This is the continuation of a previous blog post. If you’d like to navigate your way there, click here.
Number 3: I wanted to learn how to build good habits, and I wanted to create.
Now, this may seem like a cop-out to say that I needed to quit ballet to learn how to build good habits. I know many ballet dancers who are intensely devoted to the work and focused on their craft. They do hours of extra exercise during the day, watch ballet videos during their downtime, come to class an hour early to stretch and prepare.
But I wasn’t ever like that. I was good at being efficient. I did the work that I needed to, and avoided doing anything extra on my personal time. I made sure to fulfill others’ expectations at work: I was professional, knew the choreography, and I stayed focused during class and rehearsal. And with that I not only got by, but I did relatively well. Yet there was a resistance in me to any work that went over and above my work in the studio.
I tried several times while I was dancing to start a daily routine that would help me in ways that ballet class did not. I tried to incorporate into my day exercises that built a different understanding of movement into my body: daily yoga practice, upper-body workouts, or specific exercises tailored to me by physical therapists or friends.
And when there was a class that was provided by the company where a personal commitment from me was required, I stuck to it. When OBT offered a CrossFit training three days a week free of charge, I jumped on it. I liked the idea, and having to live up to my word meant that I had a much harder time justifying any absence.
But when it came to being diligent on my own, I was never dedicated enough to continue past a week’s worth of grind. Our schedule might get mixed up because we went on tour, or I might miss a day, but whatever the excuse, I never kept up what I had (halfway) committed to. This is partly because real change is a very slow process. I couldn’t see instant results, so I questioned whether I was actually making any progress, and easily became discouraged from these exercises.
Yet there were many times where I realized that if I could just pull myself together and dedicate certain blocks of time to another practice, I could benefit enormously. Cross-training can teach the body patterns that it wouldn’t otherwise have found when repeating the same movements it has performed for years on end. And not only could cross-training present new ways of moving, it could present new ways of thinking.
This is what finally brings me around to creating. In order to create, you have to remain committed to a certain project for an extended period of time, day after day, and you must be able to invest the best of yourself. It’s possible see kernels of this in my attempt here to build this blog, but I never felt like I really made this blog all that I would have liked to. There were so many ideas for articles I wanted to write which I never got around to writing. I’m not sure whether for the lack of free time in my life, or the lack of mental focus left when I’d get home. Probably both. And writing wasn’t the only creative pursuit I was interested in.
In any case, I knew I wanted to spend less time in this world as a consumer, and more as a creator. And to do this, I knew I would need to decide on projects and stick with them. But I never found a reliable way to do so from within the context of the all-consuming ballet world.
So, with all this in mind, the conclusions I came to were:
- If I wanted to create and to instantiate good habits in my life, I needed to take a more central role in shaping my day-to-day routine.
- To do that, I needed some breathing room.
Speaking of breathing – near the end of my dance career there was one good habit that I was able to stick to: the practice of meditation. That’s right, the one exercise that I’ve mentioned so far that involves absolutely no physical movement at all.
I decided I would meditate each morning for 20 minutes. Morning was the only time I knew I would be able to remain undistracted and unable to make excuses. I came to see this as an extremely important practice. The fruits of this practice became quite clear, and even though I failed at staying 100% diligent, sometimes missing a session, I was always able to jump back on the cushion.
The secularized version of meditation that I had found and the philosophies behind it brought along insights about the nature of personhood and of our sometimes misguided pursuit of happiness. And it helped lead me to a realization:
Number 4: I wanted to find a way to dedicate my life to helping others.
I was born into incredibly good fortune, with parents that loved and supported me, in a community of caring people. The comments I recently received on Facebook and on the blog have made that exceedingly clear. And I have ridden this wave of positive energy to where I am now, living in the south of France.
How lucky! My life has been stable, full of joy and goodwill, relatively peaceful.
But there is a lot in this world that’s not so rosy. Humans are complicated animals, and we seem to have made a mess of many things. I definitely don’t have the skills to fix everything, or even to make a big difference. But every drop in the bucket counts.
So the question I kept coming back to was: “How much am I giving back to this world?” I have no doubt that dancing can be an inspirational endeavor. But I wondered if the institutional dance world was the best place to direct my energies. Who was I connecting with? Was I bringing joy to others? Wisdom? Did I have other skills that might be more effective and important in helping others?
I know that as ballet dancers our work can sometimes feel selfish and removed from the the people we are performing for. Acting as a faceless member in the corps can lead you to question your contribution even more. What are we doing, pretending to be peasants onstage? Are we saying anything relevant to the audience? Are we communicating something truly important? The ephemeral nature of dance inspires even more questions about our impact, which leads me to wonder, “Is it more rewarding to help others more tangibly?”
These are all open questions, and I don’t have any clear answers to them. I’m not sure that I ever will.
But I will certainly try to find out. These questions are subjective, in any case, and it’s only me who can answer them.
After this year off I may decide to come back; it’s quite possible that I’m not done entirely with the institutional dance world (I’m certainly not done dancing). Maybe I’ll see returning to that world as the best way to go about helping others. But if I do return to the dance world, it will be a fully conscious choice, with a comprehensive understanding of what I’m getting myself into.
Whatever the future holds, I feel fortunate that I have the chance now to experience a different answer to what it means to live in today’s world. Not everyone can press pause and zoom out from their lives. But at the same time, many of us can. We just have to be willing to face our fears and commit.
Currently, I’m on the other side. I’ve started volunteering at a charity here in Nice that works with disadvantaged kids, and I’m already finding that work heartening and inspiring. It’s certainly nice to be face-to-face with the people you’re there to help, even if they’re not always aware of that fact. I’ve been “jobless” for about a month now, and I’m very happy to have made the decision. This is a way of life that I’ve never experienced.
Time really is precious, and it’s nice to have so much of it back.
In the coming weeks, this blog is going to change a bit. I have a few more posts that were in the pipeline that I’d like to push through, but afterwards I may take a different approach. I may adapt the blog to a more personal exploration of this year away from ballet, but I will remain committed to looking through a physical lens… this blog is called Corporal Culture, after all. I am, in any case, curious about how my body and physical habits will change.
If you have anything you might be interested in hearing about during this year, please tell me in the comments. I truly do look forward to your feedback!