Practice and Experience
To become an expert in anything requires time. Many students come to me and say, “I have been dancing West Coast Swing for 10 years, and I just can’t seem to get better.” Years don’t matter when it comes to improvement. Hours matter. How many hours have you danced?
To grow as a dancer, there are 2 ways you must spend those hours. Neither can replace the other, and they are not to be confused: Practice and Experience.
Practice is what you do alone. Over and over. Mindful and meticulous. It is drills, repetition, slow, precise, and boring. The number one excuse that I hear from students regarding practice is, “But I don’t have a partner.” My answer is, “Good, then you won’t have anyone to mess you up.” Practice doesn’t require a studio, a wood floor, or even dance shoes, though there are times those things will come in handy. Drills can be learned from teachers or created on your own. Take anything you are looking to improve, remove it from its usual context, and repeat it. A lot. Slowly. Now do it again. Even slower. Practice is training your body to a new normal. Teaching it a way to move without thought. I don’t believe in practicing an hour a day. You will lose focus and do nothing except reinforce what you already do. Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. 5 minutes at a time, 20 times a day is a good formula. Use it as a break from work. Do triple steps while you brush your teeth. Pepper it throughout your day, but give it your full focus each and every time.
Experience is what you gain when you go out and dance. It is a time to shut down your mind and work off of instinct. You are reacting and responding to a tremendous amount of information in each moment, from the music and your partner. The reason the top dancers you admire make phenomenal choices in a dance is because they have been in similar situations hundreds of times before. They trust their instincts and they use them. Experience also gives you a chance to cultivate these instincts, and thought just gets in the way. There is no time to analyze a situation before you react in the middle of a dance. If you want to be a social dancer, get out there and dance. With everyone. If you want to compete, go enter competitions. As many as you can. When I was training in Latin, I had a teacher refuse to teach me anymore until I got on the competition floor at least 3 times. She said, “Knowledge and training, I can give you. Experience, I cannot.”
Practice mindfully, dance mindlessly. You cannot think your way to becoming a better dancer in the moment. A dear friend, Cody Melin, once said to me, “Every time I step on the dance floor, I tell myself I am as good as I am going to be today, and no amount of thinking will make me better.” That statement holds true for us all.
Now go practice.