What dance taught me about life

The mentality that keeps me going

Bokeh header image

First, let me tell you about dance.

I train for dance competitions six days a week — you can say I’m pretty serious about dancing. I started competing a few years ago, at the “newcomer” level, which was designed for those with absolutely no experience. My goal then was to past the “syllabus” levels of bronze, silver, and gold, into the “open” levels, which is where the dancing really starts.

I also had a timeline of merely three years.

Actually, getting into open was not just any goal, it was my ultimate goal. It was supposed to be unrealistic and a bit unattainable.

At that time, even a silver dancer looked beautiful, and impossible. Learning the technique all the way through the levels of bronze, silver, and gold seemed like a steep hill to climb, and I often questioned if I could really get there before the time was up.

Today, several years since I started, I am far beyond where I aimed to be. And over time I’ve come to realize some things about achievement — big ideas that have shaped the way that I’ve gotten to where I am now and that will help me push my way into higher ground.


Things in life are journeys, not races.

Over the years, I kept making discoveries in my body that were irrelevant to the things that my coaches would be working on with me at the time. Maybe I’d be working on the technique for turning when I would discover that my legs could suddenly achieve a new movement that allowed for better balance. And then I would question, why did nobody tell me about this in the first place? Later I realized, people did tell me exactly what I discovered, but my body hadn’t understood it itself, and wouldn’t have been able to understand without being exposed to other challenges of movement and technique through the course of time.

Dance is a journey, not a race. And that goes for a lot of other things in life as well. There may not be much change from today to yesterday, but look back a week, a month, a year, or more, and progress is undeniably there.

Remember the time when we were small, and the idea of growing to be as tall and independent as our older siblings or parents seemed so out of reach? At that age it was something we could not fathom, something we could never see ourselves being. Then, day by day, time passed, we aged and matured, and before we knew it, we are looking back asking where our childhood went.

We may not feel any difference day-to-day. We might feel like today was a step back from yesterday. But when we know the direction we’re going, we can just keep going towards it, and eventually we’ll have made it past the milestones we couldn’t even see.

I’ve always been a bit crazy about not leaving things unfinished. If I have a big task, I will sit down and crank it all out before I move onto the next thing. Maybe I want to learn a new language on Duolingo — I’ll think, let me just spend this weekend going through an entire course. Dance has helped me understand that it’s not only okay to leave something unfinished and come back to it consistently, it’s sometimes necessary and better. I’ve come to see that our bodies and minds don’t work the cramming way. They need ripening time, incubation time. They need time to adjust to and process the new information. Instead of racing to the finish line, I’ll let things slowly build. That way, what’s accomplished is so much more permanent — not some ephemeral once-and-never-again achievement, but actual growth and improvement.

Building going into the sky

Lofty goals are not that lofty.

I once was in a workshop with the world champion of ballroom dancing, and she told us the story of her first time making the final at Blackpool (which, for those of you unfamiliar with ballroom, is the essentially the world championships). She talked about the surprise, the delight, the unexpectedness of making that final. Today she is the world champion, the first place winner. As impossible as the final looked then, she reached that goal, and surpassed it. Her goal wasn’t impossible at all.

Go to a beach and look to the horizon. We see only as far as the horizon, and so our goals beyond the horizon seem impossible. Sometimes, the impossibility deters us from continuing our pursuit. With effort, determination, and discipline, we can make it to what is the horizon in the beginning, so that what’s beyond comes into sight.

Before I started college, I had three life goals for myself. And these were not the typical life goals of getting married, buying a house, etc., they were goals having to do with my passions. One of them I achieved just a year into college, one I did before graduating, and the last one remains unfulfilled. It seemed so out of reach that I gave up. I said to myself, two out of three is enough. I didn’t see a clear path to my third goal so I erased it from my mind. Then recently, I brought it back. I realized that because of the way that I was able to reach my lofty goals in dancing, that if I just continue to work towards this third life goal, I just might reach it, and surpass it.

When it comes to things to want to achieve, we can be more capable than we give ourselves the credit to be.

Stop sign painted in the street

Naysayers are often wrong.

One of the most common negative comments about my being a dancer are the lateness I started (I’m not one of those kids who trained since four years old). I’m not the only one who receives these comments: one of the retired ballroom instructors in the city started late in his teenage years. He ended up winning one of the categories at Blackpool. His dance career was met with lots of judgment and cynicism, but he was determined; he stomped his feet one day (or so I heard) and he showed everyone around him that he could.

I recently watched a middle aged woman tell her story about her younger days. She was pregnant in college, and after graduation, she traveled to California with her son and $700. Everybody around her told her she was crazy and wouldn’t make it, especially not with her son. It’s been more than twenty years since then, and she is still full of vivacity, going strong at life. The naysayers were wrong.

People like to tell us things are not possible, because they’ve failed before, or because they were too afraid to fully try. We can all be pioneers of our own things; never did failures mean the impossibility of success. Plus, people all over the world are constantly setting new records, whether it’s at the Olympics, in The Guinness Book, or just in their own minds.

Three windows

I remind myself of these three things when I am thinking about my progress in my life and career, or when I feel like I am not improving in dance and other skills. On days where all progress seems to have gone backwards, these ideas help prevent despair, to keep us going, to not let a little setback get in the way. And thinking about life ahead of us, it helps to remind ourselves of these ideas as well — the ideas of setting long, distant goals, taking life steadily, and tuning out the naysayers. They contribute to a mentality that takes us where we want to be, making life much more fulfilling, every step of the way.

/ Zhuoshi Xie

Josie is a standard dancer. She competes locally and internationally, and teaches in New York City. Get in touch via email. (click to copy)