ZoukSide Down – A journey with Brazilian Zouk

A personal blog aimed at contributing, and paying homage, to the most sensual, beautiful dance of Brazil.

You Don’t Have to Try So Hard

Ever seen something like this? On the dance floor, a man is leading a woman through a dance. The music is euphoric, and she dances beautifully, but the man stares straight through his partner, and his lips are tight in concentration. You watch another couple, and here the man is relaxed, dancing and smiling with clear enjoyment. But it’s unclear whether his partner really sees his smile, or hears the music. Her expression is fixed, and her eyes absent.

Thinking too much. Photo by Berg Chabot

This dude is thinking too much.

One of each couple is not present in the moment. They are tuned out. They are in their headspace. They are thinking too much – there are many ways to say the same thing. I see this all the time. Occasionally I’m the one stuck in headspace.

There are many reasons why people tune out. They may have relationship issues or work problems. Maybe they’re thinking about their favorite Netflix show, or about the purpose of life. Usually it’s not something like this, though. Usually the tuned-out dancer is not worrying about something outside dance. They want to dance; they’re just trying too hard.

Trying hard doesn’t work, for dance. It’s the wrong mindset.

When you’re trying hard, you concentrate. By concentrating, I don’t mean just paying attention to what you’re doing; I mean focusing your attention narrowly. Our stereotypical impression of concentration is that of a person engaged in intellectual work, perhaps reading something difficult or focusing on computer screen. He is not aware of his surroundings; he doesn’t even notice the people around him. He is not aware of his body; he may be hunched over, with his brow furrowed in concentration and lips squeezed together. All his attention is on thoughts.

Intense focus on a task overrides body awareness. You see this when you thread a needle or search the Internet. Your hands become so merged with the task that they seem to be separate from your body.

– Mary Bond, New Rules of Posture

Dancing well requires the opposite of this kind of concentration. You need to be present and focused, but this focus should be wide, not narrow; a spotlight on a well-lit stage, not a thin beam of light in the dark. You need to be aware of many things simultaneously. These include your own body, the space and the dancers around you, the nuances of the music, your partner’s body and movement, their emotional state, and the connection between you. All this you need to take into account when deciding your next move, in less than a second, and when you do that next move, there are a thousand and one details that are necessary for it to work. Our conscious mind can hold maybe five or six items at once, and it works slowly. If we try to manage everything with our conscious mind, the task is hopeless. Fortunately, we don’t have to.

Just walking with two feet is so incredibly complicated that we still don’t have robots that can do it well. Humans manage just fine, though. That’s because the subconscious parts of our minds take care of it. We know mostly better than try to micromanage it; we set the general direction, and our body takes care of walking. The same applies to other movement tasks; a skilled tennis player is not consciously running through all his tennis technique and strategies while playing; he is trying to hit the ball.

Terpsichore, the muse of Dance

Want some inspiration? I’m your girl.

Creative activities also rely on the power of subconscious. Many artists even say that their art, their inspiration, doesn’t come from them at all, but from somewhere else. If the artist is classically minded, this source is their muse (the muse of dancing, in case you’re wondering, is Terpsichore). Criticizing and second-guessing yourself while you’re creating is poison; to help you get better, you may do it later, but not while you’re actually creating.

Dancing is a movement activity, a creative activity, and a conversation. All of these flow better when you’re present and aware. Second-guessing yourself, trying to force things to work, trying too hard – just gets in the way. It’s sand in your gears.

It’s interesting to observe how this works with beginner follows I dance with. Usually, in the beginning – especially once they’ve taken classes – they’re self-conscious and in their headspace, concentrating and trying hard to do the right thing. Then, at some point, when they let go of this, their dancing and partner connection immediately improves. For more experienced people, – and this applies to all levels – how well they dance and connect varies according to their state of mind. Some are better in being present and letting go than others, though. Personally, I’ve gotten better over time, but have way to go, still.

If you’re reasonably experienced dancer, think about the times when you were dancing at your best. Would you say that you were trying hard, then? I doubt it; you were simply doing, letting it flow. Maybe you were dancing at the edge of your abilities, but you were not trying hard; if you were, you’d never have gotten to that edge.

But how to avoid trying too hard, how to stay out of the headspace, how to not think too much? How to let go? It’s not something we can simply decide to turn on and off like flipping a switch. Much of it is a matter of personal development, but here are some things I’ve found helpful:

  • Immerse yourself into music, emotionally rather than intellectually. Feel the music and relish it.
  • Pay attention to your partner; admire them, let yourself feel for them and with them.
  • Be aware of the way you breathe. Meditation techniques usually include paying attention to your breath to bring your mind to the present moment; no reason why dancers can’t do the same.
  • Expand your range of vision; narrow focus of gaze goes together with concentration; using your peripheral vision to see the whole room goes together with wide range of awareness.
  • Listen to your muse 😉

All these are more about feeling and being than about doing. The idea is to quiet your conscious mind and prevent it from blocking your body and subconscious mind.

The sensory-motor part of the cerebral cortex is involved with all movement, but it is especially important when we attempt movements that we have never done before. In the cortical brain, movement is more abstract, more “mental.” To know the difference, you need only compare your attempt to master a new dance step, which involves your cerebral cortex, to the grace of your teacher, whose reptilian brain has already integrated the moves.
[…]
Peripheral vision is linked to your subcortical brain, which is also the part of your brain that automatically organizes your movements. However, when your eyes focus tightly, you are using the cortical brain and this interferes with your coordination.

– Mary Bond, New Rules of Posture

But what if you’re new? What if you’re trying to do something you don’t know yet? You can’t just let your body do it, it doesn’t know how. The answer to that is to let your body learn. Your subconscious wants to help you learn, and it’s far better in managing movement than your conscious mind. 

When your attitude is more “Hmm, I’ll try to be aware of whether my body is doing what I want here”, rather than “I’ll force my body to do the right thing, dammit”, it’ll help you learn in a more natural way. When you’re more focused what actually happens, rather than focused on what you’re trying to do, it’ll provide more feedback and information to your subconscious mind.

Tim Galloway describes the difference between two approaches in Inner Game of Tennis, a classic (and still #1 best-seller) of sports psychology:

The Usual Way of Learning

Step 1 – Criticize or Judge Past Behavior …

Step 2 – Tell Yourself to Change, Instructing with Word Commands Repeatedly …

Step 3 – Try Hard; Make Yourself Do It Right …

Step 4 – Critical Judgment About Results …

The Inner Game Way of Learning

Step 1 – Observe Existing Behavior Nonjudgmentally …

Step 2 – Picture Desired Outcome …

Step 3 – Let It Happen! Trust Self 2 (the nonverbal, subconscious self) …

Step 4 – Nonjudgmental, Calm Observation of the Results Leading to Continuing Observation and Learning …

There is a reason why Inner Game of Tennis is as popular as it is; the message about not trying too hard is something that resonates with people across many fields. It’s something I’ve observed is true for me, and for many other dancers around me. I’m not the only one who has noticed; Brazilian teachers tend to use the words “don’t think so much” when confronted with this phenomenon.

If you think there’s some truth here, see how it works. Don’t try so hard. Trust your subconscious, and maybe your dance will improve.


Author of this article: Jukka Välimaa

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One comment on “You Don’t Have to Try So Hard

  1. Fabrício
    June 10, 2017

    Hey, i love what you write. Please, do not stop. You are amazing!
    XO

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on March 13, 2017 by in Other Thoughts on Dancing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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