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Ballet Lessons: Don’t Make It Happen. Let It Happen.

I danced as a kid, and I loved dancing.

If I think back, part of what I loved so much about it was the sense of freedom. My childhood ballet teacher was really good at teaching sound technique without turning her students into a herd of little automatons. She guided and shaped us while keeping our innate freedom and joy in movement intact*.

As a kid, I had absolutely no sense of limitation (this was probably both my greatest personal gift and my greatest personal curse!). It never occurred to me to question whether I’d be able to execute any given step — I just did it, and it just happened. It didn’t occur to me that pirouettes or tour jetés “should” be hard for a little kid. They were just variations on the stuff that I did in gymnastics or when I was playing.

In short, though I probably couldn’t have verbalized it back then, I felt like all these movements were already in there, and all I had to do was let them out**.

In other words, I didn’t make them happen. I let them happen.

On what is probably the best ballet forum I’ve ever seen, Ballet Talk for Dancers, a recent thread discussed the question of sweat (yes, sweat: if you dance, you know these feels, too!).

One respondent dispensed a bit of wisdom she’d heard from presenters at a workshop for ballet teachers:

in classical ballet, dancers shouldn’t so much make their bodies execute movements as let their bodies execute the movements.

A light clicked on in my head. Of course! This is what I’ve been doing so very, very wrongly since I returned to the studio back in March. I’ve been trying to make things happen. In those rare moments that dancing has felt like it used to, it’s because I’ve switched from making it happen to letting it happen.

When you switch from making it happen to letting it happen, all the tension that can plague serious ballet students — especially serious adult students — drops away. Suddenly, you can move freely. You can interpret. You can smile. You can glissade-assemblé without making faces.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.

Deep in the roots of Zen practice — indeed, in Buddhism itself — is the idea that control is an illusion. The harder we grasp at it, the more difficult life becomes.

The same idea crops up in other philosophies, as well — from the Twelve-Step movement’s “Let go and let G-d” to Christianity’s “Consider the lilies of the field” to the broader, new-wave “Go with the flow.”

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to do things — just that we should, perhaps, try to do them with less gnashing of teeth. As in those moments on the bike when a headwind or a hill appears: we can make ourselves ride it, tense and miserable, or we can accept that it’s part of the road we’re on, and let ourselves ride it.

With my bipolar disorder, I can either grit my teeth, resist my own nature, and make my life happen (with exhausting effort and the attending misery and crankiness), or I can accept that I am what I am and learn to work with it.

This does not, of course, mean just rolling over and quitting, any more than just “letting it happen” on the dance floor means not dancing. It means, instead, tapping into the strength and grace that are already there, planted within the depths of my being — and using what I have been given.

I hope this makes at least some kind of sense.

At least where my dancing’s concerned, this may be the single best piece of advice I’ve encountered as a returning adult student. After replying to the thread, I got up, went to the kitchen (where there’s exactly enough space for a small glissade-assemblé or a few chainés turns), took a deep breath, and let myself toss off a lovely little glissade.

It felt really good. In fact, it felt a lot like dancing used to, before I started coming to it with an agenda and a sense of how I “should” go about it. In class, “letting” ballet happen made all the difference.

So perhaps in I’ll work on letting it happen instead of making it happen.

And perhaps I’ll try to apply that lesson to the rest of my life as well.

*Curiously, looking back, this may be one of the reasons that while some of us really thrived, a couple of students I knew left after a year or so. They were both heavier kids who had already learned to feel uncomfortable with their bodies; to be expected to move freely in a class environment where traditional body-conscious ballet kit was the uniform of the day might have been too much for them. That’s something I’ll need to keep in mind in my own future practice.

**This, by the way, is how good dressage training operates in the equestrian world: you’re never teaching a horse to do something unnatural; if you watch horses enough, you’ll see them execute all kinds of advanced dressage maneuvers, from canter pirouettes to glorious collected trots, as they go about their horsey lives (that is, when we’re not messing with them). As riders and trainers (and every ride is training), we don’t make these movements happen. We teach the horse to let them happen.

The “making it happen” approach pretty much reaches its zenith in the the peanut-roller style of “pleasure” horse (well … and in some subsets of park/saddleseat and gaited horses). You’ll rarely see a horse at liberty move that way. The same goes for poorly-trained saddleseat horses or hunters and even poorly-trained dressage horses: with a little experience, you can spot a horse that’s been forced into an unnatural frame.

Unfortunately, when every horse in the ring has been forced into an unnatural frame, the judges still have to pin the ribbons on someone, and in some parts of the country sound training is so rare that the show circuit unintentionally conspires to perpetuate really weird ideas of how hunters or “country pleasure” horses or dressage horses should move.

But, um. Enough horse-nerding for now.

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