Sometimes I just love participating in dance discussions and debates. I enjoy having conversations in person, batting ideas back and forth by email, diving into discussions on the forums. But I can only take so much. I’m definitely not a die-hard regular on the forums with thousands of posts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just the kind of person who likes to stop by and dig in for a couple of weeks and then retreat and focus on other things for a while. Makes my occasional visits much more focused and meaningful.
Part of this is my personality, but another part of it is the negativity, the derision, and the name-calling. I see it on forums, I see it on a few blogs, I see it in friendly conversations that have taken a wrong turn somewhere. When I encounter this I tend to take a step back and detach a bit. Why so much hostility? Why such defensive and caustic remarks provoked by seemingly nothing other than disagreement?
Dance is a very personal thing. It is played out on and in our bodies, reveals our mental and emotional habits and choices, and calls forth our creative and intuitive energies. It constantly yet insidiously butts up against issues of gender, culture, and politics. So dance can’t help but become wrapped up in our identities in a way that is both obvious and elusive. But surely our differences can be expressed and explored in a way that doesn’t lead to a cheap and adversarial battle of words.
A lesson from coaching…
During my coaching career, one of the things that fascinated me the most was studying other coaches and their attitude towards order and control. What I discovered is that there are two types of coaches: those who discipline and those who punish.
Coaches who discipline are calm and consistent. Consequences – both positive and negative – are predictable and affirming, creating a safe atmosphere where athletes know what to expect and act accordingly. You can identify coaches who discipline immediately: their athletes are orderly, focused, productive, and have a great time within the parameters set by the coach.
Coaches who punish, on the other hand, are anything but calm and consistent. Consequences constantly change based on the coach’s mood and energy level. Athletes are always left guessing, which often leads them to push the limits to see how much they can get away with. Such coaches typically let lots of misbehavior slide because they don’t want to deal with it, only to explode when they finally get fed up with the unruliness. You can identify coaches who punish immediately: their athletes are distracted and unproductive, and some of them have a great time: at the expense of the rest of the team.
The difference between coaches who discipline and coaches who punish is not one of good intentions. The difference is that one group understands how to set and maintain limits so that the right mindset and heartset (yes, I made that word up) can motivate their actions and drive the atmosphere of practices and competitions, not to mention cultivate the same attitude in their athletes. Coaches who discipline do so based on pre-planned reason so their moods and emotions don’t run wild (and thereby cause the team to run wild). The purpose is to support the athletes, with their cooperation, to reach the goals of the individual as well as the team; the purpose is not to punish athletes so they feel bad or to prove the coach is right or in charge. When athletes do something undesirable, these coaches maintain a detached engagement so they can act from a position of strength and love instead of compulsion and anger.
Back to the issue…
There are times in dance discussions when I have felt myself getting a little worked up. I have learned to take a step back and examine myself during those times. I have always – every single time – discovered the source to be pride or envy or egotism. The reality is that our calm (but not indifferent) reactions are the honest ones when it comes to the discussion; they reveal our passion, knowledge, and experience in pure form. Our negative, sarcastic, and adversarial reactions are honest only in what they reveal about our own weaknesses: our compulsive need to be right, to prove others wrong, to hold onto our perspective without considering those of others. We all have these weaknesses in us, and when they rear their ugly heads our arguments come from a place that proves destructive to the conversation regardless of how “right” our points may be. In such cases, we close ourselves off from genuine sharing and enriching debate, and the chances are very good that we’ve turned others off as well.
This isn’t to say we will never disagree, or never feel strongly that something is wrong or undesirable in the dance. And it definitely doesn’t mean these points of view should never be expressed or vigorously defended. It means understanding that truth always comes from a place of calm and respect, not compulsiveness and defensiveness. It means stopping ourselves when we feel unhealthy negativity and asking why it’s there. When we reflect on our irritation or hostility and work to resolve it, which may be an ongoing process or take just a few seconds, we can consider and frame our point of view in a way that is edifying to the discussion and respectful of the participants. Not only that, we open ourselves up to true sharing and consideration instead of shouting over and at each other and mercilessly defending positions.
I’ve heard countless people say and write, “Well, that’s just my opinion,” as if such a statement justifies being disrespectful and saying whatever they want. That’s like making a mess on the dance floor – ignoring the rules of floorcraft and “dancing our dance” at the expense of couples around us – and then saying it’s our prerogative. The truth is that our attitudes and our actions affect our dance community. People who don’t like considering whether they’re being respectful to others should probably rethink whether partner dancing – or participating in any community for that matter – is for them. There’s no point in being right about something if no one will benefit, and you can’t even be right about something if it’s not coming from the right place. (I believe this last statement to be both completely true and completely false; today the exercise is to find its truth.)
I’ve made several good dance friends online through respectful disagreements that turned to balance and common ground and then developed into mutual understanding and even inspiration. I’m thinking of one new friend in particular from just this past month. We “met” each other through a forum discussion that was pretty heated overall, but both of us kept calm while continuing to delve deeper into our own and each other’s perspectives. Ultimately we both ended up clarifying and balancing each other’s points of view, as well as developing a friendship and exchanging other enlightening thoughts and experiences, all of which we would have missed out on if either one of us had flown off the handle like a few others did in that discussion.
Which makes me wonder how many more dance friendships can flower, how much more understanding and perspective can be gained in the dance, if we all practice the discipline of positivity and respect and calm in the midst of disagreement. This requires recognizing that our perspectives are constantly changing, and trusting ourselves and others to consider alternate viewpoints instead of punishing each other for thinking differently based on our unique experiences and where we happen to be on our respective journeys. From this we also learn that those we disagree with are the ones from whom we learn the most, and to whom we have the most to give. The simple truth for me is this: the more I discipline myself this way, the more I find myself learning, and the more I find myself teaching.
Love has proven to be an exponentially more powerful (i.e., truthful) motivator than obligation or fear. From right motivation comes enriching and enlightening conversations that make a real difference in the quality of our dancing lives and relationships. Some of us dislike the “politics” of dance and would much rather pretend they didn’t exist, but learning to engage in the dance community in a positive and disciplined way is as enlightening – if not indispensable – as the dance itself. Perhaps they are even the same thing.