Holding it together in dancing competitions

I am bad at ballroom dancing competitions. This isn’t faux humility. I literally forget the steps. Steps I’ve done hundreds of times before. Steps I could do in my sleep. This doesn’t happen at social dances, or in lessons. I reckon I’d stand a fair chance if I could just hold it together. But put me on a large floor, with a dozen competitors and judges, and everything goes to shit. I’ve never got through a heat, let alone made a final.

Every time it happens I think I can brute force my way through it. Practice harder. Go over the routines more. Understand the steps and how they flow into each other. Nothing has helped. Whatever I do, I blank. At some point I finish a step and can’t remember what comes next. Cue much feeling sorry for myself, I should quit and find a hobby I’m good at, what’s the point of dogged determination if you’re just banging your head into a brick wall, yada yada yada.

Then. Then this last Friday I finally got a tiny glimpse into what’s going wrong.

I was in Blackpool, at the Empress Ballroom. It’s well glam. 120 years old, gleaming golden balconies, enormous sprung dancefloor, 12 crystal chandeliers – it’s everything you could want a dance venue to be. I was due to dance in the ProAm competition – where an Amateur dances with their Professional teacher – and I really, really didn’t want to screw it up. Nonetheless, I did. But in a better way than before!

Big difference: the competition started at lunchtime, which was unusual. Most start first thing. But that’s good, because you can arrive early and practice. So I got all suited up, and started stepping through the routine on my own. It was hectic. Couples were hurtling past me at great speed. I was worried about getting in someone’s way. I could feel people watching me. But it was necessary: I was making sure I knew how my normal dance routine worked on a bigger floor.

I had a theory that this was my problem. You learn a routine in a dance studio and you unconsciously orient yourself by the landmarks of the room. You do this step at this corner, at which point you start heading towards that mirror. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, I’m unable to adapt on the fly. I just needed to practice on the bigger floor itself.

Ok. Great. So I’m stepping through the routine, and, without warning, I completely blank. This is unexpected. I shouldn’t be blanking at this point. I’m not with my teacher, I’m not actually competing – I’m just practicing. I have time to work things out. This is the easy bit. Yet, here I am. After a few seconds of cluelessness I step off the floor and just stand there, trying to work out what’s going on.

It’s bloody weird. It’s not panic. I feel pretty calm. It’s more like fight-or-flight. I know what I want to do. But I just can’t think. The next step won’t come into my brain. I try to work backwards, and find I can’t even remember the preceding steps I did do correctly.

Interesting.

I stand there for maybe a minute. It feels like forever. I try to kickstart my brain with the usual tricks: come on, pull yourself together; you’ve done this hundreds of times; you can do it. But it doesn’t work – I get nothing in return. So I wait. And, eventually, thoughts happen. I remember the next step. I remember what came before. I step onto the floor and continue. The thoughts come more easily now. I loop the routine a few times, and I hit a couple of mental blocks, but this time only for a second or two – and they get better with each loop.

I try a different dance (I’ll be doing 5), and exactly the same thing happens – I blank, step off the floor, and wait till my brain finishes whatever the hell it’s doing. Then it’s better. Not entirely better, but a lot.

Is this choking? Stage fright? I don’t know. But making myself go through it seems to help. If I can do it pre-competition, great! But the key question is: will this make any difference under the pressure of the competition itself?

Answer: yes! A couple of hours later it was finally time for my round, and I found it much easier. I had a couple of scary moments, but the next step always came into my head in time. Result! However, it turned out not to count for anything. There were only three couples in my heat, so we were told to consider it a warm-up round. The final would be three hours later.

I screwed up the final. I went wrong on the goddamn second step, because like a fuckwit I was thinking about an upcoming move instead of concentrating on what I was doing. And at this point I fell to pieces. I couldn’t get myself back on track, kept trying to fix things in dumb ways, and generally made a fool of myself in front of judges who used to be on Strictly. FFS. Cue two days of self-flagellation. BUT! I didn’t just forget everything. It was a different fuckup. This is progress.

So I reckon I have two problems (once I start concentrating properly, anyway):

  1. Blanking. God only knows what’s happening here, or why, but practicing on the actual floor beforehand seems to help.
  2. Not losing my mind when I make a mistake. I don’t know what to do about this one yet. But I can work on it!

Ironically, I won a giant trophy. Third place = trophy. Basically I bought a trophy. I have a few trophies like that. One day I’ll earn one!