Dancing Through Impostor Syndrome

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In April 2022, I nervously walked into a local Arthur Murray studio to take dance lessons. My goal was simple: Even though I’ve never taken dance lessons, I wanted to get good enough to impress this cute guy I knew, a competitive ballroom dancer. I expected the process would take a few weeks, maybe 3-4 lessons.

Here it is, a year later. The cute guy floated away, but I’m still taking dance lessons. I had no idea how much fun I would have. But I admit, walking into that studio took a ton of courage!

Life begins at the end of our comfort zone. Stepping beyond the boundaries of familiarity and embracing the uncomfortable is a powerful transformative journey. We naturally crave security and stability, but we discover hidden reservoirs of inner strength and resilience by venturing into uncharted territories. Stepping outside our comfort zone causes personal growth, empowering us to unlock our full potential and cultivate unwavering self-assurance.

Yeah, yeah, blah blah blah. That all sounds so noble and inspiring. But the truth is, there’s a thief of confidence that haunts most people every time they edge close to the boundary of their comfort zone. It’s Impostor Syndrome, primarily evidenced in the “compare-and-despair” experience. We look around and see others who we assume are more talented, more sophisticated, more prepared, more something than we are. It’s disheartening.

I was self-aware enough when I started dance lessons to not compare myself to my instructors. I had never taken lessons, and my dance history was limited to clubbing with my college friends 35-40 years ago. At Arthur Murray, I was a total newbie. While I felt awkward initially, I knew to give myself some grace for my lack of experience. But more experienced performers struggle here.  In the arts world, performance is so visible. You can’t fake great talent or extensive experience. Yet so many talented performers and artists are still plagued with the chronic self-doubt of Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome is an internal belief that one’s achievements are merely the result of luck or deception rather than genuine talent or competence. Despite external evidence of their accomplishments, performers afflicted with this syndrome may undermine their abilities, attribute their success to external factors, and constantly fear being unmasked as a fraud.

Impostor syndrome is fueled by the industry’s highly competitive nature, relentless self-comparison, and the pressure to maintain a flawless image. And, because it’s so subjective, personal expression and vulnerability are often exposed and judged which heightens the fear of rejection. Talented people question their ability to deliver consistent performance; they doubt their technical skills or musical interpretation. Instructors feel pressure to deliver value to students while continuing to demonstrate superior ability themselves. This all leads to diminished confidence, stifled creativity and performance anxiety.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome is a deeply personal journey. There are strategies that performing arts participants can employ to mitigate its effects. Understanding the symptoms and sources of impostor syndrome helps. Next would be rethinking/reversing the thoughts that cultivate the experience so you can confidently move forward.

Finally, developing a truly accurate assessment of your skills and abilities, including your character traits, will serve you well. Knowing your “gifts and gaps” (i.e. where you excel, and where you may lack experience) will allow you to reframe negative self-perception. This requires not only self-compassion but a commitment to look at objective facts that are evidence of your ability and choosing to believe them. Even failures can be re-framed as learning opportunities instead of assaults on your dignity and character.

A year into my dance journey, I’m way better than I was a year ago. I have lingering weakness in my leg from an injury in my 20’s, so I know I’m never going to be as great a dancer as I’d like, and that’s ok. When I show up for my lessons and performances, I am excited to be part of a lovely community of wonderful people, thrilled to express my artistic side, happy to be moving after sitting all day at the computer and overjoyed with learning nuances of beautiful dances. Do I still feel the impostor syndrome? You bet I do. I still compare and despair. I still regret not starting lessons when I was younger. I still feel more like a duck and not a swan on the dance floor. But I quickly silence that pesky fraud voice and just have a great time. Life is too short to be shortchanged by fear.

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