Crawl, Walk, Waltz: Exploring Fluency

I've stepped on a lot of feet. I've stepped into feet. To my horror, I've injured feet. Most women's ballroom dance shoes are open-toed, which makes the dance floor a minefield to a beginner like me when I started several years ago. One swift step on the wrong spot (my partner's toes) and boom--the dance is over.

Drawing from my time in ballroom dance, here is what I've learned about fluency, why it matters and how it can help us lead more satisfying and resilient lives.

Crawling

Usually I don't injure my partner too badly and we keep going. Sometimes in the beginning, I would step on her feet badly enough where she would have to stop and sit down (it says a lot about how much my wife loves me that she still agrees to be my dance partner). In the latter (albeit less frequent) case, it's important to stop and apologize, figure out why it happened and be careful never to repeat that mistake. However, there are smaller mistakes I make more frequently. I miscount a step. I turn the wrong direction. I fail to properly lead my partner and she gets lost. These mistakes are minor, but can impact the remainder of the dance if you allow them to bother you.

This was my crawling stage in ballroom dance. After several months of practice, I started to walk when I was able to dance among larger groups.

Walking

You're only as good as your toolkit. In ballroom, as with any skill, you begin with the basics, and then build on those to develop fluency that you can translate to live music and a partner other than your instructor. But knowing the fundamentals is critical. Each dance lesson, you rehearse them until they are ingrained habits that don't require thought. Then each lesson you can add a new move or modification of a previous move to expand your options on the dance floor. This is what transforms a basic slow-slow-quick-quick foxtrot step into a dynamic, artistic display.

Waltzing

Few people love dancing with someone who half-heartedly counts the steps, but it's a blast to dance with someone smiling and attacking the dance with energy and fervor. It's the same with teams. It's the same with relationships. Go all-in.

It's easy to tell the difference between someone attacking each move with energy (in a cha-cha, for example) or sustained grace (in a waltz) and someone plodding through a slow-slow-quick-quick as if they're walking through mud and would rather be at home. How much better would our lives be if we leaned in to building our relationships? If we pursued them with vim and vigor? What if we were attentive to every subtle signal when listening to someone (instead of formulating what we want to say next or looking at our phones) to go beyond just hearing their words? Those are the interactions and relationships I want more of. That's when I begin to waltz.

When you're spinning around in a room full of couples waltzing, there is a lot going on. You're focused on yourself, including the cadence of the song, what series of moves you want to do next, and leading your partner (if you're the man). But you're operating within a larger, constrained context -- the dance floor with fifteen other couples. You can't leave the floor and you're --apparently-- not supposed to bump into anyone while they dance around you.

This is part of why the waltz is my favorite dance. The couples are like slow-spinning tops, gliding gracefully around the polished wood floor. It's exciting to weave your desired routine through the ever-changing web of people around you. You have a plan and then someone turns in front of you - bam, you change course seamlessly because you have the necessary tools to do so. It's not a big deal that you haven't done that exact sequence before; your fluency lets you adapt. You're excited about the plan you have, but thrilled at the opportunity to employ on the fly skills you honed in a lesson. On the other hand, rigidity in a waltz leads to collisions. Take it from me, that's not the best reason to be the talk of the party.

You may be thinking: doesn't waltzing around describe someone who is careless with the time and feelings of others? A traditional example might be, "he waltzed right in just like he owned the place, even though he was 30 minutes late to the meeting." Yes, that is Merriam-Webster's definition. However, the definition of waltz I use here is truer to the grace and nimbleness of the dance, and a helpful way to think about life.

A true waltz is graceful not from overconfidence, but from tranquility and a belief that the dancer can handle whatever comes at them. It's a commitment to self-control and not letting others get to you, no matter the circumstance. A great example is Roger Federer on the tennis court. He shows no reaction when an extreme variety of circumstances occur in the fifth set of a major championship final. He knows those circumstances are part of the game and has no expectation otherwise.

We all have activities we're fluent in. Activities in which we can let go and experience the moment for the joy it brings us. We forget about the recipe, about the technical details of how it's done.

Just like fluency in a language allows you to inhabit a new culture, fluency in any given realm allows you to inhabit a new creative space you can flourish in.

What if, instead of walking through life, we endeavored to waltz through life? How much more beautiful could our lives be?

It just might help our dance partners' feet too.