Dance Lessons: 11 Things a Lifetime of Dance Has Taught Me

Don't worry, no one's watching—they're too busy looking at themselves

From my first jazz class in 1977, to this morning's hip-hop class, not a day has gone by that dancing hasn't improved my life in countless ways. It's also taught me a surprising number of lessons. Here are just a few:

1) Being afraid of looking stupid is a waste of time.

There's a first time for everything, and everyone. Dance is the same way. There is always a little pain learning new choreography. Move toward that discomfort, that series of small risks of failure—not away. Let the fear that you might get it wrong push you forward. Step by step, you will learn a new dance.

2) Corollary to the above: No one is looking at you—they're too busy looking at themselves.

Your thighs, your ass, seriously: No one cares. This should free you. You're the "best" dancer, you're the "worst"—these are nonsense words. Your fellow dancers are only that; just like you, they have made the effort to come to class for the same reasons you have. You are out there for yourself, for the betterment of your own body, mind and soul.

3) Your body isn't something your mind drags around.

"Two recent studies show how different types of practice allow dancers to achieve peak performance by blending cerebral and cognitive thought processes with muscle memory and 'proprioception' held in the cerebellum. Through regular aerobic training that incorporates some type of dance at least once a week, anyone can maximize his or her brain function." — Psychology Today, 10/1/2013

RELATED: I Can't Dance

You have one body—just one—forever. Respect it. Taking dance or dance exercise classes at any level strengthens the beautiful synergy of body and mind.

4) There is always something new to learn.

You may have danced to a particular song a million times, but you feel that something is missing. Ask yourself: What is my teacher doing that I'm not, however small? Listen more. Look harder. Discover it. Now it is yours. Add it to your repertoire. Apply that practice of intense looking and listening to your life. Be amazed at how much more of your world comes clearer to you.

RELATED: Everybody Dance Now

5) Master the basics, then add yourself.

Again, details. The way you hold your head. How you articulate your arms. The weight of your foot on the floor. How quickly or slowly you turn. Watch dance. Analyze it. And when you think you've mastered the basics, add the most important part—expression.

6) No one dances like you.

RELATED: My Wonderful Return to Tap Dancing

I can hear you scoffing at this. Well, don't. So you may never dance like your teacher. Why is this bad? Go watch professional dancers in concert. Part of their beauty is not only the slight difference in the way they dance, but it's also their builds, their unique interpretations of a phrase. That's where the beauty is. That's where you are.

7) It's not the meat, it's the motion.

Women tend to be hard judges of themselves—she's thin, she must be a good dancer, and so on. The bigger woman in front, well, she must be new at this. And then she starts to move … and surprises and delights you: her way of syncopating a move, the way her hips catch the downbeat, the joy in her face. How wrong we are to judge by looks!

8) Who needs therapy? Music + motion + other people in the room having fun = bliss.

Once I started dancing, I dropped the therapist. Not saying this is for everyone, but it's sure been working for me. Concentrating on a task forces you to be in the moment, a proven method of improving mood.

9) Showing up is the hardest part/work through the boredom and the pain.

Even though I love dance, there are days I want to blow it off. Too tired, too busy, too this, too that. And as much as I love it, boredom sneaks in—especially if I haven't changed things up enough. Plus, well, stuff starts to hurt as I grow older. But I work through it, usually, and it's always worth it. I'm never sorry I made it to class.

10) Your reach must exceed your grasp.

Much of the time, dance is about lengthening your muscles, extending the energy of a movement through your hands and fingertips or your feet right through your toes. To create the illusion of length, we are always reaching slightly farther than feels possible. The dancer and the dance looks more alive, thrilling, vibrant, kinetic. In life, as in dance, nothing is lost and everything is gained by this kind of striving.

11) Don't be afraid to fall, just a little bit.

Sometimes there are moves that involve some risk—perhaps a sudden step back, a crossover step, a turn, a leap. I sometimes wonder, will I fall on my face? Break a bone? These are calculated risks. But I know enough about my body now to know precisely what risks I can take. Just as in dance, in life, you are always weighing what benefit is gained from risk. Remember, chances are, you won't fall. Chances are, you will get through this. Chances are, you will learn this new dance.