Letter to a young dancer

I recently received a comment on my Ask Me Anything post that caught my attention.

IMAG0310Michaela, an insightful dance student, recently decided not to pursue dance as a career path, and she was curious to explore the subject of competition, passion, and value in the dance studio.

Because of the rarity of dance contracts and the demands of the craft, most young dancers will not pursue a professional career in ballet. So, in a way, Michaela’s story is that of many students of dance, and I wanted to speak to her and any others that might be in her position. Her story may not be uncommon, but I have rarely heard such ideas articulated so well, so I wanted to share her comment in full before moving any further.

Here’s what she had to say:

I am a high school aged dancer who, after training seriously for many years, realized that dance was not my life’s calling. I took the time to explore other aspects of my life and cut back the rigor of my dance schedule, and I know that I made the right choice. I’m happy. At the same time, though, there are definitely days when I see my former classmates perform, or I watch a variation being performed online by someone my age who is much more talented, and I struggle with the idea of not being good enough. Part of the perfectionist drive that ballet instills in us is still in me, and it raises a unique kind of introspective pain. There’s a longing there because I still love ballet. This is something that I think only those who have danced will fully understand. My question, then, is do you agree with the idea that you can love ballet and still not make it your career?

I know that this is fundamentally and logistically true (after all, plenty of former dancers still remain present in the ballet world by attending performances and supporting the companies) but so many people quit dancing when they decide that their professional goals are no longer accurate. In a way, I think that they sometimes feel pressured to. Can you speak to the idea of the competitive mentality in the ballet studio- this idea that creeps in that the only way to have value to a school is to be willing to dance five or six days a week and to commit to little else besides dance? How can we as a dance community be more accommodating and socially supportive of those who love dance enough to keep training (and not have to transfer to a recreational program) while also recognizing the fact that some competition and selectivity is necessary and motivational for continuing pre-professional students? With so few company contracts available in relation to the proportion of hopeful students, I think that addressing the, “You stopped dancing as much, you must not care as much anymore” issue is an important one. And it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Students should feel free to nurture their outside interests if they choose or feel called to without being forced to sacrifice their technique level. But how can we feasibly make both things happen?

I know that this was a long comment but I’m curious to hear what you think. This is definitely a complex and frustratingly abstract question to pin down- so much so that I am hoping to do a semester long, independent study on the psychology and sociology surrounding the dancer’s experience. Feel free to speak to the topic any way you like- from personal experience, as a prospective classmate of someone in such a scenario, or from the dance teacher’s perspective. The more responses, the more helpful! Thanks for hanging in there through a long entry, too. 🙂

I think these are great questions, and unfortunately, I don’t see any easy answers. But let me just encourage you on this front: you can absolutely love ballet and still not make it your career.

(Although, since you recently started teaching ballet classes, it would seem that it’s at least somewhat your career. 😉 )

Just like any other extracurricular activity, your passion for what you do is most important. Whether or not you make your passion your career goal is less so. I’ve actually seen dancers lose their inspiration for dance because the conditions of their dance company don’t encourage them, don’t feed the fire inside. You may feel the same way about the environment in your dance school.

Even so, you’re still in a good position to stay passionate about ballet.

 

Acceptance

You shared that you cut back the rigor of your dance schedule, and you know you made the right choice. That is a great step towards being content with your situation, even if you don’t feel accepted by everyone in the class. Are there others like you? Anyone with whom you can share your love of ballet who don’t ascribe to the all-in or bust mentality? Finding others that think like you may help you feel more accepted.

I do understand, however, that the mentality of ballet schools can discourage approaching ballet from a purely appreciative point of view. Much of the time, ballet schools make it their main objective to win dance competitions and/or to produce professional dancers. These dancers become “badges of honor,” proof that the school is worthy, and sometimes it pushes the other dancers to feel undervalued.

This competitive mentality is somewhat normal, partly because of western culture’s strong sense of individualism and our desire to be “the best,” but it can be painful to those who might feel left behind because of this approach.

This is partly a question of attention, I believe. Who does the teacher focus on? What kind of attention do they give, and do they do their best to give to everyone equally? How does the teacher’s mindset trickle down to the students and their attitudes towards each other?

Often, there is one or a few “favorite students”, people who become examples for the rest of the class. They get more attention, and more appreciation than others in the class, and this can easily lead to jealousy and scorn from their classmates.

 

Self-understanding, inadequacy, and perfection

As a student, it’s important to be honest with yourself, especially because you are patient zero. What’s giving you a hard time in class or in the theater? Are you reacting in any ways that are unhelpful to you?

We can’t always control our surroundings, but we can look at our responses – both internal and external – to what we’re seeing in the studio and onstage. Do we feel bad about ourselves when we’re not getting any attention from the teacher in class? Are we jealous because we didn’t get a solo in the performance? Are we annoyed that it’s Grace (and not us) getting used for the 180th time to demonstrate a grand rond de jambe? Does that lead us to talk about her behind her back? Could we be happy for her or appreciative of her abilities instead?

Often these feelings of inadequacy get all mixed up with feelings of inequity in the studio, jealousy, frustration at how damn hard ballet is…

But this idea of “not being good enough” isn’t specific to you or your situation. It’s something that permeates dance culture. You can be sure that your classmates who are 100% devoted to ballet also feel inadequate while watching other talented dancers. It’s the rare dancer that is fully confident and at peace with their skills (and limitations) as dancers. I’ve written about this before, in some of my first articles on the blog: You suck at dancing and it’s your own damn fault (part 1), and You suck at dancing and it’s your own damn fault (part 2). You may have already read those articles, but they couldn’t hurt to revisit.

Another thing that permeates the dance world is perfectionism, and that is usually at the core of these feelings of inadequacy. Perfectionism can be beautiful in its own right, but we have to be careful with it. We can use the idea of perfection as a compass, but we should never think of it as a destination. Just like “north”, you can’t reach perfection, and unless you deeply understand that, you have that introspective pain you mentioned coming your way. This is another topic I’ve written about before. We have to work with our current situation in life, not the dream world we wish we were in.

None of this is to suggest that you are the only one contributing to any difficult emotions you are going through, only to offer up the thought that you may want to introspect a bit further. This can help to:

  1. Better understand where those thoughts of inadequacy and frustration come from.
  2. Help change your emotional reactions to such situations.

The first point here is crucial. The second comes naturally with time. I wasn’t able to change my approach until I really understood what was happening internally.

 

Competitiveness and jealousy

It turns out, I know jealousy pretty well.

It never materialized as aggression towards others, but it did manifest in my attitude towards myself as a dancer and as a person. I wanted to be able to do what everybody could do, and do it better than them. I didn’t want to be able to lord my abilities over anyone, but I did want to be “better.” Now, I never thought of myself as competitive, but if that’s not being competitive, I don’t know what is.

But I never quite admitted it to myself. I tried to hide it from others. In class I didn’t practice flashy tricks, because I didn’t want to look like the guy who wanted to be cool.

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Plus, I didn’t want to make mistakes and look stupid in front of others. But I invented stories around it all, so I could remain the protagonist. “I’m not practicing the flashy stuff because I need to work more on the basics,” or “God, who takes their shirt off during class? So tacky.” But I also wanted to have the freedom to do the things they were doing, and I felt inadequate when I saw someone around me do something better than I could.

There is so much that happens in the studio that we’re not aware of – until we really get to know ourselves better. If you had asked me back then, I would have stuck to my guns about my story. But once I started to understand my emotional habits, I was able to better understand myself. Only then could I start to change my approach, and use my attention in class more wisely.

Instead of worrying about what others thought about me, I was better able to just focus on what my body was doing in the moment. Not to say “problem solved,” because it’s not, but it’s better than it used to be. I’m less afraid of looking stupid, and more willing to accept my limitations.

This may be longer than you were asking for under the topic of self-help, but I think it’s always crucial to work on yourself first. Change yourself and you change the world, right?

In fact, these are all things that can help you as a teacher. These are questions you can share with your students, and I think the more we encourage self-understanding without judgment, the easier we can find mutually beneficial solutions to difficult situations. Being a teacher is a responsibility, but it’s also an opportunity to give to your students much more than just ballet technique.

 

Having our cake and eating it too

I want to address one particular question you posed: “Students should feel free to nurture their outside interests if they choose or feel called to without being forced to sacrifice their technique level. But how can we feasibly make both things happen?”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can. Technique comes with experience and time, so if we’re spending less time dancing, we’re spending less time refining and working on our craft. But maybe that’s not what you were asking.

Now, if we add other interests to our life in addition to ballet, then I think our dancing can benefit. But that’s hard to do with extracurricular activities after school – there are only so many hours during the day. But I do think it’s possible! It just requires extra good time management, and a continued dedication to ballet. And from my experience, caring parents can make a big difference here too.

Without going too in depth, I think it’s helpful to remember that you only get as much out of something as you put into it. If you’re dancing ballet 6 hours a week instead of 12, the progress you gain is going to reflect that.

So the question for many young dancers is: can you accept that?

 

Teaching class

Since you’re now a teacher, you can think about what you want to promote in your class. Of course, you want to coordinate with the School Director, but you probably have a fair amount of autonomy as well. So, my question to you: how can you change the idea that the only way to have value in ballet class is to be 100% dedicated to becoming a professional dancer?

Can you create an environment that encourages community and support for all the dancers in class? Can you recognize the individual level of each student and work with them from that point, instead of where they “should” be? Can you think of other ways to describe any corrections that haven’t gotten through?

There are many possibilities here, and rest assured that you will probably learn just as much teaching as you do as a student. When I was growing up, our School Director always used to tell the class that she wished she had start teaching earlier, because it would have made her a much better dancer. And she was pretty damn good – she danced at San Francisco Ballet Theatre.

(Here’s a link to a short video lesson of hers if you’re interested.)

 

Thinking outside the box

Beyond all of this, I think there could be other ways to structure ballet classes in order to change the mentality in the studio. But I think this would require a HUGE paradigm shift.

I’m not sure the ballet world is ready for it, but perhaps adult ballet classes could be a good testing ground for alternative versions of the top-down, teacher-leads-everything approach. Could there exist a ballet class that focuses more on group sharing and less on one teacher and their subjective opinion on the best students or the “right way”? Something more similar to accro-yoga or contact improv?

Like I said earlier, I don’t have any easy answers, and I don’t think they exist. But these are certainly interesting questions to explore, and I’m glad you’re asking them, Michaela. I think the world could use more curious minds, and your search to find answers is going to drive you forward on whatever path your life takes.

Sometimes our environment is difficult to deal with. Sometimes our classmates don’t encourage us as we’d wish, and our teacher expresses disappointment in us. We can’t let those things kill our passion for the art form. It’s important to remember why we show up to the studio in the first place. It’s because we love to dance, right?

So try each day to approach class from that place, and remember: once a dancer, always a dancer. Your joy of dance and your curiosity to learn will always be there for you, whatever life you lead.

 

 

Please feel free to respond. One of the beauties of today’s world is that you can!

 

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