Dance like everybody’s watching

Author and coach Jack Bowen discovers the beauty of taking risks within a framework of trust, even when everyone is watching.

How do you make better athletes and better people at the same time? That’s a question Santa Clara’s Institute of Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE) regularly tries to tackle. One way ISLE does that is through commentary on ethical and legal issues in sports by authors including Jack Bowen, a best-selling writer and member of the ISLE advisory board who teaches philosophy and coaches water polo at the Menlo School, a college preparatory school in Menlo Park, Calif. Read pieces from Bowen and others on the ISLE blog—including this post, which first appeared there on March 13, 2014.


This week I’m going to attend our school’s annual Dance Performance Concert. If it’s anything like the past 13 years, it will yet again inspire like no other event I attend at our exceptionally inspiring school. I’d like to share what will be happening on that stage. I recognize that [the ISLE blog] focuses on youth sports and the values within. So, while a focus on dance may seem to diverge from that, I think you will not only find great similarities but will also realize there’s something for sport enthusiasts to learn from such an exposé, not to mention the framework of values that transcends both disciplines.

There’s a sort of je ne sais quoi I find compelling about the Dance Concert. Though, in my years spent thinking about it, I’ve discovered part of the quoi. It’s not just the aesthetic appeal. While some legitimately excellent dancers attend our school, the inspiration of this event lies much deeper than the face value of what’s happening on stage, much like sport.

Athletes and dancers share in the possibilities for richness and inspiration available to all.

To dance well is to go for it. To really put yourself out there. It’s often clear from the choreography and technical aspects of the performance that the dancers have devoted countless hours to what they’re doing. But there’s something much more profound going on: something I attribute in large part to the culture created by the dance instructors (i.e., coaches).

Educators understand how self-conscious, hypercritical, and judgmental adolescents can be. Somehow, these vices seem to melt away in the dance room. I took my 3-year-old to a rehearsal last week. Like any sports practice, there’s an intense focus on fundamentals. At one point, the instructor went so far as to remind the dancers about the angle of wrist bend in their off-hand while performing a painstakingly difficult heel-toe shimmy with upper-torso bends between the offbeats of the song. And this is just one moment of a three-minute routine. I could hardly keep track of the song’s count, not to mention the movements being made within, and I’m a drummer, sitting on the floor, motionless, holding my son’s hand.

The precision of it all is astounding. And, yet, part of the challenge and beauty of dance involves making it look effortless. Jan, the primary teacher, referred to one dancer as being “soft,” in that she performs such powerful, athletic movements while almost floating across the stage, making hardly a sound—as opposed to the negative implications of an athlete being called “soft.” It was as though this dancer had discovered a way to slice through the air’s molecules without disrupting them. Much like the great athlete, dancers rely on exceptionally demanding physical fundamentals yet do so without conscious awareness: rising above the physical demands yet remaining ever-present. Being in the zone.

All of this transpired in a supportive, yet demanding, environment. With that feeling of creativity and total abandon looming amid a foundation that requires such exactness. And here are these kids—boys and girls, of varying ages—teaching each other, laughing together at mistakes, and celebrating when they’ve “nailed it.” In the culture of dance, the dancers all cheer and support each other, as though recognizing each is baring his or her soul onstage. It represents teamwork in its truest form.

And that’s what you see onstage. There’s a sense of trust from one dancer to another; a sense of trust from dancer to audience. They’re inviting all of us, classmates and adults alike, to remove the barriers, forget about maintaining our daily facades, and to just go with it, to go for it. This is inspiration.

A few years back, I was invited to join the Dance Concert for a hip-hop act. Despite the immense challenge this presented at the time, I now realize I was given a relatively beginner-level piece to perform. But the attention to detail: “When your left heel is down, shove your toe out like someone’s pulling it by a string and then pop your heel like you just put it down on a hot surface.” This isn’t to mention the movements of all other body parts as well as getting your body to a specific space in time along with your whirling, hip-hopping troop-mates.

At one point in rehearsal, I stood beside a sophomore girl who I’d never met and always considered somewhat shy. We worked through the kinks in our—i.e. my,—routine. “You need to get your body into it more, Mr. Bowen,” she instructed assertively though with an air of patience. “Really throw your arms out there like this,” she said, snapping her arms as if they’d momentarily dislodged from her body. “Like you’re hugging everyone you’ve ever known for the last time.” I stared at her in amazement and then did as she instructed. Teaching at its finest.

Sport introduces the element of competition: of two teams seeking a singularly attainable objective. This changes things, no doubt. But we shouldn’t forget all of the other elements that make youth sport—and dance—so rich. We must remind ourselves that, just like dancers, young athletes are taking risks, expressing themselves, trying to get their bodies to do very difficult things in novel situations. Amid all of this, they act within a framework based on the trust of their teammates, coaches, and onlooking fans. Ideally, athletes and dancers share in the possibilities for richness and inspiration available to all.

A popular adage advises us to “Dance like nobody’s watching,” because life is too precious to worry about the judgment of others, too profound to not express ourselves in the best and most free way possible. And this captures yet another virtue of the dance world: They dance like nobody’s watching … while everybody’s watching. Ideally, too, our athletes can play their sport like nobody’s watching, even though they know we are.

Make AI the Best of Us

What we get out of artificial intelligence depends on the humanity we put into it.

The Co-Op

Santa Clara University has long been a bastion of interdisciplinary learning. A new fund is taking cross-collaboration to new heights.

Human at Heart

How Santa Clara University is distinguishing itself as a leader in one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation.

A Campus on the Rise

New buildings on campus—count ’em, six in total—aren’t the only changes brought by a successful $1 billion fundraising campaign. Come explore what’s new.