Before you take your first dance lesson, chances are what you know about ballroom comes from stern British tv judges, movies starring Antonio Banderas (possibly Richard Gere), and YouTube dance couples. After you take your first lesson, you’ll learn you don’t really know anything about ballroom dancing. And probably a waltz box. Maybe rumba.
When you’re just starting out, you don’t have much choice but to take everything your teacher says at his word, and any good teacher will be worth that word. From whether you should count out a phrase or by quicks and slows (and everyone has an opinion on spelling out t-a-n-g-o as you tango), to whether a dance should be open or closed position, to what is really rude or not in dance etiquette, to third versus fifth position. The list goes on, and changes between social and competition and performance (as my lessons are strictly social dancing, that’s as far as my experience extends.) as well as club style. And everything he says you will accept as true because he’s the pro and he knows things. But then you go out to a dance party, take a new class, check out a new studio. Get a second teacher.
And suddenly, it feels like everything you know is wrong.
Like in everything else in life, there are many philosophies, opinions, and approaches to ballroom. Just as you start to believe you have a handle on what this dance thing is all about, suddenly that little nuisance called “fresh perspective” swoops in and derails everything.
Now I’ve said it before and I’ll unashamedly say it again. I love my private teacher. I couldn’t have picked a better person to introduce me to this world, and it’s easy for me to adopt many of his opinions as my own. But he’s not my only teacher anymore. I take a weekly group class from another teacher within the same studio, and I’ve also had the privilege of taking a workshop from a champion ballroom dancer (alongside these other two teachers). My private lessons, the group class, and the workshop all covered the same dance. And all three teachers had something different to tell me about it.
Workshop aside, for a while it felt like I had to dance one way for one teacher and another way for the other or else get “what are you doing?” and “that’s not what I told you” and I wasn’t always getting them straight in my head. This is another reason I love my private teacher. When I come to him with these dilemmas, he’ll tell me what he thinks, why he teaches me the way he does, and conclude with “I encourage you to explore all your options and form your own opinions.”
But that’s my question. At what point am I good enough to have my own opinion?
Just using this single dance as an example, the more I learn about it the more I realize how little I know about it. Even my teachers have shown up to a class or lesson, having come from a lesson or workshop of their own, with new views and suddenly everything they’ve taught me before is “less right” than how they’re going to teach me now. Or it’s sometimes as simple as “I’ve been experimenting with this different technique and I really like it and we’re going to give it a try.” I can barely keep up with how many different ways and techniques and schools of thoughts there are, and all for just one dance, how can I possibly pick one?
I guess the answer is I don’t. As both teachers have hammered their lessons into me to the point of habit, it’s become impossible for one teaching style not to bleed into another. Slowly, what I like from each teacher is getting carried over to the lesson of the other, bit by bit building up my own style whether I realized it right away or not. As the months pass by, I’ve learned it is less a menu pick-and-choose and more like baking a cake. I’m taking the ingredients and the steps given to me and blending them together to create something new, but in the end it’s still a cake. And that something new is almost like an opinion: still dance, by my own take on it.
Yes, when I take a certain teacher’s class, there is an unspoken agreement that I will learn their style. Not they will teach me in the style I want. And I don’t mistake opinion and ego. If one teacher wants me to hold my arm a certain way, when I much prefer the style of the other, I’ll still hold my arm his way in his class. And if I slip, he’ll correct it, and I won’t say something bratty like “but I like it better this way.” At least not until I’ve reached a level of proficiency that I can have an intelligent conversation about it besides “it just feels better.”
Am I good enough to form my own opinions? To be honest, I don’t think there’s a skill level you need to reach for that. Though definitely a skill level necessary to teach your opinion. To quote one of my favorite childhood books, “You must form your own fashions in a way that demonstrates you flout the standards from knowledge, not from ignorance.”* I do think you need to keep an open mind, to give your opinions room to evolve as you learn. I think something you brushed off at first glance can grow on you, even if you really loved the old way. And I think you can find flaws in an old way you loved the farther along you go. As even my teachers’ opinions continue to evolve and change, I feel pretty good allowing mine to do the same.
*Quote from A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer