Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Adventures in Performance Salsa

My life of late has been a whirlwind of practicing for performances and trying to catch up to myself.  My everyday activities seem overshadowed by my dancing activities and I'm finally feeling like I'm coming back down to earth now that the winds have calmed down.

There comes a time in any dance crazy person's life (definition of dance crazy below) where the words "dance team" pop into your head. Its inevitable as you start to go to congresses, you hear about your friend's joining teams, you see performances and you start to wonder if that's the next step for your growth as a dancer.

Dance Crazy = dancing more than 3-4 times a week, taking classes and socializing with other dancers  after dancing. You should be contemplating or may have gone to a congress (or more). Your social calendars involves events with dancing or other dancers.

I've only been dancing salsa for 3+ years and love it, a LOT! It seems like I've been dancing forever. In that time, I've been on 2 dance teams and I wanted to share my thoughts on performing, just in case you were wondering too. I'm also not presenting pros or cons: everyone gets into performing for different reasons so I'm hoping this will just help bring out all the aspects you should consider if you're thinking about performing.

DISCLAIMER: I write to share my adventures and hopefully help others find their own answers to the same questions I ask myself. At the very least, I write to entertain. I try very hard not to malign anyone. BUT, just in case, I apologize in advance. My hope is that you can find a bit of wisdom to help you make up your mind if you're considering a team or nod in agreement and chuckle if you find yourself in the same circumstances. 

Why Perform? 
I saw it as a challenge and a next step in my growth as a dancer. Growing up, I played the piano and danced ballet. There was some sort of recital or even a contest or 2 that my teachers would always want me to participate in. Performance is a huge part of the training. It makes sense that the same thing applies for salsa dancing. Performing gives you a different purpose and perspective. For me, it meant working harder to perfect things and having a different sense of accomplishment for having entertained people with my dancing. Performance also introduces a new aspect of dancing that I wanted to explore more: choreography and that whole creative process around staging a dance.

And, its there but not the big driver: I had the FOMS (fear of missing out): everyone else in my direct circle seemed to be on a team, why not give it a go?

Here's the other by product of performing that's HUGE: confidence. My confidence as a dancer has improved. I own my dancing more. This is something universal: the better you feel about yourself, the better you feel about your dancing, the better dancer you become.

I'm NOT saying dance team is nirvana. Dance teams are as varied as they come and sometimes the experience can be sour and make you want to wipe your hands off dancing in general. If you ever find yourself with this aftermath and if you're ever loved dancing, don't let it rule you. Take the break you need to reset and come back to it. You'll find the joy in dancing that you had again.

Performance Art 
Whether you realize it or not, dancing is a performance art. A social dance is essentially an informal performance. You're out in the public, you dance with your partner, other people see you dancing. It can't be helped! The biggest difference with being on a performance team is that (1) you do it on a stage (or in the center of a dance floor or on a boat or where ever your dance director decides), (2) you're in the spotlight with your team and (3) you've got to dance "larger than life" so that the audience connects with you too. Its no longer just about you and your partner: now its also about you and the audience. You have to dance bigger, sharper, with lots more energy than your normal social dance. You have to also synchronize with other members on the team. You have to generate the energy to draw in the crowd and then feed of that energy to engage them and hook them in.

Choreography versus Social Dancing 
Dancing to choreography is different from social dancing. The connection is different: not all the moves you learn are naturally leadable on the social dance floor. There's also an element of acting, staging and synchronizing to consider. You'll learn more about tricks and dips and things that make the dancing "pop" more: the 'wow' factor. There's also this really cool creative process that happens when you see someone putting steps together with music, orchestrating how different people interact with each other on stage based on the music selected.

I've seen this dichotomy as well: good performance dancers don't necessarily make good social dancers. This is certainly NOT true for the world class performers that teach and bring everyone to their feet when they dance. Performers at that level are fantastic dancers in their own right and if you ever get a chance to dance with them on the social dance floor - go for it!

Social dancing is more about connecting with your partner. This aspect of partner dancing, while important, isn't the only focus of dancing in a performance. You may find that folks on a dance team are not necessarily the same people that go out social dancing. In fact, some people join performance teams less than 1 year into their dancing "career" and only have time for practicing and performing and nothing else.

My advice: don't leave social dancing out. Perfecting the choreography is one thing, but as with any other skill and craft, one must always improve the basis for those skills. For dancing, its the basics and techniques that allow you to dance on your own as an individual and then as a follow or lead in the partner dancing. Social dancing is the best way to practice your connection and ability to connect with anyone.

Practice, Practice, Practice There's a book that says in order to become an expert at something, you have to practice it for at least 10,000 hours. No matter what anyone says about meeting once a week, if you want to get good enough to perform, you HAVE to practice more than once a week and you have to practice with your partner and your team and the music. You have to listen to the music so many times that you can hear it in your head. You have become familiar enough to be able to pick up the choreography at any point in the music. Honestly? You can't practice enough.

Ego  There's lots of ego stroking. From the performance itself and even leading up to getting on a performance team. When you get asked to perform, its sort of a big deal, right? Its flattering. You might think, "Really? You think I'm good enough?". Or, if you haven't gotten asked you might think "What's wrong with my dancing?" Its a great affirmation to get asked to join or to be on a dance team.

Performing is an ego affirmation because if you do a good job, there's nothing quite like the recognition one gets from a public performance. Not to mention that group high that comes with accomplishing something you've worked hard on with your dance partner/ dance team. Depending on the community you're in, there's a lot of support for performers so that's always good energy to have. Seattle is one such community.

Its also a great way to get more dances. As superficial as this sounds, as a performer, you will get asked to dance a lot more, its just part of what people see on the surface.

IMPORTANT ASPECTS TO CONSIDER (because, surprisingly enough, no one ever really tells you these things):

1) No Matter What Anyone Tells You: you'll always need more time to practice!
This becomes even more true as you get closer to a performance! Before you know it, its eating up all your life. Just make sure you set your boundaries properly and try to be as explicit as possible with what you can or can't do and in the end, be responsible - if you can't put in the time to be ready to perform, don't expect to perform.

2) The Creative Mind is Constantly Changing [ just remember, things change ALL THE TIME]
I love the creative mind: its rich with all these really cool things. BUT, its always changing to see what works best. There's tweaks, and adjustments and... just expect anything. Know that NOTHING IS SET IN STONE no matter how much you wish it to be. Things happen, you have to adjust. I've been lucky to be surrounded by the right people to help me through these times so I have constant reminders. If you can't deal with this wonderful chaos, then its probably not a good idea to join a performance team.

3) Contracts & Logistics
Get all the facts about joining at team as up front as possible. Talk to the directors, talk to the team members, talk to former team members and do your best to research. These things can definitely put a damper on your experience and if someone's recruiting you, they're not likely to get into gory details and you won't think to ask. Just ask about cost (of joining, of performing), travel, lessons and additional training, etc. AND be really up front about your commitments and what you can do as part of the team.

4) When its stops being fun, its time to take a breath and re-evaluate
This is a big one: if there are fundamental issues and incompatibilities, its not worth it to stay and be miserable after giving it your best shot. There will always be drama whether you like it or not - a group of people always together, preparing, performing. Even if you love to dance, these circumstances cause stress and everyone has different ways of dealing with it. Try to give yourself the time to make sure you're doing this for the right reasons. Its easy to get carried away by the team and what the "right thing to do is". If you treat everyone with respect and make sure to check in with yourself about what you're goals are, then you should be able to know when something isn't worth staying for. 

5) Set your boundaries: team stuff can easily take over your life
No joke! I can't say this enough (its like the previous point) Its important to keep things in perspective and not let peer pressure dictate what you can or can't do. Just be clear about up front and be responsible for letting people know about what you can or can't commit to as far enough in advance as you can. I would say that you should expect the same from your team but that's not always easy to get. Just make sure you understand what your team is like when it comes to time commitments: the closer priorities are between team members and the director, the better the experience.

6) Don't forget to say Thank You! BE part of the fun.
Successful teams have leaders and team members who pitch in regularly and equally. They celebrate together and work together on things that aren't as successful. As soon as there is perceived inequity in anything, bad stuff happens. Say thanks to the people that deserve it and try to pitch in when you can and don't take anything for granted.

LAST WORDS....I'm still on a performance team. I'm enjoying the people I'm with and still learning a lot (sometimes so much, my head feels like its going to explode!) and still challenged by the experience. Its been challenging to keep things in perspective, but I'm doing that too. So far, so good! Do I absolutely love performing? The jury is still out: my love for connecting with people on the social dance floor still far outweighs the joys of performing.