“The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.” –Gloria Steinem
I’m realizing that there’s an implicit trend in some of the things I write about on this blog, which is truth-telling. For whatever reason, I feel compelled to say things here that aren’t always easy or comfortable to say in public. But I value coming right out with it when there’s an unspoken reality hanging around, so I think I’ll keep it up. I really admire Jerry Almonte for telling the truth on his blog and not shying away from the consequences, good or bad. What I have in mind today is more about calling out myself than other people, though. There are important benefits to truth-telling, but it can also be dangerous or unpleasant, as we all know. The epigraph to this post from kick-ass feminist Gloria Steinem really gets at it: sometimes the truth will piss you off before it will set you free.
A few weeks ago at Lone Star Championships, I learned a truth that pissed me off. I entered two contests—the All-Star Jack & Jill and the Advanced Strictly Lindy—and made finals in neither. This was disheartening but not infuriating. The part that really killed me was looking at the score sheets on Sunday night and not finding my name on the prelims sheet for the Jack & Jill. My first thought, I confess, was that there had been some kind of clerical error and the judges never got my name or number. I almost went looking for someone to confront about it when I took another hard look at that prelims sheet and the realization hit me: I didn’t even get a “2.”
What’s a “2?” For those of you less familiar with the details of competition lindy hop, judges give competitors in prelims either a “1” (first choice) or a “2” (alternate) to indicate which dancers they believe should be in the final. If a judge doesn’t give you a “1” or a “2,” it means they didn’t think you should even be considered as back-up for the final. Not one of the three prelims judges had ranked me to advance. And not one of them had even made me an alternate.
I didn’t dance poorly. I’ve seen the video, and I know what it felt like out there. There are Jack & Jills where you walk off the floor and you know it just wasn’t your dance, you weren’t connecting with your partner, the magic didn’t happen. This contest didn’t feel like that. It was fine. In fact, it might have even been pretty good. I know that contests are subjective, every judge is looking for something different, one contest result is no indication of one’s overall skill as a dancer, blah blah blah, but let’s face it—losing sucks. Losing when your own evaluation of yourself was “hey, pretty good” is an additional level of suckiness. If I had been dancing against other followers who I considered to be far and away better than me, that would be one thing, but I thought my fellow competitors and I were all about the same skill-level.
So what do you do with that? Not even a “2.” Here’s what I did: I threw myself a pity party for a few hours, commiserated with some friends, shook myself out of it, and finished up by having a fun time at the late night.
But I’m the kind of person who reflects, who turns things over, who keeps asking questions (no wonder I became a philosophy Ph.D.), so here it is a few weeks later and—obviously—I’m still thinking about it. However, now I’m thinking about it in a way that’s actually helping me a lot.
Every now and then after major dance events where I suffer a disappointment or a frustration along these lines, I start asking myself what separates me from the dancers I think are truly great and who I admire and look up to. (Answer: a lot. But I mean, I try to get into specifics.) This happened a few years ago at ILHC 2008, when I realized I wasn’t looking my partners in the eye. So now I do that, and I get to enjoy dancing with someone instead of just dancing in front of someone. From Lone Star 2011, I’ve decided that in order to really succeed in competitions, I’m going to have to push myself to develop my dancing in certain directions. (The short version of what I’m working on now is: control, texture, and what I can only describe as “stage presence.”)
The point of all this isn’t really to say anything about Lone Star, or about competing, or judging, or any of that. What I’ve actually come around to is that experiences like the one I had a few weeks ago (one might characterize it bluntly as being “taken down a notch”) can often be catalysts for really motivating me to work on myself and to own my dancing. When you’ve been dancing a long time and improving a long time, eventually you stop getting so much out of classes or workshops, or even private lessons, and you start holding yourself to your own standard instead of relying so much on others to tell you where you stand. But along with this progress often comes a plateau. Now you don’t have other people telling you “oh, clearly you need to work on X.” You’ve got to figure that out for yourself. And then you’ve got to figure out how to work on it yourself. And then you’ve got to motivate yourself to work on it. Et cetera.
Not to say this is a lonesome activity. Recruiting friends and practice partners is extremely helpful, and that’s what I’ve been doing for many years. But I find that it’s often not until something really gets under my skin, really motivates me personally to want to work hard and put the time in, that I start reserving studio space and calling up dance partners to “work on stuff.”
So ultimately I’m not taking the fact that I didn’t even get a “2” as some kind of pronouncement on my value or skill as a dancer forever and ever amen. But I am taking it as a bit of a kick in the pants to get up off this plateau and start the slow climb up to the next level, where I’m the lead climber and it’s on me to get myself up there. So, yeah, at first I was pissed. But I’m pretty sure now that this is going to help set me free.