As a professional ballroom dancer I have the luxury of meeting all kinds of interesting people through my line of work. Dancing isn’t cheap — at least if you want to have private attention, that is — and so naturally the people who continue with you are successful and able to maintain that level of investment in their lives whether it’s as casual as coming in to salsa dance once a week or training every day to be the next Pro-Am champion at a national competition.
Either way, you are always surrounded by really interesting people that are usually up to a lot. Life is never short of lessons on the dance floor.
I’ve taught Fortune 500 CEO’s, doctors, dentists, you name it. People who own their own businesses, artists, mothers, married couples and about-to-be-married couples. All walks of life each with their own story — and while each of those types of lessons surprised me the first time I had them, one thing that never seems to lose its charm are how many students I’ve had that live a world away yet still come back to dance year after year.
Enter my Canadian friend, Carrie.
I’ve taught Carrie going on her third year now and she lives way up north from me (I’m in Arizona) in a beautiful small town named Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. She comes down every spring for about two months and during those two months I see her almost every day where we sway our hips to some of J-Lo’s Let’s Get Loud or waltz around the floor gracefully to Come Away With Me.
She’s an amazing woman, and while all my students are superstars — occasionally I get to take a break from my teaching role and learn a thing or two from them that’s really worth passing on.
A bit of context...
I admire Carrie — not because of her keeping that fire lit 10 months out of the year (there are no studios in her town in Ontario), but for her strength as a person and dedication as a mother to 4 very successful children. In all of our time spent together in those short couple of weeks every year I really got to know her and the character that has endured through the many, many challenges this woman has had in her life.
As a dance teacher you do a lot more than dancing with people — you really get to know them, their story, their struggles, their deepest hopes and dreams.
You are much more than someone that is showing them some choreography — you are a life coach, a clown, a marriage therapist, a friend, a motivator and, sometimes, a shoulder to cry on. We have many hats as any dance teacher will tell you, and the most rewarding ones to wear (at least to me) have little to no rhinestones on them.
That is, they have less to do with dancing and more to do with personal growth.
Looking back on my career I’ve taught over 10,000 lessons in the last decade or so of doing this professionally. As I move into the personal growth and transformation arena and finish out my competitive career, I realize that the moments I loved most about teaching weren’t when someone did a step more beautifully but when something inside transformed and changed that person anew — the look on their face when they conquered their first performance, or when they could do a “Rumba walk” without me holding their hand, or go through a full round of 5 Latin
Dances at a competition for their first time and begin to see a new future in their life where there previously wasn’t.
And while all these experiences have been very rewarding , it is easy to forget what it was like being a younger instructor with a lot more to learn. I believe it is good to maintain a practice of open-mindedness as we advance in skill — our ability to reconnect to the beginner’s path is absolutely essential as we journey into mastery, and if you want to grow as a teacher then you must always be able to relate to the person first starting.
We are never done learning and our students are also our greatest teachers (whether they agree to it or not) — so you never know what kind of lessons you will get when you show up to work on a particular day should you keep your eyes and ears open.
For Carrie and I that was the last day she was here before flying off to Canada for another year. Dancing was a precious repose for her and it was sad to know she couldn’t include it in her daily life back home, but we made the most of it and those experiences are always a great reminder of the ever-important principle of impermanence.
The most beautiful dance you’ll ever have exists but in that moment, so enjoy what is and continue into the next one as the music inevitably changes.
That afternoon we chatted in between dances about various things and somehow got on the topic of life lessons, my podcast and so on. Carrie spontaneously began to share with me some of her simple “rules of life” as they were and, suddenly feeling one of those moments that the Universe itself was talking to me through another person, I rushed over to grab a scratch piece of paper and began transcribing her parting wisdom with some really bad handwriting that I would only hope to God I could decipher later when I went to write and speak about it.
Thankfully I did decipher it, so without further ado, here are some great life lessons that I was privileged to learn from my Canadian friend, Carrie.
Lesson 1: Be your own parent.
“You’ve just got to be your own parent, ya know?” Carrie said in her endearing Canadian accent, enthused about the simplicity of the idea. She was right — once you grow up, who’s going to parent you? Who’s going to discipline you when you need disciplining, and who will reward you when you need to be rewarded? What if you need to be nurtured or comforted?
Being your own parent is about being accountable to yourself with the same level of love that your parent (hopefully) had for you. It is about self-love and Self-commitment. The capital on the latter means that you are committed to the best possible version of yourself just like your parent would be of you. They want the best for you, do you want the best for yourself? Can you trust yourself to be your own parent?
Lesson 2: You can have that, just later.
“If you happen to look at that cookie and you want to eat it, don’t try to fight all those thoughts in your mind that you shouldn’t eat it — just tell yourself you can have it, only a little bit later. Pretty soon you’ll get back to what you were doing and you’ll forget all about it!”
Another core principle for life — delaying your gratification. You have heard these things before but the beauty of these lessons, to me, is in their simplicity.
If you tell someone to “delay their gratification” it isn’t something that’s relatable. We don’t experience delayed gratification necessarily as easily as we experience “I can have it, just later.” One is a mental construct that takes work, the other is an experience we can all tap into.
This is a big one for dieting. Thankfully I’ve never had to diet because of the dancing, but I know from many years learning about nutrition and exercise that this is an effective principle. My nutrition coach would always tell me the secret to diets is not removal but replacement — when you cut things out that you love without finding suitable replacements it is only a matter of time before you cave.
Resistance never works long-term. If you tell yourself “I can’t have that”, then you are ruminating your energy on the idea you can’t have something. Fill the need, at least mentally, by accepting it and granting it presence, and then gently delay it to a later time. It will lose its power and in the process you will have developed a great habit for long-term success.
Lesson 3: Hit the board, not the bulls-eye.
I always would tell me students (even though I suck at golf) that changing weight was like a “hole in two” — first you get there about 80% of the way and then adjust accordingly. This principle holds true in many areas of life — especially those were perfectionism becomes an unproductive obsession.
Ultimately it is about acceptance. Carrie and I talked about how sometimes things are just “good enough” and that’s totally fine — life moves forward. It is, after all, a dance. I would often coach my competitive students on detachment from results — regardless of how stellar or horrible their performance was tomorrow was another day and it was done forever.
“Sometimes you’re going to hit that bulls-eye right smack on but you can’t worry about it if you don’t. Just keep shooting.”
Life is not about hitting the bulls-eye, it is about playing. You will have those moments that are few and far between that are perfect (or miserable), but the majority of your life is made up of those average ones. Try to get your average as high as possible and keep moving, keep playing, keep dancing your way through life.
Lesson 4: Say you won’t, do it anyway.
This one was the most interesting to me. We had been talking about my mom and her fitness journey in the last couple of months — I had posted a whole thing on social media about a project that spontaneously developed to transform her life (video below, never mind the outdated website and IG info) so many of my students would ask me for updates and how she was doing.
When we got on the topic of exercise and things that weren’t always what we wanted to do, Carrie excitedly shared with me this final nugget:
“You know, if you don’t want to go on that walk you just say to yourself, ‘I’m not goin’ on it’ and you go and put your shoes on and get your coat and the whole time just keep repeating to yourself, ‘I’m not goin’, and pretty soon as you start walking you’ll just forget all about it.”
It’s interesting to me because it is a lot like that famous emotion hack of forcing your face to smile even when you are pissed off. My mom would always give me an old Romanian saying when I told her that I wasn’t hungry for her cooking, “You appetite will come when you start eating.”
Our lives exist in action — what we do creates who we are, what we think and what we have. This is not a one way street, of course, and they all flow into one another, but the power in this principle lies as a tool to overcoming those situations where thinking and feelings have gotten the better of you.
Sometimes we need to think differently to change the actions, and sometimes we need to act to change our thinking. I love this life lesson because it speaks to not quitting and perseverance — two of the character traits I most admire in my Canadian friend as I’ve gotten to know her over the years. Her determination and wherewithal inspire me and remind me of how grateful I am to have such wonderful teachers in my life, as well as the platform to share these lessons with others through.
For a full episode about this experience, you can listen to it here.