Towards a More Authentic Self: Part One

I chose the tag-line for this blog “lessons learned on and off the dance floor” because I hoped that what I write here would not only resonate with people who care about dancing, but that non-dancers would appreciate my process and find some value as well. But more importantly, the lessons you learn in one setting cross-apply to the rest of your life. Dance as a model for approaching human interaction adds complexity and nuance to in-class conversations, creating a “Zen and the Art of…” model that helps me test my theories to see which ones stand up when challenged by non-dance contexts.

Photo by Jalestro Mediaworks

Saying something… important.

In class, my teaching partners and I often find ourselves saying things that are purely intended for the movement context, but we laugh when we hear the call-back to real life situations.

“Dance yourself, not your follow. If you’re dancing, your partner will have plenty to respond to.”

“If you release your tone, your partner can release theirs, making for a less effortful dance.”

“Just create the opportunity for your follow to turn and she’ll go on her own. Don’t force!”

“Think of lead-follow like a conversation. One person initiates a topic; the other responds.”

“Never cause a build-up of tension in your partner unless you can guarantee a good release.”

“Integrity is your ability to resist giving in to outside pressures.”

“Quit trying to ‘get it right’ – let the energy of your lead dictate your movement.”

Put these principles to work in your art, your work, and your relationships and you might find more flow and less need for force—at least, that’s always our goal.

The search for flow has been the driving force behind the decisions I’ve made in the past few years. There are plenty of books on the topic. For me, “flow” is simply the state of being in action, usually a creative action… writing without stopping to edit, dancing without an audience, playing music for myself. The editor is off; there’s little awareness of how the action is being perceived by others, and it’s repetitive or not even designed for artistic output. The ability to work automatically while my mind is free to meander creates a moving meditation. I let my thoughts move like water and follow them, not trying to push them. It’s less about “getting specific things done” and more about making space for blocks of time to be in motion.

Ultimately, whatever you’re learning in dance class should help you move with greater ease and less mental struggle. If the the lessons are sound, then you should be able to apply them to your life and experience greater flow in other areas.

The thing about dance is that it’s a skill and you need to practice it for many hours to have enough proficiency so that you can freely express without worrying about your body position, your vocabulary, where the hell your feet are: all the hallmarks of “feeling dorky.” People often ask for advice as to what kinds of other dance training they can do on their own that supports partner dancing. I make suggestions like Afro-Cuban dance, T’ai Chi, Aikido, Weight Lifting, Modern, Hip-hop… each of these solo endeavors impart a set of skills that build a better kinesthetic foundation. A mentor once observed that a student who practices any other form of movement always learns faster than one who doesn’t. Cross-training cross-applies.

But partner dance isn’t just about your body, it’s about your relationship to another person, to the music you’re interpreting, and some would say, to the community at large. To that end, taking extracurricular dance classes isn’t enough to dance well.

An Anecdote or Two:

I remember talking to a friend who was invited by a popular dancer to compete with him. He told her, “You’re going to have to really step it up for this competition. Last time I competed, a judge told me that I out-shone my follow and that’s why I didn’t do well.”

I laughed so hard. It was so obvious just by observing the way he danced what kind of person he was. My judgment might seem overly facile, but the anecdotes I heard about him over time reinforced my initial assessment: he was narcissistic, selfish and didn’t give a shit about his follow. She was there to serve him. And, it came out later, quite publicly, that his romantic relationships weren’t much different.

Rose City Blues, 2012. Photo by Linda Nguyen

Trying to find my mojo during solo pre-lims.

So, imagine my personal discomfort when I posted online, after an event:

“What do you do when you feel you are “going through the motions” on the dance floor and it’s not just a one-night thing. How do you shake out of it? Would you say you go through phases of loving it and not loving it?”

I got a number of responses, but the one that hit where it hurt came from Barry Douglas:

“When your dance is not right, it simply means you’re not right. We sometimes use our dance to make us happy instead of using it to express whatever it is we’re feeling. The beauty in movement is that it allows us to give over ourselves and express life. Good or bad. Expecting it to do more than that can leave you empty.”

Looking back on this, he was right.

Even prior to asking for help, I’d learned not to take myself out dancing when I don’t feel I can give to my partners, just as I don’t go out on dates when I’m feeling selfish, needy, or empty.

It’s unrealistic to expect other people to fulfill you, whether it’s on the dance floor or in the context of friendship or romance. That’s hard to stomach, because often we have the unexpected experience of being fulfilled by an unplanned interaction with someone. So we want to go back for more, and we slowly begin to expect other people to fulfill our needs. When we expect the dance to make us happy, or give to us we give away our agency and ultimately find ourselves disappointed. This leads to being picky about who we dance with, when we forget that no matter what, we’re still always dancing with ourselves. Back to that adage: no matter where you go, there you are.

Being Your Own Partner

A week ago, I made face-to-face acquaintance with a friend whom I’d only had digital interaction with till then. We spent a great deal of time on our first meeting talking about relationships and what we want from our interactions with others. He was adamant that he’s ready for a relationship, but feels nobody else seems to be able to handle his brand of intensity or directness. I could tell how other-focused he was, and yet how self-analytical he was. I told him as much, that it was obvious he’d done lots of work on himself, and that I was loathe to tell him to “work on himself” more. Our conversation meandered on various points of communication and later he sent me this note:

I made myself cry this morning with this epiphany that I thought somewhat akin to your epiphany the other day of realizing that you want to work on the skill of relating with other people:

I need to be my own partner.

I put so much energy into other people and go out of my way and watch out for them and do them favors and keep them healthy and organized and on time—it’s odd that I don’t do this stuff for myself in the same way. I think I need to learn to direct that energy back toward myself more. I think this a foremost obstacle to me being more successful.

Chris Mayer, Ruby Red, Blues Shout Boston

I remember being completely in flow during this competition with Chris Mayer.

I found his revelation to be gratifying and informative. He was discovering what I keep learning over and over again about how I hurt my dancing and my relationships by failing to be my own best partner first. (If you read the end of his last sentence the way I did, you might also see that he’s applying this lesson to his life-at-large, not just romance.)

If you saw my post on FOMI, then you already have an idea as to my current thoughts on why focusing on yourself is just as—if not more—important than taking more dance classes to find flow in self-expression. Thinking back to Barry’s advice, it was a clear directive to check in and ask myself what I’m really feeling and go with that.

Expressing oneself authentically and artistically is probably one of the scariest things we can do. We’re full of fear and locked down with self-protection mechanisms. What then, does it take to shed the artifice, the myriad needs and insecurities, to put ourselves out there authentically and without fear of reprisal?

Categories: Change, Communication, Dance | 3 Comments

Fear Of Missing In

This post is for the dance junkies and the traveling dance instructors. But anyone who has caught the dance bug can probably relate.


There was a time when I took nine dance classes a week. There was a time when I went dancing four or five nights a week. I went to an all-night party a couple times a month. I drove 14 hours for a blues birthday party. I stayed up till dawn, weekend after weekend. I danced for 17 hours a day with only enough break-time to change venues or get dinner with friends.

This is Sunday night of a four-night Blues event in Chicago called the Chicago Underground Blues Experience. People have been partying for four days and the DJ just put on some bouncy pop music. As you can see, everyone has lost control.

This is Sunday night of a four-night Blues event in Chicago called the Chicago Underground Blues Experience. People have been partying for four days and the DJ just put on some bouncy pop music. As you can see, everyone has lost control.

The post-exchange blues, a common phenomenon, was bemoaned on dance boards of yore (Yehoodi! Swingtalk! Gargleblaster Blues! Blues Pulse!) and carried forward to Facebook conversations of today. The return to real life, real job, real sleep schedules after 2-3 days of non-stop fun, socializing and dancing leaves people with a chemical deficit. The dopamine and oxytocin stops flowing. You’re back at your work computer, faced with a pile of work, homework, and maybe that same old partner who doesn’t magically change every three minutes.

Dance Exchange culture is a high-reward lifestyle, with an easy shot of happy new chemicals every few minutes. Instead of drugs, we rely on a cocktail of dancing, talking, hugging, eating and drinking to keep the flow of happy chemicals steady. Robb Wolf talks about high-reward food choices in the context of diet, but to me the parallels to dance culture are close enough to consider:

“Certain foods can reduce anxiety and irritability and place us in a more positive place. This is due to the effects food can have on opioids, serotonin, and dopamine. Chronic exposure to foods eliciting these responses will down-regulate our sensitivity to these transmitters and force us to eat more to elicit the same mood altering response.”

Dancing has a similar reductive effect. Like getting stoned, you only need one hit at first to get high. A night of dancing can be incredibly satisfying, but once you go through the full exchange experience, a night of local dancing just doesn’t build the same high. Some have even argued that the more experienced a dancer becomes, the less they enjoy dancers of all levels. Don’t we then keep exposing ourselves to more dance culture, more fun, more party to keep eliciting the same response? And if we aren’t at the party, isn’t it a little bit tempting to party by proxy by scooping up news of the latest event on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter?

BLuesShout-socialIn the absence of being at the event, we’ve learned to stimulate our reward centers by interacting with the digital representations of our beloved communities, clicking on pictures of parties, enviously reading and commenting on status updates, embroiling ourselves in heated scene politics debates—anything to stay connected to the party.

FOMO: defined

As social media has expanded and become a very integral part of the dance community, the very real phenomenon of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) impacts us all. FOMO has been written about in multiple media channels and clearly affects people of all walks of life. For us it’s a highly tangible part of our interactions. “Are you going to xyz exchange? You HAVE to be there!” When the stream of posts, photos, and videos hitting your news feed as the latest big event is in full swing, it’s hard not to feel left out of the action when it’s all being reported LIVE!

The Good

Part of this is good. It’s good press for the organizers. It means continued success for their event. Attendees largely choose to go to events because of who else will be there or because of who was there last year. And they want you to be there. So in an attempt to get you to go next year, your friends will guilt you by pointing out repeatedly how awesome a time they’re having without you, because wouldn’t you rather be there with them?

User generated press is always more believable than official advertisements and word of mouth is largely how our community thrives. (Most advertisers would kill, or pay moles to engage in the kind of evangelism we use to promote events.) Everyone’s capitalizing on FOMO to generate better attendance and greater success for the events they run or choose to attend. While it’s easy to fall prey to FOMO relative to your normal life, (and there’s enough documentation out there to help you work through it) here’s another less commonly defined phenomenon that concerns me: Fear Of Missing In.

FOMI: defined

The more I considered taking a break from extended travel in 2014, the more I realized FOMO would affect me. But all that time on the road was creating a stronger fear, that of missing out on who else I might be, on my other unexplored potential, on all of the non-dance interests and obsessions that I don’t have time for when I’m in the full swing of a dance tour. It’s Fear of Missing In… what’s In me.

I’ve been trying to write this blog entry for over a month. The first date of this draft is from 12/28/13. So, I was amused on 1/28 during a round of revisions to find that when I re-ran a search for FOMI, a new result turned up. Previously, there was no search result for FOMI. I thought I’d coined the term. But, it looks like somebody else was also experiencing end-of-year FOMI. The fact that I’ve been occasionally hacking at this topic for more than a month says that it’s hard for me to admit, hard to put it out there.

There’s so much else I want to do with my life. I’m not even sure if I want to describe my other ambitions. Part of me believes that writing them here will relieve the built up pressure I have (and need) in order to enact my new plans. So, I’m sorry if you’re curious. I can’t satisfy your curiosity about my goals. The deeper question for me is, do I have an identity separate from Ruby-The-Dancer? If dancing were to be stripped out of my life, what would be left?

Making Ted laugh out loud is one of my great joys in life. Whether we're dancing or not, we always have a good time.

Making Ted laugh out loud is one of my great joys life. Whether we’re dancing or not, we always have a good time. 

The Point

What’s my point? Dancing is important. It’s how we connect. For many of us, it’s how we build friendships, relationships, and valuable networks. But it’s based on high-reward partying, which emphasizes novelty and constant change. It’s a highly structured way of interacting with yourself and your surroundings. It allows you to move on to the next dance, the next new and shiny, but often without going deeper. It’s a wonderful moving meditation, a way of being in the moment, and of experiencing flow. No doubt the more you do it, the better you get at it. But at what cost?

It’s a way of avoiding the rest of your life: avoiding relationships with people who don’t share your obsession, avoiding the study of deeper topics that aren’t as immediately rewarding. It’s a way of justifying not having a regular sleep schedule, of getting out of learning something that requires different skills. It’s a way of excusing yourself out of possible plans to go back to school, eat a better diet, quit drinking, pay off your debts, or write more because those things are harder to do when you’re dancing every other weekend.

I’m at odds here, because as a dance professional, I want more people to dance. Dancers inhabit their bodies more fully and have fewer hang-ups about interpersonal interactions. I want more people at events. I need people to be willing to sacrifice money, work, personal time, family and relationships to spend a weekend at my camp, learning from me.

But I also want rich dancers; dancers who bring outside perspectives, dancers who have other obsessions, dancers who play sports, or musical instruments. I prefer dancers who practice something else regularly, so that when I try to impress on them that practicing my drills every day will improve their dancing, they’ll believe me and do it, because studying something else always gives you new perspectives on your dance.

Playing with Kyle Greer and Keith Instigators

Playing with Kyle Greer and Keith Instigators

Yes, sometimes taking time off and spending the money to go to the party is worth it. It’s mind expanding. You learn something. You shake off the day-to-day struggle. You make friends. Fun and friends are part of your quality of life. But there’s a plateau to this kind of continual play, where dance becomes your whole world and your facebook feed of fellow dancers is your only source of news in the world. It’s a wonderful, yet limited world-view.

So, step out and do your thing, the thing that makes you you outside of that fishtail or that swing-out. I need you to bring YOU to the dance instead of being a cookie-cutter dancer. Bring your sense of learning, your ideas, your concepts, your fashion, your quirks. This is what makes a rich dance culture. This is what makes a community I can always come home to, no matter how many times I step out to do my own thing.

Categories: Dance, Travel | 17 Comments

On Giving It Away For Free

Years ago when I lived in San Francisco and times were tight, I was practicing massage therapy on a regular basis. Occasionally, I would question whether or not my rates were too high. I’d bring it up with my best friend, who founded his own online business printing high quality business cards (they were expensive… not the vistaprint crap, but the cards were gorgeous and totally worth it). The conversation would always go like this:

me: Business has been tight. I’m thinking of dropping my rates to get more customers.
him: Don’t drop your rates. Cheap rates means cheap customers. You don’t want cheap customers.
me: Yeah, but I could use more customers.
him: Cheap customers waste your time. What’s your time worth?

Inevitably I’d learn this lesson the hard way. When I moved to Chicago in the winter of 2005 I’d occasionally give a client a break on my rate to entice them to visit more often. Invariably the customer getting the discount would be the one who was always late and then would beg for more time without being willing to pay the difference.

So, I stopped dropping my massage rate. For customers who paid my full rate or tipped, I’d be generous with my time; I’d be less of a clock-watcher. The ones who came back again and again and got more than an hour of work and became part of my devoted client-base. They were willing to invest in my full rate and in exchange, I was willing to invest more time in them. I paid the bills and they got great service.

Paying money means you get great service.

Paying money means you get great service. | They say that adding images improves the readability of blogs. This was the best image I had of me and money in a dance context. Here’s my dance partner, John Joven and I enjoying a private dance from his partner Shoshi. He’s making it rain, I’m drinking from a huge flask and we’re all having a good time.

As a dance instructor just starting out years ago, I started with lower rates, so that I’d be competitive with dance teachers at my level. As I’ve gained experience and traveled abroad multiple times to teach, I’ve felt justified in increasing my rate even though I’d happily do what I do for free, since I love working with people on their dancing.

Occasionally I do offer my services to friends and close colleagues for free or nothing. I suggest a trade, or agree to spend time working and training with a colleague who has become more of a friend. (This agreement doesn’t apply to teaching partners with whom I’m building shared curriculum—we don’t charge each other to train together.) It usually applies to someone who wants more dance training and has some other business relationship with me.

And, what I’ve learned the hard way, yet again, is that when you offer to give your services away for free… or you don’t negotiate a clear exchange, people, even your friends take you for granted. They don’t show up, they flake, they’re late or they try to raincheck your time, often to a time-frame that’s no longer viable.

On the other side of it, I’ve watched as close friends pay practitioners and teachers less qualified than me for bodywork or instruction, even though they’re willing to give lip-service to my skills. This may just be a desire for business/friendship separation or an uncertainty for how to conduct business with a friend, but it still baffles me.

I don’t have clear solutions to either of these situations. Every dance teacher I know probably has friends with whom they’d love to work. Because they’re our friends, we’re often willing to do more for them, to share our skills in the hopes of enriching their lives and therefore adding to our own enjoyment of the dance. But when our colleague and friends waste our time, squander the resources closest to them, or simply fail to take advantage of what we offer, especially when we offer it for cheap or free, it can feel personal.

I’m a solutions oriented girl. I usually make clear rules for myself when it comes to handling business and friends. But I don’t have any on this one, other than to stop giving it away for free, which feels stingy to me. So, I want to hear yours.

Categories: Business, Dance | 8 Comments

Pure Following vs. Being Conversational: My Order of Operations on the Social Dance Floor

The Joy of Conversation

The Joy of Conversation

Sara VanVreede asked Lucas Weismann and I this question after she watched us have a discussion about following during a practice session:

From Sara: I don’t know if it’s a class thought, a “help me sort this out for myself by talking about it” thought or something to look at in a lesson but…I’m hoping maybe you can at least help me stop making my brain spin every time I think about it.

So, when I was watching you and Ruby dance, the topic of matching your lead vs being given space to stylize came about, and Ruby commented that the less her lead gives, the more she matches/less flashy her movements are because she has little to respond to from her lead.

Is there ever a point in a class to address that sort of topic? Especially as follows are developing their own styles, we definitely get conflicting messages about styling vs matching. Plenty of times we hear “match your lead” and then in solo classes “move with the music” but at least with a number of MN leads, there’s an assumption that if they place a follow in open position, she is not supposed to match the lead except in pulse.

Personally I agree with Ruby that, sure I can make stuff up and solo, but I’d like to have something to react to from my lead. As dancers, I think we get a lot of “match your partner” and then also “leads, listen to your follow/let her do her own thing” (as far as I can figure out, those aren’t the same thing) and it gets super confusing and frustrating when you think one thing will happen when you place a follow in open and that thing you want, but didn’t explicitly lead, doesn’t happen.

I suppose the gist of this is: how does a lead successfully communicate that he wants a follow to do her own thing, and how does a follow explain, short of having a conversation prior to dancing, that maybe she wants or needs her lead to give her feedback?

Ruby’s Response:

First I want to summarize what I think this question is really asking and answer that, and then give some thoughts about my own personal order of operations when it comes to following, styling, giving input and affecting the dance.

How can you tell, short of having a verbal conversation about it, whether a lead wants you to be conversational? Or how you can encourage that?

Most importantly, I think the prima facie definition of partner dance is that it IS a movement conversation. There’s a flow of action/reaction that loops from the lead (who is simply the initiator of movement) and the follow (who is the responder). But the lead can’t not be impacted by how the follow responds to his/her action, so whatever happens next is going to be a response. To say that there is a form of partnered dance that does not involve this kind of feedback loop is simply to deny the existence of physics and human perception.

But, I know what Sara means. Do you just “walk down the line” or do you add extra rhythm, footwork and body shaping? These are choices we can make as follows that aren’t led, that are considered the “conversational” part of the dance. They can be inspired or suggested by the lead, or we can just “take the space” when it’s available.

This question allows me to address something that I feel is a common misconception about follows like myself— follows who have a demonstrated skill and preference for solo movement. The mistake leads often make with me is that they lighten up their lead, offering very little frame or support, or they lead lots of open moves that are supposed to “give me space” to express. The problem is when the leading is non-expressive or too vanilla. There’s nothing in the movement to give me ideas or something to respond to, so I follow quietly, just going with the direction and energy, and I don’t throw much back in terms of styling or footwork.

Leads who have something to say inspire me to respond. I’ve never had more fun bantering with Luke as when we went swing dancing. All his choreography was very firmly defined by the music, with a clear beginning and end from one swing-out to the next move. But within the confines of those eight counts, he was throwing tons of styling and solo footwork at me. I had a terrific time rising to the challenge of answering his movement within the confines of clearly defined beginnings and ends.

The only time I don’t respond artistically to a lead who is being very expressive is when I’m protecting myself from being thrown off balance or from being crashed into other people. Then I resort back to the purest following I can do that prioritizes self protection.

However, I realize this question is coming from a follow who is still defining her sense of style and who may not have a “rep” as a highly expressive blues follow (although if you know Sara, you know that she’s actually an accomplished ballet dancer, so she has a strong sense of how to move her body).

I have an order of operations that dictates how much I follow purely vs. how much I express:

1) Always stay within the framework of the choreography. By “choreography” I mean the figure or pattern that is being led. I’m not referring to rote or memorized movement. If a turn is led, do a turn. If the lead wants you to pass down a slot, go down the slot. If the lead is quiet, be quiet (which can also mean style quietly). If the lead is loud, be loud.

2) If the lead is adding styling and footwork, try to respond to it, the way you would a verbal conversation. For me this isn’t something I “try” but it’s just instinctual. If a lead throws in a ball-change, well, I want to see if I can toss it back at him/her.

3a) If the lead is leading simply and the music isn’t really moving me, I don’t throw down the usual “Ruby style.” I just follow the movement. This might make my lead think I’m boring or bored. This doesn’t bother me. I do want to communicate first off that I can follow before styling and also that that’s what’s being led. If you style through every single turn, the lead will develop the expectation that that’s how you get a follow to style in that way, even if s/he isn’t initiating interesting movement. I think this is false.

3b) If the lead is leading simply and music really moves me, I follow the choreo, but disconnect the parts of me that are touching my lead, so my styling doesn’t get in his/her way. They can see what I’m doing, but aren’t impacted by what I’m doing. This means I’m still expressing and moving to the music but not in a way that hijacks the lead.

4) If I have already established rapport with a lead who is interested in my conversation but who doesn’t constantly talk (incidentally, also my favorite kind of date), I’ll throw something out that does affect his/her timing— such as a delay, syncopation or speed-up that they can feel. Invariably this leads to more interesting conversation and makes me want to keep dancing (and dating).

5) If I have established rapport with a lead who has the ability to lead simple pure movement as well as throw down his/her own style, then I’ll actually add movement that affects the dance… delays, changes in tone, level changes, things that s/he will ultimately be following. This happens in partnerships where there is a culture of “yes.” I call these “one second leads,” and this is very different from what I do when I’m trading roles in a dance. I’m still following, but with extra added oomph.

I like to use dating metaphors in my dancing, but I recognize that my dating style and standards are somewhat outside the norm or maybe a little unconventional. For example, I recently had a date that was like scenario 3a. He would occasionally ask a question or say something, but sometimes I’d finish responding or offering something up and he didn’t have more than two words to say in response. As a result, there were these really long silences. Since we were walking around and not facing each other across a table, this wasn’t such a bad thing, but most people might have felt this was awkward and would try to offer things up to fill the silence. I decided that I’d only make a conversational offer 50% of the time. If he didn’t bite on every conversational topic, I wasn’t going to force ideas down his throat or work especially hard to fill the silence.

Some people have a slower communication lag and they need time to digest what you say/do before they respond. By trying to fill every possible silence and space with your speaking/movement, you cut off the opportunity for quiet observation or for someone to organically respond to something you might have said 16 beats ago. Personally, I’m faster on the draw, so I gravitate to leads who have a shorter communication lag.

Summary: If you’re awesome, I’m awesome. If you’re plain, I’m plain. If you want to draw out the real Ruby on the dance floor, bring it.

A supportive lead makes it possible for a follow to express with confidence.

A supportive lead makes it possible for a follow to express with confidence.

Categories: Communication, Dance | 6 Comments

The Right Way to Compare Yourself to Others, and Why You Should

Here’s a feel-good post for the morning inspired by

One of the biggest reasons we’re not content with ourselves and our lives is that we compare ourselves to other people. —Leo Babauta

Leo’s got it all wrong. He’s comparing himself to the wrong people at the wrong time.

Picture it: you see photos of what someone else is doing on Facebook and think your life isn’t exciting enough.
Actually, I just see people bitching about politics/life/burnt bagels.

You see someone else who has a cool job and think you’re not doing that great in your career.
Only to the extent that my office-free job doesn’t afford me health insurance at the moment. Otherwise, I keep turning down work.

You see someone with a hotter body, and feel bad about yours.
Actually, I check out the folks with the jelly roll middles and thunder thighs and think, “well, you have some junk in the trunk, but your ass ain’t a double wide! You go girl!”

You see someone who has created an awesome business, and think you’re not doing enough.
I’m doing plenty, thank you. I don’t actually want to work any harder than I do, which I’d have to do with a “more awesome” business.

You read about people who are traveling the world, learning languages, going to exotic resorts and restaurants, and wonder why you’re not.
I wonder when I get to spend time at home doing mundane things at home. Traveling is exhausting! And expensive! And there’s nothing like the comforts of home.

Compared to this lady, I don't have far to go with my fitness goals! I'm betting the same can be said for you.

Compared to this lady, I don’t have far to go with my fitness goals! I’m betting the same can be said for you.

No doubt, there are people out there who are smarter, wealthier, and probably happier than me, but competition is what drives us to be better. The key is who you’re choosing for your comparisons. It’s going to happen in your brain, whether you are conscious of it or not. So, when you’re comparing, take look at the poor sods around you who haven’t made it as far, who are uglier, fatter, or whatever-er that you’re neurotic and insecure about. Then, when you’ve built yourself up about your current state of achievement, take a good look at your competition to see how much better you can get. It’s the ones who’ve gone before us and who thrive next to us, who drive us toward excellence.

A lot of contemporary bloggers are overly focused on the solo-self-fulfillment/zen/non-comparison method of attaining inner peace or whatever. That’s fine, if you live on a mountain-top and don’t have to fight for resources, money, shelter and love. But the fact is, competition is part of life. Comparing ourselves to the world is how we reflect who we are, what our place is and how we measure where we want to be. Realism about who you compare yourself to (your near peers and people with similar levels of experience) will give you enough impetus to push a little harder. Comparing yourself to Donald Trump (if you’re not already a millionaire) is a waste of brain cells. Learning from those who are out of your league is a way to compare without being crushed. No matter what, we have something to learn from those around us, and it needn’t be crushing doubt and self-defeatism.

There. Don’t you feel better now?

Categories: Business, Change | 1 Comment

The Difference Between Winners and Losers

For Danielle

“You have no idea how it is in the first Round,” Floyd [Patterson] would tell his confidant, Gay Talese. “You’re out there with all those people around you, and those cameras, and the whole world looking in, and all that movement, that excitement, and ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ and the whole nation hoping you’ll win, including the president. And do you know what all this does? it blinds you, just blinds you. And then the bell rings, and you go at Liston and he’s coming at you, and you’re not even aware that there’s a referee in the ring with you…”

The fatal blow that knocked out Floyd Patterson, September 25, 1962

The fatal blow, that knocked out Floyd Patterson, September 25, 1962

Some great athletes experience a round, a play even an entire contest, in slow motion, as if their superior speed, their gift of judgment and coordination, provides them with a more usable perception of time. The athlete who sees the contest this way has invariably won; he has beaten his opponent to the punch, run down the quarterback, read the seams on a curveball and hit it out of the park. But for the overmatched, time does not so much slow down as lose its coherence. Floyd experienced time in Chicago as a confusion of pressures and noise, as anxiety, like drowning, like falling out of a plane, and afterward he could barely remember what has taken place over the span of two minutes and six seconds. Even the pain would be a while in coming. He would complain of terrible headaches, for Liston hit harder than any other heavyweight alive, but that would not come until an hour later.

…perhaps [Cus] D’Amato was right: the fighter who gets knocked out wants to be knocked out.”

—David Remnick, King of the World

I think about these things, in the context of dancing, competing, fighting, contracts, relationships. They’re all a form of competition and contest. And I think of all the times I hid behind my gloves and stood in the ring without punching back. I have literally stood, and snapped my eyes shut every time a punch came at my head. And that’s when I got hit. Remnick is right. It’s a blur. I can’t remember how I got knocked out, only that I realized I was out… too late.

The moments when I won? I could see everything, moving slowly, could estimate the point at which I would arrive; I could extend out of my own body and see a bird’s eye view of myself, like a second camera angle, like the secret camera angle that only football coaches get of the game, like a temporal cascade of plays that would follow one chess-move. And then I’d be back in myself, moving, or speaking with utter precision. I joke that when I’m really angry I never swear. My language becomes incisive and exact.

What’s the difference? Keep your eye on the ball. Set your intention. Know what you’re made of.

I walked into a parliamentary debate competition, semi-finals at the state championships with a partner who had helped me prepare a case that argued that the workers should own the means of production. We’d twisted the resolution to fit our definitions and because he was a leftist political hack and I’d been part of a worker-owned cooperative for six years, we HAD this. We walked in like we were champs. Those rich Southern California debate kids didn’t know what hit them. And we won.

I remember Blues Shout, 2009, Thursday night, dancing at Rosa’s Lounge. Mike Legget and Reuel Reiss walked in the venue. I saw their faces and their posture and I thought, “Oh shit. They came here to win.” And they did. It was all over them.

Check out the finals of the Balloomin’ Competition

I’ve written before on the difference between winning and losing when it comes to subjective contests. That difference is very little in the eye of the audience, but in the mind and heart of the competitor, the feeling is the difference between night and day. I won’t lie to you – every time I’ve won, I’ve had as much humility as the times I’ve lost. But there was something else in there… an inner knowing. The feeling that I’d gotten my studying done months ago. I wasn’t cramming. I was working from a body of knowledge that lived in me and I KNEW which answers were the right answers. Filling in the bubbles, closing the arguments, hitting the beat… it’s second nature. You’re doing that part without thinking. The point is, you’re doing it with style.



Back in my debate days, I used to practice writing with my right hand, because I’m left handed. I used to sit in rounds and flow the debate with my left hand, but I’d write my counter-arguments with my right hand — just to intimidate my opponents. All that smack-talking before the fight? It’s part of the game.

Categories: Competition, Dance | 1 Comment

You Think of Yourself as a Dancer…

Mikhail Baryschnikov, one of the greatest ballarinos and contemporary dancers of all time.

Mikhail Baryschnikov, one of the greatest ballarinos and contemporary dancers of all time.

Well, you’re not. Just like how a dude on OkCupid holding a guitar in his profile picture is not a Musician. A Musician is someone who gets paid to play music for other people and who has a record contract. A Dancer is someone who gets paid to dance. We’re talking Baryschnikov, Bruhn, Pavlova, Hines, Hijikata, Nijinksky, Morris, Tharp, Sparks, Robson. You don’t know who those people are? That’s because you’re not a dancer.

Jeff Joniak, (the voice of the Chicago Bears), asked me last Wednesday, why I chose dancing as my profession. I told him that it’s one of the few forms of expression out there that anyone can do without hours and hours of training. It takes years of drills on the piano to be able to express in a way that actually sounds pleasing. I remember the first moment, after about two years of plucking strings on a guitar when I strummed a few chords and it actually sounded like MUSIC. But in the moment of answering his question, I was arguing that “anyone can dance” and “anyone can express” because you just use your body and the expression is there.

But let’s face it. Most of you don’t think you can dance, and you’re right. You can’t. You have this idea of what would look cool or what makes sense to the music, but it comes out all wrong, like a child spewing paint on construction paper. The child and Jackson Pollock use the same technique, but somehow Pollock’s spew looks like art, and the child’s looks like vomit. That’s how your dancing looks and feels.

So you give up on moving by yourself because that’s awkward and people are staring, and instead you join the World of Partner Dance and you learn the steps and soon you start paying to go to parties, and paying to go to events and you ask people to dance and they say yes, and some of them even ask you to dance. You go out for burgers and shakes afterwards with your friends and they’re playing Runaround Sue and you and a girl you like jump up and swing out in the space between tables and the waitress looks annoyed when she brings a tray of cole-slaw to the table and everyone laughs, because well, we’re dancers, and that’s how we roll.

You have all the t-shirts from all the exchanges. You regularly grab a partner and show off in front of the band at the blues bar, and all the patrons stop watching the band and they watch you and they’re amazed and ask you what kind of dancing that is, and you say, “I’m a Blues Dancer.” Capital B, Capital D. You’re a Dancer and you feel Entitled to dance anywhere there’s music. But did the band pay you to distract the audience from their show? Uh no. I think you paid a $10 cover to get in the touristy blues bar. Some bands I know (the Asylum Street Spankers) actually got so sick of the entitlement of Dancers at their shows, that they prohibit dancing. Why? Because you’re jacking off all over their performance.

I think George Carlin put it best when he said, “Stop that! Stick to your faggoty polkas and waltzes, and that repulsive country line dancing shit that you do and be yourself, be proud, be white, be lame and get the fuck off the dance floor!” I laugh every time I hear that, and you do too, because you’ve seen those people.

Some of you even think you have what it takes to make it as a Dancer. You show up for auditions. You’ve got the leg warmers, and the right shoes and you’ve got your music and your moves but at the end of the day, the judge yawns and says, “next.” Guess what, still not a Dancer. Back to the studio, darling.

"Sex" - The Greatest SYTYCD Auditioner of all time.

“Sex” – The Greatest SYTYCD Auditioner of all time.

By now, you’re seething. You think, “who does this chick think, telling me I’m not a Dancer!” But you’re cringing inside, because you watched that last video link, and secretly you’re afraid you dance just as badly as Sex, the most hilarious auditioner of all time on So You Think You Can Dance. Maybe you’re one of my students. Or maybe you even teach dance. Studies show that one out of the three people who read my blog are dance teachers. (I always love it when Nigel scolds some poor dance instructor on SYTYCD, “You teach dance for a living? Really? You should give that money back!”) You think I’m a hypocrite. After all, I’VE never been on TV, or choreographed a routine for Britney Spears or been on the stage of a real dance hall. You’re right. I’m not really a Dancer either. My name won’t go down in the history books of famous dancers. I’m not on TV, or the movies, or on a big stage. So, I have no right.

So fuck it. Either be a Dancer, or don’t be, but quit half-assing it. Taking a dance class once a week does not a dancer make you. It’s a nice hobby, but it’s just fuckarounditis. Seriously, you can do better than that. I’m not saying you have to give up your real job and move to Soho. Just put in some effort. Put some time in, in front of a mirror. Wear some revealing clothing so you can actually see what your body looks like. Spend more than 20 minutes trying out a new move. Take some classes from a professional, someone who’s in demand. Listen to those mean judges and harsh critics, because they get paid to observe good dancing for a living and they know what they’re talking about.

These aren't even all the shoes.

These aren’t even all the shoes.

If you thought of yourself as a DANCER, you’d know your history. You’d have an entire portion of your wardrobe devoted to dance. You’d cross-train and you’d find all kinds of metaphors for dance and life everywhere in the world, because you’d live and breathe dance, and then when someone asks you what you do, even if you’re an attorney, or a surgeon, or a barista or a college student, you could say, without an ounce of self-doubt in your heart, “Me? I’m a Dancer. Capital D-Dancer, bitch.”

Categories: Change, Dance | 8 Comments

What I’m Doing for the next 125 Days

Finally home, from traveling the world.

Finally home, from traveling the world.

I’m home finally. For the first time today, I crossed the threshold of my apartment after nearly five months. Between January 2nd and today I’ve been to Las Vegas, Portland, Eugene, Oakland, 3 of the Hawaiian Islands, San Francisco, back to Chicago (but not to my house) to swap suitcases, Warsaw, Zurich, Lucerne, Basel, Paris, London, Bristol, Oxford, Glasgow, Zurich, Hamburg, London, Manchester, back to London, Chicago, Portland, and finally home to Chicago. I’ve ridden 19 planes, 14 trains, 4 busses, innumerable city busses subways and taxis, hiked 41 miles and hitchhiked for a spell.

Hitching back to Glasgow from the top of Loch Lomond with friends.

Hitching back to Glasgow from the top of Loch Lomond with friends.

Now the summer stretches before me: 125 days with only one major traveling event booked. The rest of my work is here. So, I look at my life and ask myself what’s to be done with the next 125 days, 17 weeks, four months?

Showing up for myself every day, means writing regularly.

Showing up for myself every day, means writing regularly.

It’s easy to get lost in time, to allow minutes to fade into days and weeks and to look up one morning and discover you’ve done nothing that you’ve set out to do. So, I look at this expanse of time as a challenge. What can I accomplish? What skills can I build and hone, so that I can know that in the Summer of 2013 I learned x, y and z?

Progress is not something that happens in leaps. It happens in tiny increments. As an ex of mine used to say about weight-lifting, “you just chip away at it.” You don’t dead-lift 300lbs on your first try. You work up to it. Right now, I’m halfway there (with the dead-lifts, that is.)

James Clear says that he builds habits, not by focusing on specific goals or actions, but by deciding what kind of person he wants to be. It’s about what kind of person you ARE as opposed to what kind of goals you have. Me? I’m not a wheat eater. I don’t eat beans either. I just don’t. There’s no debate. It makes it easy to turn down cookies and bread, even when people are waving hot cookies under my nose. I take pride in my choice to be grain free, because I know how much better I feel inside. I just reach for the pâté instead.

Moment captured by Peter Chee, Portland OR

Moment captured by Peter Chee, Portland OR

I say I’m a dancer, but I’m amazed at how many days this season I didn’t dance. So I’m changing that, because it’s time to progress. I’m tracking every minute of dance and being intentional about how I spend my dance time. Whether it’s in solo practice, studying video, reading up on body mechanics or taking classes, it all counts towards my plan for dance. Then it’s easy to say, “I’m a dancer,” because I live and breathe dance.

Another way to think about it, is to be process oriented rather than goal oriented. One of my mentors calls it being outcome independent. You focus on who you are, what you do… not what you want from someone else or from some experience. If you don’t enjoy the process of dancing, learning, writing, reading, or writing code, you’ll struggle towards your goal instead of enjoying the journey.

Yes, I know; it’s a cliché to say, “it’s the journey, not the destination.” Sometimes we know that’s bullshit. I know, you just want to get there. So do I. Trust me, so do I. So, let each day be the destination. Every time I actually sit down to write, set aside time to dance, work-out, or study, I’ve reached my destination. I know I’m doing the right thing in that moment and I’ve reached the place I want to be, by showing up for myself each day.

Categories: Change, Dance | Leave a comment

The Glorious Life of a Traveling Dance Instructor

I’m sitting in a house on the outskirts of Paris, in a ville called Alfortville, which reminds me of Hackney, London. The black people here are very black, like they just came out of the sun in the sunniest part of Africa, not like the creamy blacks of America, who all have some white blood somewhere in their past. The african man at the local market suppressed a smile when I inspected my money before handing it to him, to be sure I was using the right denomination. I felt indeed like I was in a foreign country, and not the France of slightly mustachioed men with striped shirts and berets. As we walked through the neighborhood back to the house where we are staying, Andrew says, “I can see the influence of France on the architecture in Africa.” He spent three months in Nigeria, the Congo Republic and Mali. This observation fell on silence, but I got what he meant. I was calculating the influence of Africa on France.

Anyways, this is not about Africa or France. This is about the glory and adventure of being a traveling dance instructor. I’m in Paris (technically) and I’m sitting at a table in a house, with an empty cereal bowl, a cup of tea and a table covered in laptops, headphones and gadgets and I’m working alongside two friends on a perfectly partially sunny day. My friends imagine me wandering along the Seine, dancing to the quaint sounds of a hot jazz trio as we nibble pain au chocolat, having lively conversations with new attractive French friends, climbing to the top of the Tour Eiffel, unable to contain a swing-out while other tourists applaud and toss change our way. You imagine us, gazing out the window of our attractively outfitted train car, sipping a glass of wine, admiring the ancient houses in the French Countryside. We are entering a smoky club somewhere in the depths of Paris, a soulful jazz singer beckons us to the dance-floor. My partner takes me in his embrace and we twirl to the center of the room, the other dancers parting for us as we finish the song in a dramatic pose.

I am imagining this as well, but the problem with living in your imagination is that you find it depressing when reality doesn’t live up to the fantasy. So, I’m here to sell you the reality of what it means to be a traveling dance instructor.

Travel Administration

dance work admin time

As a dance instructor, you spend more time than you would imagine, at a computer. Some people manage to compress their workflow into their gadgets. Either way, you find yourself glued to a screen, whether you’re at a friend’s kitchen table, in a café or in the backseat of a car. There’s no getting around the fact that you have to send emails, facebook messages and texts to connect with the people who will hire you in other cities. You have to spend time booking flights, trains, or organizing rides. (Or, if you’re smart, like I *just* figured out, get someone to do this for you and then offer them dance lessons in exchange.) If you’re particularly enterprising, you’ll spend time building yourself a website, (or pay/bribe/trade with someone to do it for you), and managing a social network so that people don’t forget who you are. That’s where you post the photos of you swinging out on the Eiffel Tower, and dancing on train platforms so that people will buy your brand of dance fun to bring to their event.

There are things to manage back home, bills to pay, and people to stay in touch with. There are computers to back up, photos to sort, playlists to update. All of this busy work, that if you don’t get it done will crop up next time you need to have heat when you get home, connect with a friend or find that perfect photo for an event website.

And then there’s the class planning. Unless you are traveling with your sole dance partner, much of your class planning gets done online, if you’re lucky, via video chat. Otherwise, emails or google docs house your dance knowledge and the the finishing touches are put on in pubs, living rooms and on the social dance floor the night before you teach class in a new city.

The actual work of dancing happens so much less than I had actually imagined when I decided that I would travel and teach. Although my current travel partner, Andrew Smith and I have lots of dance things we really want to work on, the imperative of booking flights, finding places to stay and making sure we have enough work to feed us while we travel, eats up our mornings. By late afternoon, we sometimes venture out of the house and in the evenings we go to the local dances and yawn tiredly long before the party ends. We are grateful to get home and be in bed by midnight.

Wandering the alleys of Paris

Wandering the alleys of Paris

The moments we spend wandering these ancient towns, usually on our way to a grocery store (I have become a fetishist of grocery stores), are the ones that fill my memories with images. The bricked streets, shuttered windows, jaunty turrets, the peaked roofs… I want to photograph them all and I know that my iphone can barely begin to capture the subtle magic of being in a different place. Yesterday, as we wandered the tiny alleys of Paris near Saint Michel, Andrew asked me if I knew what my purpose in life was. When I was in my teens and twenties, this question seemed more important to me… to discover my purpose.

“To bring the joy of dance to the world! That’s the right answer isn’t it?” I asked. He laughed. I know that this is the purpose I’m living, but is it a true purpose? Is it a just purpose? I followed up by saying,

“I don’t really know what the purpose of life is. I think the longer I live the more I think that life is meaningless, life is pain, and your purpose is just what you decide is best for yourself at the moment.”

“That’s very Hindu of you.” He replied.

“Well perhaps.” There was a silence as I photographed a chef through the metallic mesh of a first floor window. We approached the fountain at Saint Michel.

“I guess more and more I’m just trying to be a better person. That sounds terribly cliché, but that’s what I’ve been working on.”

“That’s what religions are focused on.” I reflected on this for a moment, since religion… at least the organized sort isn’t something that has played a central role for me since about age 10.

Then we met our hostess, a Belgian girl studying in Paris. She took us to her favorite French restaurant, where you can get dinner for 10 Euros. We laughed and ate and filled ourselves with French food. I forgot all about my purpose in life till we got to the tiny party on the second floor of a pub near the Bastille. We were introduced, we put our things down, bought drinks and when we hit the dance floor, feeling the music fill our bodies and re-connecting with our purpose, I drank in the small glorious moments of being a traveling dance instructor.

Chocolate Mousse

Important things in life, like food, friends and chocolate mousse

Categories: Business, Dance, Travel | 4 Comments

Mistakes, Awkward Moments and Lessons Learned While Traveling

Studies show that people reading about others’ lives on social networks creates envy and dissatisfaction, because people choose to present the most positive aspects of their personalities and lives on facebook, twitter and personal blogs. The New York Times observation about “perfect vacations on Facebook” reminded me of all the imperfect and awful moments I’ve had thus far while traveling.

I thought that instead of creating envy and distaste for my glorious traveling life, which is supposedly full of adventure, wine and cheese, I’d share some of the more irksome lessons learned on my journey so that you can a) feel better about yourself and b )connect more deeply with me as a human.

Andrew Smith and I have been traveling together for most of my tour thus far – we started out our tour in Lucerne Switzerland at a Lindy and Blues event called Sideways. It has been a weekend of intensive dancing and a week of working, walking, talking and eating together. We are about to part ways and have been attempting to feel positive about our less-than-perfect moments by compiling a constructive list of “lessons learned” while traveling:

This was the ticket with the correct dates. The other one had the wrong month.

This was the ticket with the correct dates. The other one had the wrong month.

1) Always, always, always double and triple check every detail of your travel booking.

2) Don’t move locations more than once a week.

3) Contact people a few weeks to a few months in advance when looking for housing and dance connections.

4) Stash extra subway tickets in all your pockets in case you get busted by the police for skipping the fare.

5) Don’t save up your grocery shopping for the late afternoon on Saturdays or any time on Sundays in Switzerland.

6) Don’t try to drink all the wine or beer.

7) The customer is not always right!

8) When you leave a country, spend up all the last of your coin change on chocolate.

9) Know the customs rules of the country you are entering when it comes to food products.

10) Have your story for the customs agents fresh in your mind.

11) Have all your travel documents (especially exit tickets) easily accessible on a digital gadget or in a nearby envelope. This especially applies in the UK.

Personal things I’ve also discovered

1) Always have a travel spoon.

2) Compressable crushable jackets and clothes are the best.

3) Assigned seats reduce the stress of queuing up.

4) You don’t need that much stuff.

5) Rolling backpacks win.

While there are myriad little stories embedded in each lesson, I’ll save those for choicer moments when I can dig out the relevant photographs or audio samples.

Finishing lunch and decompressing after a hectic argument with the rail operator about the misprinted first class tickets.

Finishing lunch and decompressing after a hectic argument with the rail operator about the misprinted first class tickets.

Categories: Travel | 1 Comment