In the first part of this article, I tackled the false idea that many of us (whether dancers or non-dancers) often have, which is that “you suck at dancing”. If you missed it, find it here. If not, read on.
The second myth I want to take on in this article is this: it’s completely your choice to (and definitely your fault that you) dance the way you do.
This is perhaps the most prominent illusion in our world today, and all sorts of notions about self, willpower, and self-worth are wrapped up in it.
Let’s start with something that is obviously not your full choice: your body type and anatomy. Sure, you have a degree of power to affect the way you look, but this lies within certain boundaries that have been set by your genes and by your history. As much as you may want it, you’re not going to grow another six inches or all of a sudden go from having stiff joints to flexible ones. I think we all recognize that we have limits as to how we can affect our own bodies.
What I’m going to argue is that the same holds true of all the other knowledge that we have (or have not) developed in dance. We all have limitations in our understanding of movement.
Why should we be able to do that quadruple pirouette? Because we had that one day where it was so easy and could turn effortlessly? Because we’ve had dreams where we could turn until we decided to stop? If we can do something impressive one day does that mean we should be able to do it on command from then on?
Your training is extremely important. The dancer you’ve become and the skills that you’ve obtained throughout your education and career are a direct reflection of your personal traits mixing with your environment. Cubans are known for turning well. Americans are known for moving quickly, and Russians for big jumps, and all because each of their unique dance cultures promote those specific aspects of dance.
The knowledge that is around you wherever you are learning is key. If your teacher has no deep knowledge of how to turn out in a coherent way with the rest of the body, how could you expect yourself to learn the skills to master turnout? If you worked in a company that never focused on having dynamism in the upper body, how could you expect to have already learned that skill?
Of course, it’s true that we all have our personal quirks and skills that we develop outside of our curriculum and discover individually. One dancer might discover on their own an important piece of the puzzle of good alignment, say, even if their teacher has no deep knowledge of that information herself. This personal exploration is an interesting and necessary component of our dance education, but it still revolves around the structure of our curriculum and of our daily experiences.
When I joined Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, there were a few skills that were called for that I had very little experience with. A softness in port de bras as well as learning how to use the momentum of one or another body part to complete a movement instead of using force or extra muscle tension was something that I had little to no experience with. It just wasn’t in my physical understanding of movement in any kind of deep way. I couldn’t even necessarily understand what it was they were asking for, because in my mental construct, I was doing the things they asked for. They said “move your arm here” and I moved it there. I was on the music, and I had the right shape. What more could they be asking for?
It can be frustrating to feel like you’re doing the right things and to be told there’s something just not right about what you’re doing, but this illustrates the point I’m trying to make pretty well. Your knowledge of dance and of your body may not have all of the components that it needs for you to understand what’s being called for.*
But here’s the important point about that gap in your knowledge: it’s not your fault.
Had you been somewhere else, you may have already learned these skills. Surely the school or company you were at previously put you into contact with other important facets of dance. Maybe they emphasized big jumps, or bravura, or footwork. Like I stated in the first part of this two-part post, you are a unique dancer with unique qualities, and we as dancers cannot expect ourselves to understand everything related to dance.
We also need to remember that we do not fully control ourselves. You don’t choose to be in a bad mood, and you don’t choose to have a good day at work or a sleepless night. You are immensely affected by the things over which you have no control, and you have to work within your area of influence. Like it or not, you may have slept five hours last night and your sense of balance is thrown off. It’s natural. In those instances, focus on what you can focus on, and accept the fact that you aren’t 100% on top of things. It’s not your fault you can’t force yourself to do that quadruple pirouette today.
This does not mean that you can’t learn from these experiences. Perhaps you slept only 5 hours the night before because your neighbor was pulling an all-nighter. But perhaps you had a coffee or a coke a few hours before going to bed. You can realize that to be the reason you’re performing poorly the next day, and this experience can help shape you and inform your daily habits and choices.
Besides lifestyle choices, though, there exists another important way to improve the quality of your work and the perception you have of yourself.
When you have these negative thoughts about your own inadequacy and about your supposed power to do things better “if you only just tried harder” you are not focusing on dancing, or on your craft. You are actually getting caught up in your head in your little story you just concocted, and the only thing that’s doing in the moment is making you feel depressed and taking away from the attention and energy that you could be putting into your dancing. All those moments we spend in class lamenting and having negative thoughts as to our self-worth are unhelpful. They hurt, are untrue, and contribute nothing in and of themselves to our improvement or growth as a dancer.
What we must learn to do, for our art form, and more importantly, for our own happiness, is learn how to focus on that which we can improve upon, bit by bit. We dancers are creatures of high ideals and low tolerance for mistakes, but these things only come with time and patience. Every moment we spend worrying about being a bad dancer and feeling at fault for our imperfections is a moment we spend away from doing what we love: dancing. That attention can be harnessed for better use.
I’m not a particularly religious person, but there is one prayer that I love that often comes back to me – that of the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Whatever your views on God, there is some deep wisdom to this quote. We are all imperfect. Let’s accept that fact and work to better ourselves in whatever small way is possible in each present moment.
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* This leads me to another idea that I’d like to address in future posts: language has a very hard time communicating things about our body that we understand intuitively, and this leads to many of the issues we run into in the studio. But we won’t go there now.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/73298565@N02/8139955011″>Cathedral Maple</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>
3 thoughts on “You suck at dancing and it’s your own damn fault (part 2)”
Lucas, I have really enjoyed reading your blogposts. Keep at it. Your writing is clear and engaging and thought provoking.
Having spent a lot of time in a chair at the front of the studio (as well as a bit on the other side) I would just remind your readers that the all-powerful “eye” (choreographer, ballet master, teacher, whoever) is also only human. Especially in the case of the dance maker, if the dancer is not providing exactly what he/she wants at that moment, it sometimes triggers a negative reaction the origin of which is that person’s own fear of inadequacy or failure and the dancer is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Developing coping mechanisms for this possibility is important I think.
My other thought has to do with watching golf, of all things!! (My husband’s very serious pursuit.) Many aspects of this extremely psychologically demanding endeavor remind me of dance! The mystery of when a skill one felt on top of, simply disappears. I don’t suggest that dancers should watch the endless golf tournaments on TV!! But how the pros deal with the sudden disappearance of a formerly reliable ability is very interesting and worthy of attention.
I look forward to reading more of your posts!
Thanks Carol! So nice to hear from you. I can only hope to be as clear and articulate as I’ve heard you be off the cuff. You make a good point as to the limitations and insecurity of the “eye” (coincidentally I’ve been looking for a term that encompasses all those at the front of the room that direct dancers in some way. I’m using “dance directors,” but it doesn’t seem adequate. Any ideas?) and that’s something we as dancers need to be reminded of sometimes too. This applies not only in choreography but when seeing issues in the way we are managed as well. How funny is that that we have to be reminded of our humanity? Isn’t that the point of art?
The question of how pros deal with the loss of a former ability is very interesting; you might be a good person to talk about that with 🙂 I suppose watching other pros on TV (or live) is certainly one way! Have you heard of mirror neurons?