My studio has two dance floors: the main floor and the private floor. The main floor stretches far, from the stage nearly as high as I am tall to the huge double doors flung open to the world, where two or three or four private lessons could be going on at once (so long we aren’t all fighting for the sound system). The other is significantly smaller, more than a quarter the size, without windows (or proper ventilation). Often, my lessons are in that private back room, playing bumper cars with inanimate objects and people just trying to get to the bathroom. But I rarely mind. Except for those days I yearn to sweep down the main floor in a Viennese, the back room is comfortable, familiar, and blessedly private. No outside world peeking in. Just my fellow dancers.

But, every now and then, we get the main floor. In the beginning, I’d be distracted by that outside world as they paused in their day. But even from a non-dancer’s eye, I was clearly a novice and no one ever lingered for long. Nothing to see here. Recently, after being sequestered in the back for months, I had my lesson out there, with no one but my teacher to share the floor with me. Still, I would see the people pause and watch. And notoriously self-conscious, I’d still be distracted long enough for my teacher to berate me about my slipping frame. By then, my onlookers have moved on.

But there was one woman who stuck in my mind. With a few young kids in tow, she parked her stroller in front of our doors, staying through several songs and run-throughs. And as she watched me, from the corner of my eye I watched her. From all the others that have lingered, I think she stuck in my mind by her smile. It was the same smile I have when I’m watching the advanced dancers practice.

And I thought…why?

The subject of my self-esteem aside, the same time she was watching my teacher was on a never-ending loop of “Give me some connection! Where’s your frame? Don’t lose that connection! You can get that foot higher than that!” More so, I know realistically and objectively that I’m still firmly in the realms of the bronze beginner: only just barely dipping my toes into the silver waters. Maybe at the time I was the only one to watch (unless it was my teacher she was admiring. He is admiration worthy.), but I don’t really consider myself a person to watch.

Only…it seems these days I am being watched. A few weeks ago I was regaling a dancemate with a near mini meltdown in one of my lessons, finishing with “He’s pushing me so much harder later.” Very matter-of-factly, she tells me, “You’re good. You need to be pushed.” To it, I really didn’t know what to say. In lessons I rarely feel “good.” I feel my arms are a mess and I can’t spot to save my life. It seemed to me more accurate to say I need to be pushed because I need to improve.

A bit more recently, as we were wrapping up one of my favorite dances, Argentine tango, I was talking to another dancer. In a casual sort of way, she said, “Your technique is better than mine.” Now this wasn’t any dancer either. This was a professional dancer I hugely admire, and I aspire to one day be able to move as beautifully and easily as she does. And she didn’t say my technique was good, she said it was better. While I have danced specifically Argentine longer than her, and I consider it one of my principal dances, that couldn’t possibly trump the over 20 years of dance training in general she has over me. Completely floored, after a moment I could only say one thing: “…no?”

I tell these stories not as a humble brag (because who doesn’t hate those), but to set up the title’s question: What is “good”? There is that old phrase “we are our own worst critics,” but I can say, without ego, that one of my best qualities is self-awareness. In life in general, I’ve learned to step back to see myself impartially without excuse or sentiment, and focus on improving it. And like everything else, there is a downside to it, because the brain and the body don’t always want to communicate like they should. So at least in terms of dancing, while I know I need to be this way, my arm or leg or head insists on being that way. And I get stuck and frustrated, knowing that that was not “good” because it was wrong. Notice how I didn’t say “bad” or “ugly.” Just plain and simple wrong.

That’s where dance gets so complicated in terms of ego and self-esteem and opinion. Good and bad is subjective. Right and wrong is objective. In any performance art, you have to strike a balance with both. You want to be right and make it look good. And if you get it wrong, you have to at least make sure it doesn’t look bad. And sometimes you can make something that was danced wrong look much better than something that is just danced correctly.

That dancer I kinda-sorta idolize thinks I’m “better” at tango because I dance it technically correct. I think she’s better because (being a dancer her whole life) she makes each step much more beautiful. There’s a chance she’s like me: inside her head, she can feel something was done wrong so it can’t be “good.” But when I watch her, I think it’s “good” because wrong or right, she makes it beautiful.

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