Flexible Doesn't Mean Sloppy
Richard Powers

Some of my students were raised in a relatively strict tradition where there is only one correct way to do anything.  Therefore their first reaction to the flexibility of social dancing is that it feels sloppy or incorrect.  Or they may get the idea that, "there is no correct way to dance."

Compare these two statements:
                        "There's no right way to dance."
                     "There's no one right way to dance."

These two statements, differentiated by a single word, are almost the opposite of the other.  The second one is saying, "There are many right ways to dance."

And about that first statement, I'd like to clarify that there are definitely correct ways to approach social dancing, and they involve precise skills.  Flexible doesn't mean sloppy.  For instance, partnering techniques are quite specific, and are constantly fine-tuned.  The ability to adapt to a changing situation is a skill, one that will save you many times throughout your life, beyond dancing.

One student at the Poconos Waltz Weekend, a middle-aged German woman, was raised in a strict one-way-only tradition, and at first she had difficulty with the overlap of two kinds of flexibility.  She was hearing that (1) there is more than one correct way to do a dance form, and that (2) each partner is a bit different from other partners.  When these two variables combined, it seemed like chaos to her, and she was uncomfortable with this at first.

She preferred to have a teacher who told her that there was only one correct version of each social dance (which simply isn't true, sorry).  And she wanted the teacher to work on the men until each of them danced exactly alike, so she wouldn't have to adapt to differences from one partner to the next. (And that's never going to happen either.)

But as the weekend progressed, she warmed up to both kinds of flexibility.   And she came back to the following year's Poconos Waltz Weekend, then to the third, and the fourth.  From her initial negative reaction, the combination of these two kinds of flexibility has become her favorite part of social dancing.

Similarly, when I read student essays, I find that the students who are most enthusiastic about this flexibly adaptive approach to life are the ones who came from the opposite tradition, initially expecting there to be only one correct answer for anything.  They had the larger revelation, and they loved it.  Those who had been adapting to alternative paths all of their lives merely saw this as a continuation of their common sense.

The bottom line is that whether your initial response to flexible adaptation is warm or cold, it's a fact of life, in a world that is changing faster than ever before.  And many of my students have told me that these instant-adaptation skills, that they learned in social dance class, not only made them better dancers, but also helped them in their careers.

I want to clarify that my discussion of flexible adaptation is not because I have a personal affinity for alternate paths.  I'm quite grounded and pragmatic, with a Stanford degree in engineering.  What I'm saying is that when you correctly and realistically analyze the dynamics of social dance, you quickly ascertain that (1) after many decades of evolution, there are now many different ways to do any given social dance form, not just one.  Each style is good in its own way.  And (2) each of your partners is different, of course, and you must adapt to their differences.  It's the true nature of the situation.  Whether your personal preference is strictly rule-based or highly creative, either way, social dance situations are in constant flux.  So is life.

Adapting to changing situations also keeps us engaged in the present moment and more alive.

And we learn more.

And we become a friendlier and more skilled dance partner.

It's not sloppy.

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