Well, no shit! That was my first reaction to receiving the best dance advice of my career to date. I was in a group class in NYC working on International Foxtrot when the instructor frustratedly stopped the music.
“No, no no no! I cannot teach you if you will not try! I need you to dance the best you can.”
...was the start of what initially struck me as another one of the motivational tirades you expect from any great Russian coach. But as the class went on, the words stuck with me. I found myself repeating them on the drive home and hearing them ring in my ears from my bed that night all the way into practice the next morning.
“Dance the best you can.”
Once again, my first reaction was the obvious one: I’m already doing my best! It seemed to be such an uninformative chain of five words, more of a half-hearted “break a leg” sort of phrase than legitimate dance advice. But the more I meditated on the words, the more I realized just how wrong I was.
I was going through the motions. Working hard and practicing a lot, sure, but dancing at a comfortable 80% every single time I was on the floor, both in practice and in competition. I’m sharing this not as a testimony or fun little anecdote, but because I suspect most dancers at some point have done exactly the same thing as me — we dance comfortably, or even lazily, and in turn, leave so much untapped dance-ability in the reserves to never be used.
It’s an easy thing to overlook. “Do your best” is such a common well-wish in the western world that it’s become a cliche and we never think about what the phrase actually means. But the moment we pick it apart and make a decision to actually dance our best, things change. Half-naturals travel a little further, footwork becomes a little more precise, the back gets a little more connected and a hair more exacting. Everything we’ve trained in the body somehow comes together with more coordination than what we’ve settled for in the past.
Why is that? How is it that telling yourself “dance the best you can” can make such a remarkable difference in the way the body operates?
I think there are two reasons. The first is a matter of getting out of our own way.
Whether we’re on the practice floor or in full competition gear, there’s usually some intention in our mind about what we’re going to do differently this time. Stand up straight, relax your chest, extend your right side in that bounce fallaway. We’re giving so much attention to a single piece of this incredibly complex motor action that very little energy is left over for our dancing as a whole.
The nature of ballroom, and any other sport as technical, is that 99% of what we do is already committed to muscle memory. We spend hours consciously drilling a piece of technique into our bodies until it happens regardless of the input. And once that snippet of information is locked into our nervous system, we move onto the next one.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an important process for learning dance, but a natural and unnecessary side effect is that the things we’ve already learned get neglected. We get lazy. The motor actions we’re comfortable with are not danced to their fullest extent because we’re directing all of our focus towards changing some part of it.
The magically ambiguous statement “dance the best you can” then reminds us to do the things we already know how to do, but do them better. It asks us to dance what we’re capable of instead of the lazy fallback we resort to when our brain is distracted (like it is most of the time while we dance). We become fully present and in the moment and, in turn, we stop constantly interrupting our body while it’s trying to perform.
The second reason I’ve grown attached to this phrase is similar but more applicable to non-dance life. It’s rare that we actually do our best at, well, anything!
Most of us decide we’re “maxing out” when we’re doing around 40% of what we’re actually capable of. That’s true for time spent running, books read, and most definitely technical precision in our dancing. We limit ourselves not only for our own safety but as a mode of subconsciously creating excuses. “It just wasn’t my day” or “I could do better if I really wanted to.”
Holding ourselves back is a natural course of action because it allows us to preserve our pride and avoid giving a genuine evaluation of what we’re able to accomplish. Legitimately committing yourself to the task at hand, whatever it is, flips that narrative on its head. By giving 100% of our energy to the present moment, we both improve our performance and keep ourselves accountable for both our successes and failures.
I think that’s an important conversation to have with yourself whenever you’re doing something meaningful. Asking “was that really the best I can do” challenges you and pulls you out of your comfort zone — it eliminates the shield you have against evaluation and makes you both stronger and more vulnerable to judgment, both from other people and yourself.
Committing yourself to dancing the best you can, then, is not just about refocusing your mind-body connection, but about freeing yourself to the greater opportunity for failure that doing your best creates. Whether you’re dancing for your critical Russian coach or for yourself in the mirror, try giving it your all. Allow yourself to be impressive. Chances are, you’ll find that difficult as giving your best is, the satisfaction of getting to watch your best improve day by day will far outweigh any of the discomfort you feel opening yourself up to it.
Published in Sheer Dance February 2021.