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July 21, 2010

Filed under: music»performance»dance

B-Boy Year One: Top Rock

Part of a series looking back on my first year of breakdancing.

I competed in forensics--college-level public speaking competitions--for two years. It was a tremendous influence on my life. I learned a great deal about writing, about working with other people, and about confidence. But one of the best lessons I learned from it came from failure at a national tournament.

At GMU, where I competed, the team was fiercely competitive--to an unhealthy degree, in my opinion. Reach the national finals, and you got your name on the team room wall, which was basically the highest honor they offered. I was eliminated at the semi-finals my second year year at nationals, but I went to watch the final rounds, and I was struck by something: yes, most of the finalists were better than I was, but the gap was not tremendous. To reach their level, I probably would have to spend another two years polishing my skills and adapting to some of the community's odd, inbred speaking tics--two years spent on diminishing returns, at the expense of pretty much everything else in my life.

What, I asked myself, was I really hoping to accomplish? Was I here for a handful of plastic stick-on letters in a GMU office building, or did I want to learn about rhetoric? There were other reasons that I left the team--a bad relationship with a teammate, wanting to branch out into other parts of the college experience, the desire to sleep in past 5 AM on the weekends--but that moment was key. That was when I realized that you can choose what to get out of an experience, and that those lessons could be very different from the intended deliverables.

I mention this, not just because I'm a former speech geek who sees most experiences through the lens of three-point structure, but because that realization has been a big part of my perspective on breaking. At 27, I was older than most beginners, and there are portions of the dance's daredevil side that I'll probably never master. As such, I'll almost certainly never win a battle. But that doesn't mean someone like me can't learn a lot from b-boying, even while acknowledging that the dance's competitive spirit is a driving force behind its development. So when making a list of what I've learned, I want to avoid simply listing off a set of moves and freezes, or complaining about all the things I'm still very bad at, and discuss the less obvious, personal lessons instead.

  • I've learned that we're not frozen in carbonite after college. For American white, middle-class culture, it's often said that college is a time to "find yourself." After your student years, you're thrown into the workplace, which comes with certain expectations about socializing and identity: get to know your coworkers, because they're going to be your best friends, etc. From that point on, it's supposed to be an evolution, not a revolution.

    But you know what? It turns out that this doesn't have to be the case. There's no reason that your self-image has to be set in stone, or that you can't go out and meet new people and do new things. Perhaps this is obvious, but to me it was refreshing. As someone who has always hated the idea of "finding one's self" anyway, I've loved how b-boying has grabbed my life by the corners and shaken it a little.

  • Dare to be stupid. I had never really danced before last year. It's not something my family did, and I always considered myself someone who makes music for other people to dance to. So I kind of looked like an idiot when I first started. In fact, I probably kind of look like an idiot still. At first, I felt self-conscious, but now I've learned to roll with it.

    Life's too short to take myself seriously. Besides, I'm a gamer as well as a musician. I regularly position myself in front of a television and A) twitch a lot, B) play pretend instruments with other people, C) stomp on a mat in time with music, or D) all of the above. Looking stupid can be a lot of fun. Worrying about embarrassment, not so much.

  • Learning anything is like learning everything. Dancing brought into focus something that I have suspected for a while: being a good student isn't just a matter of studying long hours. It's a question of how you learn, and those lessons can be generalized across all kinds of tasks. Breaking down a new skill into its component parts, practicing them (effectively), and then integrating them back into the whole is the same process whether you're learning an instrument, a new language, or a dance form.

    This is no small amount of what good teachers pass on to their students, whether in higher education or at a studio. It's what autodidacts often lack: the ability to prioritize and discriminate how they learn, and to acquire knowledge systematically (the same is true of conspiracy theorists, not coincidentally). The self-taught learners I know tend to suffer from this: they spend a lot of time running down dark alleys and backtracking, because they never learned how to learn. Every time I go back to the classroom, I learn a little bit about the metacognitive process, and breaking has been no different.

But maybe most of all, b-boying has reminded me that there are no shortcuts to self-improvement. When I find myself faced with a new task, I'm always tempted to look for a trick, some quick fix that'll let me master it. I think that mentality served me well early in life, and it became a bad habit. There are good and bad methods for learning, but the real improvement in my dancing (and elsewhere) has come when I stopped spending my time looking for shortcuts, and took the hard way instead. I have a lot of work to go. I'd better get back to practicing.

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