Tuesday, December 18, 2018

When to Give Dance Feedback: A Flowchart

As a teacher and student of partner dance—and a lover of flowcharts—I am intimately aware of the complexities of giving and receiving feedback. Many dancers are unaware (or neglectful) of the appropriate etiquette. Typically people are too quick to offer unsolicited feedback or too quick to assume that others will want their feedback. People are also often too slow to ask for the actual feedback they would like as well as reticent to speak up when they are in physical or psychological discomfort or pain.

So, I've crafted this flowchart about when to give dance feedback. (On the radar for the future is a chart about how to give feedback, which is another kettle of fish.) My hope is that it will help empower dancers to ask for feedback when they want it, direct the ensuing conversation toward their interests, and speak up for themselves in uncomfortable situations. I also hope that it will help dancers realize that others do not necessarily want their feedback and that not all settings are appropriate for giving feedback. I want dancers—nay, all people—to experience more personal agency in getting their needs met and respected by others.

Note from 4/9/19: In a discussion with a reader, another important consideration emerged: If someone requests your feedback, you should provide it only if you are willing and comfortable to do so. Just because a person asked for feedback (or met/didn't meet other criteria in the chart) does not mean that you are obligated to give feedback. The consent of both parties is essential. 


If you found this chart helpful, please feel free to download this chart for use in your own classes or dances.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

On the Meaning of Competition Scores

I've recently had the opportunity to judge competitions at a number of swing dance events, including All Balboa Weekend, Balast Off, and the International Lindy Hop Championships. That means I've had to make some tough decisions regarding some amazing dancing, and I've also seen the impact that my scores have had on the competitors. I love judging competitions because it gives me an opportunity to (a) participate without the stress of making finals, (b) practice understanding and implementing my own values, and (c) share my opinions with my community about in which direction our dance ship should sail. I've heard many people respond for better and worse to the scores they received (not necessarily from me), so I'd like to  share some insights into what my competition scores mean. (Insert here a disclaimer that these are my opinions and other judges may [and probably do] feel differently.)

On Prelims

In prelims, judges are given a certain number of "yes" votes and a certain number of "maybe" or "alternate" votes by the contest organizer. So if you get a "yes" or a "maybe" from me as a judge in prelims, it means...

  • When I was scanning the room looking for standout dancers, I noticed your dancing.
  • Your technique, timing, and teamwork stood out in comparison with the other dancers'.
  • On the basis of what I saw in prelims, I believe I can trust you to perform for the audience in finals.
If you didn't get a mark from me in prelims, it might mean that your technique, timing, or teamwork was not as good as the other competitors' or that I don't think your dancing is quite ready for an audience to sit and watch you. 

But there are other much more mundane reasons why you might not get a mark in prelims: 
  • A crowded floor (such as with big heats) made it challenging to see everyone for a sufficient amount of time.
  • I did see you, but not at the right time.
  • An unusually large number of competitors entered the contest, meaning the number of dancers who get a callback is small. For example, in a prelim with 80 contestants, I may get only 12 yesses and 5 maybes.
  • Many dancers are similar and I am forced to choose and I cannot choose everyone I liked.

On Finals 

In finals, judges must rank the dancers. Top placements mean much more than low placements. A high placement means...
  • I enjoyed your dancing.
  • You had great technique, timing, and teamwork (or at least these 3Ts were better than the alternatives).
  • You went above and beyond the 3Ts with your level of difficulty or risk, performance quality, creativity, musicality, and individual and/or partnership voice. 
  • Your dancing fit the parameters of the contest (e.g., in a Balboa contest, you are dancing Balboa...whatever that means to the individual judge!)
  • I would show your dance to another person and say "that's great Balboa" or "that's great Lindy Hop." 
However, a low placement does not mean that I didn't enjoy your dance. It might mean...
  • Your dance had technical or structural problems that other dances did not have or did not have to the same degree. Technical and/or structure problems are not moral failings. 
  • Your dancing did not fit the parameters of the contest (e.g., dancing Boogie Woogie in a Lindy Hop contest, dancing Balboa too much like it's Lindy Hop). (This is also not a moral failing.)
Or a low placement might mean I didn't really like that particular piece of dancing because it wasn't in alignment with my values. There's no rule that everyone has to like everything. And if I didn't like a particular dance in a particular contest, that doesn't mean I dislike all your dancing all the time or that you are a bad person or a bad dancer. My opinion is not an indication of a moral failing on your part.

Rocks and Hard Places

The nature of a contest means that I am forced to choose. I often like different dances for different reasons, and my job is to choose which value(s) to prioritize when making my rankings. The values being prioritized differ depending on the judge and can even vary within the same judge depending on the exact dances within a particular contest. For example, when I am judging, I value partnering skills above, say, level of difficulty or risk. If all the competitors demonstrate great partnering, then the dancers who took more risks or had a higher degree of difficulty will probably place higher than dancers with less difficult or risky dances. However, it is challenging to weigh a dance with lots of difficulty and risk but less than optimal partnering against a dance with great partnering that was easy and kind of dull...how the placements sort out will depend on the particular dances in question. 

Moreover, it's important to remember (or realize!) that contest placements are made on an ordinal scale—they are in order, but the distinctions between 1st, 2nd, 3rd places and so forth cannot be meaningfully quantified. All of the dances might have been great, or there might have been one (or more) dances light years better than others. Sometimes I want to give all the dances third place. Nevertheless, as a judge I have been forced to choose to put the dances in order. The dances might have been so different than it's barely meaningful to put them in order at all, and yet into order they must go. 

Caveats and Provisos 

Judges give the scores in a contest, but should you trust their opinions? To a degree, yes. A good judge is a person with experience and expertise in the dance style of the contest. A good judge is able to know their own values and explain them to others. A good judge can critically evaluate others' dancing just by watching in a short amount of time and come to conclusions on the basis of their values and the evidence. A good judge is not afraid to make the decision they think is best on the basis of the dancing in that contest—not because of personal friendships, nepotism, or popular opinions. 

At the same time, judges are only human. We are not omniscient or infallible. Every time I judge, I wonder, "what will people think of my choices?" And then I try to make the best decisions I can anyway. We are doing our best—just like you are as a competitor—and once again, the nature of the contest format itself means that we are forced to choose. Even if we do not choose you, that does not mean that we do not like your dancing or value your contributions. 

Likewise, contests in and of themselves speak only to one aspect of dancing. A contest dance can't tell you whether a person is fun to dance with (although it might give you an idea). It can't tell you whether a person is kind, or thoughtful, or a good (dance) listener. Although swing dance contests have been around as long as swing dancing itself, social dancing, not contests, is the essence of dancing. Contests are meant to be fun. Although they do have influence over trends in the community and who is hired to teach or perform, they are not the ultimate arbiter of what is good and bad in swing. Do not ascribe more worth to them than they are due. Remember that the heart of the dance is on the social floor.

Making Meaning

So say that you understand that contests are not the be-all and end-all of dancing, but you still want to understand why you got a particular score. To make meaning of a judge's score, the best thing to do is to consider the result in the context of the judge's values. If you don't know that judge's values, ask them! Ask me! (This conversation is especially fun in person.) Get to know judges as people (I promise, we are people too). If you are an organizer, ensure you know the values of the people you ask to judge contests and that they know their own values too. Perhaps you discover that the judge's values do not match your own—that's okay! There is no rule that we must all agree about everything.  

Because even more important than the values of the judge are your own values and the values of the people you trust—and the judges of a particular contest may or may not be included in that list of "people you trust." (Remember, organizers are people too, and there may be constraints of which you are unaware, for example, about who is available to judge.) Although a good judge has credentials worth respecting, ultimately your own opinion matters the most, because your dancing is personal. It is yours to enjoy and care for over the years. 

Win or lose, the bottom line is this: Don't put your self-worth in the hands of other people, including competition judges. If you win, it feels great but you may lose the opportunity to take chances or make changes for fear of not winning anymore. If you lose, you may feel terrible about yourself, become discouraged, and even quit dancing. Instead, work to understand your own values and bring your dancing into alignment with them. Competitions are a fun way to perform for the community, but the meaning you make of them is up to you, and they are only a piece of the swing community experience. 

Dance your dance like no one is watching—even when someone is actually watching. 




Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Rediscover the Value of Friend-Dates

When's the last time you went on a date with a friend? Not a date-date, but a friend-date. Whether you're in a committed relationship or not, the friend-date is a wonderful thing to keep in your life. As we enter the end of winter (at least in the northern hemisphere), many of us are stuck inside because of cold weather with no holidays to look forward to. It's easy to go stir crazy. Seasonal affective disorder is real. Enter the friend-date.

The friend-date can take place in the real world or online via Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, or any number of video chat services. Online is great because you can participate from anywhere and it doesn't have to cost anything. It can be hard to take that first step and reach out to people, especially if they are people you don't know well, but think about how you would feel if one of your friends reached out to you—excited, right? That is precisely how your friends will feel if you reach out. In an age where people are afraid of talking on the phone (myself included), sometimes it ends up that everyone is waiting for everyone else to make the first move, which means no one ever moves. We all sit at home wishing our lives were more interesting and full and convinced that we're missing out. Pretty much everyone feels the same way. Here's your chance to do something doable about it.

Of course you can do anything you want on a friend-date, including just talk, but I would love to hear some suggestions for online friend activities from you all. Many of you love games; what games work well online for a low investment of time and equipment? A few years ago a group of my friends loved playing Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes via Skype, so I can recommend that. Other ideas? Thanks all!



Thursday, August 10, 2017

How to Listen Better

At some point I'm sure you've heard, or probably said, the words "you're not listening to me!"

Lately I've been thinking a lot about listening—on the bus home from work recently I witnessed a spectacularly bad interaction in which two strangers argued over whether racism existed in the United States, and it didn't end well because one of the people was not listening. I've also do a fair share of listening myself among my friend groups (I did go to counseling school for my master's degree, after all) and have been told it's been helpful. And I've gone to therapy and been listened to and seen the power of that.

So, here are some of my thoughts on how to listen better:

1. Don't argue with the other person's reality. 


When someone is telling you their story, you must remember it is their story, not yours. If you want to listen better, you have to accept that for this person, their version of events is the true version of events for them—even if you think their story is illogical or ridiculous or infuriating, even if the person has mental health problems that means they see the world through sad, anxious, hateful, or paranoid glasses.

2. Remember that acknowledgment does not equal agreement.


Acknowledging another person's reality through listening is different from endorsing it as objective truth (or as your own same subjective truth). For example, someone might tell you about how they were treated so unfairly by so-and-so for absolutely no reason, but you actually can think of several valid and rather unwholesome reasons why that person was treated as they were. Your reaction might be to argue with the other person or to dismiss their feelings as overblown or unimportant or pale in comparison to their own transgressions.

However, all of these reactions amount to you saying "your story isn't true; it doesn't matter; that's not how it really happened." If the person senses that reaction, they will feel like you aren't listening to them—because you aren't. Listening requires that you acknowledge that this person's story is true for them, but it doesn't require that you agree with the person's feelings, interpretations of events, or actions. However, if you want to have any shot of the other person listening to your interpretation of events, you must first do them the service of listening to their version—a two-way street.

3. Use mindfulness to moderate your personal reactions.


It is next to impossible to listen to someone else if the only person you are thinking about is yourself. And yet, it is also next to impossible to avoid connecting another person's story to your own story. If someone tells you about the pain they have experienced, you think of your own pain and how it was worse or better. If someone tells you about their abhorrent (to you) views, you think of all the reasons why you believe those views are wrong and merit that person being locked away for a long time, or at least banned from the internet. It's natural to evaluate what someone says in your own frame of reference, but you don't have to act on those evaluations right away. Listening requires that you wait a moment.

When dealing with intrusive personal reactions in a listening context, I recommend a mindful approach. Acknowledge and accept that you are feeling a reaction to the other person's story but not to let it pull you off course from listening to the other person for as long as you intend to be listening to them.

4. Listening begets listening. 


Once someone has had a chance to tell their story, they are more likely to listen to your story. If your story contradicts theirs, the door is open for you to change the person's perspective. Once you have listened, you can then say, "I hear you saying X, but I disagree about the interpretation or action you took as a result of that because of Y reasons." In all likelihood the other person will not be immediately swayed, which will require you to listen to their follow-up rationale if you want to have your rejoinder. At any point the system might break down, particularly if the other person is not a good listener themselves, but you will have tried your best.

5. You don't have to listen if you don't want to. 


Sure this whole post is about listening, but let's remember there is no law of the universe that says you have to listen all the time, or listen to everyone. Maybe the person speaking isn't worth your time. Maybe you're not in a healthy place to listen. Maybe the venue in which someone is speaking isn't conducive to effective listening (cough, most of the internet), and so you choose to participate or not participate in a discussion in other ways.

Listening is a choice. But if you do choose to listen, I think it's worth doing well.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

It's Not You, It's Me

Recent discussions in the swing dance community have centered upon how we can be more inclusive of people of diverse gender identities and sexualities. In particular, the discussion has focused on whether/how to rename the swing dance competition style that's usually called a Jack & Jill to something that doesn't have gendered names in it (here is a summary of the issue if you're not familiar with the issue; reader discretion advised for reading the comments depending on how much you enjoy watching people fight on the internet).

But my post isn't about whether/how to rename a swing dance contest.

It's about a related issue: Taking things personally. It's about the importance of remembering that your reaction to a charged statement—no matter whether you're angry, impassioned, ambivalent, motivated, apathetic, incredulous, insulted, excited, or something else—that your reaction is about you. Although you may think you are reacting to the other person's statements, you're not. And they're not reacting to you either; they're reacting to themselves. Once you examine your reactions in the context of your own experience rather than blaming other people or situations for them, you have a chance to find more peace and equilibrium.

This advice is especially useful if you are not someone who has a personal (as in personal identity) stake in the game. If you are from a majority group and find yourself having a strong negative reaction, examine why. Look inward; why are you so against changing something that negatively impacts others? 

And if you are among the marginalized groups, the agreement to not take things personally can help guard against internalizing negativity from other people who are telling you that you are wrong or bad for just trying to be yourself in public. It is a terrible misuse of the agreement to say "don't take it so personally" and to mean "please dismiss/change/hide your personal identity because I don't like it or it is against my beliefs." So if you are on the receiving end of such a condescending and dismissive statement, please don't buy it. Because perhaps you are questioning or unsure of your personal identity—if you did take their words to heart (this is part of what the agreement means by "taking things personally"), it might cause you long-lasting emotional pain and suffering, which would be antithetical to the goal of supporting and uplifting ourselves and our fellow humans in all their diversity.

A Seemingly Unrelated Example

Sometimes having an example that doesn't stir you up makes the premise easier to internalize. Something happened to me recently on the playground with my son that struck me as analogous.

It started when my 2.5-year-old son caught eye of another boy's ball. Despite the fact that we had our own very serviceable ball, my son followed that 6-year-old boy around plaintively declaring, "my ball!" I told my son that sorry, it wasn't actually his ball; we had our own ball; and we needed to respect others' property, but appeals to logic seldom succeed with the toddler set.

Eventually the older boy went to go ride his scooter. Conveniently, my son also had his scooter at the park. My son chased the older boy merrily, but the older boy was not impressed. Eventually the older boy stopped near to where his mother and I were both standing.

The older boy got off his scooter and said to my son in a rude tone, "Hey now, you had better stop copying everything I do!"

My son doesn't talk much yet, and I was standing right there, so I said, "Hey, that wasn't very nice...."

The other boy's mother interjected to say, "Excuse me! I can speak to my own child about his behavior!" And she turned her back on me to tell her son not to be so rude.

As I stood there duly chastised, I had the following thoughts:

  • I was only trying to help! Why is she mad at me for wanting to help?
  • The boy was being rude. Why was she treating me like I had done something wrong? 
  • What right does this woman have to reprimand another adult? 
  • I feel embarrassed that she yelled at me in public. 
  • Doesn't parenting take a village? What's wrong with me saying something when a kid misbehaves, especially when it's to my child who lacks the verbal skills to speak up for himself? 


And as I stood there duly chastised, I also conjured the following counterpoints: 
  • She is also trying to help by speaking to her son herself. She knows him; I don't.
  • Doesn't she have the right to parent her own child just like I do? 
  • Although she was short with me, maybe she has her reasons. She doesn't know whether I would have said something helpful. 
  • It's okay to be embarrassed; sometimes people make mistakes, even me. That doesn't mean I'm a bad person. 
  • Why do I have to be the one to say something to this kid I don't know when his own mother is literally standing right there? 
After the other mom was done talking to her son, I approached her and said, "I just wanted to say I didn't mean to overstep my bounds before. Thank you for telling me what you needed with your son." 

She visibly relaxed and started to apologize to me. She told me how many bad interactions she had had with other parents doing a poor job of reprimanding her children (who included two older kids, ages 11 and 14). 

"Don't worry," I said, "I'm not offended in the least that you said something. And actually your son did pretty good putting up with my son chasing him around for as long as he did. I'm sorry to hear you have had so many interactions with other parents doing a bad job of telling your kid what to do," I replied. "My son's only 2.5 and luckily that hasn't happened to me yet." 

We continued to talk and it turned out our views on kids "behaving badly" were very compatible. We've both taken child development classes, enough to know that it's developmentally appropriate and expected for them to copy each other when they're 2.5 and to defend their independence when they're 6. Kids are learning, and it's up to parents to help them learn; we don't need to blame parents for kids' behavior. The conversation ended on a positive note. 

It Was All About Me (and Her)


This is all to say: My reactions to this woman telling me to quit talking to her kid about his rude behavior toward my son were about me. 
  • My experiences with talking to other people's children in the past have all been positive or neutral, so of course I expected it to be okay this time and was taken aback when it wasn't. 
  • My response to feel upset and embarrassed at her remark was also about me, evidence that there are yet vestiges of perfectionism in me—by which I mean that when she stopped me from doing what I thought was the right thing to do it felt like she was telling me I was a bad person or a bad parent, and I didn't like that. 
And likewise, this woman's reaction to me was about her. 
  • She had 14 years of experience as a parent during which numerous (likely well-intentioned) other adults had done a poor job of correcting her children's behavior, and she wanted to proactively defend her kid from that. 
  • She also knows how many people blame the parents for their children's behavior, even when the behavior is developmentally appropriate. My interjection might have meant that I was saying she wasn't doing a good job as a parent. No wonder she'd acquired a steely, quick intervention to stop potential attacks and show her skills.  
For both of us, the situation was about trying to take care of our kids and raise them to be kind to each other. But I don't think we would have found our common ground unless I'd made the overture to apologize—and I wouldn't have had the emotional strength to apologize unless I understood not to take her behavior personally. 

Precisely because I didn't take her behavior personally, I was able to choose my next action rather than be forced by emotion. If I had let my hand be forced, I would have felt hurt, embarrassed, and offended at a single sentence from a stranger that questioned my parenting and carried that around with me into future interactions. Once I realized her behavior wasn't about me, I could let it go. I chose to apologize, because I wanted to make a connection with her—but I could have just said nothing and left, if that was what I needed in the moment. 

I Swear This Is Related to Your Life Even If You Don't Have Kids

So when you encounter a charged situation of your own—like, say, the latest discussion in the swing community over inclusive nomenclature—and you feel yourself get angry, scared, embarrassed, dismissive, mean-spirited, hurt, ashamed, or something else at what other people are saying, take a second to consider where that emotion is coming from. (Spoiler: The call is coming from inside the house!) 

This does not mean it's wrong to feel angry, scared, embarrassed, dismissive, mean-spirited, hurt, ashamed, or something else; all emotions are valid. However, in my experience, more constructive behavior and greater levels of personal sanity tend to emerge when we understand why we feel the way we do, rather than just reacting from a gut level. It is very hard to hear someone else's perspective when your reactions to yourself are so much louder. If you can separate your noise from the actions of other people, then you have a better chance of understanding someone else's perspective.

To all my friends on every side of any controversy, I hope that you are able to work through your relationship to yourself so that you can really hear other people. True connection is beautiful.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Going Back to the Dance

Dear Chelsea, 

So, due to a host of reasons, but let's just mainly chalk it up to "health" and "work" and "personal," I've taken a hiatus from dancing, for what, about a year now? Yes, that sounds about right. So then, this begs the question: how to dance again? It seems like such a simple question, but it's fraught with many complex feelings. First, I've never been the "best" dancer (snort) even when at my peak. Now, after a year off, will I be hideously terrible? WHAT IF NO ONE WANTS TO DANCE WITH ME? WHAT IF I HAVE FORGOTTEN EVERYTHING? 

Second, I'm out of the habit now. How do I rebuild the habit? I don't have a partner who dances regularly, and my life shifted in that year off. I'm not as young as I was, and it's easy to get lazy, and well, the venues closer to me are waning in popularity, so that's a challenge as well.

Third, while I don't owe anyone an explanation, I've been missing from the dance floor, the internet, and the scene for about a year, with very little word, and there will be questions, most likely. How to handle? For all that I appear to be an open book, I'm often not—I'm good at deflecting, so I don't have to discuss things with everyone, but people do not like being put off. Additionally, I gained 40+ pounds, and I don't look the same. I can't very well expect to show up after disappearing for year without a trace, and not to have to answer to someone, I suppose, but the IDEA of it has kept me away more than once. What do I even say? I don't want to be the sad trombone ruining the music for everyone. And moreover, sometimes once I start talking it's word vomit everywhere and I can't stop myself. What do I do? 

Dear reader,

Let me address your concerns one by one, since you so kindly laid them out for me.

What If No One Wants to Dance With Me

Ah, the fear that no one wants to dance with you is shared by dancers everywhere of all skill levels. And yet because you used to be in the dance scene you know several truths universally acknowledged about why a person isn't dancing at any given moment:

  • The lead–follow ratio is off and it is hard for dancers of the other role to have a chance to ask you because other more aggressive dancers are asking them first. 
  • You are hiding in a corner far from the floor looking like you do not want to dance (e.g., nose in phone). 
  • You have gained a reputation as a creepy dancer or a dancer who is so rough they hurt other dancers (or both).  
These reasons are either not personal (a numbers game, or about where you are standing) or are about gargantuan excesses of personal offence that I, from knowing you personally, know you do not begin to approach. So if you go to a dance and stand near the dance floor and no one dances with you, it's not you; it's the numbers game. 

Your friends don't care how bad your dancing is, and strangers don't know how bad your dancing is, so your fears that your bad dancing will keep people away are in your head.

What If I Have Forgotten Everything

I doubt you've forgotten everything, but if you have, they have classes for that. I also hear that those classes are a great way to meet dancers and make new friends who don't need to ask you about where you've been for the last year. There is no shame in brushing up on your skills! Or, you could take a private lesson to brush up on your own. But you knew this already.

Habits

There is a wealth of literature about how to build a habit, and I will assume that you are perfectly capable of googling "how to build a habit," so instead I'll address what I think is the real issue when you bring up habits and concerns about age, laziness, venue proximity, etc.: that you are using "I'm out of the habit" as an excuse not to go dancing. Why does dancing have to be a habit? Can't you, on any given night, decide that you want to go dancing or that you want to stay home and play video games or that you want to do any number of other things? If you want to go, go. It doesn't have to be a lifestyle choice. 

It's clear to me that, despite your fears, you miss something about dancing, whether that's the people or the activity or both. So why not look at dancing as an opportunity to reconnect with friends during which you might dance? Message a friend to see whether they will agree to show up to the same dance as you. The friend will serve as an anchor to help you feel more comfortable coming to a dance, because you won't be going back cold. Or invite a dance friend to do another activity to strengthen those bonds before you try to go back to a dance. 

For the dancing itself, set a nice low bar. Perhaps you might ask one person to dance the first time you go back. And you will have your conversation with your friend. If after that you feel uncomfortable, you can go home, and you can try again another time if you want. There are no dance police who evaluate each attendee on how much they danced and with whom, what time they went home, etc. Compared to never going dancing again, showing up, one dance, and one conversation would be quite an accomplishment! Start simple. 

Explaining Yourself

I agree that you don't owe anyone an explanation, but I disagree with your phrasing that you should have to "expect to answer to someone" because of the length of your absence and your changes in physical appearance. 

People ask questions as a way to start a conversation. People follow predictable scripts. If they have just met you, they will ask, "What's your name?" and "What do you do?" and maybe "How long have you been dancing?" If they haven't seen you in a long time, they will ask "What have you been up to?" or "Where have you been?" 

So I absolutely do think you will encounter these questions, but only because people feel compelled by social scripts to ask them. Mostly, they are trying to make you feel good by asking after you instead of rudely ignoring your long time away. They also (gasp) are probably genuinely interested in your well-being. 

Here are some thoughts on how you can answer these questions succinctly and without getting too personal for your comfort: 

  • Question: "I haven't seen you out dancing in forever! Where have you been?"
  • Answer: "I took some time away from dancing for health reasons and because I was really busy at work. Tonight is my first night back and I'm excited but a little nervous. What have you been up to lately?"

  • Question: "Oh my god, why did you gain 40 pounds? I'm definitely not dancing with you now."
  • Answer: Wait, this question is a joke. No one with a shred of social decorum would ever ask you about your weight gain. They might notice if they know you well (and the ones who don't know you won't know the difference), but they won't ask (or, if they do, brush them off and tell them its personal and to mind their own business).
  • Answer part 2: Whether you talk about the weight gain is up to you. If you want to bring it up, you could say, "I took some time away from dancing for health reasons and because I was really busy at work. Tonight is my first night back and I'm excited but a little nervous, especially because I gained some weight [and I'm not sure how my body dances anymore]." Then the person will most likely make a sympathetic remark and you can say, "Well, enough about me—what have you been up to lately?"
If people ever press, all you have to say is, "I'd rather not talk about it, but thank you for asking. How are you?"

Getting Over the Hurdles

All of the reasons you identified in your letter are hurdles you're setting up for yourself because you're nervous and scared. It's alright to be nervous and scared, and there are things you can do to manage those emotions. Connect with friends ahead of time, be nice to yourself about your expectations for how often you will go out and where and how much you will dance while there, and come armed with a few sentences to answer the social script questions when they come up. You might even practice the social script questions with your friend ahead of time. 

You're not going to be a sad trombone and ruin the music for everyone. For one, it would take superhuman effort on your part to be such a sad trombone that you ruined the night of everyone at the dance venue. You'd probably have to commandeer the microphone and overthrow the DJ. You didn't mention planning a dance coup in your letter, so I can only assume you plan to interact on a human scale.

To a degree I think if you practice the social script you can prevent word vomit from running amok. However, if you find that once you start talking, you keep talking, this might just be the way you are. I guarantee that if it is the way you are, your friends already know this about you and they still like you. If you can't keep yourself from talking even though you want to, the thing you should do is to work to accept yourself and love yourself the way your friends already do. And people you are just meeting may think the word vomit is a little odd or a little much, but it will not ruin their night. You are a piece of the puzzle, just as important—and unimportant—as anyone else.   

Above all, take it one day at a time. The first time back is the hardest and then it gets better from there. I hope to see you out dancing. 




Tuesday, January 3, 2017

New Year's Agreements

Something about the new year inspires people. Less than a week ago many people seemed despondent at the state of the world (or, more specifically, by political prognostications and an accumulating death toll of beloved celebrities); with the dawn of 2017, optimism creeps in as it always does. I don't mind whether you're resolving to dance more, to eat better, to exercise more, to accept yourself as you are, or to finally be consistent about flossing your teeth and not just flossing them for two days before you go to the dentist in the hope the dentist won't notice (they will), or whether you eschew resolutions and trundle on as usual despite the need to buy a new calendar.

Instead, I wanted to share with you all something called The Four Agreements, which I think will help either way. The Four Agreements are principles for how to respond to the world and conduct your life, and in the last three years since I first heard about them shortly following the death of my mother, they have changed mine. The principles are thus:
  1. Be impeccable with your word. 
  2. Don't take anything personally. 
  3. Don't make assumptions.
  4. Always do your best. 
They were developed by don Miguel Ruiz, and you can read about them more fully at his website or in his book, and I will do my best to explain my experience with them here. In a nutshell, the premise is that in childhood we learn certain "rules" about the way the world works and how we are supposed to behave in it in order to receive love and attention and avoid punishment. But in most people, this striving (and failing) to live up to what other people want for you results in a continual feeling of not being good enough, which leads to negative beliefs about the self such as...
  • I'm not smart.
  • I'm not beautiful.
  • I should be ashamed of my true wants and desires because they aren't right.
  • I'm not good enough at my job/school/hobby for people to like and respect me.
  • I deserve pain and suffering because deep down I am a bad person.
  • I can't do any better so I had best settle for what I have now. 
There are pithy quotes about how you should always shoot for the moon because even if you miss, you'll land among the stars, etc., but I like this one from Ruiz's book for its rejection of comfortable metaphor:
To be alive is the biggest fear humans have. Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive — the risk to be alive and express what we really are. Just being ourself is the biggest fear of humans. We have learned to live our life trying to satisfy other people's demands. We have learned to live by other people's points of view because of the fear of not being accepted and of not being good enough for someone else. 
The thing is, these are learned beliefs. They can be changed. You can change them. You can be yourself and still be loved. And The Four Agreements are principles to help you get there. Here are my thoughts on each.

1. Be impeccable with your word.

To be impeccable with your word is to speak from a generous heart. And in so speaking, firstly and most importantly, mind how you speak to yourself. Tell yourself you're worthy. Tell yourself it's okay to be the way you are. My therapist tells me, "Your feelings aren't your problem. Your anxiety about your feelings is your problem." When she said this, I stopped and wrote it down because it's so true. You can write it down too if you want.

Once you begin to speak to yourself in this way, you begin to speak this way to and about others: That is the second part of being impeccable with your word. Even when you find other people's behavior infuriating, disgusting, and despicable (even if this person is a politician or celebrity), you will be able to speak against the infuriating, disgusting, and despicable behavior and bypass the minefield of character attacks, which tend to reinforce existing sentiment rather than change hearts. But moreover, you will find yourself much more interested in spreading the good in the world than paying heed to the bad.

2. Don't take anything personally. 

"It's not you, it's me" is a cliché but also true. The agreement to not take things personally means to know that whatever a person does is because of them and never because of you. If your loved one yells at you, it's because they are taking out their pain on you. If someone has hurt you or assaulted you or harassed you, it was never your fault. Even if someone tells you to your face that you are ugly, stupid, bad at dancing, mean, unlovable, and the cause of all the wrong in the world, they do this because of their beliefs, not because you are necessarily any of these things. Now, I am not yet such an evolved human that I don't feel upset or hurt anymore because of the actions of other people, but I have found that this agreement helps me respond with a cool head in fiery situations, so I think not taking it personally is helping. Ruiz writes,
But it is not what I am saying that is hurting you; it is that you have wounds that I touch by what I have said. 
Likewise, if someone has told you that you are beautiful, smart, an excellent dancer, nice, lovable, and the bearer of all good tidings, they do this because of their beliefs, not because you are necessarily any of these things. I'm not suggesting that it's not nice to be loved. I am saying that your worth does not come from other people; it comes from you.

3. Don't make assumptions.

People aren't mind readers. Even the people who know us well aren't mind readers—but it's easy to assume that they are, because humans spend their entire lives trying to answer the question of "why," and in the absence (or even presence) of reasons, we make assumptions. Chiefly, Ruiz writes,
We make the assumption that everyone sees life the way we do. We assume that others think the way we think, feel the way we feel, judge the way we judge, and abuse the way we abuse.... And this is why we have a fear of being ourselves around others. Because we think everyone else will judge us, victimize us, abuse us, and blame us as we do ourselves. So even before others have a chance to reject us, we have already rejected ourselves. 
It takes courage to ask questions. Do you want to go out on a date? Who will do which chores in our relationship? Would you like to dance? Can I kiss you? And in the absence (or even presence) of definitive answers, leave the question open rather than make assumptions.

4. Always do your best.

Doing your best isn't about perfection—screw perfectionism (if you have trouble with perfectionism, I highly recommend Brené Brown's book The Gifts of Imperfection). Your best is the best you can do, and no more and no less. This changes from hour to hour and day to day and year to year. Sometimes you are sick, or tired, or hungry, or your heart isn't in it, and you will mess up and speak ill of others, take things personally, and make assumptions. But that doesn't mean that you should quit trying. It also doesn't mean that you should double down and kill yourself in pursuit of happiness. (The high achievers reading this should be mindful of that last sentence.) Be kind to yourself. Over time, with practice, your best gets better.

I hope that my being inspired by the new year to share this part of my life has helped you, but either way, it's okay. (Or at least, I am trying my best for it to be okay—I am worried someone will not like this and will get upset by what I say, but then again I know that that would be about them, not me. Nevertheless, I'm still dealing with the nerves. Just so you know I'm not some sort of super-person.)

Thank you for reading this very long post, and I hope that your new year brings love and light.