So you’ve been dancing for a couple months, or a year, or two years. You’ve been having a good time. You’ve been making friends, getting compliments, learning tons in your classes, finding out about cool new music, and wowing your non-dance friends with your moves and knowledge of American cultural history. Then, one day, you’re waxing your single-speed bike or whatever, buying some new scarves—I don’t know—and it hits you: You’ve plateaued. All your hard work is meaningless. Life is over. You’re as good as you’re ever going to be. Happiness is a sham. You may as well sell your Aris Allens and use the money to help you make a down payment on a secret lair, because the life of a super-villain is all that’s left to you.
Well, good news, friends. Your old pal Alex is here to help you weather this extremely depressing storm. In today’s blog, I’m going to talk a little bit about what a plateau is, how to determine if you’ve hit one, and what you can do about it if you have. Exciting, no?
Before we begin, I’d like to mention that for the past few months I’ve been really focusing on my health and fitness. I’ve been eating differently and working out regularly. I’ve seen dramatic results, too. I’ve gone well below my original target weight, all of my pants are too big (which makes me proud and frustrated—proustrated), and I’m stronger than I’ve been in a long time, perhaps ever. The reason I mention this, other than for braggadocio which I think is a good enough reason, is that the main reason I’ve been able to do this is that I’ve been reading a website called Nerd Fitness and applying the knowledge I’ve gained therefrom. That website was also the inspiration for writing a blog about Lindy plateaus, as Steve Kamb (the main author) recently wrote about plateaus himself. Here’s the article. NOTE: I am not affiliated with these guys. As far as I know they don’t even know I exist. I just like their stuff a lot.
Now, since you can easily go and read his blog, I’m going to try to be brief when describing plateaus, and get straight to the dance-specific stuff, which I will spice up with references to Kindergarten Cop. Here we go!
A plateau is a phenomenon that occurs when hard work continues unabated, but progress stops. No matter how you try, you just can’t seem to get to the next stage. It’s frustrating, hard to overcome, and downright discouraging.
The plateau can strike in any field. If you’ve been strength training, you may hit a point where you used to be able to increase weight every week or so, but you notice that you’ve been stuck at the same weight for more than two weeks. If your goal is weight loss, you may get within five or ten pounds of your target weight and just not be able to get rid of that last little bit. And it’s not just in fitness, either. Plateaus are known to occur in any skill development process. Language learning, typing, programming, professional Starcraft competition, you name it. Nobody who wants to be good at something is safe from plateaus.
Basically, the long and short of it is that plateaus suck. It’s really disheartening to pour a lot of effort into something and not see results. The awful feeling of a plateau is a big reason why many people who are so drawn to something like Lindy Hop, and initially work really hard to get good at it, eventually drop it and move to something else.
Alright, now you’ve read up to here, you’re convinced you’ve hit a plateau, and you’re ready to start your very own pity party. Well sorry, but in addition to being your favorite [lindy hop] blogger [named Alex], I’m also the party pooper, and I’m here to tell you that you probably haven’t hit a plateau. Not the really tough kind, anyway. Sure, you may have stalled out, but let’s not cry “plateau” just yet.
Is Lindy Hop a priority to you?
If it’s not, congratulations! You’ve got the easiest problem to solve. If Lindy Hop isn’t a priority, of course it makes sense that your skill increases will eventually slow down. Psychologists call this the autonomous stage or the OK plateau. It’s the point at which you decide (consciously or not) that you’re as good as you want to be at something, and you switch to autopilot. That’s not the problem. The problem is that you feel bad about it! If you really want to be an expert, then don’t let yourself reach a point where you feel like you “made it.” Continue to engage in deliberate practice and you’ll continue to see improvement. If, on the other hand, you just want to go out and have fun and dance without investing a great deal of your time in improving, there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t owe it to anybody to try to gain mastery if that’s not what you want. You can feel a strong connection to the culture, have lots of friends, look up to Frankie, care lots about the dance, and never work on your technique. Frankie would just be happy that you’re dancing at all. I definitely am! Even if your friends feel differently and are working on their technique, you don’t have to feel bad that you aren’t. Stop apologizing and get back to what you like about Lindy Hop in the first place: having fun dances with your friends!
Have you really stopped improving?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that our brains hate us. They hate us and they want us to fail so they can feel smug. And they’re good at making us fail! One way they do this is by developing certain expectations about progress, and then getting all pissy when those expectations aren’t met. If you feel like you’ve plateaued, there’s a good chance that you are still improving, it’s just that the rate has slowed down from what you’re used to.
When someone has been around for a long enough time, they reach a point where they are unable to make the gigantic leaps they made in the beginning. Think about when you first started. There is a high likelihood that after your first lesson you went home, didn’t practice, but still showed up the next week better than you were at the end of that first class. It’s something that I see in my intro classes all the time. Now think about the last epiphany you had about movement or connection. What would happen if you didn’t practice applying your new insight? Nothing, that’s what. It’s a fact that it’s easier to see really dramatic improvement when you first start something, often with very little effort. As you delve deeper and deeper, the changes become smaller, and it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking that nothing is changing at all. Now, that’s not to say that you won’t experience major breakthroughs, but they are going to get further apart. Your learning experience is likely not going to be a straight line. It’s going to be more like a curve of diminishing returns, because that’s kind of what learning is.
Most of your improvement is going to happen on the road to intermediacy; after that it’s going to take more work for smaller gains. Try to be patient with yourself. Just knowing that it happens can help a lot, but it also helps to enjoy the process rather than look forward to the results.
But seriously, have you REALLY stopped improving?
In my five years of dancing I have noticed a peculiar phenomenon. I’ve noticed it mostly in myself of course, but I’ve heard other dancers mention it as well. Have you heard people say that it’s always darkest before the dawn? Obviously this is malarkey, as anyone who’s stayed up until sunrise at a dance event can attest; the sky gets gradually brighter in the hours leading to sunrise. BUT! With a little tweaking, we can use it to say something important about Lindy Hop. We often feel worst about our dancing when we’re on the verge of a major breakthrough. That’s because the most important step toward improving something is being able to feel when we’re getting it wrong. Knowing the theory isn’t enough, although that usually comes first. It’s not until we can really feel how we’re messing up that we can start to understand how to get it right. That’s why many teachers, including myself, tell their students to embrace the feeling of sucking. Sucking means progress. If you’re in this situation, hang in there, keep working. Ignore your stupid brain trying to tell you that you’re failing. You’ll come out stronger and more confident.
I mean it, you’re probably still improving. Come on. Just…okay?
One other particularly sneaky way that our brains eat away at our self-worth is that they often ignore encouraging data in favor of stuff that makes us want to quit. Your triple steps are smoother? Who cares! That guy who started with you won a thing. You feel like you’re getting better at dancing to the character of a song? Bullshit! Everyone’s talking about some dancer who started after you! Our jerk-face brains want us to ignore our own progress and focus on the much more dramatic and exciting progress of others. It’s important to try to ignore this stuff. I’m not saying that certain people might not be doing better than you are; I’m saying that everyone’s journey is different, and you should try not to let other people’s progress affect how you see yours.
Alright, you now know that improvement isn’t a moral imperative, that it slows as we get better, and that our stupid, asshole brains try to convince us that it’s not there at all, but you still think you’ve reached an honest-to-goodness plateau. Well, maybe this final point can convince you that you haven’t.
It’s time for some real talk. No more hiding behind the plateau. No more complaining. No more “Mr. Gaw, I have to go to the bathroom.” Nothing. There IS no bathroom!
Basically, I don’t think it’s possible to really plateau in Lindy Hop the same way you would with weight training or any other activity that was primarily physical. Learning Lindy Hop is much more like learning a language than it’s like weight training. Your muscles can adapt a lot, but there are limits to what our bodies are capable of. Lindy Hop, like language, has grammar, vocabulary, and is infinitely expressive. Ultimately, though, the only thing it’s really like is itself, because it’s a unique blend of different skills. There’s the fitness aspect of staying low, pulsing (mini-squats!), or moving very quickly to higher-tempo songs. There’s the physical skill aspect of staying over your center as you move, balancing the tension and relaxation of various muscles so you can easily transmit your movement to your partner, crazy footwork, isolation, and more. There’s the improvisational aspect of using the structures you know to create something new. There’s the musical aspect of trying to suit your improvisation to the rhythm, structure, tempo, and character (among other things) of a song. There’s the social aspect of using all of these other aspects to interact with another human being, influencing how they do it while letting them influence how you do it. I don’t think there is such a thing as a real plateau in Lindy Hop because there are always things to work on that offer opportunities for measurable improvement. All you have to do is switch up your routine.
- Do you feel like you’ve hit a wall in terms of vocabulary? Then screw vocabulary and work on your pulse.
- Feel like your pulse is where it needs to be? Work on playing with your partner more.
- Are you sufficiently charming and responsive? How’s your rhythm? Maybe it’s time to work on it.
- Got your rhythm going? Try being more relaxed in your lead and follow.
The cool thing about Lindy Hop is that you can never run out of things to work on and watch yourself grow. Even when you’ve worked on everything you can think of, by the time you finish that last thing you’ll probably see how one of the areas you already worked on could be even better. In our five years of dancing, neither Samantha nor I have once felt like we’ve reached a plateau, and it’s because of this awareness of the bigger picture. If you keep your eyes and your mind open, there’s nothing that can hold you back. Certainly not some stupid land formation.
Have you gotten past a plateau in your dancing? How did you do it? Are you at one now? Tell me what’s going on and maybe you can get some good advice from me or my other readers!
Much of my information about plateaus in language learning came from this article. Read it, it’s good.