Beginner's Luck and Sophomore Slump

(reprinted from ZAGHAREET! "For Beginners" column, Jan/Feb. 2004)
by Anthea Kawakib Poole

New dancers are kind of like youngsters - we're fond of them, glad they're around, and delight to see them discover new strengths and skills. Like children, they look for inspiration to those who are more advanced; and even seem to develop faster just by being around their "older" dance siblings.

Parents with children who are close to each other in age learn that sometimes the older child becomes anxious at the growing capabilities of the younger, especially if the younger surpasses the older in a skill. I think this same anxiety comes into play in the peer-group situation of dance class. 


Beginner's Luck has been described as "temporary superiority of instinct over intellect.

Great definition! New dancers, because they have less or no memories of frustrating moments onstage, are often less anxious about performing than their dance siblings with more experience. 

Then, as students grow aware of the broader, more critical belly dance world, they fathom their potential for mistakes - or even the possibility of receiving ridicule at their artistic abilities, choices, and/or interpretation. They may think of all the things that could go wrong: costume or music mishaps, forgetting the choreography; or they imagine getting negative feedback from the audience or even in online discussion boards. In short, they "think too much". Kajira Djoumahna, in The Tribal Bible, calls this "paralysis by analysis". 

Without the thick skin of the seasoned performer or professional, dancers find that what once was enjoyable is now stressful instead. This loss of innocence, becoming anxious or fearful of what others will think, can lead to "cold feet" - not good for dancers!

Have you ever said to yourself: "I thought this was supposed to be fun" or "Why bother, I'll never be as good as 'So-and-So'"? Don't be fooled! "Sophomore slump" is a natural reaction to the highs of newbie-enthusiasm - don't let it throw you off track. When you're feeling disillusioned about yourself or about dancing in general, you're probably reacting to a shock to your ego defense system. If you think back you may find what triggered it; and if you're able to judge it objectively you may find it wasn't all that bad after all.

Egos are a necessary part of our personality; they help us develop a sense of ourselves. But they DO need to be "kept in their place". It's sort of like having a big dog on a leash - it can protect us and make us feel safe. But it also tends to "pull us away" from ego-threatening situations, seeking safety at the expense of our personal growth. (And sometimes, like an overprotective guard dog, it lashes out and attacks others even when they present no real threat - but that's another article!). Keep the "leash of humility" on your watchdog-ego: you control it, or it will control you. 

If you've ventured into the larger dance community at all you've probably noticed some "egoic" behavior in others or (if you're aware enough) yourself. Performing, or even just being at a workshop or class, makes some dancers feel the need to project an "inflated" or altered image of themselves. There's an imaginary dance-world hierarchy based on many factors we don't have time to go into right now; dancers often project an image they think will place them at the level they think they deserve. This image acts as armor to protect them from feeling small or unimportant, that is, from being placed in the "wrong peer group" by others. But like armor, it's confining!

I once read a compelling passage from Robyn Davidson's book "Tracks" that illustrates breaking free from fear and insecurity:

"I reviewed what I had learnt. I had discovered capabilities and strengths that I would not have imagined possible....I had understood freedom and security. The need to rattle the foundations of habit. That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one's weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the molds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. To break the molds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe. I had learnt to use my fears as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, and best of all, I had learnt to laugh."

The crux of the matter is, you can't find fun in dance if you're not happy with yourself. It's impossible - dance is SELF-EXPRESSION. You are what you dance. Lighten up! Make mistakes! Have fun! Just dance and be done with it - it's more fun that way! It's also fun to know YOU are in control, not your ego.

Dances With Egos

Notice your reactions in ego-threatening situations. See the "duet" you're having with your ego? Can you step forward to lead the dance even at the risk of "losing face" or will you pull away to save yourself? 

It's crucial to find the balance of ego-adjustment that lets you enjoy the abilities and accomplishments of others while still feeling good about yourself. Embrace yourself whatever your level of dance skill, even if newer students seem more celebrated or assured. Are you afraid to "let go" and be your less-than-perfect self around others? Then you've already failed the "Humility Test" and your ego's leading you a merry dance!

We all want to "grow old gracefully" in life but also in the dance, keeping a youthful enthusiasm and joy in our heart. Never be afraid to try, to take those shy steps onstage and share yourself with the audience. Resist the "seductions of security". This dance quest uncovers the Real You so cherish dance opportunities and your freedom to fully explore this lovely, life-changing art.

I'll close with this quote from Winston Churchill: "Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm"!

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