Here’s the #1 question that consumed me from my first swing dance class onward: Why do some people learn faster than others?

kid on bike

I watched people struggle in my earliest dances classes. What did they find so difficult? And why did I seem to sprint ahead initially?

At first I thought it was “natural talent.” Then I wised up and actually read some research. Now I know “talent” is largely a myth. For example, did you know that elite athletes are more likely to be younger siblings? The researcher suggests sibling rivalry, early sports socialization, and several other mechanisms to explain the difference. Environment, not genetics, is a much stronger predictor of success.

If natural talent is a myth, what past experience will help you learn lindy hop faster?

List Time!!

The following is a list of 15 prior skills and experiences that may give you an advantage. The more you identify with, the faster you will learn.

  1. You’ve watched a lot of lindy hop or other dancing.
  2. You have prior dance experience of any kind (every little bit counts).
  3. You’ve done sports, especially activities with running, jumping, or balancing.
  4. You have worked out in the past.
  5. You currently walk a lot or work out regularly.
  6. You constantly think about, talk about, and/or like to show others what you’re learning.
  7. You love music.
  8. You listen to swing music and/or any other kind of jazz.
  9. You’ve studied music/played a musical instrument.
  10. You have done other performance arts (e.g. theater, improv, public speaking, stand up).
  11. You consider yourself a visual, auditory, and/or kinesthetic learner.
  12. You like working on hard stuff.
  13. You aren’t afraid of making mistakes, and/or you’re determined to try again when you fail.
  14. You’ve previously mastered a skill over the course of years.
  15. You believe education, practice, and determination are far more important than “natural talent.”

Elated? Discouraged? Perhaps, like I did, you still believe the talent myth. Whether you think you have natural talent, or you think you have none, this belief will hold you back.

Let me explain.

The #1 Defining Trait of Success

It’s not genetics. Nope. For every level of dancer, “grit” is the biggest predictor of success that scientists have found so far. Grit means determination, stick-to-it-iveness, and perseverance over the long-term.

So how would I have fared if I’d looked at this list as a newbie?

Numbers 1-12 more or less applied to me when I started dancing. Yay, go me! I would have thought I was so awesome.

However, it’s likely that 12-15 are the most important type of factors in determining how far you’ll go as a dancer. I didn’t know that at the time.

Predictably, I had a few years of early success followed by a long, grinding plateau. I thought talent should keep me moving, and stagnation made me question my ability. Only daydreams and desire kept me trucking along until I got fed up with my slow progress.

I’ve seen students like me fade out of dancing when their early successes ran dry. Is that you? Do you feel your excitement slipping as your progress slows?

Other people have sprinted far ahead of me. I saw other people doing things I wanted to do, getting accolades I wanted, helping people and contributing to the scene in ways I wanted to. (Go you guys!)

Lindy hop was so ingrained in my life, I couldn’t imagine quitting. I also couldn’t stay in the same place, feeling bad about myself.

You Can Change Your Lot

You can change your lot.

Think you’re bad at dancing?

The cool thing about discarding the talent myth is that now you can change your future. If you’re bummed you don’t have past experience to help you learn faster, guess what? You can do those things now!

Even if you work 60 hours a week, you still have 52 other hours you’re awake. You can listen to music in the mornings when you’re getting ready, or in the evenings when you’re making dinner.

You can start jogging or jump on the elliptical machine during your lunch break. You can park your car further away. You can think about dancing more. You can talk about it. You can read about it.

Perhaps you can make time to practice more.

Even 10 Minutes Makes a Difference

10 minutes of practice, 10 minutes of exercise, or 10 minutes of listening to music. Whatever you can do on a regular basis, it all makes a difference—an important, irrefutable difference.

Now that you know this, the only excuse is “I don’t want to.” But if you’ve read this far, I have to believe that you do.

After struggling to improve for years, I finally decided to get to the bottom of things. When I stripped away everything else, I saw a fork in the road. One said said, “I don’t want to,” and the other said, “Keep working.” Even though some days I feel like I’ve only taken a single step on the “keep working” road, it’s so much better than lying to myself and pretending I don’t want to.

Stagnation comes to your door only when you refuse to do what’s necessary. Or when you pretend you have no ideas. (Don’t lie. You read my blog. You have some ideas of how to improve.)

Secrets of Better Dance Practice tileSo, my newbie friends. Let’s not pretend we have no idea what to do. Have faith, and try something. If it fails, try again. Then try something else.

Develop the grittiness to keep going, even when you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s there, I promise you. And your friends are here, cheering you on.

For more help getting your practice groove on, download my course: Secrets of Better Dance Practice.

We support you!

What prior skills/experiences have helped YOU learn to dance? Answer in the comments below!

Photo credit: bokeh burger (bicycle)

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