camera and in front of audiences complain about the experience of being "scared" before performing, at least at the beginning of their time on the show.  For example in Season 21, Paula Dean was open and graphic about her feelings of fear prior to going out on the floor.  I have competed with horses in hunters and dressage for years, I was surprised to experience abject terror of going out in front of a small audience at a showcase performance of the American Smooth foxtrot and waltz.  While a 2000 pound horse can pull some unexpected moves during a performance, nothing compares to what a 170 pound dance partner can dream up to throw you off step.

A good deal of performance anxiety in sports can be attributed to  anticipatory fear associated with coping with uncertainty. An army of " What If's" begin rattling around the Dancer's brain, triggering the avalanche of helplessness and overwhelming self doubt.  "What if I forget my routine?,  What if I lose count?  What if I forget to change my head position on with the sway?, and What if I straighten my knees when they should be flexed? "  an on and on.  However, there is an antidote to the experience of performance anxiety, and it involves adding a component of mastering uncertainty into the already hard practice dancers  put in in preparing for performance.

For example, fear of forgetting the routine is paramount among dancers, especially if they have ever experienced the "going blank" phenomenon three quarters of a way through a routine.  Sometimes this comes with the thought "I'm doing great, I've come this far, I'm almost home" and then poof, the whole remaining sequence disappears from your mind.  A helpful technique available to overcome "forgetting routine anxiety" is to practice forgetting and remembering an different points in the routine.  Once you have your routine somewhat memorized to the music, practice starting up the routine at different points along the way. This exercise is a way of pretending that you have forgotten where you are, but then then picking it right back up.  Its as if you say to yourself, "If I go blank here after the second twinkle, I know that's when the fallaway always comes."  Do it in small sequences until you can always dive right back in.  The confidence you gain from doing this exercise promotes the experience of the mastery thought " It doesn't matter if I do blank out, I always know how to get right back in."  In this way, there is no more fear of blanking out, because if it happens, no big deal, you already have a skill for coping with it.

Coaches can assist their dancers with this mastery exercise by stopping the music at random points and having the dancer begin the sequence anew.  If the coaches of Dancing with the Stars used this technique, perhaps there would be less "blanking out" in early episodes!  Try this mastery exercise and send this aspect of performance anxiety off your list of worries.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Positive Coaching in Ballroom Dancing

Many Ballroom dancers watch the show Dancing with the Stars with special interest to the training segments.  Dancers empathize with the celebrities as they try to master a new dance or two each week, having never before encountered  the complex steps or timing involved in each new dance type.  For many, working on a new dance seems like rubbing your head and patting your stomach, the actions required just seem to contradict one another until hours of practice suddenly bring on a sudden continuity and insight.  Until you can begin to adopt the feel of a dance into your own muscle memory, the dance seems foreign, strained and laborious.  The frustrations exponentially build in the acquisition of a new dance, which can sometimes lead to the wish to abandon the whole endeavor and just stay with something safe, such as the slow quick quick of rumba as if even that were anything but simple.

During the sixth week of Season 21 of  Dancing With The Stars, we were able to view an example of positive coaching with competitor Alexa Pena Vega.  Her regular coach was Mark Ballas, but on switch up week, she was paired with Derek Hough.  From the limited snippets of training video provided on the show, we see that  he immediately identified that she struggled with worry and loss of confidence in her dancing.  During training he was shown making a consistent effort to be a cheer leader, saying "remarkable, effortless, fantastic" on the execution of one movement during Tango training.  He kept having her repeat "I got this" in an effort to help her internalize this belief into her mindset.  Even if she struggled with a step of timing, this belief created a bridge for her to know that with enough practice, the she had the ability to make the step her own.  That belief, that if I work hard enough I can get his, is the keystone of confidence.  He helped her reach in and find the part of her emotionally that could connect to Tango characterization,  and the results were a perfect score from the judges.  She seemed at ease and to be enjoying herself and the learning process.  Later on, Derek Hough commented that a lot of dancing is emotional.  This suggests that  a dancer needs someone to believe that they themselves can actually learn these very foreign and strange movements that appear to come so easy to seasoned dancers.  Alexa seemed to see how well she did with a positive, encouraging approach and said she "hoped that Mark saw I respond to that."  Her dance the following week, the Cha cha cha did not go as well, but we can only wonder if some of that was because of the evident anxiety she had about holding a python snake during her performance..  The anticipatory anxiety of holding the snake while doing a Cha cha cha likely posed a significant distraction during her entire performance.

Dance acquisition and early performance tests causes dancers to face their own prevailing fear of looking like a dork in public.  We all wonder whether we can execute these movement with the gracefulness and aestheticism we see in more the advanced dancers we encounter.  New dancers face fear of being ashamed, embarrassed or humiliated in public when they attempt to accomplish something that they fear may be outside of their ability range.  They worry about looking stupid, making mistakes, looking too stiff or mechanical, and of having others ridicule their attempts. Women or men of a certain age who take up dancing for social and exercise purpose worry they are trying to look too young or sexy and that others will laugh at them. And the worst situation of all is to feel that a coach is ashamed of them, which is devastating for the dancer, and can cause the dancer to abandon dancing or learning that particular dance all together.

A positive coach can provide necessary perspective on the learning curve, and provide the new dancer with the next steps along the learning curve that provide challenge but are not our of range of physical or emotional ability. As Alexa said in the video, "I want him to believe in me", which is all most dancers seek, a sense of mirroring for the efforts they are making, and an acknowledgement of steady improvement along the journey of dance acquisition. The dancer seeks realistic praise from a coach, not the type that feels like "he's blowing smoke so I'll buy more lessons".   Coaches can take a great deal from watching these training tapes, as much as the dancers do.  We all can own our place in the beautiful art form of dance.