Five years ago I decided to start a new project which was totally different than anything I’d done before in my life: I decided to become a salsa dancer. The impetus for this was a drive to improve my overall well-being by deliberately pushing my boundaries—up until 2013, I spent the majority of my life on academic pursuits and the extent to which I focused on this had created a severe imbalance. In short, I didn’t have many friends, I was generally uncomfortable socializing with people, and even more to the point: Girls didn’t like me, at least not in “that” way.
I signed up for and took my first salsa class on May 28, 2013. I was absolutely terrified and struggled with the class but nevertheless committed to giving it my best effort for at least five years. It felt like a last-ditch effort: I wanted to improve at forming relationships but I had no idea what I could do to change. I didn’t know if salsa dancing would help, but I reasoned that the terror and incompetence that I felt while salsa dancing was temporary and would disappear once I had years of dancing under my belt. In short, I expected that dancing would eventually become second-nature if I kept at it—and then if nothing else I would be in a better position to improve my social relationships.
I kept that commitment I made 5 years ago, and since then the longest I’ve gone without salsa dancing has been the 1–2 weeks during the Christmas break. The result? Not only has my hypothesis that salsa dancing would eventually feel natural been confirmed, the effects on the rest of my life have been nothing short of transformative. I have a healthy social circle of friends, I’m much less shy to the point I enjoy socializing, and I’m much more comfortable using my physical body for things, even starting other hobbies like weight lifting. And yes, I started getting attention from girls.
For me, salsa dancing was a vehicle for changing one of the things most resistant to change but probably the thing I most needed to change: my identity. Previously my identity was the nerd who excelled at school but struggled at social relationships and as long as I thought of myself in those terms my ability to form social relationships was severely crippled. I had prioritized academics to the exclusion of everything else, and I was proud of it.
What I came to learn was that while taking actions that are at odds with one’s identity feels incredibly awkward and painful, it is possible to rewire your identity with consistent effort applied over an extended period of time. This was far from easy, as my identity resisted the change at every step of the way, and I would often slip back into my older more comfortable identity that I had built up over two decades. It would happen reflexively: One Thursday when I had been dancing for over a year I remembered that I would be going out that night to dance. A sudden wave of fear swept over me as I realized that I was going to have to ask girls to dance that night—immediately followed by a wave of relief when I remembered that I did that every week.
Because I started from an identity of almost the polar opposite of a salsa dancer, my case essentially provides a lower-bound on the amount that it is possible to change. I’ve taught and assisted many people taking salsa classes and there are only a few I’ve seen that I would consider less skilled than myself when I started. Nowadays people don’t believe me when I tell them how much I struggled for years in ways which at the time felt scarring. As an example of how exceptionally incompetent I was when I started, my very first salsa social dance of my life was interrupted by a random bystander who asked if I was okay or needed help. 😂
In fact, I’m still struggling, because there is no end point you reach when you know it all. This is perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned from 5 years of dancing: the struggle itself is inherently meaningful, and I’ve learned to embrace the struggle as a purposeful and worthwhile part of learning and growing.