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Oops! Sorry!

Thoughts on mistakes in social dance

Richard Powers

If you could eavesdrop at a social dance, the two words most commonly uttered are probably "Oops!" and "Sorry!"

Dr. Frank Clayton, an orthopedic surgeon, related a funny story about "Oops." When he was in medical school, they told him that if he slipped up and made a mistake during surgery, never ever say "Oops." The patient might become very worried. The instruction was to retrain your automatic response. If you make a mistake, instead of saying "Oops", say, "There!"

So if you ever mess up while dancing, just smile at your partner confidently and say, "There!"


As you may know from this page, both social and competition ballroom dance are valid avocations, but they're very different from each other. A big difference is the attitude concerning mistakes.

In competitions, judges deduct points for every mistake, so competitive dance culture is aligned against making mistakes from day one. When a Follow does something different from what the Lead intended, it's considered a mistake, which is to be eliminated. Competitive dancers work hard to achieve 100%.

In social dancing, mistakes are accepted as inevitable. Social dancers laugh them off and move on, happy if things work out 80% of the time. And the other 20% is when most learning happens.

Besides, mistakes aren't always mistakes. Maybe the Lead accidentally created something that was fun and didn't feel wrong. The Follow made a valid alternate interpretation of the lead, not a mistake.


Think of that first nanosecond of a mistake as the beginning of something new. At that first moment of Oops, see if you can welcome that chance intrusion as an opening to a new figure, or a new conclusion to the figure that was intended.

Think of it as exploring new territory. Think of it as making something up as you go. It's lateral thinking instead of vertical thinking. It's creative expression.


Be curious. Learn from mistakes.

What do we want to learn? How to avoid future mistakes? No, that's competition ballroom. We want to learn what else is possible. And we learn how to keep moving through a mistake, as if it was intentional.


Advice to Follows from a Follow, Argentine tango instructor Susana Miller:

Don't try to be correct. Don't avoid mistakes, or your feet will and have tension. Rather, make mistakes freely, and enjoy them. Step wherever you step, boldly and confidently.


What Is A Mistake?

by Gregory Manker — an essay from Social Dance 1

I signed up for Social Dance this quarter because I thought it would be cool to know some dances, but I didn't expect that it would cause me to think about the nature of making mistakes, and more importantly, cause me to change the way I deal with "messing up."

When I started dancing, I was ashamed of missteps and botched moves. I interpreted errors as a sign of my stupidity, and I'd apologize to my partner whenever I did something wrong. Doing so, I felt, was the right thing to do. Doesn't it always make things better to admit one's mistake and move forward?

In certain situations, admission of one's error is critical. Companies facing product problems often do it and emerge stronger than before because people like honesty. Social dance, however, isn't a competitive marketplace. People dance for many reasons, chief amongst them to have fun. My job, as a Lead, is to ensure that my partner is enjoying herself as much as possible, and I found that one way to have more fun is to stop admitting mistakes.

What is a "mistake"? A mistake is defined by perception. People are usually so focused on their own dancing that they won't notice a problem unless it's pointed out to them. A mistake only exists if it gets labeled as such. After a certain point, I stopped apologizing for missteps and ambiguous leads and learned to smile and keep going, and my dance experience improved dramatically. Even if a partner notices that I "messed up", what good does it do to point it out? One of the best dances I had, in fact, was a tango in which I had forgotten all of the moves and my partner led me through it. I think we were laughing so hard, she forgot some steps.

So what did this quarter of social dance teach me? It taught me how to do swing, waltz, tango and a variety of other dances. And I learned much more. I might forget the dance moves with time, but the lessons I learned about failure will stick with me as I weave them into my approach to interacting with people. I am often very hard on myself, and there are moments when I get myself into a prolonged funk over my mistakes, when in fact, I need to smile and keep dancing.


The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.
    — William James


Bouncing Back

by John Sanderson — an essay from Social Dance 2

The following observation came while I was sick and sitting in the balcony. By now I have come to know who some of the most experienced dancers are. I had a good vantage point from the balcony to notice which Leads and Follows seemed to have the most headroom—those for whom the dances were easy enough that they had some capacity to be playful with variations.

In observing them, I was struck by the fact that they made mistakes just as frequently as everyone else. They just bounced back from them more easily. Whereas less confident dancers would be thrown off for several measures by such a mistake, those I was observing were promptly right back in the swing of things, laughing it off with their partners. They seemed to have better internalized the idea we all strive for, to dance for the sheer enjoyment of it, with less concern for doing perfect footwork.

Recently, I've been reading about the habits that top students (straight A students, or otherwise high achieving students who run balanced, relaxed lives) have in common. A common misconception is that they are just a very organized, driven breed, who put in place solid time management systems, and show indefatigable discipline in adhering to them throughout college. Interviews with them, however, have shown that they are just as prone to "get off track" or to fall behind in classes. They are distinct though, in their ability to bounce back, to get back on track, and to contain the damage of momentarily falling behind.

Apparently excellence in dancing, as in academics, is more about resilience than about immaculate consistency.


Intelligence is not to make no mistakes,
but to see how to make them good.

 — Bertolt Brecht


This is a class essay from Brandon Azad, who re-took Social Dance I as a Follow:

I've taken Social Dance I before, as a Lead, over a year ago now, and I remember worrying that my partners were not enjoying themselves if I messed something up, or didn't remember all the figures we had learned. And I apologized profusely.

However, taking Social I from the Follow's perspective has helped me appreciate that partnering is an unscripted communication, and while sometimes things don't work out as intended (or completely fall apart), that's not necessarily a bad thing, and definitely not something that one should feel bad for. Dancing from the Follow's perspective, I would occasionally see the same guilt and apology that I once felt as a Lead. But on none of those occasions was I not having a blast. I from a year ago probably wouldn't have believed that I as a Follow really don't mind the "mess ups". I definitely wouldn't have believed that half the time I have heard "oops" or "sorry" while following, I didn't even notice any awkwardness in the dance at all.

Realizing that I still enjoy dancing as a Follow when my partner "messes up" has really boosted my confidence as both a Lead and a Follow. Before, I took the phrase "the lead is dancing for the follow" too literally: I worried that my indecision or unclear leads would ruin my partner's experience. I now understand that "dancing for your partner" does not mean "perfectly, so that she knows exactly where to go and when", but rather... "in a dialogue with your partner." The point is to be there for your partner, to keep communication open, as each figure flows into the next, and enjoy each other's company.

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