7 Things Dancing Has Thaught Me About Writing

7 things dancing has taught me about writingLet’s get it out of the way: I’ll never be a professional, or even semi-professional dancer. I’m not even close to being one. I’m a clutz, trip over my own legs, and doing repetitious spins brings my stomach to its limits. And when I dance, I probably look like someone having a severe attack of jitters.

But I love dancing, and when it comes to physical activities, it’s one of my favorites (along with hiking and swimming). And, as surprising as it may be, dancing taught me a lot about writing and about myself.

Irish Dancing: A Good Teacher is Everything

I started dancing in my late teens or maybe in early twenties. Back then, Irish dances were becoming popular in Poland, and living in one of the larger cities meant I had access to the classes, mostly ran by women at my age or slightly older who traveled to the other countries to learn Irish dancing.

My knees quickly made it clear I can only do so much before taking a break, so at some point I’d given up, but one particular class stayed in my memory. I was practicing a step (it was one of the basic ones, I remember it even today), and the teacher told me, “Stop bouncing, you need to stay leveled.” I had no idea what she meant, and even her demonstration of how to do it couldn’t help me to see what was wrong, and the teacher gave up on me. Only after years, and other dances’ teachers who were actually interested in passing their knowledge, I finally understood what the “bouncing” meant: it wasn’t about my steps, it was about keeping my shoulders at the same height all the time.

It’s the same with writing: if you work with an editor or beta-reader who can’t explain things the way you understand them or aren’t patient enough to wait for your self-discovery (assuming it’s not going to take as long as mine did), they might not be a good fit for you. They might be perfect writers or editors, might be perfect teachers—but you need someone else. Being stuck with a person who can’t help you grow will do you no good.

Breton Dancing: You’ll Feel the Rhythm

Breton Dancing were the idea of my boyfriend at the time. Again, the large city’s benefit, we had a House of Bretanny, an organization dedicated to spreading Breton culture (but also French in general), and the region’s dances as well. Traditionally danced in villages of Bretanny, they provided a unique experience of dancing together: most of the dances required a circle of people and holding very tight to each other, and the repetitiveness of the steps created trance-like experience and unity with other dancers.

Each of the Breton melodies would contain a long intro that, as we were told, was meant to give people time to gather and prepare. Our teacher would listen to the melody and then tell us what dance we would be dancing. We asked many times how did he know, because nothing in the melody indicated it, and he said it’s not something you can learn, that people from Bretanny “just feel it and know it”.

Many lessons and “fest noz” event (Breton dance parties) later, I understood what he meant, when I also started recognizing which dance would it be.

And in writing it’s the same: you might devour all the books on the craft there are, you might know every single writing technique, but if you don’t “feel” it, you’ll struggle. There’s more to writing than just rules and templates.

Flamenco Dancing: Getting Somewhere Worthwhile Takes Time and Practice

My next dancing class was flamenco which I fell in love with after taking a leap and signing for a weak-long workshop during Dancing Poznań, an annual event meant more for professional dancers and allowing them to discover new styles, but open to anyone who is willing to try. After the workshops I found a regular class and quickly I faced a wall of mirrors in the studio. A great thing for a dancer to correct her moves, but not so great for an awkward Melfka…

I remember clearly, the first weeks I stared at myself in the mirror with a close-to-disgusted thought of “I look horrible and I move horrible.” Several months later, when I glanced into the mirror (and I did avoid it by all means possible, even though they covered the whole wall in front of me), I had another thought. “When I dance I don’t look that bad after all.” Nearly a year after that, even though I still lost my pacing sometimes, my teacher complemented me on being able to get back right into the choreography no matter when I got lost (my secret was, I listened to the music instead of counting my steps, but that’s another story), and when I looked in the mirror, I thought, “Hey, I’m quite good at this!” Of course, almost everyone around me was doing better, but who cares?

And even though one might see it as a story of building self-confidence and learning to accept oneself, it’s also a lesson for writing: I didn’t get “good enough” overnight, I worked hard the whole year to make it happen, and the same goes with being a writer. Becoming good overnight is a fairy tale. There’s no shortcut to writerdom, but I’ve already wrote about it once.

Flamenco Dancing (again): Without Structure There’s No Progress

When I moved over to Dublin, I missed dancing, so I was delighted to find a flamenco class. It required me to spend 45 minutes on the tram, then walk for another 20, but it was worth it. Or so I thought.

The class was supposed to be a choreography with life music and with usage of fans. But the problem was, the musician was often late, and the teacher regularly would cancel the class or send replacement—another flamenco teacher who wasn’t bad, but didn’t know the choreography we were supposed to practice. So, instead we practiced unrelated routines, rehashed other choreography from non-obligatory workshops (a lot of “fun” for people who didn’t attend them), and did other random things.

As a result, if you ask me to show something from flamenco dancing, I’m more likely to demonstrate what I’ve learned in Poland (bits of which I still remember after over 10 years since my class finished), than what I’ve learned later in Ireland. But hey, I do know how to open and close my fan with one hand, in one swift move!

I think in this case the writing analogy is quite clear. If you don’t study and practice your craft regularly, if you jump from genre to genre or abandon projects in favor of new ones on a whim, you’re not going to learn much and you’re not likely to grow as a writer.

Belly Dancing: Work Hard, but Enjoy

After flamenco failure, I searched for something else and my friend pointed me toward belly dance. It was a whole new challenge of making my body flexible in the way I never considered possible and learning how to “isolate” my moves: keep the body in a posture while only one part of it moved. I was sore after many of the classes, because the teacher didn’t go easy on us, but all I remember from them was immense fun. And even though I liked flamenco as a style more than belly dance, the classes, their structure and atmosphere made me become fascinated with the style and motivated me to practice.

So even when writing is a hard work (we can collectively groan at editing, revising, and countless rewrites), it still needs to have some “fun” factor to it, the joy of putting the words together, of making them better, or a simple satisfaction that comes with reaching a goal. Without it, the writing will be like my Dublin flamenco classes: a depressing tiresome chore.

American Tribal Style: Face Your Fears

American Tribal Style takes from many styles, belly dance, flamenco, tribal dances… It’s most significant feature is improvisation. There’s no set choreography, and the dancers learn only single moves. During dancing together, they look for cues on what the next move might be, and adjust their own moves to match it. Because of that, when the group dances, it almost looks like a choreography, though it’s not impossible to catch glances the dancers exchange or occasional delay in someone’s move.

To me, ATS was in a way an ultimate challenge, stripping me of the only aspect of dancing I was good at: my ability to remember the choreography and never get lost. Of course, I struggled, and my technique had never gotten very good, but I wasn’t about to let my fear stop me from trying.

And it’s the same in writing: I was anxious to start writing in English, to write a full-length novel, to submit my stories… The list could go on. But if I could go to a class, stand in front of the mirror, and look at my clumsy moves, I could write. And so I did. Even if it’s not always perfect.

All the Dancing: Understand Your Limits

As I said in the beginning, I’m never going to be a real dancer. I don’t have the talent, the dedication (I’d much rather sit at home and write than practice my choreography, so…), and the physical abilities. I won’t perform during shows or make money dancing, but it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it as much as the professional dancers who taught me. I went to the classes not with the dreams of grandeur or ambition to perform one day. I went there to enjoy the movement, the connection with other dancers, and for the satisfaction of overcoming my weaknesses.

The same goes for writing: I might never become a published writer, making living from the worlds I create, but since I enjoy doing it, there’s no reason to stop.

7 things dancing has taught me about writing

So, how about you? Did some other artistic activity give you insights into writing or a creative process? Or do you simply enjoy dancing, playing an instrument, or painting as a side activity to your passion?

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Laura Roberts

    I love this post! I don’t know much about dancing, as I tend not to dance except in the privacy of my own home, but I do love the connections you’ve made between writing and dancing. You definitely have to be flexible, and try new things, but also keep practicing your craft — no matter what it is. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. 🙂

    1. melfka

      Thank you, Laura! I prefer the privacy of my own home too, when it comes to leisure dancing, but I found the classes fun and purposeful (well, most of them… 😉 ), so I stuck around.

  2. J.R.Bee

    I get that with teachers, my math teacher only knew one way to teach, I didn’t get it, so I got left behind. It’s amazing what you can learn about yourself through seemingly irrelevant things though, aint it?

    1. melfka

      Indeed. Everything can be learning, no matter what one does.

  3. saraletourneau

    This was fascinating, Joanna. I took several years of dance lessons (ballet, jazz, hip hop), and it definitely had an effect on my work ethic for writing and beyond. Patience, perseverance, the importance of practice (which ties in the first two qualities as well), enjoying yourself while working hard – they’re all things you touched on, and all things that make a difference in a writer’s craft.

    1. melfka

      Thank you for your comment, Sara :). Glad to see you’re a fellow “dancer” (forgive the quotes, but I’m hardly a one). Funny enough, I’ve never transferred my dancing experience into a story or a character. Have you?

      1. saraletourneau

        I was going to say “no,” but now that I think about it… During college, I wrote a (non-fantasy) short story about a college freshman who auditions a piece she choreographed herself for the school’s annual dance show. The story was rejected (in hindsight, it needed more work), but it was neat to write about an activity I knew first-hand, and something that was similar to my own experience.

        That being said, I wouldn’t rule out writing about dancers or incorporating a well-placed dance scene in future stories. 😉

        1. melfka

          Same here, I always tell myself one day I will write about a dancer. 🙂

  4. portiabridget

    I can dance, no problem. I use one set of steps for every music style possible – it might be not exactly right but it is fun ;p. If somebody doesn’t like it not my problem, they might always turn round and look the other way ;D.Opening your fan with one hand and moving your belly button around…what lovely skills! Still I’d rather go running or swimming instead.

    1. melfka

      I like swimming, but didn’t have many opportunities ever since I moved out of Poland, and running is not my thing, so I had to find something to keep me moving ;). When I stopped dancing, I started growing “round” ;).

      1. portiabridget

        I have had problems with swimming as well – I am rather fastidious when it comes to water purity and overall hygiene standards. Apart from that it’s very easy to catch a cold when you are in a hurry and your head is wet. Running can make you immune to cold on the other hand. And it’s cheaper.

        1. melfka

          I have similar problems with swimming (pools in Ireland are few, and mostly small and dirty, and the windy weather is a sinus death if you don’t dry your hair properly).
          But I still don’t like running :P. I guess it means an elliptical and crunches for me.

  5. sjhigbee

    I LOVE dancing, and cannot keep still when there is music playing. And that Breton dancing is fabulous – the music has the hairs standing on the nape of my neck! I cannot get over the resemblence to our Scottish bagpipes:). I’ve now started Fitstep, which is a series of fitness steps using the rhythms and music of various dances such as walz, samba, rumba, cha cha, etc and I’m having SUCH a blast. I very much concur with your comparisons with writing, though. It takes patience, passion and practice to become a good writer – very much the same as being a dancer.

    1. melfka

      Oh the music is very mesmerising, and I can tell you that along with the dance itself, it can create a near trance-like experience. And a feeling that you’re not a person anymore, but a part of a circle, of a community.
      The instrument you hear is “bombard”, I was told it takes a lot of “lung strength” to play it. If you want to try more of the Breton music, I’d recommend Hastan (for traditional feel) and Guichen Quartet (for a bit more modern and ear-pleasing interpretations).
      I’m glad you’re having fun with Fitstep :). I haven’t been dancing for a while now, I guess I should fix it. 😉

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