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Ballet Lessons: Don’t Try So Hard

A while ago I wrote about the amazing concept of letting it happen. This week I’m writing about not trying so hard, which might actually be a subset of “letting it happen.”

I had to think about how to explain what I mean. The key, for me, arrived in the form of my Awkward Développé Moment. I realized that sometimes I perform better when I’m just not trying as hard – like when I’m just marking a combination, and I’m not worried about “getting it right.”

I dance gracefully when I’m just messing around between combinations or at home or in the club. I dance less gracefully when I’m trying too hard in class. All that focus makes me tense and tight, and I lose the fluidity that makes ballet, well, ballet.

The same idea applies outside the studio. I had a really hard time learning the subtler social skills, so I have come to rely on a consciously-programmed at of social algorithms instead. Sometimes, this means I get really hung up in the rules, and I try too hard, and I come off as a stiff, arrogant jerk.

When I can convince myself to relax in unfamiliar social settings, though, I can actually be pretty charming. Weird, yes, but a charming kind of weird! And it’s so much easier, and more natural, and — well, more graceful, actually.

I think trying too hard is really epidemic among younger people. I’ve noticed that many of my friends who are in their sixties seem mostly to have overcome that tendency. They’ve had time to really absorb and embody the idea that, most of the time, it’s not worth freaking out.

They’re sparkling, interesting characters (and often very good cyclists or dancers!) and they just don’t seem to get caught up in trying so hard. This makes them really fun to talk to, ride with, and dance with — and I bet it makes their lives easier, in a way.

So I think maybe those of us who are younger should take a page from their playbook and try harder not to try so hard (I couldn’t resist the paradoxical phrase!).

This doesn’t mean, by the way, “Don’t go to class,” or, “Don’t make an effort.”

I wanted to do an extra class this morning, and I didn’t because I had bike issues and was insufficiently organized to fix them on time. I didn’t make it to class, and I’m sure I learned less sitting on my behind at home than I would have in class even if I was trying too hard the whole time.

It does mean that we should somehow learn to temper effort with grace. When we focus too hard on doing it right, we get in our own way.

This is probably the number one lesson for me right now. I’m absolutely a perfectionist, and I think that’s more often a weakness than a strength. You can build technique by successive approximation, but no amount of making faces and clenching your jaw will make it happen any faster.

Ballet sort of happens on its on schedule. Come to think of it, so does life. As dancers and cyclists and human beings, we don’t do ourselves any favors by trying so hard.

At the end, maybe it’s all about mindfulness (as it so often is). It’s about being here, now, with this awful pirouette from fourth instead of not-here, not-now, with the beautiful pirouette from fourth that will happen someday if you just stop worrying about it so much.

Of course, that’s hard to do. The whole of Zen practice has grown up around how hard that is! But it’s good to do hard things (like mindfulness, intentional sissons, or beautiful pirouettes from fourth). Hard things make us grow, if we relax and allow it to happen.

So that’s it for now. I think now I’ll go ride my bike without making faces or clenching my jaw 😉

Ballet Lessons: Don’t Think So Much

I’ve noticed something in ballet class: when I stop thinking so darned much, I dance better — sometimes much better.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Zen teachers have been harping on about this for ages now: quiet the monkey mind. Be Here Now.

Proponents of other meditative paths, from Catholic mysticism to just plain ol’ secular meditation, say the same thing. Your mind has to be quiet if you’re going to hear that still, small voice, and so forth.

As people living in the modern world, we’re raised to trust our minds above all else. Wisdom, we think, resides in those billions of neurons; in the chemical sparks jumping the gaps between them. We can best solve problems, we imagine, by thinking about them.

Yet, sometimes, we do our best thinking when we’re not thinking at all.

And I know that I, for one, do my best dancing when I’m not thinking at all.

Not to say there’s anything wrong with thinking — far from it. After all, when we imagine, impart, or learn choreography, that’s thinking. And when we analyze our strengths and weaknesses, that’s thinking, too — but maybe it’s thinking that’s best done after class, after the performance, after we take off our shoes.

During class or on stage, sometimes we do best when we leave the thinking behind — when we make space in ourselves for the still, small voice to move out into the world (where sometimes it becomes sort of a big, loud voice).

Thinking is great. Without thought, we wouldn’t have made it very far as a species.

Sometimes, though, the best thing we can do is stop thinking and let our minds get out of the way.

Sometimes, when we do that, we can really surprise ourselves.

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