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How to Dance without Thinking, Part One

“I’m sorry,” she murmured in my arms, “I’ve been messing up all my steps.” I reflected back on the last minute or so of dancing, and decided on a literal response. “Actually,” I responded, “I believe you’ve danced about 9 out of every 10 steps correctly. Why focus on the one that didn’t work?”

Why indeed? And even more importantly, how many of those past mistakes would not have occurred, if the student hadn’t been worrying about them?

That student was a victim of over-thinking, or “paralysis by analysis”. In other words, her brain was so busy focusing on perceived errors and trying to anticipate new ones that it got in the way of the actual dancing.

It’s like this: Imagine your body and your brain as two separate entities. Your body is driving your brain somewhere when your brain suddenly grabs the steering wheel and screams, “you’re not doing it right! The manual says you have to stop TWO car lengths before the yellow line!!!” What is the result? Probably a crash.

That’s not to say that thinking doesn’t have it’s uses in dancing – for example, it’s very helpful during a lesson, when making sure you understand and apply what the instructor is saying. But once your body has assimilated what you need to do, the brain needs to shut down and shut up.

Furthermore, the body generally assimilates information a lot faster than we think it does. Take this common scenario in my classes: Student A has practiced the foot positions for a step several times, but is struggling now that I’ve added what the arms are doing.

Around the third or fourth try, I ask what they are focusing on. You know what they answer? The feet! “Well, why don’t you put the feet on autopilot for a moment, and see if you can at least nail the arms?” I suggest. The student is often surprised to find their feet still cooperating after they’ve shifted their focus away.

So what happened? Our thinking brain is often suspicious of the progress our body makes – it wants to be REALLY sure we’ve got it before it relaxes enough to focus on something else. By recognizing this tendency, we can allow ourselves to progress more quickly through our patterns.

Where over-thinking really gets us however, is when it’s time to put it all together to music, at a social or performance for instance. This is when it’s time to stop learning, fall back on your honed instincts, and focus on moving in the present.

In partner dances like ballroom, this affects leaders and followers in different ways (skip the next two paragraphs if you are not interested in ballroom dance).

For leaders, some amount of brainpower is still spent planning for the moves ahead, based on what they are currently doing, how experienced their follower is, and how much space they have to work with. This at least gives the brain something to keep it occupied.

For followers however, this can be the hardest part. Followers must focus only on the present, relying on the information they get in the moment to respond. Forgetting to do this can cause us to miss a lead, lose our performance face, or even forget what dance we are doing!

So, are you an over-thinker in dance? Here are a few signs:

  1. You anticipate your leader’s patterns before they execute them.
  2. Your leader complains they can’t feel pressure from you, even though you can move through the pattern with them.
  3. You find yourself forgetting steps and techniques you previously did well.
  4. You have difficulty getting over a mistake you just made.
  5. When you look back on a dance you only see the mistakes, not the successes.
  6. Your mind wanders a lot while dancing.
  7. You feel panicky trying to remember everything at once.
  8. You focus on a single part of the dance, and end up forgetting other parts, like footwork, timing, armstyling, etc.
  9. You accidentally blend patterns you are currently doing with ones you planned to do.
  10. Your partner or instructor comments that you have a “thousand yard stare” while dancing.
  11. You tend to focus on what you are doing and forget about your partner.
  12. You tend to focus on your partner and forget about what YOU are doing.

Almost everyone is guilty of over-thinking at least some of the time, so what can you do about it? This is what we’ll take a look at next week.

Works Cited:




About the Author

Ian Crewe has been dancing ballroom for over 18 years, and has a Licentiate in American smooth and rhythm. His passion for dance eventually led him to blogging and the World Wide Web. Ian currently teaches at the Joy of Dance Centre, Toronto, ON, Canada.

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