You suck at dancing and it’s your own damn fault (part 1)

Okay, now that I have your attention: no, I’m not serious. In fact there are two lies in that sentence, both of which come from our own illusions about our selves and about our objectivity. Although both sides of this thought are wrapped up together, I’ve decided to split this post into two parts in order to tackle these two prominent myths we tell ourselves on their own terms.

Most of this article will be directed to those committed to making dance their profession, so I apologize if it becomes esoteric or uninteresting for you. Regardless of who you are, though, there should be something applicable here!

These two ideas contained in the title come to me relatively often in class, and I know it comes to many others in my profession. This is what we think when we mess up, and say to ourselves “I should be able to do that thing I can’t do! I’ve done it well before. What’s wrong with me?”

We feel like we should be able to do anything which we can envision and which we’ve done in the past, and do it well just for having thought it. Take pirouettes for example: how many of us base our sense of accomplishment pretty much solely on whether we are turning well in one class? If we turn well, good class. Turn badly, shitty dancer.

This is the first myth I’d like to take on. You do not suck at dancing.


Just like in all walks of life, we as dancers have different degrees of knowledge about different aspects of dance, and this is part of what makes us the dancers we are now.

Are you known for being quick? For being a jumper? A technician? Are you turned out? Musical? Good at acting? We all have things that come “naturally” to us, and even though it seems obvious, we are often ignorant when looking at ourselves about the fact that we (just like everybody else) each possess different amounts of each of the skills we are asked to use in dance.

When we are in class, we are constantly being critical of ourselves, looking for where best to put our focus in order to better understand our bodies. This is a good thing, because it allows us to find our weak spots, work at strengthening our bodies, and find and rid ourselves of bad habits.

But what I’ve often seen is that we focus almost exclusively on the negative, and this can make it very hard to be objective about our dancing. On a personal level, I know that occasionally I will do a combination in class, and even if the rest of the combination goes well, if my pirouette is off, I will be disappointed with myself. In those moments I’ll only focus on what I did poorly. So I’ll easily convince myself that “I suck at dancing.”

This dynamic is sometimes magnified when I look around and see my amazing fellow dancers doing things effortlessly that I have only a faint physical understanding of. If I’m having a bad day, seeing one colleague lift and keep her leg in the air at 180° without so much as a twitch, another balance for however long he wants on one leg, or another using her port de bras like water can lead me to feel inadequate, as if I should be able to do all of those things in order to be considered a good dancer.

But that’s ridiculous. Dance is much too broad an endeavor to allow for any one person to do everything well.

Surely we’ve all been told we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, right? It’s good advice. But my guess is that we all do it. And often for us dancers, this involves the thought “I can’t do what they do, so I must not be very good.” This can lead us down a road of feeling unworthy, undercutting the energy and life force that makes dance beautiful and alive in the first place.

It can be good to watch those around us in order to understand what inspires us, and what doesn’t. But we must be sure to appreciate the qualities that we see as they relate to the dancer as a whole. We must realize that just because they can do one thing more consistently than we can does not mean that simple comparison itself should define our belief about our value as a dancer. We are so much more than that one simple metric that our minds create in the blink of an eye.

Each of us has positive qualities, and depending on our environment, we may or may not hear that from our colleagues. Those of us that do receive positive reinforcement all too often write those compliments off. We shouldn’t. Our colleagues are often more objective about our dancing than we are, and we need to take each compliment as seriously as we take any correction.


A few last notes: it can be easy to understand these things intellectually; it can be quite another to apply them in the heat of the moment. I would encourage you to try to keep these things in mind at the beginning of the day and see when and where your mind fights against them.

And a bit of directed advice:

For those of you in a professional company: Look at your fellow dancers. Do you respect them? Do you like their dancing? Although it’s easy to forget, every one of you was chosen for a reason, and all of you have qualities that made a mark on your director. There aren’t that many dance jobs out there, and you happen to hold one of them, regardless of your position in the company.

For those not in a professional company, remember: dance is an art form. As with all arts, whether we get hired or not depends on a specific director’s tastes and requirements, and you may not meet all of them. If someone’s looking for A, B, and C, and you have B, C, D, and E but no A, you may still not get hired! You have a mix of qualities that makes you a unique dancer, and while those qualities may be important for one director, they may not be so for another. What is especially important is that you enjoy the work and the journey.

And for those of you who have no formal dance training and are afraid to dance on the dance floor, don’t fret. Remember that dancing in those situations has nothing to do with technique or “being right.” People generally couldn’t care less if you have “good form.” All that matters then and there is that you’re enjoying yourself and your company! And if someone’s going to judge, good riddance. They will be the insecure ones. Not you.

In case you have any doubt, here’s an example of the enjoyment of dance in all of its simplicity. How could something like this not bring a smile to your face?

21 thoughts on “You suck at dancing and it’s your own damn fault (part 1)

  1. Eileen Threefoot

    Speaking as a member of that third group (i.e. the ones afraid to get out on the dance floor), I must say that many of your words of wisdom apply to other contexts. We can all fall victim to self-sabotage and negative thinking, so I appreciate the uplifting attitude you promote. And I love to watch the little Pakistani boy dancing!

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      1. Eileen

        For most of my career I worked alone, and my clients often treated me as if they thought I knew everything – but that surely was not the case. I think insecurity can undermine anyone’s thinking, especially about themselves and how ______ (smart, talented, beautiful – fill in the blank) they ‘should’ be.

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  2. javier

    I too have felt this during class, weighing the worth of my dancing upon how well and how many pirouettes I did. I think the pressure that we put on ourselves do hit those turns or a specific kind of jump depends on if those or things that we need to execute for our daily rehearsals or shows. I use to be in a company where if we were doing a classical ballet it was obvious that those turns and jumps had to be spot on. If this wasn’t happening in class then those negative thoughts would creep in, “Oh man why can’t I do this now when I know I’ve done it before?” or “I suck”. The hardest was seeing very talented colleges of mine beating themselves up about these struggles just because one day a turn or combination was just a little off. Now a days I don’t do classical ballet in the company that I’m in now, it’s contemporary with a lot of improve. We do take a very “normal” classical ballet classes everyday like most companies do. Being in this new company and knowing that when we perform there isn’t going to be a double tour or multipial pirouettes at the end of a variation made this pressure to nail everything in class less. If I’m having an on day with turns and jumps then of course it feels good but if it’s the opposite I know it’s really ok and it shouldn’t effect what I need to do for the rest of the day. I think for all dancers who deal with this dilemma in their dancing should always give themselves some slack. Always remember that if today is not a turning day, that there were days where it was and you can always get back to that. If you have done it once before you can always do it again.

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    1. Good points. I think you’re right that if you don’t have to perform a specific trick perfectly there’s less pressure to be able to be able to do it in class. But even if you do have a hard time putting yourself into the right mental space for whatever you do need to perform, it’s worth remembering that we’re humans and fallible, as much as we’d like to deny it. And chances are, your performance isn’t going to be ruined because there was one trick you didn’t do as well as you’d done at some point in the past. Just like when we judge ourselves, the whole of the performance is crucial to focus on rather than one specific detail.

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  4. doncolburn

    For the record, I do suck at dancing. But also for the record, I am a writer and sometimes I suck at that too. Which I think goes to your point.

    I found your blog provocative in the best sense, meaning it got me thinking — not about dancing per se, but about how images of dance and your rumination on dance apply to other art forms, including writing. My mind went first to the famous last lines of Yeats’s poem, “Among School Children”:

    O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
    How can we know the dancer from the dance?

    Or, when things are going right, the singer from the song, the fiddler from the tune, the teller from the tale, the chef from the dish, the pray-er from the prayer.

    Or the basketball player from his on-court moves. If you missed it, check out this front-page story from the Nov. 25, 2015, New York Times. Taras Dimitro, a principal dancer from the San Francisco Ballet, and Graham Lustig, artistic director of the Oakland Ballet Company, talk about becoming basketball fans after watching Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry work his magic. “Steph doesn’t really look like he’s putting in a lot of effort, does he?” Lustig said. “I’m not suggesting at all that he doesn’t use effort. It’s just that he doesn’t display it, and I think that’s probably at the core of what this is about.”

    Lustig marvels at the way Curry throws himself into the air, keeps control of the ball and himself — and lands. “And he’s not even trying to do something beautiful. His coach isn’t telling him how to land, but he does. It’s innate. His whole body knows what to do both in the air and in the return.”

    “There’s a certain sense of musicality to the way his body works,” Lustig said of Steph Curry. “It looks like he’s moving in a slightly different dimension as everyone else, and I think that ties into his sheer speed and power and control — incredible, unbelievable control. And that’s what you want in a dancer.”

    Here’s a link to that NYT story: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/25/sports/basketball/artistry-of-stephen-curry-with-golden-state-warriors.html?_r=0

    If you’re a dancer, or even a writer who sucks at dancing, one leap leads to another, and a lot of unlike things can start to resemble each other and lead somewhere. I thought also, believe it or not, of the poet John Keats.

    Keats wrote his publisher a letter in 1818, after his latest book, Endymion, had been criticized harshly in reviews. Keats was 22 years old:

    “It is as good as I had power to make it—by myself—Had I been nervous about its being a perfect piece, & with that view asked advice, & trembled over every page, it would not have been written…That which is creative must create itself — In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea & comfortable advice.”

    And just today, I received an email from the fine literary magazine, “Ploughshares” which highlighted an essay called “Why Bother With Craft?” and directed readers to “study authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maggie Nelson and Lidia Yuknavitch who master the art of writing about the body.” I thought of your blog.

    I collect what I consider inspirational or insightful quotations about writing. Not all are from writers, or technically about writing. Here are a few examples that seem relevant to your blog:

    I believe in not quite knowing. A writer needs to be doubtful, questioning. I write out of curiosity and bewilderment…I’ve learned a lot I could not have learned if I were not a writer.

    — William Trevor

    Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”

    — Wislawa Szymborska, accepting her Nobel Prize for Literature

    If I knew how to write a poem, I wouldn’t.

    — James Galvin, poet

    Even among the insects of this world, some sing well, some don’t.

    — Issa, Japanese poet (1763-1828)

    Voom is so hard to get. You never saw anything like it I bet.

    — Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

    If I’m painting and suddenly start to think, everything goes to hell.

    — Cezanne

    I can’t hit and think at the same time.

    — Yogi Berra, famous for swinging at bad pitches — and hitting them

    I thought, `Skate…just skate.’ It seems like I had to quit caring too much to skate my best.

    — Dan Jansen, after winning the 1994 Olympic speed skating gold medal in his final race after many disappointing finishes in three Olympics

    Writer’s block? Lower your standards and keep writing.
    
 — William Stafford, poet
    There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

    — Somerset Maugham

    Every attempt is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.

    — T.S. Eliot

    No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

    — Samuel Beckett

    I hope you find these interesting, Lucas, and don’t think I’ve run completely off the tracks. Admittedly, some of them require a leap. But that’s smack in your line of work, right?

    Cheers and thanks,

    Don Colburn
    doncolburn@msn.com
    http://www.doncolburn.net

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    1. Hey Michal,
      This is exactly when it’s important to remember that you are where you are. We get fooled (me included) into thinking that picking up ballet or any other kind of dance is easier than it really is, but remember that the people you most would like to emulate have spent their entire lives dedicated to that thing which is, for you, a hobby. Remember that you’re there to enjoy yourself! Focus on the small things which you can improve upon, and you will continue to improve – plus you will certainly enjoy the journey more! Also, never be afraid to ask the teacher for advice after the class. Sometimes during the class they can be overwhelmed by all they need to attend to, but they may be able to give you more attention when you’re 1 on 1 afterwards. Good luck!

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      1. Michal

        Yes, I try not to be “greedy”. For example, when I forget to fix my eyes on one spot during pirouettes (which happens all the time ofc), I try to remember that even this one professional ballerina whose blog I’m reading, says she’s fighting this bad habit to this day.
        Not sure if it makes sense, but I think the irony is that ballet can be extra frustrating because it’s pretty logical. You can get to understand how to do a lot of techniques quite fast, but to force this goddamn body to do them for you is hell. 🙂 That’s why even a person after 1-2 years of practice can often tell why he/she messed up something the moment he/she did.
        Definitely though, I need to think more about focusing on small improvements, patiently, one at a time. Thanks for this response, and good luck to You too in your new job!

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    1. Great to hear this Sarah. My hope was that it really would help people! It is, of course, much harder to apply these things than to talk about them 😉 but thanks for the link. Happy dancing and writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Found you via the Accidental Artist, enjoyed your article and the comments as well. I sometimes notice that my worst self-criticism and frustration precedes a breakthrough, and I try to keep my focus on progress not ‘perfection’, that elusive ideal we ballet lovers know is just beyond reach, but worth the striving.
    Marji

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  8. Ione Barczak

    Really lovely article, great insights. I love your positive take on these issues. With your permission I would like to share this to my Ballet Students.

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