I’ve been taking a Saturday class that’s usually taught by one of two very effective teachers. It’s one of the classes for advanced students at a school that offers a pre-professional ballet track and a competitive dance track, and includes students from both tracks.
Today, our regular teacher was out sick, and the teacher who would usually cover her had a different class to run, so one of the senior students ran class for us.
The end result was quite unlike the traditional 30/30/30 ballet class I’m used to–we warmed up, then did a couple of across-the-floor exercises, and then we did jumps and turns that were largely definitely not classical, but were, in fact, a lot of fun.
Having fumbled my way into a professional career, typically I approach this Saturday class with a commitment to setting a good example both in terms of classical technique and in terms of classroom deportment. Like, in short, Serious Ballet Is Serious.
Today was different. We did jumps and turns I’ve literally never done in my life. Early on, I realized I had a choice:
- I could be vaguely annoyed that I came for a classical ballet class and was getting something else entirely.
- I could go with the flow and enjoy the class I got.
Being vaguely annoyed wasn’t going to help, so I chose option 2 … and I’m glad I did. It gave me a chance to set aside the mantle of “professional dancer” and just be a student trying new stuff and seeing how it worked.
And you know what? It was really good to be just a student (okay–a student with a killer grand battement) trying new stuff.
Because the steps we were doing often weren’t from the vocabulary of classical ballet, I didn’t waste time thinking about how to do them within the classical framework in order to try to jump-start correct execution. Instead, I just did them … including jazz turns, which are not my greatest strength, since my body typically balks at the idea of turning in parallel.
Sometimes I did the new steps well. Sometimes I did them laughably badly. Often my actual execution fell somewhere in the middle. But the whole time, I was having a blast.
In short, it was really nice to be doing something I didn’t have to be good at.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s also nice to be good at things … but the pursuit of being good at things–that is, at gaining skill–can be stressful.
As an artist, there’s a real (and necessary) pressure to pursue perfection in your medium, even knowing that perfection is literally impossible to achieve. You work to honor your medium–your artform–and to develop your skill to its maximum potential.
Sometimes, that pursuit is like a meditation–our ego gets out of the way and we just do the work, correcting what needs correcting without getting hung up in judgment and attachment to outcomes.
But a lot of the time, because we’re all human, we frown and berate ourselves as we still do that turn in second wrong and as we still pull back instead of up on the pirouette en dehors and as our footwork is still too slow in the petit allegro. And then we think our legs were great in the grand allegro, but we don’t even want to think about what our hands were doing the whole time.
When we’re doing steps from a different dance idiom, it’s a lot easier to let go of all that stuff. We know we don’t know how to do it! We don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like! We can be forgiven if something doesn’t work the first time, or if our hands are doing that weird duckface thing, or if we land on the wrong leg because our bodies are convinced that this step really, really is just a weird saut de basque.
And when we’re not worried about all that stuff, suddenly it’s a lot easier to have fun.
So it can be really fun, sometimes, to step outside your primary medium. When you know that you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a lot easier just to let go and do (hey, there’s that Beginner’s Mind thing again … hmmm).
When you try something new and different, sometimes you find you can let your hair down (metaphorically, anyway … in terms of pure practicality, when you’re dancing, it’s probably still a good idea to keep it pulled up out of your eyes so you don’t crash into the piano).
I never quite figured out one of the jumps today (I have no idea what it’s called–I should’ve asked). My body kept trying to do the saut de basque from Ali’s variation in Le Corsaire instead of … whatever the jump was actually supposed to be. I kept landing facing the wrong way and with the wrong leg in front.
And you know what? That was okay.
Nobody died! I had fun, and I found a degree of release and freedom that I haven’t felt in a while.
And because of that sense of release and freedom, there were other things I did better than I usually do them–things that you would encounter in a strictly-classical class.
There were also things I did as, erm, less-than-perfectly as I usually do, but in which I was able to figure out some of the factors that are hampering my technique. I was relaxed enough to just kind of feel my own body, without feeling the pressure to analyze my technique and try to do things well that I don’t actually know how to do well.
So this is something that, both as a dancer and as a teacher, I really need to take with me.
It’s important to hone technique and work hard. As a dancer, as an artist, that’s part of how you make progress. Sound technique gives you the tools for musicality; for expression.
But, as much as I tend to lose sight of the fact, it’s also important to relax and have fun … and sometimes, when you relax and have fun, you might even learn things that you wouldn’t otherwise learn.
Ultimately, I guess it’s a question of balance.
It’s easy to get so focused on honing your Srs Ballet Skillz that you don’t get a chance to just enjoy dancing (especially when you’re stuck dancing in your tiny basement most of the time for going on a year). But, ultimately, we dance because we love dancing.
For amateur dancers, love is the only motivation that makes sense. There are much easier and more efficient ways to get exercise, and a lot of them are much less expensive, too. There are artforms in which it’s much, much easier to find opportunities to grow and perform as an amateur artist.
Ultimately, it’s pretty much the same for professionals: you have to love dancing. Working in dance is just too freaking hard if you don’t love it more than anything else; if it’s not, in a sense, the only thing you can do.
Either way, you dance because, deep within you, something is called to dance. You dance because you need to dance; because dancing is in your blood and your bones. Because dancing is your blood and your bones.
You dance because your soul sings in movement.
Today’s class reminded me that sometimes, it’s good to just let your soul sing. And also that sometimes, while your soul is just singing to sing, you learn anyway.
I’m working on trying to dance with a relaxed upper body.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, relaxing the upper body makes it easier to lift out of the hips and so forth. It also ameliorates, to an extent, my tendency to over-engage the back muscles.
Last night, during barre, I had the weird and ultimately lovely experience of catching BW’s eye in the mirror must by chance. I was watching him (because his grand plié is breathtakingly beautiful and I was using it was a model) and he was watching me (because that’s part of the job when you’re teaching), and then we had this sort of, “Oh, fancy meeting you here!” moment.
We grinned at each-other and I sort of laughed, and rather magically my whole upper body just let go of itself in the best possible way. It didn’t fall apart, it just stopped being stiff.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this made a huge difference to the ease of my technique and the quality of my movement.
If I were to set a principle of movement as a goal for this year, I think it would be “freedom.” Central Casting Troubled Ballet Boy is a very tense individual. Oddly enough, this does not automatically beget free, expressive dance. Who would ever have imagined?
I’m not, however, actually going to nail a movement principle to my mental door. That would be essentially the equivalent of someone shouting, “Try to relax!” right in one’s ear.
On the other hand, I am going to try to be less afraid of lightness and laughter, and especially of meeting the gaze of my teacher or of another dancer(1). This has never yet ended badly for me, so why do I always behave as if it is going to result in some kind of unexpected Battle Ballet Ultimate Smackdown(2)?
- Am I the only one who does this? When The Instructor approaches, there’s like this little voice in my head that desperately mutters, “Eyes straight ahead! Don’t look! Oh, g-dohg-dohg-d…”
- Still pretty sure this is a viable idea for a TV show, though.
Anyway, I’m reminded of a conversation years ago in which a riding instructor described the kind of strength required for horseback riding as “a relaxed strength.” Even though we sometimes use our bodies in very different ways in ballet, the concept transfers well—especially in light of the fact that in both horsemanship and ballet, the upper body must be free and independent of the legs.
I thought about this principle halfway through class on Wednesday (in one of those rare moments when it happened of its own accord). I thought about it again yesterday, while spying on BW’s plié from the corner of my eye.
In other news, I have a student who has the polar opposite of my problem: she is forever dropping her upper body forward (from the hips, oddly enough). If any of you have good visualizations (like Modern L’s “your spine is like a roller-coaster” and, of course, the Summer Intensive classic, “cheetah eyes”) to help with this, I’d love to hear them!