What level should I be in? Taking off your mask

Kiz Talks, Aug. 12, 2014

Today my blog post is going to be a little different. Damon Stone, a dancer and instructor I admire greatly, a founder of the modern blues dance scene, posted a note today on this topic. With his permission I am reposting large sections of it with a few notes of my own. My words are in bold for clarity.

From Damon Stone (check out his Facebook page):
“How do I tell what level I belong in? Dealing with ego and adopting a new mind set.”
(posted by him August 12, 2014 at 9:48am)

“A lot people ask me what level they belong in when it comes to taking classes. I do enjoy people respecting my opinion enough to ask me, but the answer I want to give is never what they want to hear, is not at all satisfying, and the only people who are willing to believe it are the people who don’t matter…but more on that part later.

“The answer I don’t give is, it doesn’t matter what level you take. There are two main reasons for this:
1. You are not good enough to get everything in class, no matter WHAT level it is.
2. Dancing with someone worse makes us better.”

I completely agree. It does matter what level you take. However, it may not be in the way you think.

“Lets look at number one, “every level has something to teach you.” This may sound like some sort of populist, granola, “we’re all equal” kind of BS answer, but the truth is when a teacher tells you this it isn’t a platitude meant to soften the blow to your ego about not getting placed where you thought you would, it is because of the simple fact you aren’t good enough to get all the stuff correctly in the beginner class. Soak that in, but while you do think about this, neither is the teacher telling you that, and neither am I. I’ve been doing these dances partnered and solo longer than 80% of the scene has been alive. Now I say this not to brag (how long you’ve been doing something is a poor indication of how good someone is at a thing) but to help you realize that after all of this time, My posture, connection, pulse, and lag all still need work. The day that everything is utterly perfect with a beginning dancer as well as a master dancer is the day I die from shock.”

I love it when I see teachers show up in my beginner classes. They are honestly working continually to improve their basics. I am still working on my body movement, weight shifting, forward intention, and other foundations. Our scene hasn’t yet got to the point of auditions happening for track placement in workshops, as is referenced here, but it’s worth bearing in mind that we can still continue to learn alongside beginners and improve those basics.

Damon goes on to describe some of the elements that make up beginner and intermediate classes in terms that aren’t easily transferred to kizomba. In my opinion, beginners in kizomba are focused on essential body movement, connection, and vocabulary. Improvers rework these same things with improved technique.

“Essentially Intermediate is beginners continued.”

I love this statement. I think that in kizomba, it’s worth having the additional level “improvers” between beginners and intermediate – it’s standard in most of Europe, so perhaps we might say “Improvers is beginners continued”

The way I see it, in kizomba, intermediate dancers are wrestling with a variety of techniques that open up new realms of possibility for creative expression in your dance – but you are still building on all of those basic elements. I wrote in more detail about this in a previous post.

I recently said to someone that for me a good measure of whether you’re intermediate is when you’ve been out to lessons or socials 100 times. Some people take 3 years to manage that. Some people do it in a few months. That’s a bit more quantitative than Damon wants to commit to, but I thought it worth including that thought for you to consider.

“Advanced classes get gritty breaking down the elements and getting you to focus on how the exceptions you think you’ve discovered are not exceptions, they simply require you to do the things correctly, which you thought you had been doing for years but are starting to suspect you are not even in the ball park of correct (you aren’t). Advanced classes are for those masochists who want to get beyond the “good enough” stage. That is to say, they understand that once you have achieved intermediate level you are good enough to generally dance to any given blues song and pretty much any given tempo with just about any partner and have fun. The dance will be recognizable as blues and you’ll both walk away smiling and uninjured. Advanced dancers realize there is more to the dance than having fun, they want to find those transcendent moments where social dancing becomes a form of artistic expression. Seriously, don’t take Advanced classes, the time it takes to absorb and apply what you get in a single class and the level of improvement it gives you is all out of wack. If you don’t think repeatedly throwing yourself at  brick wall sounds like fun on the off chance you’ll be the exception and somehow magically or through a twist of quantum physics pass through the wall, then Advanced classes aren’t really for you.”

Replace the word “blues” with “kizomba” and it remains true. Most people want to dance kizomba well enough. Well enough to enjoy the music. Well enough to have fun with a partner. Well enough to show off occasionally to a few friends. Advanced dancers nit-pick immensely and endlessly to arrive at “those transcendent moments where social dancing becomes a form of artistic expression.” Believe me, it’s not about learning a fancy choreography with tricks. It’s about going back and doubting everything you’ve ever thought you mastered, trying to perfect it all and yet discover something unimagined and fresh as well.

“I’d say 75% of people in every advanced class I’ve taught or participated in were there for reasons of their ego, and as such missed most of what was being taught in the class. IF you walk out of class frustrated and tired more often then not, but can’t wait to do it again, well congrats, you might be an advanced dancer. IF you find the material fun and not too difficult, you are probably deluding yourself and should give serious consideration to going back to beginner classes. No joke. This either means you are one of the most rare of dancers who absorbs information wholly and can put all the parts together in their head or you spent the entire class entirely focused on the wrong thing and missed all the important bits (oh, did you think that Advanced tricks class was about getting and performing the moves? Nope.) So what are Master classes for? The best Master classes are for people who understand they are weird dance nerds and geeks whose need to know and get it right far outstrips any ability to realize the stuff they are working on will go almost completely unrealized by their dance partners, people in the audience, and most judges. And they are okay with that. It is this consuming passion and need to GET IT ALL even if no one will ever know but them that has them practicing blues dancing at quarter time to improve their balance, with no arms or tied to their partner to remove the need for arms entirely and therefor focus purely on body lead/follow. These are people who are willing in an hour long class to sit and listen to fifteen minutes of theory and then spend five minutes practicing it before being told they are doing it all wrong, and want to spend the next 40 minutes trying to get it right.”

Admittedly, in the kizomba scene in the United States, our definition of “master’s class” more often refers to a challenging group private. The level is a bit higher, the pace swifter, and the number of people is capped to provide a tiny chance for individual feedback. I’d love to see us get to this point, though.

“And this is where we come to number two, the better your partner is the better they can compensate for you. If you are a beginner and you dance with an intermediate dancer they will recognize your mistakes and mitigate them. When you dance with an advanced dancer they will compensate for them so you might not even know you made a mistake. When you dance with a master they turn your mistake into something brilliant making you think you are a much better dancer than you are.”

Right?? If you’ve never experienced this, get yourself to a national- or international-level event and ask all your teachers to dance. One of them is bound to prove this to you.

“The truth is, if you cannot do it with someone who just stepped off the street, you aren’t doing it right. I’ll probably get some push back on this, but I believe this wholly and completely. IF you need a dancer as good or better than you to do a thing it is because on some fundamental level you are just not doing it well enough. […part about blues idiom dance…] we all, those who take classes and those who do not, should be able to dance blues with someone who is relaxed and paying attention to the music. Now of course the better your partner the easier it is, but a beginner (not a novice) should be familiar with the basics of lead follow, and that is all they should need to be familiar with.

This is 1. a great way to test how well you are able to lead or follow 2. the reason I can travel around and teach without a partner.

Damon goes on to talk a little bit more about handling auditions and level placement. Someday maybe I’ll have a reason to write about that sort of thing.

“What is your purpose for taking classes? If you want to figure out what you are supposed to be doing and have more fun on the dance floor, take beginning classes. If you want your partner to have more fun on the dance floor take intermediate classes.”

– and improver classes, assuming your scene is offering that step in between.

“If you want to be the best dancer you can be and your concept of a fun time is melting your brain and beating up your body then take advanced classes. If you must push yourself beyond the reasonable into the absurd where the teacher shows you a step two or three times and has you teach it to yourself because you understand the process and journey IS what is being taught and not the move, and you LOVE THIS then take Master classes.”

Just an aside – this is why organizers can charge extra for master’s classes. It’s not just teacher face-time. It’s because it’s the crazies that are taking those classes! Unless of course it’s your ego making you do it.

“And this why ego holds us back. We put ourselves in classes based on who is in that level and where we think we compare, am I better or worse than those people? How important is it for me to have people know I’m in a higher level than them? If there is always something to learn, something to improve upon, and dancing with people worse than us actually better sharpens our skill and technique, why take classes that are not beginner other than ego? Because sometimes having a teacher who will check our ego for us is the kindest thing possible. Because the esoteric and exotic classes tend to be upper level. Because we have developed a rapport with one or two teachers and we want to take all of their classes regardless of the level. These are ego-less reasons to take things beyond beginning, and I hope you’ll consider this shift of mindset. Getting better is about learning more about yourself without the walls, without the masks, and sharing it with other people.”

Thank you Damon for those amazing words on learning blues dance, and letting me borrow them to talk about kizomba. I hope all of you kizomba-lovers out there will consider leaving ego aside (I KNOW I KNOW IT’S HARD FOR ME TOO!) to take off your masks.