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?