When I have been going through hard times in my life, there is always one constant, one thing I can turn to that will offer me a moment of peace and joy. When I dance I get to transcend all the pain, the fears and the worries.
I get to become one with the movement, and I remember it’s not always about fixing everything, sometimes it is just about being fully present in that brief but glorious moment. Aside from saving me from myself, dance has taught me a lot about life.
Here are 10 things ballet can teach you about how to live:
1. Rough grace
When I used to look at ballerinas all I saw was the elegance, the grace, the art of making something look so beautiful yet so simple. The process of mastering this art form is absolutely nothing like that. It is quite literally full of blood, sweat and tears. It is gruelling – it is a lifelong commitment to a new way of living, day in, day out, without exception. You struggle through the agony, through the pain, through the never ending sacrifices. In life, we often look at people and their lifestyles and view them only as the finished articles they are. We acknowledge their achievements whilst understanding very little about their journeys.
Nothing wonderful comes without sacrifice. That person didn’t create the life they are living overnight, they have sculpted and molded themselves every day in ways we cannot begin to imagine, they have spent hours on their craft even if we don’t know it. We don’t know the path they have traveled on; we don’t know what it cost them or lost them. We don’t know who they had to become on the way. Grace is not a gift, but a decision. I have learnt there will be rough days, months or sometimes years. We must accept the lifelong commitment to molding ourselves into something beautiful. Every one of us is a constant work in progress, indefinitely.
2. Forget perfection, love the process
Ballet quickly taught me that perfection was unattainable. Sometimes you are limited by natural abilities, sometimes unfortunate injuries or setbacks can change the course of your future overnight. Even if you are the best in your field, this won’t last forever. If you master something, eventually you will be outdone. Victory is always transitory, but love is not.
If your goal in life is to master something, or to be the best at something, you will not find lasting satisfaction. But if you can find a passion, where you love the process, happiness will be yours. Never seek to master your passions, because you cannot. Find something you love so much that you gladly prevail as an amateur. That is your artistry – commit to a process of indefinite learning and revel in every step along the way.
In ballet one of the most essential things you learn is how to spot. Spotting is used to keep dancers on balance whilst doing multiple turns or turn sequences. Spotting is having your eyes focus on a specific point, and whilst turning, remaining focused on that spot for as long as possible and returning to look at that spot as soon as possible in order to keep you on balance.
This is true of life – if you have a goal, you need to know exactly where you are headed or where you want to end up before your start. Sometimes in life you need to commit to the destination and let nothing else obstruct your vision – and you will find that centers you. On any road you travel, your head will always arrive before your feet.
4. Skill is no substitute for passion
A talented dancer can steal my breath for sure, when she wows me with her turns or leaps or technique, but that doesn’t mean she captures my heart. To watch a dancer fully immerse their heart and soul into their work, however imperfect the result, that leaves me in a state of awe. In whatever you do, skill is no substitute for passion. I have witnessed people lose themselves in their art, I have witnessed souls come alive on stage, moments where an artist transcends this small moment in time – they are not mastering their art form, they are becoming it.
Whatever you love in this world, skill will be significant, that I can’t deny, but never focus so much on the mastery of skill that your passion dwindles. Make your life an imperfectly passionate performance, in everything you do. I’ve learnt that in the end we win with love – talent alone will not suffice.
5. Do not compare yourself to the world
In the world of dancing you quickly learn that you will be compared to others – relentlessly, brutally, and continually. It will make you question which parts of you are inferior and which parts of you are superior to others. It will make you want to change parts of yourself and parade others parts. No two people on this planet are born exactly the same and this is a beautiful thing.
You can pass life looking at all the things about you that aren’t quite like the next person, or you can realize you have things about you that you don’t need to learn to change, you just need to learn to love them. Those big ears, the little lines by your nose, the stubbornly frizzy hair — who cares? It’s just so pointless to compare our physical bodies to others. It’s equally pointless to compare our talents or our personalities either. Everyone started somewhere different, everyone faces unique setbacks, everyone learns about themselves in different ways.
Your journey is yours. Don’t judge yourself for not being as kind, as intelligent or as strong as the next person. Comparisons are always rooted in unworthiness. You are good enough as you are. Nobody walked your path, nobody knows your challenges. And you don’t know anybody else’s either. When we stop comparing, we stop judging, and when we stop judging we create the freedom to be who we are and love others exactly as they are.
6. Output is directly proportional to effort
Some moves in ballet literally took me years to master, others I still haven’t got right. Nobody wakes up one day able to do 32 fouettes. Nobody has the perfect grand jeté on their first attempt. Output is always, always, always directly proportional to your effort. The amount of time you put in will always determine the quality of your output. Sometimes it takes years and years and years of effort with very little ‘output’ to show for our work, but in the end, the two are directly correlated. Just remember that output is not only measured in terms of results, it is who you become because of the path you chose.
7. Your pain will make you grow
My first pair of pointe shoes killed me, they were excruciating. My toes were blistered and bleeding, but I understood that pain was a necessary stepping stone. I knew it marked the beginning of a new chapter and that my feet would hurt, but they would grow strong. The pain of injuries taught me the same thing, Rumi states ‘the wound is where the light enters you.’ Nothing could be truer; any injury is an opportunity to strengthen ourselves. It is a chance to realign, to be kind to ourselves, to heal. In life, your setbacks will be an opportunity to realise how resilient you are, how persistent, how determined.
I know pain and suffering is a part of life – it is inevitable. It will break you at some point, whoever you are, however strong. Just remember that when life knocks you down hard you realise how willing you are to fight to get up again. Use your pain, because each of us will have our fair share and some of us more. Your pain will either define you or you will define it. I don’t believe that ‘everything happens for a reason,’ some terrible things will happen and you won’t be able to find meaning in all of them, but you can assign meaning to any of them. Make your worst moments the ones that marked the beginnings of your best moments. Your pain will make you grow, if you let it.
8. Strength is built not found
You don’t look for strength as a dancer, you build it, hour by hour, day after day, for weeks and months and years. Life is the same — you don’t find strength — that is a common misconception. You build strength. It is a daily commitment. You choose every day what thoughts you feed yourself. You choose to look for the opportunities in every loss, the positives in every failure. You commit to waging wars against your worries and doubts, knowing that you will lose many times before you win.
You learn only through experience that you will rebuild yourself many times and you eventually become okay with that. And sometimes building strength is quiet – sometimes it is just saying you will try again tomorrow.
9. Your vulnerability is your power
If you want to captivate your audience you wear your heart on your sleeve and your emotions in your eyes. Whatever joys or sorrows you’ve lived, you carry them in every step, share them in your every gesture. That is what it takes to be an artist. It takes bravery to be so vulnerable. You expose all of the rawest parts of you to the world – for judgement, criticism or appreciation, for whatever they will. And if you dare to live life as boldly as this, no doubt you will face criticism, judgement and rejection in love, in work and in anything else you do. But you have to be willing to continually forget what others think of you.
Be vulnerable — it creates an opportunity for life and people to truly destroy you, but when you throw your whole heart out to the world, one day someone might catch it, and you will understand why vulnerability is the only way to truly live. Whether you are breaking or healing, fulfilled or in despair, share your whole heart. Life is not a show – there is no character for you to play – it is your vulnerability that tells others to wear their hearts on their sleeves, to speak of their dreams, to find a little hope, to be bold enough to make mistakes and to fail.
Your vulnerability is your greatest gift — when you expose the best and worst of you to the world, you give others permission to do the same. Then we all help to create a world in which nobody feels the need to downplay their talent, and nobody feels the need to hide their weaknesses. We all get to live rather than act.
10. You make your own music
My ballet teacher always used to tell me that one of the worst mistakes to make would be to stop dancing if the music skipped or stopped. Since then I hum the music in every piece. And when it does stop it’s easier to keep going because it’s still playing in my head. In life there will be times when the music stops – everything around you that was guiding you, everyone who was keeping you going, everything you had based your story on, it’s taken from you.
You will experience loss, you will experience grief, and you will experience heartbreak. Something so beautiful must reside in you, something that keeps you going when everything else is over. You just have to keep on humming that tune; you have to keep counting those beats till the music comes on again. And I promise you, the music will come on again. In the meantime, make your own music.