Changing Our Values Regarding Competition

As a competition judge, giving awards is one of the best and worst parts of the job. Seeing the look on a young dancer’s face when they get the medal they earned is either rewarding or devastating. It seems that there is an expectation that they will take home the highest honors just for showing up. While showing up is a big part of success, what you do in preparation and execution is the final determiner of how successful we really are; or in this case, what award we get. As a teacher, an adjudicator and someone who has made a life of educating young dancers, the last thing I want is to discourage or destroy a young dancer’s confidence in their ability to love and pursue dance as a way of life.  However, quite often, I feel as though they are coming into the situation with an unrealistic expectation of the outcome due to an unrealistic view of their level of ability and mastery.  We build them up to believe they are the best dancer on the floor, and in one brief moment, their world is shattered because they got a bronze instead of a platinum. All of a sudden, they want to be a scientist instead of a dancer. That’s not a bad thing, but we have created a circumstance that has allowed the opinion of a panel of 3 people to determine the remainder of one person’s life. That’s not acceptable. Building confidence doesn’t come from gushing over a child and telling them that they are amazing at everything they do and should go pro. It comes from recognizing weaknesses,helping them to overcome and strengthen them through proper training and guidance, and then celebrating those little victories.

Let’s take an example. If you’ve ever watched American Idol (I tend to watch the auditions and then once they go to L.A. leave it to everyone else) the people you always think of an talk about are the devastated singers that Simon Cowel destroyed with callous and heartless critiques. You can literally see their world shatter on camera in front of millions of people when this man, who is at the top of the food chain, tells them that they should never sing again. Ever. Not even in the shower. But how can this be true? Everyone in their family has told them all their life that they were amazing! They should sign a record contract! They could be famous!  Of course they said that. They love that child and want them to love themselves and believe in all the possibilities within them. But instead of saying to them, “OK. Singing is your dream. I think you’re great, but let’s take you to a professional singing coach and see what they think. It can’t hurt to learn more and be the best you can be.” we simply keep building them up to believe that they are already where they need to be. Then when they get in front of someone who really knows the art form and that belief isn’t verified, their whole life unravels. The future they laid out in their minds disintegrates and they are left with nothing but a giant devastating whole in their soul.  Dramatic right?  But that’s what it feels like to that person.

With this in mind, I am calling on dance teachers and parents everywhere to make a shift in their behavior towards their children in regards to competition. I believe that we can give them a realistic view of where they are in their training and mastery of the art form and use the experience of competition to continue to build upon what they learned before. By doing just a few simple things in the postmortem company meetings, we can continue to grow our dancers with a healthy mindset and build their confidence through thoughtful action.

  1. Honest Self-Evaluation: Ask the following 3 questions
    1. What did I do well? – This gives the students an opportunity to take credit for all of the hard work they’ve put in to date. Recognizing these things also helps them to realize that these habits are strong, and while they shouldn’t be ignored going forward, they don’t need as much focus or attention going forward. They should continue to support them in the future.
    2. What could I have done better? – It is essential that dancers have a realistic understanding of where they are in their training. Stephen Covey said his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  that, “You can’t get anywhere in Chicago with a map of Detroit.”  It is essential to know where you are in order to get where you want to be. It is also important to recognize that we always have room to grow, both as people and as dancers.
    3. What is my goal for my next performance? – This question helps to create a mindful plan as to how to improve upon our weaknesses and put focus on growth, rather than just regurgitating the same performance over and over again and getting the same results.
  2. Listening to the critiques with an open mind and addressing the specifics of the critiques with sincerity and respect when deserving. We all know that sometimes we get a critique and we just can’t believe what we heard. It was unintelligible or seemingly disconnected. But understanding that someone saw that in your performance can inform you as to what is missing from it. There was a disconnect for your audience; and while you will probably never get your point across to everyone, if you hear it more than once, it’s something to look at. Also, making sure your students are open to criticism ensures their ability to grow as an artist and person. Protecting them from it just delays the inevitable and when they come to New York and go to a hundred auditions and don’t get a callback, it will have the Simon Cowel effect. How does that really prepare them for success?
  3. Watching the performances of other students “at our level.” Quite often, students can’t understand why they didn’t place in competition when they gave the best performance of their lives. I don’t ever recommend comparing yourself to other artists. I believe that we can only ever be better than the person we were yesterday. However, seeing what others are doing can inspire and push us to challenge ourselves beyond our current level to reach a greater potential. It’s why sports teams preparing for games watch tape of other teams. It lets them see their strengths and weaknesses and plan for success.

I was not a competition dancer growing up. I only ever went to one competition and luckily enough, I did well. But my confidence grew because I was challenged every class to the point where I cried in frustration when I couldn’t get a step. It grew because I went home and conquered that challenge before I slept that night. It grew because I made sure that I was always expecting more from myself and when I met that expectation, I raised it.  This mindset came as a combination of differing approaches from my parents.  My father always said, “Be the best.” My mother always said, “Do your best.”  So I did my best everyday with the intention of being the best that I could be. There were always going to more talented dancers with more money and opportunities to train, but I was always going to work harder. As a result, I’ve had a pretty wonderful career. The lesson here? We have to stop “objectively” telling kids that they are the most talented person in existence and start giving them the tools and proper perspective to push forward and attain the goals and dreams they have set for themselves. Whether they reach them or not, they’ll know you had their back and supported them as pushed forward toward that dream. That’s what they really want, support. Otherwise, rather them helping them succeed, we are setting them up for a big, BIG fall that most people never get back up from.

Mantra: Your best is only your best today. Do it better tomorrow.

Jason Marquette

Managing and Co-Artistic Director of MPower Dance Workshops

MPower Dance workshops is an in-studio convention designed to show kids how their dance training is preparing them for success in life.  For more information about our workshops and events, email info@mpowerdance.com. Be sure to ask about our NYC Summer Intensive http://www.mpowerdance.com/NYC_Summer_Intensive.html

 

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Failure, Schmailure

I was teaching a class recently and sharing with them one of my many observations. It’s a slightly ridiculous thing to witness that always gets a laugh but invariably, almost all of the students in the room acknowledge that it is a reality.

I call it my theory on “The psychology of the left side.” I tell them that first, I’ll demonstrate the psychology of the right side. This involves me running across the room leaning to the right celebrating and shouting to the heavens how amazing I am and that I can do anything. They all look at me like I’m a nut case. I stop and say, “Now here is the psychology of the left side.” I lean even further to my right, screw up my face in fear and oh so cautiously move to my left whining and crying about how much I hate the left side and why do they make me do this etc. This is where the laugh comes in. Some of it is about seeing this grown man cry like a child who doesn’t want to get on the bus for the first day of school, but it’s also a laugh of acknowledgement. They are recognizing, in that moment, that this voice exists in their heads. They may not have recognized it until I pointed it out, but it’s there.

The irony is that by holding back, by not applying the same aggressive approach to the left side that they allow on the right, they are perpetuating their own weakness. They are ensuring that their left side will never attain the level of strength and coordination as the right. So obviously, I encourage them to go after it. To attack the left side 10 times harder than they do the right.

“But what if we fail?” one student asked. That’s not a typo. She said f-a-i-l. I couldn’t have paid someone to cue me better.

“You can’t fail.” I replied, without missing a beat. “Failure doesn’t exist. There is only learning. The only time you fail is when you give up or don’t try at all.”

This idea, that if we don’t get it RIGHT (interesting choice of word isn’t it) the first time we have failed, is a cancer. We hear it in every aspect of society. To the point where we are actually perpetuating an acceptance of mediocrity, laziness and apathy. This goes beyond the dance studio. It’s in our schools, our communities and in some cases, even our homes. Children are taught that, if they’re not good at something immediately, they should try another activity. There is no desire or motivation to try again; to work harder and conquer the challenge. And yet, no one asks them what they learned from what didn’t work so that they can figure out what did and will work. This translates into people having 6 different jobs in a year because their first day didn’t go perfectly. It’s called “Trial and Error” for a reason and it’s up to us as teachers and parents to encourage the “trial” part; to revel in the “errors” so that they see that not succeeding immediately is a beautiful and necessary part of the human condition. It is where strength of character, growth, intelligence and true wisdom lies. It’s where they learn to anticipate problems and circumvent them rather than running into a roadblock and giving up.

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. Obviously there are many factors at play here and scientists are happy to debate his claim; but in his book The Outliers, he states that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to become an expert at something. While it’s natural to gravitate towards activities and skills that we have a natural acuity for, very few of us are born with perfect technique and coordination on both sides. So what do we do? We practice the side that we are good at because it makes us feel good. We hone it and master it to the point where it’s nearly flawless. And our weak side? We practice just enough so that is passable and pray that the occasion never arises where we’d have to use it. Not very practical thinking of you ask me. Of course the situation will arise and if we can’t do it, we lose the job, or the game or whatever and find an excuse to help us sleep at night. But the passionate dancer, the hungry athlete, the obsessed musician know that it is their fault and they will spend twice as much time on that weakness so that they never lose out again.

It is by conquering the challenges of our WEAKNESSES that bring us a real sense of accomplishment and confidence and a deeper appreciation for what we had to do to get where we are.

Dance didn’t come naturally to me. I was born to play soccer. But learning to dance taught me how to face a challenge head on and conquer it. How to not rest until I had the answer. That obstacles were NOT insurmountable. They were only a delay of the inevitable future I had determined for myself. That experience has prepared me to face diversity and consequences head on in order to have the wonderful career I’ve had to date. None of us would be the people we are if not for the daily challenges this art form presented us. It’s why we are so resilient and can overcome poverty, injury, personal tragedy and many other of life’s challenges. So here is my suggestion, spend a month working only on the left side. Don’t add a catch step in so that turn or battement can be on the right. Let’s train our students to stand up, face challenges head on stop fearing what they aren’t good at YET. Remind them how many times they had to try before they mastered a particular skill to get it to the level it is now. The things that are easy today, were a challenge yesterday. We can never let our students forget that.

No more resolutions…

The holiday season tends to be a time when we look back over the past year and reflect on everything that has happened in the last 12 months.  To evaluate choices in our personal and professional lives and make more choices about how we want to live the next 12. It brings up many mixed emotions and thoughts.  Satisfaction with progress made; regret at things left undone or goals unachieved; excitement at the possibility of a new start.

It is this idea of beginnings that I’m intrigued with.  This idea that we have to wait for January 1st to start making better decisions or that it somehow will be easier to make a change.  According to Forbes, just 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s Resolutions.  So why do we still make them?  Because we’re hopeful.  We want to believe that by setting a goal, we can live a better life.  There is truth in that.  But goals alone are not enough.  Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”  So we make our resolutions and we try in earnest to keep them.  But how many of us actually create a plan to execute in order to make it happen?  Probably the 8% of you that actually achieve your resolutions.

What does this have to do with teaching dance?  Everything.  We want to grow our business.  We keep saying we want to double the number of students we have.  Great!  How are you going about reaching a new audience and introducing them to your business?  We say that we want our students to be more competitive and develop better technique.  AWESOME!  Did you require an additional ballet class a week and hire a qualified ballet teacher?  WHY THE HECK NOT?!  If what we’re doing isn’t working, we have to try something else.  If what we’re not getting desired results, then we must find a way to create them!  New marketing strategies, new faculty, additional classes, workshops, master classes…etc.

Personal responsibility has always been a revolving topic of conversation in my family.  My grandfather always used to say, “We are the product of our decision making.”  Quite often being on the other end of that statement meant that we had made a choice that brought us to an undesired consequence.  But like he said, we had no one to blame but ourselves.

Being responsible for our undesired situation isn’t easy.  It means that we have to acknowledge responsibility for our misery. It’s so much easier to point at something “out there” and say that studio on the other side of town is the problem. Or that the students don’t work hard enough or they just don’t care.  Well, when did that start?  What is that studio doing that you are not?  Why can they get their company kids in the studio 6 days a week and you’re having trouble getting them in 3 days?  Commitment starts at the top.  We must demonstrate it in every interaction in order to get that same commitment out of them.

So instead of setting a goal for the year, make a plan.  Decide what you want and develop a strategy to get it.  If you want more students, advertise your strengths and seek visibility in your region.  Create opportunities for your students that they can’t get anywhere else.  If you want your students to develop better technique, adopt a syllabus that will strengthen weaknesses and find the right instructor to teach it.  If you want your students to be more passionate, show them how passionate you are about them and their development.  We are all effected when someone invests in us.  But when we live in a state of waiting for people to give us what we want, we will remain in that state…waiting.

Stop waiting, start acting and create what it is you want for your business and your students.  Don’t set a goal for the year, set a goal for the class, for the week, for the month and then take immediate action to create that reality.

Remember, “A goal without a plan is just wish.”- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

ROI of a Dance Education

How do you put a price on investing in personal growth? This is a question that many of us ask every day. We ask because we don’t always see a tangible ROI (return on investment). But personal growth isn’t tangible. It can’t always be seen or touched. But it can be felt. It can be heard. It can be experienced.

I was just in Fort Myers, FL teaching last week. I was teaching a private tap lesson to a girl who has a good deal of natural ability. She could be quite good. But she doesn’t trust herself. She doesn’t believe in her mind, and therefore in her heart, that she knows what she’s doing. I spent a good deal of time convincing her, and saying to her teacher in front of her, how good she actually is. How much potential she had. That she just needed to trust herself more. She cried. Hearing that someone else believes in us and that we are enough, when we ourselves don’t believe it, can be very difficult to hear and accept.

This, to me, is the greatest downfall of great humans. The obstacles we create in our own minds are the only obstacles that we cannot overcome on our own. Anything life puts in front of us, we look at it, grin with determination and conquer it. But the stuff that we put into our own heads always seems insurmountable. If we learn to conquer these things, these thoughts, that essentially become the death of our dreams and ambitions, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished.

This is what dance does. By accomplishing super human feats of physical strength and grace through a process oriented training experience, we learn that there is nothing we cannot overcome. We stop saying I can’t and start saying, I’m gonna figure that out if it kills me. We stop saying I’m not good enough and start saying I’ll try again tomorrow. We stop saying I’m not strong enough and start doing push ups. You want to know the greatest ROI you will ever get for your child? Put them into dance classes. Let them discover their true potential by accomplishing something new every week. Let them discover problem solving, communication and creativity by exploring movement in a safe and nurturing environment. The return isn’t about a career. It isn’t even about money. It’s about living a life with eyes, mind and heart wide open so that they can experience everything this universe has to offer. So dance with us. We’ll teach you how to live.

P.S. I received a message later that evening from that student’s mother thanking me. She said that her daughter got a confidence boost she needed. I don’t know how long term an impact I will have had, but I know that I got her moving in the right direction.

 

(MPower Dance Workshops is an in-studio convention experience inspiring a shift in the culture of dance training by making clear connections between dance training and success in life.)

Trust your village.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But have you really thought about what that means? It’s not just about people. It’s about a shared values system and respect for your neighbors. It’s about being responsible for how your actions effect everyone else in the village and how the village acts as a whole to support the individuals that make it up. When you choose a dance studio, it becomes an essential part of that village in your child’s life. The instructors that your child is training with were chosen by the studio owner/director that you have entrusted with your child’s education. That word, TRUST, is so important. We see Dance Moms and So You Think You Can Dance and we develop expectations (quite often unreal expectations) of what our child is capable of. It is not about whether they will grow up to be the next dance superstar; it is about whether they are getting an education that is preparing them to step out into the world and thrive in whatever avenue they choose to walk down. Trust that the people who have spent their lives training and educating themselves in this art form have your child’s mental and physical well-being in mind when they say that your child is or is not ready to move up to the next level. Trust that it isn’t personal and the last thing they want is to demean or diminish your child’s sense of self-worth or image. We live to encourage and empower your child to be the best dancer and human they can be. Let us do what we do best, but be involved. Ask them what they learned. Ask them about what challenged them and why. Ask what they can do better but don’t forget to ask them what they accomplished. They need to recognize those tiny victories to understand that life and success is a process, not a product. Let us be a part of your village. It’s why we set ourselves on this path.