What Dance Teaches You
Spoiler alert: a lot. Part 1: Dancing builds character by training agency and being empowering and humbling at the same time.
If I started this article by saying that dancing changed my life, you would be like “ooohh, so dancing changed your liiifee 🙄”
…and I’d have to agree that that’s a cliché and soppy thing to say.
I went through a 3-year dance training program and it was terrible. I barely felt happy a dozen times in those three years and half-way through I got caught in a maze of too many too destructive thoughts and had to start therapy.
But it did what I needed it to do: It showed me me. The truth. What I could and couldn’t do. Where I shone and where I was embarrassing. How small I was and how big I wanted to be. How much I was in need for love and affection. How bad I was at accepting them.
To me, a large part of the pain during that time resembled “the nose breaking”. It’s a German saying which refers to the fact that sometimes after a nasal bone fracture, the doctor has to break the nose in order for it to grow back together in alignment and heal. I had to confront myself, I had to see all the things I was bad at and all the areas where I carried pain or trauma, all the ways I couldn’t accept, couldn’t “live with myself”. All of this had to be brought up, leaving me in a pretty bad mess. But only then could it gradually change and heal.
I am convinced that I would not be as happy and subjectively successful as I am now if I hadn’t started dancing.
And years after this training program, after I’ve spent a lot of time teaching dance to children from age 2 to age 18 as well es grownups of all ages, I’ve now come to believe that it would be really meaningful contribution to personality development, self-confidence, discipline, agency and creativity if every child had access to dance lessons in stage- or street styles.
Of course there are many things that help strengthen those qualities. Dancing will not be the right thing for everyone. I am simply hoping to make a clear point about the incredible benefits and almost therapeutic effects dancing can have.
1. Dancing builds character.
Creating a space for your struggles helps you see them and resolve them.
Let’s take an example. In this video, you can enjoy me trying to learn Urban Hiphop in 2017.
This dance style didn’t look close to convincing, because I was lacking:
- a sense of power, force, aggression
- a provocative quality
- looseness, relaxation
- intuitiveness and
- a type or carelessness.
Instead, I was dancing with:
- overthinking, headiness
- shame and embarrassment
- a need of control
- over-reflectiveness and
Now, back in that time, I was personally noticing some things I had to change in my private life, you know — just for things I needed to work on.
Here’s what I was struggling with most, back then:
- overthinking, headiness
- shame and embarrassment
- a need of control
- over-reflectiveness and
In the next years I worked on these things personally — but I also kept on dancing. Dancing shows you what you can’t do, like the fact that I couldn’t chill the f*ck out. I wanted to control everything, be good at everything, and I hadn’t learned to enjoy. In all those Hiphop classes, I trained to relax, enjoy, be aggressive. I wore baggy things and started showing some attitude, you know, first in this really shy way, then more and more authentic. And my subconscious started knowing myself as more powerful, more assertive, more “fuck you”, more gangster, more “chill”.
This is me in Hiphop today:
And when you think my dance skills have changed a lot — my character has changed even so much more. To dance that way I had to learn to “feel that way”. And that was the much harder and more time-consuming journey, and it was trained in my personal life as well as in the dance studio.
You don’t only grow personally and then you’re a better dancer. It works both ways. Training dance makes you grow personally. It slowly but surely changes stuck self-images. It makes you question who you are and why you feel, move and show up a certain way. It makes you question values, like being a “good girl” who everyone likes, but never provoking any conflict even when it would be due. Or being “smart, but not sexy” because you never thought you could still be smart if you are sexy.
Changing character to be more… “you”
Dance changes character not in the way that it brainwashes you. Not in the way that it could ever take away parts of your character. But in the most profound way: By expanding your innate character and (potentially) unlocking all the characters you could be; and by deepening your knowledge and trust to yourself, your own character, your values and, of course, your body. By helping you imagine how else you could be. Helping you imagine yourself, but different.
It should be noted that all of this happens veeeeeeeeeeeeeeerrryyyyyyy slloooooooooooooowllyyyyyyyyyy. You might not go out of your second dance class and feel like your life will change forever. Most people report these kinds of effects looking back over years or even decades.
People can teach dance, but they can actually only teach you to teach yourself to dance. The energy, the motivation, everything has to come from you. You need to figure out how to tell your body to do something that relates to what is shown to you. This means: You’re in charge, you’re making decisions, you’re creating. In a way dancing can only be self-directed learning. (Unless you are stuck in a strict and high-pressure ballet class at young age before learning to say “no”, but I don’t want to talk about that at this point.)
Dancers always use this word “energy”, such as in “I love his energy” or “great energy today, Ali”. They deal with really small subtleties of character and expression and learn to read them and work on them. Especially in contemporary theater dance, the nuances in which people examine emotions and “energy” is incredible. Is this my authentic way of feeling and expressing this, or am I copying facial expressions and body language? How can I access my own “sass”? How can I access my own sense of “vulnerability”? Anger? Resent? Gratefulness? Relief? Softness? Coldness? Sexiness? …
If you spend enough time studying your current as well as your potential character in dance, you will probably inevitably grow. Maybe quite a lot.
Simple dance lessons can be impactful
Maybe you’re by now thinking I will tell you about dance therapy. A lot of people assume that in dance classes, you learn dance, and if you want to deal with emotions and stuff, you’d have to go to dance therapy. And then they think, ‘well, dance therapy is weird, and I’ve barely met anyone who told me they went to dance therapy and now they’re pretty sane’.
I would challenge this and say: I believe the growth that happens in regular stage and street style dance classes is so significant that it can help overcome trauma (given the quality of the class is high). That it can teach people that they are in charge of their learning, their growth, their decisions and their body. That it can teach people that with consistency you can do great stuff. Because dance classes, as opposed to dance therapy, include elements like
- doing the uncomfortable
- getting tremendously exhausted
- reaching your limits
- requiring discipline
- synchronizing with others
- putting yourself after the group
- dealing with expectations to grow your skills
- dealing with other social expectations
- communicating your boundaries in respect to your body.
To me, dance could be taught in schools, but also in mental health institutions, in prison, in children’s homes or orphanages… in all the places where people need help, need to find themselves and their own character again, or strengthen their sense of self, or expand their character to be different from who they’ve know themselves as.
And then when you put it like that, who wouldn’t benefit from exploring these things? Maybe someone enlightened? I dunno — I am not sure if someone enlightened could hit it off to a song like “Shit I Like” by Tyga… There’s always something to learn, there’s always a character to add to your repertoire. (In life and in dance.)
Dancing is endless.
You’ll never be finished learning dance. NEVER EVER. If you’re the most virtuose contemporary dancer in the world, you have probably not won every popping battle. And you could still broaden your horizon by learning Urban Kizomba.
And we are not.
And that’s also something to accept: -finity. (The opposite of infinity.) While dancing is endless, we are very much endful. We are single humans and we will never be all the humans, or access all the characters that exist. We might die before we have learned to be sexy in a Spanish way. Or in my case, before we’ve learned how to do a decent press-up.
So while dancing teaches you that you own your life, and you can expand into this life — it’s simultaneously extremely humbling, because there is always so much you are not or not yet. Accepting imperfection or incompletion is, of course, an enemy to the ego and a huge step towards self-love and I guess, love.
Oh stop, we’ve arrived at the L-word. I didn’t mean to take it that far just yet.
Hopefully you got my idea: Dancing builds character. It’s a super introspective art form and a confronting and challenging craft. And it’s so inexhaustible that every dancing person can find their own world inside the dance universe in which they thrive best.
(If you’re still not convinced, hang on tight! I’ll have more words on this topic.)