I was talking to a young dancer the other night, a beginner who'd maybe started in December and with whom I've had some good conversations. I remember the day I met him, how he was still putting the Lindy Hop basic together. Since then he's had some difficulty, especially since he's completely terrified of getting on the dance floor, terrified to ask people to dance with him. He's been coming out regularly for months but only dancing three times a night, if even that much. I remember giving him my standard beginner homework assignment - ask ten people to dance, at least five of whom should be strangers. He remembered that he had to ask three, and maybe only on that one night. I know that it must still be extremely hard for him.
So here's a rant about confidence. These are a few stories which I remember fondly. Maybe one of them will resonate with you.
The Math Student
Outside of dance, I work a lot on my students' confidence. As a test prep tutor, I've heard the worst that people can think of themselves. People really take their own math histories to heart. With math, many students have very powerful and toxic self-esteem issues. It takes a large amount of trust, listening and meaningful guidance to help a student build beyond those deep, insidious feelings.
Once I had a math student who was getting Ds in class. After a few weeks of working on the basic skills, he was performing much better in practice. He was starting to develop the skills he needed. Still though, he was scoring Ds on his tests. It was starting to get to him.
I asked him what was different about taking a test in class vs. taking the practice tests before-hand. He wasn't really sure. In subsequent practices I asked him questions like "WHO solved this problem?" At first he wanted to give me credit. My response - "What did I actually do?" I think for the bulk of those problems, I only smiled and said "and what next?" He was forced to take credit for his own actions.
We had a talk after that. In order for him to perform well on his tests, he had to rewrite the messages he told himself about tests. Those messages were pretty standard - "I suck at math," "I hate taking tests," "this is too hard." He had to replace them with messages like "I solved that problem yesterday." "I have remember this material" and "I'm going to kick this test's ass!" I made sure his parents were okay with that last one.
His next test came back with a B. As long as I was in Los Angeles, I think he continued to get Bs, and hopefully has been doing fine since then.
She didn't realize that she was a beginner
A friend of mine who learned to dance in a smaller community told me that when she attended her first swing dance event she experienced an utter breakdown. She had never realized that she was a beginner. I wasn't there for that event, but I imagine her locking herself in her room and refusing to attend the dance. By the time I met her, that dance was a few weeks past and she was ready to explore swing dancing again.
We all hung out in a small group of friends, with whom we started organizing events, having meetings and such. We all got to spend a lot of time together. I always saw this friend as the heartbeat of our group. She kept us together and feeling good about ourselves. So it always surprised me to hear that she was so gripped with fear.
There was a swing event in another town and a group of us took the road trip. And on the opening night of the dance my friend was starting to feel anxiety. We sat and talked for a bit. She said she had fear that people would judge her. I told her what I'd noticed about her since meeting her only months before:
"Everyone LOVES you!"
It was true. Every time we had a meeting in public, she was recognized by someone she had worked with in her professional life or and old friend or... They were always filled with joy to run into her. And she was just her kind, lovely, beautiful self.
If someone was willing to judge her based on three minutes of dancing then they weren't worth her time. That weekend went pretty well for her.
Lessons from a Game Shows Champion
I've personally competed on and won three game shows. There has been plenty of tooting my own horn so I'll bring it to this - what was it that made me able to do that? Yes, my head is freakishly big, but that's as much a burden as an aid. I like to think there's something else there.
I remember the last game show I did, Trivial Pursuit: America Plays. The shooting day was at least twelve hours long and I was at the end of the list. I brought a game with me and hoped to engage my competitors. Otherwise we'd be bored out of our skulls, I think. So every once in a while we'd pull out a card from the game and just help each other guess. At least it kept me in play for the long day, right?
The day was really draining too. As we saw more and more competitors make it to the final round and lose their winnings, the group of us remaining started to get really demoralized. The audience was feeling the drag too. So I just kept playing the game, because it helped me stay playful.
Then my turn came up. Three of us were chosen, one of whom was a lady who said that she was terrified she'd have to play against me. I brushed that off. I went to make-up and said I was worried about the sweat on my fingers, like for pressing the buttons. The make-up artist suggested putting a light layer of something on my fingers and that really helped.
During the game I really had to play. I remember getting beat to the buzzer on an obscure one. I was glad to have whatever was on my fingers. In the end I had to put some effort toward feeling the light go on, the light which alerts us that we can press the buzzer. It paid off. I went to the final round. I won it, as I mentioned earlier. That's not the point.
The point is that if I hadn't kept myself at play and been honest about what I was nervous about I would have never had a chance.
I've often wanted to teach a class on how to win game shows. The skill set is valuable for folks in every field.
Fake it 'Til You Make it
I will often teach my dance improv students that one of the best ways to earn confidence is to "Fake it 'Til You Make it." You don't earn self-esteem by thinking about it. You earn it like you earn anything else, practice and play, and working the fabric of it until it fits.
I have other stories of confidence, but I think the post is long enough. I'm curious about your own stories of confidence. What have you got to teach me?