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Dancing and the Dream State

Richard Powers

Everyone has their own pet theory of what dreams are, and what they mean. Current dream research shows that most dreams are a meandering path woven into a story by the "interpreter" function of our brain. This winding path is sometimes based on our life, or past dreams, or films we've seen, and sometimes nudged into new directions by the random firing of neurons.

Then here's the important part. Once a dream has begun, the interpreter function of our brain then fabricates the next step in the dream from the previous moment. It's like driving down a winding road at night-time. You can only see what's in front of your headlights, with no idea what's around the next bend. The difference is that with a real winding road, there is something pre-existing but unseen around the corner, whereas in dreams, what's around the bend doesn't exist yet. Your dreaming mind will fabricate the next part, just as you get to it.

That's why one of the most common dream scenarios is that you suddenly have an exam that you didn't know about. Or you just realized that you had registered for a course, but never attended any of the classes. Or you find yourself on stage in front of an audience, to perform a choreography that you've never learned.

The reason why these dreams are so common is because your dreaming mind randomly just thought of that idea. Of course you didn't know about it.

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            Following

In this respect, the Follow role in improvised social dancing is similar to a dream state. You can only see what's in front of the headlights, so to speak. You only know the moment. The next moment is still around the corner, unknown.

For Follows, understanding the significance of this analogy will actually improve your dancing.

When first learning to dance, some Follows approach following as if it were a multiple-choice exam, trying to guess which figure their partners are leading, just in in time, or even trying to out-guess what they will lead next. There are inevitably some misinterpretations, as Follows occasionally launch themselves into a guess, to find out that it was actually something else.

Instead, following works out much better if you stay in the moment, split-second by split-second, as you go through each corner. Just keep stepping in the timing of the dance and see where it goes. Enjoy the winding path. And that's the most fun way to dance. It's relaxing and mentally challenging at the same time, like a flow state.


           Leading

Then many Leads discover that this same approach works for them too. Beginners often think that leading means planning what to do and when, in advance. Perhaps planning several moves ahead. And that's how leading is usually done at the beginning. Then one day, the Leads notice that they're planning less, and spontaneously being with their partners more. Their "informed instinct" has improved to the point where they can sense where their partners' momentum is going, and they stay with them, going through that corner without a plan in mind, discovering with their partners where it will go, as in a dream state. The result usually flows better for their partners than a plan made in advance. And it's fun to discover the path together.

For both Follows and Leads, don't worry about trying to dance this way at the beginning. It happens with time, but only if you try it, or at least allow it to happen. Many dancers don't even try.


           Your state of mind

The fact that dreams are partially shaped by the random firing of neurons does not mean they are meaningless, or impersonal. How you respond to these dream scenarios is very much you. Do you respond to that unexpected exam with confidence, or with dread? That usually depends on your response to life in general. And that's what improves by social dancing. Truly.

Dreams can sometimes be scary. But since you're awake when you're dancing, you have some control over your response. Each dance figure begins with the first step. Just take that first step, with no idea of where it will go next, but with confidence that you'll have some idea what to do when you get to that next corner. Through practice, you slowly but steadily improve at this responsiveness, and your self confidence increases. Increased confidence follows success, as you'd expect.

In dancing, it also works the other way around, for both Follows and Leads. Your success in dancing improves by beginning with a confident attitude — knowing that if it doesn't work out one way, it will work out another way. It worked, it didn't feel wrong, and it probably turned out to be more fun than doing something that was expected. It's play.

With this approach, you'll enjoy dancing more, and so will your partners. They'll quickly see that you're having fun, with a more confident air, and that you also trust that your partner will work things out well, one way or another. Your partner will sense that trust and ready-for-anything attitude.

Self-confidence is not thinking that things will always turn out in your favor. If you depend on that, your self-confidence will evaporate when things don't go the way you hoped. Self-confidence is knowing that (1) you can usually make them turn out well, one way or another, and (2) that you're adaptable enough to calmly synchronize with any new direction that things are going.

They say that in life, you become what you practice. You can practice dancing through winding paths in the safe environment of the dance floor. Then you can apply this approach to all of your other activities, with confidence.