I recently got into an interesting discussion on Twitter with some other engineers regarding the parallels between dancing and engineering. I often get a surprised look from people when I tell them I used to be a professional dancer. Perhaps its because I look like a nerd, or perhaps its because I am one. In any case, its true and its something that I spent many years and countless hours doing. 

The strange thing is really that it's nothing different from engineering. Engineering is also something that I've spent many years and countless hours doing. In both cases, they started out mostly just for fun, and once you get good, you can make money off it. But that's not what I really want to talk about either. 
 
In dancing, there is "technique" and there is "feel". To make money from dancing, you need to have technique. That means that you need to understand the basics of body movement, have strong fundamentals in the particular dance genre, and your body must be trained to imitate movements that you see someone else doing, usually quickly. Technique is something that you spend a lot of time in studios, rehearsals, and training to build up. You work with choreographers, work with other dancers, learn choreography, and get everyone synchronized. This is essential for productions such as concerts, recitals, musicals, film, etc. The majority of professional dancers have extremely strong technique and if you're a choreographer, you generally look for dancers with strong technique because they're easier to train for choreography.

Then there is this thing called "feel". It's a vague, ambiguous term that's difficult to explain but is revered among dancers. The short explanation is that you know it when you see it. Feel is something that makes a dancer look like a dancer rather than a robot regurgitating dance movements. When you go to a club, look on the dance floor, and see someone doing some small trivial movement, and they make it look like the most amazing thing in the world, that's what feel is.

It's also something that can't be taught. You don't build up feel in a dance studio or by copying someone else. It's unique to each person and it embodies what each person values. You actually build feel by enjoying dancing. Dancing at a club, dancing in your room, dancing when nobody else is watching, listening to music and bobbing your head, closing your eyes and moving, those are the types of things that build it. It's how you dance when nobody else is watching. 

Strangely enough, children only have feel. When you see kids dance, they're being completely honest. They usually don't have enough technique to fully express what they want with their body, but you can feel the contagious enjoyment and happiness when you watch children dance. As you go through life, you lose this feel as social pressures create anxiety, insecurities, stress, etc. If I ask someone to dance at some music event, the majority of adults I know would hesitate or completely shut down (assuming no alcohol). If I asked some kids to dance at some music event, I'd probably have to race them to the floor. To break it down, a complex set of events occurs in an adult's head where they start thinking about how they would dance, how they would be viewed when they dance, how they would feel if that view was unfavorable, how scary it is to look foolish, etc. In the child's head, they just want to have fun.

In professional dancing, technique is more dominant than feel because it's logical. There is a movement, you practice it, you eventually get it. Feel on the other hand is much more abstract and just as difficult to acquire for professional dancers, maybe even more so. Pro dancers are constantly worried about how their dancing is viewed by others because it's their life. Looking good is more important than expressing yourself, which leads to overthinking, which leads to insecurity. Hence many pro dancers stick to technique since it's something they can do with just muscle memory.

I would say that to acquire feel (or technically to regain it), it requires a lot of self examination and mental work, but it's not done on a conscious level. It's done slowly, over time, as you dance, and you enjoy it. As you get better, you shed the inhibitions of things like public perception, looking foolish, and performance anxiety because you build confidence in yourself. That confidence allows you to be more honest about yourself, allowing your body to be more bold in its movement, which allows you to express yourself more fully. You reach a point where it's easy for your body to move by itself, and this is what's called freestyling. There is no thought involved, and you just move according to how you feel. That's why you can sometimes watch a dancer and feel like you know everything about that person. It's similar in jazz, rap, DJ'ing, singing and probably any other discipline I can think of. Interestingly enough, this idea of complete impromptu expression is highly valued in the US, as can be seen by the two main art forms to originate there: jazz and hip hop. And even more interesting, is that if you trace the roots of these, you eventually end up with the african drum. I'm getting off-topic though, but see, it's hard to describe feel.

Anyways a professional dancer can get by with mostly just technique which is needed to put together productions larger than one person. In a broadway musical, you can pretty much assume they don't care how good your freestyle is at the audition. You need to work together with stage, lighting, music, actors, and other dancers to create an aesthetically pleasing, complete production, and everyone has a scripted routine they need to follow. But the truly great dancers I've known in my life have both technique and feel, an elusive combination that puts you on a completely different level. At this level, even the most trivial movement like clapping your hands looks stunning.

If you haven't guessed it, the same thing exists in engineering. In engineering, you can get by with just technique. In a professional engineering scenario, you have to combine the efforts of manufacturing, marketing, sales, accounting, and other engineers into a product that is pleasing to the customer. In this case, having technique and strong engineering fundamentals is essential to being able to make a good product and also a living as an engineer. And then there are hackers/engineers that not only have technique but what I'd call feel. Watching them makes engineering look truly fun and amazing. It's not just that they can design things according to some spec, but they design things that may have no practical purpose, may serve to only amuse the designer, may be whimsical or silly, may serve an audience so specialized that they may as well be nonexistent, or just to show off. The designs are both play and serious and are honest about what the designer values. The most important lessons I carry from my dance career into engineering is that you have to enjoy what you're doing and stay honest to yourself. A good sign is when you're having fun with a design. And if you can get there, you'll see that good engineers are just like children on a playground full of adults :)