The stages of life for dancers – And the obstacles that come with them

When you dance for a long time you start to notice that dancers are going through stages that are rather similar to the stages of life: Childhood, Teenagerhood, Adulthood, and Elderly. The different stages mark often a different relationship with dance, as well as different perspectives that can challenge the dancer. When the dancer overcomes them he or she will grow to be a happier & stronger dancer. I invite you to

try finding out the stage where you are at and then find out if you resonate with or resist some of the points. I know some of these points are and still are relevant to me, and sometimes it’s the ones we resist that are most relevant.

Childhood (0-2 years of experience, usually)

Childhood in dance is magical. Everything is new, everything you learn feels like a newfound power, the possibilities seem endless, and the parties are exciting each and every time. My encounter with dance was very much similar to the being in-love feeling of a new relationship. Honestly, it’s amazing, and it’s the reason why so many stick to dance and social dance in particular.

Focus on that magic & enjoy the moment

The harsh truth is that much like childhood – this magic is likely to disappear. It might take a while but when it’s gone it’s unlikely to ever return in the same beautiful naive form. So bask in it, love it, and don’t take things too seriously. Don’t tell yourself: “I’ll enjoy it when I know more and can do more”. It’s very much like a child saying he wants to grow up. There is a time for this magic to happen and you should enjoy it for what it is – dance like a maniac when you know little, make mistakes, laugh it off, carry on.

My suggestion is not only for you to enjoy your time – remember that in order for children to learn how to walk they fall a thousand times. Let yourself fall, and you will learn to dance. That point you imagine of that time, when you feel ready for the dance, will come only through dancing, not through the classes. I normally recommend hitting the dancefloor the first time somewhere between your first to fifth classes and then continuing regularly on a weekly basis.

No Sorries should be given!

There is one particular thing that is very much related to the abovementioned topic. One thing that truly brings me down in dance is hearing “Sorry” during a dance. Yes, if you accidentally hurt someone it’s courteous to say “Sorry”. But one thing you should not say “Sorry” for is a “dance mistake”.

The problem is the focus of the dance. You don’t want to say “Sorry” because the focus should be on that shared experience with your partner and about having fun with it. “Mistakes” can lead to innovation and learning. Enjoy the path, embrace dance with all its quirks and mistakes and you’ll find that dance will bring you more release and become so much more fun.

This “Sorry” saying can come in different variations. If you find yourself sulking at yourself, or disappointed when something doesn’t work according to your expectation – that’s quite the same thing.

Don’t stop believing in magic

While that childhood magic will surely disappear, it can be found in other forms if you put the effort to find it. It doesn’t come as immediately as before and requires more commitment, but dance can become much more than what you normally see on the dancefloor.

The main problem is that sometimes in your late “dance childhood” you dance rather well, or let’s say at least sufficient to dance with the vast majority of dancers. So some dancers are happy with that and don’t seek the next step. But there is more magic to be found, it just comes in a different form – don’t stop taking classes and I promise that with the right teacher you find it.

The Great Teens (1-6 years of experience, usually)

Being a “teenage dancer” is awesome. You get more confidence in your dance and it seems that your dance journey is full of possibilities – possibly too many to manage. You might have a strong dream to perform, become a master of a particular style, or become that great dancer on the dancefloor – and the beauty is that you can be if you want.

But much like in life being a teenager also comes with many issues, and if you don’t deal with them while you are in the teenager phase they might just manifest stronger into adulthood and become part of who you are as a dancer and as a person.

Ego through the roof

I think many of the issues coming with this phase are in the end a result of a singular problem – the ego tends to explode unproportionally to the skill & knowledge a dancer has acquired in this phase.

During this phase, assuming that you continue to take classes and develop, you become one of the better dancers on the dancefloor – cause let’s face it, the majority of dancers don’t continuously develop. You get compliments, you feel good on the dancefloor and the ego is rising.

But a big ego has little merit to it. If I can recommend one thing is to be humble about your journey and keep the mentality of childhood as much as you can. Be curious, give your time to learning even when it seems tedious, help & empower beginners (without showing off), and treat your peers with love and not with competition. Below I will further delve into concrete common situations.

“I’m too cool for school”, aka “This class is not for my level”

Some dancers at some point stop taking classes because they don’t learn anything new. Others start to appreciate quantity, over quality.

There is a growing tendency for dancers to treat dance classes like a “candy shop”. A class is for them an opportunity to shop for the newest coolest move. They will seek those classes that give exactly that – candies. If you are lucky to have a great teacher with an eye for detail, that knows the dance deeply – it might be smart to be humble before dismissing the class as “being too easy” – you might have just missed the point.

The most amazing teachers, and classes you will have are not the ones to always bring you the most snazzy element. They will take you back to basics, they will give you something easy to focus on so you could focus on the “why & how to do things”, and not “what to do”. You already know plenty of stuff, probably more than you need. The question is if you have mastered them.

I remember that one workshop I gave a few years back. I decided to teach something simple rather than complex to advanced dancers, as I occasionally do. The point was to focus on aspects that normally we don’t give enough attention to when we go for complex figures or styles. At the end of the class, one of my students came to me and told me that he expected more from the workshop and that it was too easy. I smiled and explained my approach but later in my head, I was amused. Two of the most experienced teachers in the scene spent more than an hour creating the class… we did not have an easy time ourselves. We actually had to figure out some things and train to make it work. But I guess the workshop can still be too easy for those that don’t look for the real challenge.

I follow that <Insert Famous dancer name>

Some dancers have this starstruck issue. Some artists are very captivating, I know. It’s also great to have an inspiration – nothing wrong with that. The main issue is very similar to the point above. Taking a festival workshop, some dancers start to believe they are above the need to go to regular classes at their local scene. Festival workshops are designed to be a cool experience – not a great development experience.

Knowing that a famous dancer, following it, namedropping it, or taking several of his/her classes doesn’t make one a great dancer. But you know what does? Good old humble practice, going back to basics, self-exploration, and living the life of a dancer.

“I learn from Cubans only”

This point might not be relevant to all dance scenes, but it kicks strong in the Cuban dance scene and I can imagine it’s the same with most heritage dances. Somewhere in late Teenagerhood, many dancers come to believe that if a teacher is not Cuban there is apparently nothing to learn from them. These dancers will rarely say it out loud or even realize it, but they will not step into the classroom of the local teachers or artists that are not of Cuban origin.

Without any intention to discredit any Cuban teacher (which we are blessed to have), Europe is rather mature in terms of Cuban dances. Some of the more experienced European teachers might have things to teach you that you will never hear otherwise. Western teachers grow differently than Cuban. While Cubans grow up with the dance, western dancers need to study it. That’s why Western teachers have often a perspective that is much more analytical about the dance, and they focus on aspects of the dance that most Cubans rarely do.

It’s usually the Ego and prejudice that lead the dance to make such conscious or unconscious decisions…but if you get over it, you will find a layer of knowledge you did not know exist.

Cliques and school attachements

Some dancers become rather cliquey at this stage. They have their safety net of people that they know and they appreciate. Stay open, every dance partner can bring on a new experience – especially the ones you don’t normally dance with.

Another weird phenomenon is developing this unhealthy loyalty or attachment to a school. I get it, your teacher is great. You might think that you are being disloyal to your teacher by visiting another teacher or feel guilty dancing with students or teachers from another school. But are you? You are here to dance and enjoy life…leave the politics of teachers to teachers. Some schools and teachers get their students involved with these politics, but great teachers should encourage exploration. Having multiple teachers is generally a good thing and it’s most likely that your teacher had herself or himself more than one. So relax – it’s about your experience, not the teacher’s.

Ok, I know Enchufala, time to teach!

Around the end of the teenage phase, dancers might get to the point where they are ready to pass on their passion to a new generation. That’s an admirable aspiration if they are truly ready, and if it comes from the right place.

Many dancers though want to reach that point a little too early. It’s usually the case because they want to teach for the wrong reasons – being in a spotlight position is the foremost reason. Ask yourself what makes you want to teach. Is that pursuit mainly about you, or about your students? Have you matured enough as a dancer to educate future generations?

I normally recommend following the path of the dancer for *at least* 3-6 years, and fully dedicating yourself to learning and enjoying the art. You will only be able to teach your experience – so make that experience vast. When you do feel ready, I highly recommend finding a mentor or a school to join. Too many assume that being a great dancer means you will be a great teacher and there is nothing further from the truth. It’s a profession with many secrets you didn’t begin to tackle, no matter how good of a dancer you are, and a mentor will show you the way around them. When I started teaching I went through 8 months of teachers’ training, and it made a huge impact on me as a teacher – and still does. The teachers of my current schools are going through an even more intense experience. So do look up for a similar path, the world deserves better teachers.

Adulthood (5-10 years normally)

It’s fun being an “Adult” dancer. This stage is much like that early adulthood stage when you have money and minimum responsibilities and it’s time to enjoy all that hard work and rip the benefits. Things might not be exciting as they used to be on the dancefloor, but there is a great balance between your confidence and skill in the dance and the excitement it brings you. It’s not as easy to develop as a dancer, but the opportunities are definitely there.

Many of the pitfalls of earlier stages are becoming stronger though if left unchecked. The key to it all is to keep your ego down, and your smile up.

Ego to the sky

If a teenage dancer’s ego can go through the roof, adult dancers’ ego can go through the sky. Some try to hang only in the circle of their peers or people in power positions (DJs, artists, etc…). I can imagine having all these connections can be useful in some ways, but what’s the driving force here?

Don’t take dance too seriously, it’s just dance. Being friendly to all makes you a persona that people want to be around. And honestly, why put all that social pressure on yourself? Dance should lift you up – not take you back to school where you need to stick to the cool kids to be popular.

The know it all” that gets set in his/her ways

Adult dancers are rather experienced and possibly gathered a lot of knowledge themselves. They also start to form strong opinions based on their experience – which is great in many ways. One determinantal aspect of it though is that these opinions become rather rigid. Dance is an open art and there are many perspectives on it. There is much merit in some opinions, but holding too strong to your beliefs might hold a dancer back from new realizations and innovations.

Keep your mind and ears open, especially when these opinions don’t seem to initially agree with you, and you might evolve your truth, your dance, and your passion.

The dinosaur phase (10+ years normally)

By ten years of dancing, assuming you have continuously developed yourself as a dancer, you are likely a dominant figure on the dancefloor (or even in the scene) and dance is second nature to you. You reached many of your goals and dreams, and yet something changed along the path. Suddenly finding that passion for the dance becomes a more complex issue that one could have imagined.

Keep that passion going

I think the biggest challenge in getting to this phase is keeping that flame you had for dance alive. Going to socials is not as exciting as it was – very few dancers keep up with you or share your enthusiasm for the dance. It’s increasingly harder to develop yourself, cause you have done a lot from everything, and your development lies in small details that are often hard to notice. If you leave this problem unchecked, you are either on the path of resigning from the dance or becoming a bitter dancer.

At this stage, your passion often needs active cultivation. Unfortunately, I cannot offer a magic formula as the solution is different for every person. You need to find something that will ignite that passion or help you reinvent yourself. It could be picking up the teacher’s mantle, learning new dances, joining a dance project, visiting Cuba, or finding socials or groups with higher levels of dance. These are some examples, but no one knows the answer but you, and honestly the answer is often more complex.

Finding ways to reinvent yourself

A great dancer is forever evolving, but it does become increasingly harder to do that with more experience. There are many ways to keep growing and finding it is not easy, but for your own sake, you know you should. Explore other dances, take some time for self-exploration, and find a mentor or a partner to exchange ideas with. Set a high goal and try reaching it.

Dealing with Irrelevance

Dance is everchanging. While prominent dancers, teachers, and organizers can guide the way dance develops locally and globally, no one can fully control it. When you dance for over a decade you will notice that things are not as they were. Dances come and go, the temperament and focus of new generations might be different, and even the same dance can be of a different nature (it’s very much the case for Cuban Salsa).

One thing we need to deal with is that things change and there is some sort of irrelevance to some of our previous knowledge and skills. Becoming bitter about it is a common pitfall, while more mature reactions would be to either accept or fight the wind. If you think there is something worthy in your values, skills, or knowledge, maybe find your way to channel it and bring some scent of it back to the new generation. Honestly, it’s not the easiest path as you will likely be against the stream. Another way is to accept change and go with the flow, maybe learn from it while you’re at it.

Closing words

It’s a natural path to go through these stages. It’s also very natural to fall into some of these pitfalls. I know some of these were true about me at times, and some are still relevant. The hardest thing is to admit “Oh that’s actually me”. If you have a point that particularly annoys you or that causes you to skim through the paragraph, have a think about it – it’s the points we evade that are often most relevant. In the end, if you engage with one of these issues you will become a better dancer, possibly a better human being.