Why I use Ballroom Dance as Cross Training

By Paul Haefner

I have been riding horses for over 47 years. They are my passion and driving force behind much of what I do, including the last 20+ years of my career as a sport psychologist. I have spent countless dollars on lessons and clinics and innumerable hours training and practicing technique. In addition, it is my business to help athletes and performing artists achieve their peak performance. I am an expert in performance psychology and techniques to help people skyrocket their performance. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered one of the most powerful experiential performance tools in a small inviting dance studio in Berryville, Virginia.

It started early this year with a Christmas gift of ballroom dance lessons to my wife of 30 years. We were warmly welcomed to our complimentary introductory lesson by our gracious and enthusiastic instructor. We talked about our love of dancing and our lack of any formal instruction. We told her what we thought we wanted: to learn east coast swing really, really well.

I am so glad she offered us more: Foxtrot, Waltz, Cha-Cha, Rumba, Bolero, Tango, East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, and so much more. 

Excellent Instruction: One of the performance enhancing delights was less in the dancing and more in the instruction. I was reminded again and again of the core of excellent teaching and coaching. Competence, respect, collaborative relationships, support, safety to explore and make mistakes, honesty, appropriate challenge, and a sense of humor. 

Throughout the process it was clear that our instructor cared about us and our learning. She was engaged. She challenged us appropriately. She provided immediate feedback and constructive corrections. As a whole, her style and competence as a teacher not only supported our learning but helped to create a flow experience where time is lost in the joy and challenge of the moment.

Another eye opener was the power and potential of partnership. When you have lived with the same person for 32 years there is a quiet almost imperceptible settling into patterns of interaction. You identify your role and your “lane”. While it is easy to envy a couple who moves through the world with graceful familiarity (we have been complemented often over the years on our “dancing), it is amazing how much more you are able to accomplish if you challenge and are challenged by your partner. As we tackled each new movement in each new dance style, there was a discovery and appreciation how much more we can bring to our partnership and how much more we can accomplish as a result.

Finally, its all about feel. The kind of feel I am talking about is all about awareness and connection. Ballroom dance brings with it an opportunity for a new level of awareness. One that has an intellectual component but is grounded in body awareness and other awareness. It has been an amazing classroom for developing an awareness and understanding of myself in space AND how my movements affect my partner. As the lead in ballroom dance, I have the responsibility for myself, balance and style.

I also have responsibility for where we are headed, what we are doing, and communicating that effectively to my partner. Every day on the dance floor is a reminder of this sacred responsibility and the challenge of cultivating that feel.

If you have ever been to a gym you have heard about the benefits of cross training. Engaging in different athletic activities improves your fitness and strengthens your body for your chosen pursuits. If you ride horses you will have been encouraged to do the same for you and your horse.  Playing in different riding disciplines will keep you and your horse fit and mentally engaged. If you are in a relationship, you know about mixing it up with date nights and keeping it fresh.

Whether you are wishing to advance in your career, grow in your personal relationship, boost your learning potential, or advance your horsemanship consider a trip to Social Graces Dance Studio in Berryville, VA. Tell them you are there for some ballroom dance cross training. You won’t regret it.