Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Applying ballet lessons to writing and to life

As some people know, I not only write but I also teach ballet to teens and adults, from absolute beginners to advanced dancers. I love ballet and I truly enjoy teaching others. It's something I hope to be able to do for the rest of my life.

Not long ago, one of my students expressed surprise that I still take classes myself. My fragile ego assumed she meant I was too old to dance but then I realized she thought I didn't need to take class anymore, that I had learned everything. After all, I teach, don't I? Doesn't that mean I know it all?

No way! When you become a student of ballet - whether your goal is to perform or simply to exercise - you are a student forever. Now, as both a teacher and a student, I have come to understand that many of the lessons we learn can be equally applied to a career as a writer and to life in general.

1. Break it down. A dancer who can perform a double pirouette needs to look at the step itself and then slice it into its various parts.

Sometimes, when we look at something we want to accomplish - writing a book, for instance - it seems like a huge task. It's so overwhelming that it's hard to know where to begin. Well, break it down into steps and take it one at a time. Multiple pirouettes are daunting if you're just starting. Why would you expect your body to be able to do it all of a sudden? The final product may be complex but when you take it a step at a time, you'll find it's quite manageable.

2. Little changes can have a big impact. A dancer working on her pirouettes knows she can't whip her arms around her wildly and expect to turn gracefully or efficiently. She knows that she must change small things about her body in order to affect her turns. She'll increase the snap of her head, change her spot, lift or lower a hip, and so on. She will continue to try different things - one at a time - to see how they affect her pirouette.

The same is true in our lives. We have our goal. And it's hard to get there. And sometimes we think we need to make massive changes all at once when things don't seem to be working. Quit the job! Enroll in every writing course under the sun! Move across country! Sell the house! But what if you try one small thing first? Adjust your schedule so you have more time to write. Try one writing course one night a week. And so on. Just like the dancer, you may eventually find the thing that makes it all work for you.

3. What works for someone may not work for you. If I cross my arms over my chest and hope to turn ten times like a dancer who is studying Balanchine technique, I may be out of luck. It might work for me but more likely it won't because I'm not studying the rest of Balanchine technique.

Sometimes we look at another person who has what we want and we think, If only we follow THAT person's path, we'll get where we need to be. And then we try - and it doesn't work! Why not? Because we're not living that person's life - we're not studying his technique. And that's perfectly all right. I can learn from this person and be inspired by his success but to recreate it exactly would mean being that person. And I can only be myself and live my own life.

4. A new set of eyes can see different flaws. When I take class with a new teacher, she may see something in my technique that isn't working and give me a correction to make it work. Aha! I just need to lift my chin to make that spot better. Why didn't my other teachers tell me that? Were they not as qualified? Sometimes fresh eyes see things from a new perspective and every teacher comes with her own focus. The important thing is to continue to be open to new teachers. One of us might just give you the correction you need to make your pirouettes better.

Similarly with that book you're writing or the big change you're trying to make in your life. Being open to new possibilities - new people who can teach you different ways of doing and seeing things - means allowing yourself to see flaws and correct them. If you only do things one way all the time, you may get stuck in a rut and never get out.

5. Never stop learning. My path as a dancer is changing as I get older and I recognize that. I can't do things I used to be able to do but I can do other things better now. I am in class to learn: I am inspired by both older and younger dancers, by my teacher, by the accompanist, by myself. I look at each class as a chance to learn one more thing that will help me as a teacher or student. So what if today I can't do a double pirouette on my left? Tomorrow I might. Instead I might focus on my extension or my petit allegro. There is always something to learn.

My path - your path - as a writer, as a person changes all the time. And that's okay. What worked yesterday may not work today. What I enjoyed yesterday I may not enjoy today. But if I continue to read, continue to adjust, continue to make corrections, my path will endure.

6. The path is not a straight line. It curves and swirls and doubles back on itself much like a dancer on stage. You can't change that - nor should you want to. A good choreographer knows never to stifle the creative process. You are the choreographer. Enjoy the process.