A few months ago, Sports Illustrated released an article entitled: “How a book on stoicism became wildly popular at every level of the NFL.” This article detailed how The Obstacle is the Way, a book about the benefits of applying the ancient greek philosophy of Stoicism to life in the modern world, has spread throughout the NFL, including football players and coaches alike.
I read this book last year, and I found it to be full of wisdom and good advice.
This ancient approach has implications for anyone to live their lives in an optimistic, non-cynical way, but it’s especially relevant for those in a world where every little improvement makes a difference. Practice makes perfect, yes, but only with the right mindset.
If this approach can help the football world, I figure we in the dance world have something to learn from it as well. Even if the two are worlds apart in the kinds of people they attract, both worlds are part of the human enterprise of pursuing perfection, both mental and physical.
Stoicism is a philosophy that understands that while perfection may be unreachable, there are ways to reach a little bit closer. Step 1: Get out of your own way.
As ballet dancers, we don’t often talk about our personal approach to dance, beyond working hard and having good ballet technique. A strong work ethic and doing things “technically correct” are valued above all else in the ballet world, and they are admirable qualities in professional dancers. But this may be a mistake. Where does this motivation come from? What’s the mindset behind that dedication to ballet?
For those of us that have made it to the professional level, we each have had teachers that motivated us to work hard and passed on a strong desire to improve. But not every teacher does so in a healthy, positive way. Some of the most talented dancers I’ve met are people who have a very hard time looking at themselves in any kind of positive light, much less objectively. And I’ve written about this before. In this frame of mind, when you’re reaching for perfection, anything less than perfection is worthless.
And we’re always less than perfect.
This is where Stoicism, the ancient greek philosophy of turning lemons into lemonade, comes in handy.
Stoicism was seen during its time not as an untouchable philosophy in an ivory tower, but as an accessible and applicable framework for improving anyone’s life by changing their outlook towards the many complications that life brings.
The word ‘stoic’ has taken on a different meaning in contemporary usage than the philosophy from which it gets its name. Whereas we use it often to mean ‘repressing emotion,’ the tradition has a different past.
Stoicism is deeply rooted in reason and logic, and a large part of its arguments lie in overcoming passion.
Passion, you might think, might be a useful thing to have in dance. And it is. Luckily in this case what’s meant by the word passion isn’t strong feelings, here it refers to the so-called “destructive” emotions and thoughts. The times when our brains yell at us “This is going to be way too hard. You’ll never be able to do it!” or “Nobody thinks you’re good enough for this,” those times when we shut down (or even just get distracted) by our own fear or anxiety.
Here is a quick breakdown of Stoicism’s core tenets according to Stoicism Today:
- Value: External objects such as money, success, or fame do not bring happiness; only a clear, rational mental state gives us the power of mental well-being.
- Emotions: Emotions are a result of our judgments of good and bad, and are often based on misunderstandings/misjudgments of our complex world. Change the judgment and you change the emotion.
- Nature: We are all a part of the larger whole. We need to realize that not everything is under our control and accept the times when we are powerless to affect change.
- Control: Some things we have control over, others we do not. Much of our unhappiness comes from confusing the two. Importantly, one of the things we can control is our mental state and its judgments.
And, to compare, here are a few of the mental trappings of dancers I’ve observed, either in myself or in others. See if you can relate them to your own life and to the tenets described above:
- Value: “If only I could get a good role/promoted/into a prestigious company, I would finally be happy.”
- Emotions: “I can’t believe that person gets to do that role. He/she’s not even that good!” or “I’m not that good. I’m not going to go to the front during the audition/class because they’ll probably think I’m horrible.”
- Nature: “Why did I get injured? I’m so stupid!”
- Control: “It’s not fair that this person got a job and I didn’t.” or “I’m in such a bad mood today. Everybody better watch out.”
There are innumerable ways to stunt our personal growth or to make ourselves miserable, and if you can imagine a destructive thought, there’s probably someone out there that has thought and believed it.
These Stoic ideals can be important for any individual seeking perfection, and it’s important that we mortal beings remember that we can only reach as far as our imperfections will let us. What’s crucial is not to block our own energy, preventing us from focusing on our circle of influence. Stoicism is a way of doing that, of showing you that any adversity that we encounter is a chance to grow in another way. The obstacle is the way.
We at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo are currently working on a program of three works by Jiří Kylián, and it’s an incredibly rewarding experience to be a part of. Intrigued by the choreography and the ideas behind them, I set out online to take a look at Kylián’s website so that I could get some good examples (and maybe pick up a few tricks) of the choreography and to learn more about the inspiration behind the pieces.
While looking up one of the ballets we’re currently rehearsing, Gods and Dogs, I came across some of Kylián’s writing about the piece, and more broadly about humanity:
In the community of artists, dancers always appear to be the fittest – physically and mentally – but the opposite is true. They are more prone to injury – mental, physical, or emotional – than any of their artistic colleagues, because they are obliged to exhibit their own body as a work of art !
Surely, I don’t reveal any secrets, when I say, that none of us was born perfect. We inherit physical strength and resilience, but also weaknesses, or our mental capacity with all its loopholes – inevitably our emotional armoury will reveal cracks, but – we all must live with this heritage from the moment we scream for the first time, until silence.
That last sentence is crucial: we all must live with this heritage, whether we like it or not. Stoicism is way of teaching us that we don’t have to like everything we encounter, but we must learn to accept, learn from each experience, and move on.
I have not explained Stoicism in detail, so if you’re intrigued, here are a few more links:
-The book: The Obstacle is the Way
-An article about Stoicism for entrepreneurs
-A podcast relating to Seneca’s writing
2 thoughts on “Why the ancient greeks are the best ballet dancers: a brief look at Stoicism”
Your writing is thought provoking and a refreshing approach to dancers’ continual self-evaluation! I appreciate your analysis. As a former dancer, I constantly struggled with not being good enough in my mind. As a woman, we often are self-deprecating already so the pattern is already instilled.
Our body is our instrument and on display for constant critique, technically and aesthetically.
I am going to recommend this to the readers on my ballet blog to read as well.
Thank you Lucas!
Thank you Sarah. My hope is to be able to help break some of those harmful patterns that I’ve seen show up in the ballet world. What good is dancing if you can’t enjoy it? I’m happy you have the enthusiasm and energy for dance still 🙂 happy dancing and writing! And teaching!
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