Zander Strong Ep. 5 – How to Surf

I’m Robin Zander, and you’re listening to Zander Strong, a podcast about movement in the modern world.

Today: the story of how I learned to surf, and the simple tactical steps that you can use to begin surfing right away.

It has been an eventful last couple of years! In February 2016 I came up with the idea to run a big event. In September 2016, having sold 250 tickets and raised sponsorship from the likes of Microsoft and Accenture, I put on the 1st Annual Responsive Conference. Somewhere in the middle, I also opened up a café.

Meanwhile, throughout this, I’ve maintained a physical practice. Over the years this has meant a variety of things: ballet, martial arts, gymnastics, other forms. At the end of August, I re-discovered surfing.

I grew up around the ocean, and first tried out a surfboard on a beach in Costa Rica in 2003. The board was terrible — waterlogged, the surf rough — but I’ve always planned on going back. I visited the San Francisco Bay Area’s Linda Mar beach this August, and have been out surfing almost every day for the last few months. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

Form Follows Function

I’ve long believed that “form follows function” meaning that good form — including posture, positioning, or physique — follows from the movements we do. What I haven’t explored before is how significantly my mental state follows from my physical practice.

Surfing can be scary, don’t get me wrong. But there are also long stretches of peace, sitting on a board out on the waves. Surfers don’t generally talk much — at least not to a newbie like me. And there is something inherently pacific about sitting on the ocean, looking for the next big wave.

Emotional Matching

September 21, 2016 was a big day for me. It was the day after my 250-person Responsive Conference. For more than 3 months I had worked 7 days a week to make sure that the event was a success, and throughout that time had practiced Thai Kickboxing — an aggressive martial form that I tackled in intense 50-minute bursts.

Walking into my fight gym the day after the conference, I was hit by the familiar smells of old sweat and testosterone. Leading up to my conference, the aggression of Thai Kickboxing was exactly what I needed to combat the intensity of my work. That afternoon, I was surprised how unappetizing they were. I realized I no longer needed such physical intensity, closed my account, and went surfing.

Surfing Culture

As I do when I become obsessed with a new physical form, I’ve read a lot. By far the most engaging book I’ve read is the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. This autobiography is a coming of age story about the author’s relationship with surfing, of waves from around the world, and about an addiction that I’ve just begun to explore.

Another little tool that has been incredible in learning the ins and outs of the surf scene is Surfline. This free app shares buoy data and live video feeds of prime surf spots. It has gotten so that when I ask a local about the surf at our favorite spot, he’s likely to say “Fair to Good,” quoting the app.

The Moment

Even as a young surfer, just beginning to transfer to an intermediate board, I’m struck by how much catching waves and not falling off comes down to mindset. As I’ve grown more confident, I’ve attempted larger waves — 6ft, 8ft, even 12ft. In the moment that I’m looking down from the top a sheer face of water, if I can control my fear I’ll be alright. When I remain calm, I stay on top of my board and don’t get pummeled. But even on 3–4ft days, if I get frightened and let that emotion run unchecked, the wave lands on top of me. My mental and emotional state, in that fraction of a second, shape the entirety of the experience.


Even amidst some professional success, entering in an entirely new industry, and managing two teams totaling more than 15 employees, some of the most memorable moments in 2016 and 2017 have occurred on the waves.

In mid-September 2016, amidst 16-hour days of event planning and logistics, I stole a few hours on the surf. Pacifica was fogged in, and I could hear fog horns in the distance. The waves were breaking 50 meters offshore, and birds were circling further out.

After 30 minutes on the water, it became clear that the birds were circling with purpose, and looking closer I thought I could see something in the waves. Then, a whale breached. For the next hour, I let promising waves go by to catch glimpses of the mammoth of the sea, slowly making its way north.

As usual, when I find a new physical form, I’m enamored. Whether this new love affair lasts weeks or years, it is special and new.

How-To and Mental Resilience

There’s a moment of thrill when you catch a wave, whether that is a two foot wave or a ten. The moment when you go from moving at the speed of your own arm strokes to be carried along as fast as the wave can carry you. Sometimes I experience a moment of panic, other times I am so much in the zone – in flow – that there’s just bliss. Of all of the parts of surfing, I believe that catching waves is probably the most important for a novice surfer. Getting familiar with the moment of riding a wave and that transition from powering yourself to be carrying by the wave is the hardest to describe and the most essential to understand. That said, don’t try to put all of the pieces of surfing together your first day out. It is not important to catch a wave in the moment that it breaks and try to stand up and try to steer all in one go. Go out on a slow day and rather than try to swim out past the point where the waves are breaking, ride some of the chop after the wave has crashed and as the waves are coming in towards shore. I am no expert, but I recommend a beach break where surfers gather in an area where the ocean breaks onto a stretch of beach, so that you don’t also have to contend with rocky terrain, shallow rocks, or coral. It’ll become a common mantra, but don’t try to tackle all of the aspects of surfing, or any physical form, in one go. Instead, find that small step – in this case the feel of catching a wave – and work to understand that experience and hone that skill.

Close your eyes. Notice how you are sitting, standing, or lying at this moment. Notice how you feel. Imagine that you’re lying on your belly on a surfboard. There are seagulls above you, the sounds of the ocean around you. You are in the lineup which is the area where waves begin to break. You see a wave growing behind you, and you begin to paddle towards the shore. It’s big but not so big that you are scared. You look over your shoulder and see the wave behind you and paddle even more furiously until suddenly you are no longer moving yourself but you’re being carried on the wave downhill and very fast. It’s almost like the wave has slingshotted you down the face of the wave.

Here are a couple of pointers that will make your entry into surfing much easier.

  1. Start small. If you try to do every aspect at once, you’ll have no fun and won’t keep coming back for more. However, if you tackle small steps at a time, you’ll see much easier successes and begin to find the joy and the small victories that will keep you coming back.
  2. Don’t go out on a big day. As much fun as it is to surf big waves, even as a novice, start smaller. You don’t have to go out in your first couple of surf sessions on the biggest days in order to catch waves or even practice standing up. Instead, go out when the waves don’t look intimidating, and even try to surf waves that have already broken so you are really just riding the white water into shore. Even those experiences can give you a taste of the thrill of catching a big wave and learning to steer.

If you’ve enjoyed Zander Strong, I’d love to hear about it! It would mean the world to me if you could leave a review on iTunes.


Founding Google’s Dance Program with Anna Botelho

Anna Botelho Head Shot for NYC

Today’s guest, Anna Botelho, founded Google’s Dance Program, and told her story at the 2015 Design for Dance conference. She will be speaking at the 2016 conference on April 28-29, 2016. But before we dive into her introduction I want to share a special opportunity. Tickets are now on sale for the 2016 Design for Dance conference. And today only tickets are 50% OFF.  Join us for 2 days in April to learn from and collaborate with our amazing presenters.

Join us for only $99!


Now, onwards with the show… Anna Botelho was a keynote at the 2015 Design for Dance conference and founded Google’s Dance Program. She is now in the middle of building out Google’s entire Arts Program. I think you’ll enjoy this interview.

Translating the Creative Process with John Michael Schert


John Michael Schert (@jmschert) is a ballet dancer who studies and teaches the creative process.

John Michael is a classically trained ballet dancer, having performed with the American Ballet Theater, one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. He moved on to become a founding member at Cedar Lake Ballet, and for four years performed with Alonzo King LINES ballet.

In 2004 John Michael co-founded the Trey McIntyre Project and served as the company’s executive director and dancer for 9 years. In that time he built a nationally recognized and sustainable arts organization, which toured in Vietnam, China, the Philippines, South Korea, around the US, and which was recognized by publications like the New York Times and PBS. But what is to me even more impressive is the impact that Trey McIntire Project had on local communities, especially in their hometown of Boise, Idaho. The company paved the way for the impact an artistic endeavor can make within a community.

Since the fall of 2013 John Michael has stepped away from his performance career and become a visiting artist and social entrepreneur at the Chicago Booth School of Business where he mentors students and works with faculty to examine the creative process. Recently he has been speaking from stages and consulting around the world on the underutilization of artists and the creative process within business. We met because he was a keynote speaker at last year’s Design for Dance conference.

Josie Garthwaite on Dance, Journalism, and Skill Transfer Across Disciplines


Josie Garthwaite (@redances) lives simultaneously in two very different professions: she is a professional dancer with the ODC Dance company and a Stanford-trained reporter. In this interview we explore how Josie continues to refine both of her crafts, and how they complement each other.

Among other feats, Josie co-founded the reporting collective Climate Confidential. She has a long track record of bringing extremely complex scientific topics to a lay audience. Simultaneously, her everyday work as a dancer involves the practice of creativity and innovation, which she has managed to transfer across her careers.

Sydney Skybetter on Dance, Technology, and Human Interfaces


“Well, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not an accountant, I’m not a chair….” -Sydney Skybetter

Like many of my favorite people, Sydney Skybetter (@sydneyskybetter) has a hard time describing what he does. In this amusing conversation, he describes the common themes between his work as a choreographer, consultant, and technologist.

David Leventhal on Dance for PD® (Parkinson’s Disease), Overcoming Rejection, and Developing a Growth Mindset

David Leventhal

My guest today is David Leventhal. David is a former dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), who now runs Dance for PD® (Parkinson’s Disease). Dance for PD® started as a single monthly class for people with Parkinson’s Disease in Brooklyn, NY, and now encompasses classes in over 100 cities around world and host of other activities.

David has a broad perspective on the learning process. He began his study of dance as a young man and we discuss what it was like to face repeated rejection before eventually becoming an apprentice with the MMDG. David tells compelling stories about repeatedly failing to meet the standards set in auditions. Note how David fostered the mindset necessary to deal with these very personal rejections. Even if you have no interest in dance training, there is a great deal to be learned from David about overcoming repeated failure and developing what Stanford University professor Carol Dweck has termed a growth mindset.

Humanities Curriculum on the National Stage (or How I Spend My Spare Time at the Opera)

My radio silence since early May is due to my recent work with the San Francisco Opera’s production of Les Troyens which opens this Sunday, June 7th. To give a sneak preview of what I’ve been working on, here is a video from the Royal Opera House’s production of this five-hour long masterpiece:

Les Troyens, written by Hector Berlioz in 1856, is based on Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid. For me this is a long sought victory: the performance of my undergraduate Humanities curriculum on the national stage!

There are six of us acrobats onstage throughout the show: as Trojan and then Greek soldiers, builders of Carthage, hunters, and more. The entire opera is a huge endeavor with 12 dancers, 90+ members of the choir, children, and a stunning array of principals. The set alone weighs 32 tons.

If you are able to visit San Francisco in the month of June Les Troyens at the San Francisco Opera is a once in a lifetime experience.

Design for Dance: dance, behavior and innovation

Design for Dance is an annual conference founded by BJ Fogg and the Stanford Persuasive Technology lab on dance, behavior and innovation. The event, which I now run, is in its third year and will be taking place in Palo Alto, CA on May 7th.

What is Design for Dance?

The conference is a gathering for innovators, health organizations, educators and researchers who see value in getting people to dance more. To be clear, our focus is not “why dance?” (that’s understood). Instead, we focus on highlighting practical solutions and near-term opportunities.

Why this conference?

Ultimately, our hope is to catalyze a rebirth of dancing in our culture and communities. This year we are focusing on the idea of “Dance @ Work” and presenting novel solutions for improving employee wellness and engagement through dance.

Robin Zander’s Guide to Dance (2015)

Over the last year I’ve met an amazing number of innovators, artists, and entrepreneurs all working around the theme of dance. Some of them are going to be presenting at this year’s Design for Dance.

A common part of many of these conversations have included the question “where do I start” for someone new to dance. It is easy for those of us with some background in movement to forget how scary it is to begin. To begin to tackle this question – for the novice just wanting to learn more – I’ve put together a curated guide including videos, people, products, and new ideas. I’m pleased to share Robin Zander’s first ever Guide to Dance (2015).

Robin Zander's Guide to Dance from Robin Zander

I’m sure I’ve missed dozens of people, products, videos, and innovations I absolutely should include. Please suggest them in the comments or send me an email with your ideas. W will be accepting applications for speakers for Design for Dance 2016 in a few months. In the mean time, if this Guide to Dance is useful, share it with someone you’d like to dance with more.

¡Buena suerte!

How You Can Learn to Dance (and Why You Probably Should)

I started dancing in my early 20s, about the time my peers were pairing off into their chosen careers. While my 20-something peers didn’t condone dancing, I grew up in a town where football was king, and pick-up trucks pulling donuts in the High School parking lot was considered an excellent form of after school entertainment. To say that a man dancing was socially unacceptable is to mistakenly called getting covered in rotten eggs (which also happened) a slightly uncomfortable experience.


But my humiliation around dance didn’t stop with the lack of my peers’ judgement. I’m pretty sure I was my own worst critic in my first ballet class, surround by beautiful, experienced ballet women, wearing corduroy and completely unaware of the french techniques being described. Somehow I survived my childhood, and my college ballet class mortification and have only danced more every week in the ten years since.

I share these early experiences so that you, the reader, might understand that you don’t have to be born in a culture that accepts dancing, to be able to dance. I hear regularly, when asked what I do, some version of admiration followed by self-denial. “That’s great that you dance so much. I couldn’t ever, I have two left feet.” This is my manifesto and the message is simple: you, too, can dance. And you probably should.

Doubters, read this first:

Beginners Start Here

The way I learned to dance need not be the way you go about beginning. I don’t recommend getting egged, or doing ballet wearing corduroy. Instead, start simpler.

The 7 Simple Steps To Dance

Congratulations, you just danced.

I am organizing Design for Dance, a conference put by Stanford University’s BJ Fogg and the Persuasive Technology Lab. If you are interested, sign up for my mailing list and I’ll keep you apprised of the details!

What Makes Dance Go Viral? (I Will What I Want)

In the last 5 days more than 5 million people have viewed this video of American Ballet Theater controversial soloist Misty Copeland perform in an advertisement for Under Armour.

Her performance and sheer physicality are stunning. But there is more to this exceptional piece of viral advertising than just good dancing.

In stark contrast, my friend and teacher Robert Dekkers’ company Post:Ballet performed a several exception pieces of contemporary ballet, including a World Premier, all at a full but not sold out Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

I’m excited that Misty has gained even more notoriety. If the best in the world in an industry aren’t noticed, those below them certainly aren’t going to be! I’m also not disappointed that Robert’s company wasn’t more well received – from their intended audience Post:Ballet received rave reviews.

But there is something more going on here.

Who is the intended audience?

First of all, who is the intended audience? Misty’s Under Armour ad is targeted at populations who can relate to her: anyone who wants more from their bodies, who has been told no, has overcome an obstacle of any kind. The message is designed to be internalized by a wide audience. Under Armour just comes across as the backer – an organization the audience can trust to back their winning underdog.

Post:Ballet addresses contemporary issues, but does so artistically. The narrative of the final piece in this season’s show “ourevolution” shows a progress that can be equated to human evolution, and leaves me personally feeling inspired while considering our species future. I’d call that a successful performance! And yet, even I am more likely casual recommend Misty’s performance.

Misty’s performance is the ideal length for spreading: short. But when intermission came at the Post:Ballet performance I had a moment of feeling cheated, thinking that the show was only a “paltry” 50 minutes. Misty’s performance is also free, whereas I paid $25 for an evening of Post:Ballet.

Changing Perspectives

It is easy to see why Misty’s performance has been viewed (and largely admired) by 5 million, whereas Post: Ballet has not gained thousands of new adopters. It is easy to tell the story of Under Armour’s success and Post:Ballet’s predictable audience. But what about the reverse? What about the controversy around Misty and reasons why Post:Ballet isn’t gaining audiences like Beonce (who was also performing in San Francisco the same week).

Misty is a controversial figure in and out of ballet. Even within this specific performance I can see some reasons for concerns. Either she is a genetic abnormality (arguably the case for any dancer at the highest level) or she is unhealthily low on body fat. I have hear a lot of comments about her “beautiful physique” but simultaneously her calves are bulging with muscles to a degree I have only ever seen on collapsed Olympic sprinters. What kind of message does those calves send to already physically insecure viewers?

In contrast, Post:Ballet’s piece “ourevolution” could well become a draw for a younger audience looking to express themselves. While the dancers are extremely talented and experienced professionals, they are relatable and led by a young Artistic Director. For a young, affluent San Francisco audience looking for expressive outlets, it is conceivable that they could find such in a company that promotes itself as being what comes after ballet.

As a dancer and advocate of many of the benefits that dance can bring I’m left with more questions than answers. (To anyone who knows me and my love of questions, this will come as no surprise.) But I see a dilemma if we want there to be more local high quality performances and performing artists.

From these two performances it is clear that physical prowess speaks to us all. And there are some smaller stories about viral growth that are further reinforced: small spans of attention are easier to engage than large, the experience of awe is one that spreads. I’m glad that Under Armour and Misty are promoting dance, and that Post:Ballet puts on live performances for me to see. Beyond these facts, I’m curious what the future of dance will hold.

What are your thoughts?

Becoming a Ballet Dancer – How I Study Ballet 7 Days A Week

I have been taking ballet class every single day for more than three months. This is an accomplishment the lack of which I often hear people bemoan in their exercise routines: they want to do more, but don’t. I’ve been there, too – wanting more exercise than I actually do. How, then, have I managed this seemingly heroic feat of fitness proficiency?

I also record regular videos of my practice at
I also record regular videos of my practice at

My answer is simple: I haven’t. It hasn’t felt like a challenge. It is no longer an insurmountable task for me to try to accomplishing a regular fitness schedule. It has not been a challenge. I see this also in my personal training clients – going to the gym and working out daily strikes many people as an impossible feat, but when they are actually exercising regularly it feels easy. What changed?

Pleasure in Movement

The biggest difference I see between people who exercise regularly and those who don’t is the pleasure in movement. This by itself won’t make the exercise habit, but the lack of pleasure will probably break it. If you haven’t found a form of movement or exercise that you enjoy, yet keep looking. I went through a dozen martial arts before find some that I wanted to study. I also have some thoughts on community, that shape the kinds of training I do.

Start small

Using the model, I made one small change at a time. Since I was already somewhat familiar with ballet, this meant taking one ballet class. When I found that I liked that, I scheduled one more. I had planned to just take one a week for three months. I quickly moved to 2 a week, 5 a week and now take between 7 and 9 classes each week. It is hard to believe at first, but when we start with (and celebrate) small changes, they quickly grow bigger and then can go exponential.

Begin With Yes

The next biggest thing is that I never ask myself “would I like to go to ballet.” Sometime if I’m injured or ill or out of town for work, I am not able to make a class. But when I’m home I never “Would I like to go” because sometimes the answer to that question is “No, I do not want to take ballet today. I do not want to get out of bed!” Instead, the tacit assumption I hold is “I’m going to ballet.” Or even: “I am going to ballet.” Starting from this standpoint it is much easier to actually get to class.

Dance Education: A dialogue

The following from a conversation I had with a dance teacher I really like. The best (and most challenging) ballet classes I’ve ever taken. Topic is the application of the Anat Baniel Method and Feldenkrais for professional dancers. I think the ideas also apply to all high-level athletes.

What I am interested in hearing is what you have done and are doing in terms of your Feldenkrais training, what you intend to do with that training and how that would translate to a dancer’s education on an ongoing basis.

Is that all?  I’m glad you are starting small.  If you were to ask all of the hard questions all at once I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Anat Baniel was one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ pupils and studied under him from the early ’70s until his death in ’84.  Since then she as founded the Anat Baniel Method, continuing the evolution of the Feldenkrais Method under her own name.  Anat is widely regarded in the Feldenkrais community and is also the mother of a close friend.  In my life I have encountered a small handful of instructors (in a diverse set of fields) whose process of instruction – quite apart from the material itself – is truly exceptional.  (While we are on the topic, you are one of those few.) Anat is one. At its essence her topic is learning and thus how she teaches is, of course, exemplary.