Have you ever seen a thirty year-old ballerina’s feet? Often they’d make great subjects for pictures in a medical textbook. This is a contusion. This is a bone spur. This is keloid scar tissue. Ask any pro skater to slip off their shoes you’ll probably spot a similar collection of medical conditions fit for photography. These are some of the taxes ballerinas and skateboarders willingly pay so to enjoy small moments of grace and effortless motion. The flesh they trade is the cost for them to float momentarily in the air, a few feet above the ground, with arms raised, body in balance, their legs independent, enacting a complex choreography of timed movements, coordinated and completed just before their graceful bird-light return to earth.
Skateboarders and ballerinas delight in one of our underappreciated human traits. Grace. Scratch the surface of a skateboarder or a ballerina and they’re practically the same creature. To paraphrase a rather famous line from Raiders of the Lost Ark, skateboarders and ballerinas are just shadowy reflections of each other.
As a species, we often exhibit a bit of insanity, but rarely exhibit much gracefulness. Of course, we can be graceful. Which is how some people do crazy-ass things like this…
To be that graceful takes patience, practice, persistence, and a stubborn confidence that steels your belief you’ll pull it off. Additionally, it helps if you imagine it before you do it. Work it out in your mind.
But grace isn’t limited to ballerinas and skateboarders (or gymnasts and matadors). It takes many forms. A compliment can be exquisitely graceful. An exit can be smoothly graceful. An apology can be straight-up graceful. A beautifully balanced math equation is cleanly graceful. A flamenco dancer possess a fluid grace. It extends beyond the physical. It modifies the verb. You gracefully do something. Grace has the spirit of frugal elegance, wherein, no effort is wasted nor is it absent. There is an economy of gesture. Grace relies on everything working in unison, a sort of well-engineered effortlessness. Grace does no more or less than it has to.
Our western idea of grace comes from the Latin word- gratia. It originally meant “favor.” This explains why grace is said before meals, why it’s said that someone is in God’s good graces, or that a painting graces a wall, and that someone handles something with grace. They all suggest the original Sanskrit meaning- “he praises.” Not to be too spiritual about it, but when someone does something with grace it’s as if they return for a moment to an unblemished rawness, a virginal perfection lacking the fingerprints of clumsy and awkward conscious manipulation. They’ve moved past thought. Here, consider it in motion.
When one moves with gracefulness, they momentarily exist on that Zen level, or in what athletes call “the zone,” where the doer and the doing are one indistinguishable expression of intent and action.
Gracefulness can also look like this. Notice how there’s no “single superfluous movement.”
Smooth as that looks, the actions his body executes don’t require much conscious thought. It’s a product of repetition, a habitual series of motions performed from rote memory and guided by a sense of fluid coordination. Do you see how he uses his toes? Just as cleanly as a hawk changes directions in mid-flight to catch its prey- in that moment there is no mental dialog of considered options, no confusion over what to do and how to do it, instead there’s only decisive action. Animals aren’t neurotic. A predator moves with purpose and relies on muscle memory. For a hawk, the result is a graceful high-speed turn in mid-air. For a human, muscle memory allows one to do something like this. And again, notice how she uses her toes.
To be possessed of that much grace is a sort of freedom. A liberation through repetition. And their lack of limits or constraints is how and why they make things like this look so easy. But it’s an illusion. This is not easy.
We should all aspire to be more graceful, more often. But how do we do that? How do you achieve any sense of effortlessness in your day-to-day life? Well, let’s ask Natalie Portman. Hey, Natalie!
No. Not that one. This one.
Whoa. Hey, Natalie. So you reportedly trained extensively to portray a ballerina in Black Swan, in your opinion, is grace a product of compulsive and routinized repetition? And if one practices enough, does all their hours of effort transform into effortlessness?
Good point. Thanks, Natalie. She’s right. That’s the other part. You gotta really want it. There’s the rub- no one starts out graceful. Babies are cute but they aren’t graceful. But the good news is… to become graceful doesn’t really require obsession or compulsion, or crazy ballerina eyes. Just work to be better everyday.
Ballerinas and skateboarders share a mule stubbornness. Their hardheaded side can make them difficult people to deal with at times. They can come off as obsessive, possibly compulsive, but these very same traits push them to master a trick, learn a new move, stretch further so tomorrow they pull off what they imagine. Skateboarders and ballerinas are doomed and rewarded by their single-mindedness. They’re often obsessives (this is not a clinical diagnosis, rather it’s a colloquial designation) the sort of person who willing performs the same trick or run-through over and over again until they get it right. They are, by nature of their sports solo performers, individual athletes for the most part, yet where they practice they’re usually found in groups, all obsessing on the same tricks and run-throughs and paying for their love of grace with their bodies.
Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to paradise of the achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries, even in its sleep. There are times of complete frustration. There are daily small deaths. Martha Graham
They practice for years. Months. Weeks. Days. Hours of constant practice. And they endure multiple lifetimes of injuries and sore muscles to enjoy those tiny moments of grace. Is it all that important? Well, to ask why they push their bodies to perform would be like asking why a businessman pays a dominatrix to treat him like a dog, (a bad bad dog!). It just works for them. It’s their thing.
For both skateboarders and ballerinas, the moves they perform, they usually didn’t invent. Someone else invented them. They had to learn them. However, skaters, in particular, push the aggressive evolution of their sport. Each skater might progress what’s possible for all skaters. And in a sense, the natural limits of human ability. That statement may seem laughably grand to you. But it’s kinda true.
Skateboarding pushes natural human limits, the same way the four-minute mile was once the impossible dream in running. Like, there was this one time when Tony Hawk did a 900 degree spin on a half-pipe. It was kind of a big deal. For people who like the X Games.
It was such a big deal because how could anyone possibly spin 2 ½ times around and have enough of the transition section (the curve) of the ramp left to land and ride away? Impossible. But after a few botched attempts, he did it. And if you watched the video, you saw- the crowd went wild. Since then others have replicated the trick but when Tony Hawk did the first 900, he was doing the impossible. It’s interesting that once any one person executes a new move or technique soon others follow. What was holding them back before? Why could they suddenly complete a move that until recently seemed far beyond the reach of human ability? Were all skaters suddenly better because Tony Hawk pulled off two-and-a-half spins on a half pipe? Short answer is yes. They were. All of them. Their collective intelligence had grown. Once everyone saw it, the trick could be understood. And imitated and replicated. One could teach many to be more even more graceful. Nowadays, with online videos and cameraphones so accessible the learning curve of the community is rapid and global.
The long answer of how skateboarders and ballerinas collectively learn to be more and more graceful requires a quick explanation of how mirror neurons cells in your brain function.
Amongst the networks of neurons that comprise your brain there are a few clusters of cells called mirror neurons. They help you process visual stimuli and motor (motion/muscular) stimuli. Your whole brain is this really cool fuzzy logic machine. It’s the office space of a very quirky idea called consciousness that perceives, processes, filters, measures, adjusts, coordinates and directs nearly all of your functions, all of the stuff you experience as life. And as weird as your brain is, it’s this wonderfully exquisite learning machine. A grey bit of greatness in an otherwise rather standard squishy collection of organs.
And these cluster of mirror neuron cells are hands-down some of the coolest functions of your brain. For instance, using these cells, whenever you watch someone else do something, you passively (or actively) imagine what it would feel like to be them, to experience what you’re watching. In a movie theater, as you watch the film, up in your brain some of your mirror neurons get triggered and you feel what you imagine it would feel like to actually do the things you’re watching. This explains the subliminal joy you experience when you watch someone perform gracefully. You feel their grace. But it’s even cooler, because it’s really like you’re subconsciously bonding with them by watching their movement. It’s like a mental massage.
Mirror neurons essentially function as empathic cells, useful for imitation, emulation and sympathy. They help you feel what another person is feeling by making it far easier to detect subtle emotional cues from others. When you decipher visual signals from the thousands of micro-muscle movements of their face, you feel what they’re feeling like it’s some form of alien telepathy. Though obviously, we do all of this subconsciously. It announces itself as intuition or a hunch. We’re not really telepathic but we do experience a sort of low-level Vulcan mind meld. That’s a geeky way to describe how we interpret subtext and emotional states of others so well (and yeah, most of the time it may not seem like we’re good at it, but imagine, we could be much worse).
Mirror neurons are engines of evolution. They help you learn physically, emotionally, from subtext, even allegorically from anyone and everyone around you, and they also help you learn from what’s inside of you, such as from the characters of a novel. When we identify with a character in a story, it allows our brains to map out the neural processes required to think, feel, act, and perform as the characters do. It doesn’t matter whether what you’re watching is real or if you’re imagining a story. This makes the stories of your elders as real to you as what you experience, and thus, you can learn from them equally. That’s a huge educational and evolutionary advantage. That’s how a species like ours, a rather awkward ape other animals might view as something of a “rush job,” can learn to be as graceful as the Jesus lizard, or yes, even a swan.
When a ballerina watches her ballet teacher do a releve and lift up onto point, she imagines what that grace must feel like, and as much as is possible for her tiny body to imitate her teacher, she works out in her mind exactly how to do what the teacher is doing, and with some practice she takes leaps forward in terms of her learned grace. Our culture has experienced similar leaps of evolution. Some theorize mirror neuron cells are how we went from tree-dwellers to moon-walkers in a quick hundred thousand years.
The question is: If you have this amazing learning machine between your ears, what’s holding you back from being a little more graceful with all that you do?
Let’s consider again the habits of the skateboarder and the ballerina. Practice. Near-obsessive repetition. Willingness to get a little banged up. Check. You know, there’s always gonna be a cost for education. There will be some pain in your learning. But you can learn quickly from others, thanks to your mirror neuron cells.
If you, like me, want to become more graceful, commit to it. Whatever “it” is. Then find a way to see it being done gracefully. Watch carefully and give your mind time to interpret all the micro-details without becoming fixated like some psychotically obsessive ballerina (or meth-head skater). In your troublesome moments, pay attention to your bio-feedback (from yourself and from others). And remember, with anything, grace will require lots of practice. Like the ballerina or skateboarder, you will crash and struggle. When you do… Stop. And consider: What’s not working? Later on, imagine it all going differently. Whatever it was. This process of picturing it all going well is critical. It’s how you consciously engage your mirror neurons cells. This is what the young ballerina does stretching at the bar, and it’s what the skateboarder waiting at the skate park is doing when she’s staring at another skater in the bowl. She’s picturing her routine going well.
This visualizing part of the process gives you the confidence and intuitive understanding. If you keep pushing and practicing, you’ll eventually land the trick, you’ll do the routine flawlessly, and you’ll handle that emotional moment in your life with an effortless grace.
If you’d like more info on mirror neurons, here’s a cool TED talk with VS Ramachandran.