Getting Good at Dance

By Emmaly Wiederholt

Have you heard about Karen X. Cheng, who taught herself to dance in a year by video recording herself practicing dance each day which she then made into a time-lapse video that went viral?

I hadn’t heard of her until recently when I was in the audience of the taping of the Queen Latifah show and Karen was a guest. Queen Latifah showed us the YouTube clip of Karen teaching herself to dance, and then Karen danced for us, and then Queen Latifah waxed about how inspiring the project was, how Karen is now this awesome dancer though just a year ago she had cringed watching herself dance, and then everyone in the audience applauded wildly and went home inspired.


Can you spot me looking wildly inspired?

Karen then founded 100, a website where people post videos of themselves over the course of 100 days as they practice whatever they’d like to get good at. You’ve got people practicing unicycling, painting, difficult yoga poses, you name it. Never mind that 100 days are drastically short of the 365 days Karen spent practicing dance, though of course, people get much better at what they’re trying to accomplish. As we all know, if you want to get good at something you have to practice. Certainly this begs the question: what do I wish I was good at that I have never spent time practicing? But it also brings up questions about working in isolation, about what it means to truly be good at something, and about what role teachers and a supportive community have in working toward a goal.

Before moving to Los Angeles to pursue my masters degree, I lived in San Francisco for almost six years pursuing dance. I moved there to study at the SF Conservatory of Dance under Summer Lee Rhatigan, and even after I stopped being a full time student and started pursuing gigs with different choreographers, I still regularly attended Summer’s ballet class. I wasn’t the only one; there were several of us dancers who doggedly sought Summer’s mentorship, or at least her inspiration and insight, as we moved on to professional work. She was a teacher like none other; she expected more from her students than any of us thought we had in ourselves. And in turn, we came to expect more from ourselves and from each other. Even still, taking class at the Conservatory is such a joy because the ethic in the room is so supportive and high-reaching.

At the same time, I recognize that Summer’s conservatory is intended for dancers who want to dance professionally. These people have not dedicated 100 days, or even 365 days, but rather their lives to the pursuit of dance. I am one of them; 365 days feels like a drop in the bucket. While I recognize that Karen simply desired to master some moves so she could feel like she was dancing but had no illusions of becoming a professional, I also wonder what exactly Karen was trying to achieve by “learning how to dance in a year.”

In a way, I don’t recognize Karen’s pursuit as dance, because for me dancing is so much more than mastering cool moves. Dancing is akin to living. They are inseparable for me. Even when I’m not “dancing,” I’m dancing. When I go on a hike, I learn something about dance. When I get sick and lose my strength, I learn something about dance. While the moves are fun, and obviously important from a choreographic standpoint, they are in fact not dance. The brushstrokes are not the painting. The notes are not the music.

This brings me to my final critique of Karen’s project, which is the idea that she could not dance to begin with. Last night I went to a funky soul dance club, and everyone there was dancing. I don’t have a clue who had taken dance classes or had practiced dancing, and it didn’t matter. The point of grooving to funky soul is not to be good at it, but to feel good at it. And of course some instruction and practice helps you get better. But there are people who spend enormous amounts of time and energy pursuing dance and equate it with how good they look in the mirror. And then there is the dude at funky soul night who lets his inhibitions go and starts to groove out and he feels good, and for that second, despite his lack of training, he is the better dancer than the trained dancer trying to look good.

While I applaud Karen’s premise that the only thing stopping you from getting better at what you’d like to be good at is a little practice, her project fails to take into consideration that dance is about joie de vivre, not cool moves, that dance is something that takes a lifetime of living to understand, not a year, and that dance is something to be relished in with a community, not practiced alone in front of a video camera.


Feeling wildly inspired on the dance floor.