First class at 5. Social dancing fairly regularly starting around 10. First points at 12. Now, at 17, completely in love.
If you’re like me and started west coast swing early, there’s a good chance you’ve got the dance bug; if you do, chances are you’re enjoying yourself immensely. Finding west coast swing early is usually a huge a blessing. There are wonderful benefits: you have a social, physical, and artistic outlet from basically the get-go of life. You develop relationships with people whom you would never have met. You have something to go to when other things in life give you trouble. Also, if you start young, you probably have the bonus of getting pretty darn good at dancing.
Alternatively, there are challenges and difficulties that come with this gift. Being a young dancer makes you unique, and like many forms of being ‘special,’ this brings about complications. Over the course of my journey as a dancer, I have noticed one trend that strikes me as particularly dangerous. People see junior dancers in a different way: as more exceptional. A certain level of dancing at 15 years old is seen as better than the same level of dancing at 18 or 20. The age separation is very small, but the reactions that people of these two age groups get are miles apart. I have received praise that is completely age-based many times, and have seen the same thing happen to other juniors. It makes me feel supported to be recognized for my accomplishments. Too often, though, it feels like people are applauding me for my age itself. I believe this specific kind of praise can be unhealthy.
Here’s why. The attention we receive fades. We grow up being showered with praise for our ‘talent,’ but since this applause is more a reaction to our age than to our dancing, we lose our wow factor with every year that passes. Meanwhile, we have come to see our age as something that makes us special, and our specialness as the thing that makes us valuable. Losing this means losing part of our sense of self. I consider myself a “recovering junior”: over the years, I have unwittingly made parts of my self-image dependent on other people applauding me. Now, I have to wean myself off of the compliments.
Once you have developed this identity as the ‘young dancer,’ the struggle to preserve it is stressful. There is a constant pressure to continue to be impressive for your age. For me, this translates into the feeling that if I do not become a champion right when I turn 18, I will in some way be a failure. In addition, the feeling of having a special status creates an undercurrent of competition when you come into contact with other juniors. If you come to believe that the younger you are the more impressive you are, then a younger dancer with similar or stronger skills disrupts your identity. Who are you, if they are the child prodigy? This is certainly not the kind of thing you want influencing your relationships with your friends.
Navigating the west coast swing world as a junior can be quite difficult. It is important to remember, though, that people are here to help. We have such a loving community to support each and every one of us. Not to mention, lots of the top-tier champions were in this same position growing up! If I have learned one thing from being a junior in west coast swing, it is–and please don’t mind the cheese–to stay true to yourself. At the end of the day, other people’s reactions to you are just that–other people’s own reactions. The only things that really matter are the things you decide on: your goals, your purpose, your relationship with yourself. And in the end, we can all remember and enjoy what west coast swing dancing is about: fun, growth, and love.