Stoicism and Ballroom Dancing - How to Think About the Things That Go Wrong
Last month, we talked about how despite your hours of practice and hard work, you’re still going be elbowed in the face during newcomer quickstep. Rough, isn’t it?
Joking aside, it’s important to remember that when dancing, not everything is in your control. We discussed how the music could be weird, other couples could cut you off, the judges could not see you, and your partner could be imperfect. We can direct our focus toward the one thing we can control (our dancing), but the question still arises: how should we address the things that are out of our control?
We look to the Stoics. You read that right, and yes, I didn’t think ancient Greek philosophy would influence my ballroom dancing either. But Marcus Aurelius, Zeno, Seneca, and many other great thinkers have outlined an effective well to keep calm, composed, motivated, and happy despite stress or hardship. Maybe they didn’t intend for the philosophy to be used when your fake eyelashes get too heavy, but here we are.
1) Practice and Envision Failure
When you dance on your own, you probably don’t do it with an untied shoe around sixteen other couples that don’t know how to floorcraft. Many of us try to optimize our practices by making them easy. We do them at comfortable times of day, wearing practice shoes, and taking lots of breaks whenever we get tired. If we only practice this way, we’ll be unprepared to deal with the inevitable troubles that inhibit our dancing mid-competition. Practice dancing long rounds in crowded rooms, and you’ll be better at responding to the unexpected stressors on competition day.
You should also prepare yourself mentally by envisioning the things that could go wrong. Don’t focus on them or expect them, but ask yourself: what’s the worst that could happen? Will my dance career really be over if the DJ plays Uptown Funk as a Cha Cha?
2) Use a ‘Reserve Clause’
Epictetus called it ‘hupexhairesis’. We’ll just call it a reserve clause.
“If it’ll be, it’ll be.” “It’s out of our hands.” “Gods willing…”
These are all reserve clauses. They’re reminding yourself that not everything that occurs will be your fault, and are very effective in managing your stress levels during a competition. When things don’t go exactly as planned, it’ll prevent you from taking a hit to your self-esteem and instead recognize the reality that many factors will be outside of your influence.
Addendum: this is not an excuse to sit back and ‘let it be’ without taking action. It’s realizing that your actions control the process, not the outcome. Saying to yourself, “I’m definitely going to get all marks in Paso Doble” is a lie. You can’t control that. “I’m going to put a winning Paso Doble on the floor.” That’s more in your realm of influence.
3) What Would Dmitry Do?
The Stoics call it the pondering of the Sage, and it essentially boils down to thinking on how a role model or idolized figure would behave in this situation (probably better known as ‘what would Batman do’). Would your favorite standard dancer look like a flustered idiot when another couple steps on his feet? No! He’ll shoot them a charming smile, take a step to the side, and keep dazzling the judges.
When things are out of your control, respond how your idol would. Take action in the things that you can, but if something goes awry and there’s nothing you can do? Stay calm and move past it like the cool cat you are.
Stoicism is a phenomenal set of ideas to apply to our dancing, and can truly make a difference in how adaptable of a couple you are. You can’t control everything at a dance competition. But you can be well-practiced for hardship, focus only on what you can control, and let your heroes calm you down and make good decisions. Being a Stoic when you dance will then lead you to put your best artistry on the floor and hopefully make the whole of DanceSport more enjoyable.
(Published in Sheer Dance magazine April 2019)