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The art of practice: How to be exceptional in dance

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Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.
Winston Churchill
Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor. Truman Capote

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. Confucius

Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly. Robert F. Kennedy

The principles behind the making of a good dancer are no different from the principles behind success at all levels. It is not magic, not natural talent. The principles can be capsulized in a single word: PRACTICE!

Of course it is not mindless practice. It is practice with a distinct purpose, clearly focused, disciplined, and with tireless energy. It is practice with dedication, daring to venture beyond your comfort zone to something difficult, daring to keep going when you're feeling tired, daring to be tougher when the going gets rough, and picking yourself up with no less enthusiasm every time you fail.

How often have we heard, "Practice makes perfect"? And how often are we reminded that no one is perfect? Instead of arguing the merits or demerits of these statements, let us consider the crux of the issue: the idea of perfection. Great dancers are forever trying to improve. They are in essence trying to reach out for perfection even when it is unobtainable. The process, i.e., the passion and struggle is fulfilling to them regardless of whether they reach the desired outcome.

As the great dancer Martha Graham said: "[Practice] is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired."

To excel in dance, therefore, the key ingredient is "practice" based on love and respect for the art. Practice that is systematic will yield the greatest results. Some practical tips are in order:

1. Takes notes after each lesson and not just rely on memory of what you need to work on.
2. Dancers who take lesson after lesson without suitable practice seldom improve.
3. Get into the habit of practicing as many times as possible during the week, even if they are not long sessions instead of just a long practice once a week.
4. Have a clear plan of action. Base each practice session on specific challenges that were brought to your attention by your teacher in your last lesson. Don't spread yourself thin with too many goals at one time. Concentrate your attention one thing at a time.
5. Practice with careful attention to precision of movement, and proper alignment of arms, legs, torso, head, palm, wrist, fingers during movement; practice in very slow motion to enable the brain to analyze the quality of the results. Speed can be added after structure of movement is perfected.
6. Disregard the "inner critic"or harsh thoughts that are trying to distract you from a positive frame of mind as you approach each challenge and find yourself failing to reach your desired outcome.
7. Get consistent and accurate feedback during practice. Your partner, instructor, mirror or video can help.
8. Practice without a partner. Holding your own on the dance floor is better than relying on your partner as a crutch.
9. Work on the difficult areas. Focusing on what you do easily is good for your ego but it does not improve your dancing.
10. Practice in full dance form as you would do in front of a public. Don't practice in ease without maintaining posture and precise leg and arm action.
11. Good balance is necessary to make smooth and complete moves. So keep improving your balance with a specific retinue of recommended exercises that will also strengthen your feet, ankles, knees, and hips.
12. Improve fitness and work on aerobic conditioning. They will augment your dance ability.
13. Test your level of achievement frequently through formal performance opportunities: enter competitions, showcases -- do lots of them.
14. Don't let negative comments deter your progress. Avoid making excuses and being jealous of other dancers. Let good dancers be your role models. Jealousy is indulging in wasteful negative energy.
15. You need to find a floor suitable for practice where there are few distractions. Practice involves lots of concentration and patience. You cannot practice your competitive dance skills at a social dance.
16. Maintain the principles of poise and posture even when you are not on the dance floor so that it can become second nature. Moreover, good posture is good for your health and makes you look and feel confident.
17. Know your body. Identify your strengths and weaknesses and how to use them to your advantage.
18. Relax when you practice. Your body will dance best in a relaxed state. Take a few deep breaths and clear your mind.
19. Smile, be happy when you practice. Let yourself unwind to the music. You love to dance, so let out that joy. During formal performances, when you smile, people will get the feeling that you love what you are doing.

Lekha Keister as Latin dancer
Lekha Keister as Latin dancer Photo by Lekha Keister

Lekha Keister as Latin dancer

Test your level of achievement frequently through formal performance opportunities.:  enter competitions, showcases -- do lots of them.

Latin Dancer at Competition
Latin Dancer at Competition DanceSport Photography by Alexander Rowan, Rogers Dance Studio, Fairfield

Latin Dancer at Competition

Know your body.  Identify your strengths and weaknesses and how to use them to your advantage.  Let good dancers be your role models.

Sisters Lekha and Vinita
Sisters Lekha and Vinita Photo by Lekha Keister

Sisters Lekha and Vinita

Vinita and Lekha  (sisters – ages 5 and 6) performing  a classical dance  (after intense practice). Location:  Trivandrum, Kerala, India.

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