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Interview with Cosmo Zen :: Creative Humans
Spotlighting a ballroom dancer, software engineer, and blogger
Welcome to Creative Humans (formerly Creative Fridays), a feature of On Humanity to engage and inspire readers to create new things and share your own creative journeys. Below is an email conversation with Cosmo Zen, a creative who reached out to me in early June after a conversation in late May. Cosmo’s background is quite multifaceted, and I hope you enjoy reading about his artistic/literary pursuits, discoveries, and life advice. Please be sure to check out his Medium blog, linked in the last question.
If you’d like to be interviewed on anything you do for inspiration — or know someone who might — please reach out by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org!
Cosmo is a software engineering lead based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He majored in Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton, and his “serious” hobbies include strategy games, ballroom dancing, improv comedy, and writing. His essays focus on the mind and the nature of transcendent experiences. His creative maxims are to live courageously and discover who you are.
1. What kind of art are you most passionate about, as a creator? As a consumer?
While I enjoy many forms of art, the ones that intrigue me the most are those that encourage active participation from the consumer, perhaps challenging them to think radically differently about themselves or the world, or imagine scenarios that put their long-held values to the test. Art forms that most clearly fit this category for me include stories, games, theater, and dance, which I’ve partaken in both as consumer and creator. When done skillfully, I find this kind of immersion puts the individual in a state of flow, in which learning and creating become effortless and blend into each other, resulting in a free and optimal state of being.
2. When were you first inspired to pursue ballroom dancing? Why ballroom in particular?
I happened upon ballroom dancing by a series of chance encounters in my sophomore year at Princeton. After failing numerous auditions for performing arts groups on campus, I was ready to write myself off as an artistic dud. But after watching a performance by a pair of amazing but unlikely ballroom dancers, then being roped last minute into my first competition (as in literally, that very morning!), I had to give this exciting and beautiful path a try. On the one hand, as a beginner, it’s a very structured dance with well-defined timing and steps, which made it relatively easy to pick up (especially for an engineering major like me!). On the other hand, it challenged me in interesting and unexpected ways: musically, socially, athletically, and more. Just like an ideal game, it’s easy to learn, and difficult to master!
3. What approaches or techniques helped you to learn and master the art of ballroom dancing, and do you find them universally applicable? What would you do differently if you were just starting today, knowing what you know today?
One of my favorite passages on mastery comes from The Art of Learning, in which chess prodigy and martial arts champion Josh Waitzkin writes about “making smaller circles”. This concept refers to seeing the macro in the micro, imbibing the most fundamental movements deeply enough that they become intuition, condensed into a feeling that is fluid and universal. This results in an unassailable foundation for adding power, tempo, variation, and style.
Applying that to dance, rather than focusing on learning the steps and names for a ton of fancy moves, I would focus on the few basics that really mattered: posture, alignment, weight transfer, isolation. As these became second nature, I found my performance directly improved and I could pick up increasingly complex figures with ease.
Of course, I was not perfect in this, and I would often discover years later that my improper execution of some technique was hindering my development, and I’d have to spend weeks or months re-encoding the habit. Sometimes this is unavoidable, because we usually can’t recognize the difference between good and bad technique until we try something (usually an advanced figure) where it makes a difference. But often the problem is impatience. So if I were to do it again, I would apply “making smaller circles” early and more consistently, for I now have faith that it’s the fastest path to achieving mastery.
4. What challenges did you face in learning the techniques? How did you overcome them?
The process of learning how to dance can be compared to learning a foreign language. As a beginner, we learn the meanings of some simple unambiguous words, a few common phrases, and some basic rules of grammar. But the road from there to fluency is extensive. When and where do we employ one word or grammatical rule and not another? How do we deal with words that have multiple meanings or no English parallels? What are the exceptions to the rules? How do we pronounce words, construct phrases, and communicate in ambiguous real life settings to give the impression of true fluency?
One particular challenge I faced was in clearly separating the ideals of practice from those of performance, especially in competition. When we practice, we strive for perfection. We zoom in to the smallest details and aim to replicate them precisely because that is how we learn and build habits. But bringing that mindset into performance is a recipe for staleness and rigidity, just like a public speaker reciting their script instead of delivering a speech. To overcome this, we must recognize that the ultimate goal of practice is not to replicate what was practiced but to let it go. Numbers to leave numbers. When entering into competition, I strive to leave behind imitation and step into the role of the creator. This takes more practice in order to be confident, but the results are worth it.
5. How has ballroom dancing affected your level of self-confidence? Were there any notable personal transformations in specific areas of life that you’d like to share with readers? (Having read your recent Medium post, where you mentioned how coordinated movement opens up new channels of neuroplasticity, it would be interesting to hear about specific instances of how this might have played out in your life!)
Well, arguably the core purpose of art is to reveal the world in new ways, to explore what we as humans cannot yet understand rationally. What’s fascinating about dance is that the artist becomes their own instrument and object of transformation, opening up new ways of being by channeling music through their bodies. For example, international Latin consists of five dances (cha cha, samba, rumba, paso doble, and jive) which have very different characters: some are aggressive and showy, others are sensuous and playful, and often these elements can be mixed in various ways throughout a dance. Just as our ancestral shamans would dress as animals to gain their wisdom, dancing has given me insights into ways I can embody these energies in my everyday life.
It was largely through dancing that I discovered the concept of play as exploration, not just of the world but of different aspects of oneself. This is similar to drama, but the effect is amplified by the sheer physicality of dancesport. In addition to being a natural source of positive emotion, studies have shown that physical activity can temporarily increase neuroplasticity, both of which are associated with play. When we play, like children we are naturally flexible and confident in ourselves, and this is the basis for transformation. For me, this mostly came in the form of accepting my role as a leader and developing kindness for others.
6. Do you observe a correlation between ballroom dancing and empathy for others? In what ways?
There’s a lesser-known law of physics that for every ballroom dancer there is a particular dancing movie that sparked their interest in dance. For me, it was Take the Lead, based on a true story about a dance teacher who motivates a group of delinquent students to develop empathy, kindness, and self-efficacy by training them for a dance competition. The story has served as a kind of North Star for me, a statement about the power and purpose of dancing in making us better humans.
Often a prerequisite of empathy is truly understanding oneself, and the language of emotions that arise in one’s own body and mind. The more we become aware of our bodies through activities like dance, the more fluency we gain over our emotions, and the more readily we can recognize and relate to them in others, both on and off the dance floor.
7. How does ballroom dancing, as a practice, contribute to a sense of shared purpose? If one considers the general framework introduced in my (revised) “gardens” post, what do you see as water and what do you see as purpose within the confines of ballroom dancing?
One of the more interesting challenges I’ve observed in ballroom dancing is the sharing of responsibility between partners in a dance. Both at the level of the actual dance (with its intervals of lead and follow, interdependence and autonomy), and the training process needed to get there, a successful partnership invites individuals on a journey of improving themselves while understanding their connection to another, in a sense broadening the “self” to encompass the other.
I like the framework of shared purpose here because it connotes both recognizing the needs of another while also respecting their independence. One must resist the temptation of trying to make one’s partner conform to one’s own ideals, even out of a desire to “help”, for this negates their purpose as an individual and often results in failure. Rather, it is our separate but aligned efforts that stimulate the growth and evolution of the partnership. (This is analogous to the concept of water in your post, for each person has their own purpose and the needs that purpose entails can vary greatly, but by contributing to the shared garden we can benefit all).
8. What outlets (projects, groups, etc.) have you channeled your creative expression into over the years? What was your creative “routine” like during undergrad, and how did it change post-graduation, now that a decade has passed?
When I was in undergrad, I was much less aware of the latent creativity present in something as apparently structured as ballroom dancing. My desire for objective metrics often clashed with the freedom to create. My pragmatism was reflected in my choice of major and other activities, but it was paradoxical because I often found much more joy from the “impractical” things I’d do for the team, like organizing school social dances or collaborating with other arts groups for innovative performances.
In life after graduation, I’d occasionally miss the chaos and unpredictability of college, so sometimes out of boredom, I’d pick up an unexplored creative path and run with it for a while. As a silly example, I got into fan fiction writing during the pandemic, and for someone who hadn’t written fiction since 3rd grade it was a great excuse to reconnect with the boundless imagination of the child to produce purely for fun. As a dancer too, although I still enjoy the focus of training with a competitive aim, I also value the freedom of exploring dance as a multifaceted art form and basis for community.
One difference I can point to is that now I am simply a lot more aware of the inherent joy and purpose of creation, and thus I am more ready to set aside time for spontaneous play whenever the inspiration strikes. I guess this is my take on the metaphor of dancing my way through life.
9. Thanks for the insightful conversation! Lastly, are there any relevant links you would like to share with readers, featuring your creative spirit?
Please leave a comment, react to this post, or reply directly: any feedback on Cosmo’s responses in this interview will be shared with him. I’m always happy to connect! -Pavel
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