April 24, 2011

Pat Yourself on the Back Already!

Why is it so hard to accept praise, or more to the point, believe the positive? When your teacher tells you to pull up, to stretch your knees or that there should be more energy in your dancing, there is no doubt in your  mind that she is not right. However, when that same teacher tells me my moves are good, nice or beautiful, I think she´s just being encouraging. You know, doing her job and all that. Positive feedback from the teacher is among the most important things in ballet class, and I love getting praise as much as the next dancer. It tells me that I´m at least doing something better, if not right. But beautiful? Good? Nah, whenever I hear those appraisals, all I´m thinking is that my teacher is being very nice.

Ballet is all about the pursuit for perfection. And yet nobody ever thinks of themselves as perfect. Not the gifted, not the professionals, not the talent-in-waiting. Not even the Rojos, Polinas, Ferris or Corellas of the ballet world (or so I assume, based on any interview from any dancer I´ve ever read). It´s a complete mystery to me, because I think they are all amazing, gorgeous and perfect in every possible way! I guess you can keep rising that bar(re) so high that it will take a pair of wings and immortality to ever get there. Then again it is exactly that pursuit of the presumably unattainable which makes ballet the most  beautiful and exhilarating artform to watch! And let´s be real here.. Would not ultimate and flawless perfection rob you of the excitement, the element of surprise, and of those sweet moments when everything comes together? After all, ballet is a living art, not for robotic bodies or minds.

Kirsty Martin of Australian Ballet, photo Tim Richardson.

I have to admit that I suffer from the occasional bout of perfectionism. Combine that with its cousin procrastination and it´s a less than productive combo.. In college I had the hardest time finishing my written assignments on time. I could spend endless hours tweaking sentences and chapters, never being quite happy with the final outcome. Putting the work off as far as possible gave me the necessary impetus to get going, and the pressure to write the perfect awe-inducing paper was off. Procrastinating also meant I would never have to find out if having done it all on time would have been good enough in the end. In a sense that is why ballet is ideal for me, because there is no chance for procrastinating. You can dance only in the moment, do the pirouette or leave the floor.. But the quest for perfectionism does get to me.

In Finnish there is a saying that goes tieto lisää tuskaa. I know there has to be an equivalent in English, but basically it means that the more you know the more you suffer. When I started ballet, I was a blissfully ignorant tabula rasa, which come to think of it, not at all a bad thing. I understood that the advanced and pro crowd was in a world of its own, and that our adult beginners class was a mere approximation of the art of ballet. I also knew that I would never have been on a road to professional dancing, so no expectations, no pressure. That is until I became desperately hungry for more!

The perfect Tamara Rojo. Photo: David Sandison.

After less than two years I started taking classes as much as 6-8 per week, reading up on ballet history, going to every live performance I could afford, and quite frankly, becoming pretty obsessed with ballet. I loved how dancing had changed my body and the perception of myself. I was healthier, happier and I had great fun with my fellow dancers. However, I was also becoming increasingly frustrated, about not having a natural body for ballet. I am not super flexible, my turn-out is mediocre at best and I sure don´t have the look of a ballet dancer. This started to bother me more and more, even though I was a recreational dancer, in it for the joy! But I wanted to be proud of my work, blend in with the good girls and be that beautiful dancer I had always dreamed of being. Finally, when I was going through rough times in my personal life, I no longer had the motivation to dance and quit.

Photo: Gene Schiavone
I came back some five years ago after not dancing for three years. This time I was as excited as I had been for the first time around. I delighted in every muscle that I rediscovered, and in every little progress I made. My old teacher gave me a warm welcome, and even though I had put on a lot of weight I was not embarrassed about my body, not like I thought I would be. Then, somewhere along the road, I surprised myself. I had new teachers pushing me to go further, and so I went. I advanced past my former level. My extensions are now higher, my turns have (sometimes) tripled, my jumps are bouncier, my technique is over all better. I have also learned to accept my limitations and can handle my occasional frustrations. Guess I have grown up. 

Most importantly, I enjoy my dancing more than ever. There are even those rare moments when everything comes together, and I feel like a real dancer. And this is the biggest revelation of all: when my teacher tells me to present myself, to be sensuous and elegant, I know I do not have to be perfect in every way. I can still become the beautiful dancer I have always wanted to be! So I´m standing in front of the mirror, my former twentysomething pressure-cooker looking right back at me. She´s telling me to take a deep breath and go pat myself on the back already. Well done, and good girl!

Picture above post: Beautiful, amazing Polina Seminova, photographer unknown.


  1. Ballet is all about perfection...

  2. I love your comment about accepting criticism without question, but doubting praise. I think only a ballet dancer could have said that!

    I've always had the same feeling, but now (in my old age) I've taken up belly dancing and notice the young beginners have no tolerance for criticism. Teachers who point out faults are liable to lose their students! It annoys me, because there is a lot of technique in belly dance, too, and the Gen Y beginners think they can just "get" it without correction.

    I wonder if it's the same in ballet class these days?

  3. Hi Marisa!

    I suspect that all ballet dancers are perfectionists to a degree. Also, when you stop questioning yourself and become too complacent, how do you progress and grow? As long as you don´t go overboard with self-criticism!

    That´s interesting what you said about belly-dancing and younger beginners having no tolerance. Corrections are not a personal attack, or critique of one´s personality - it´s supposed to help you become a better dancer! Who in their right mind would not want that? I have to ask a ballet-dancing-belly-dancer friend of mine to comment here too. Maybe she can give more insight, especially since she is also a teacher.

    It certainly is not the same in ballet class. Sure, there are people who don´t like to be corrected or who think they know it all. But those are really the exceptions. Everyone understands that without coaching and corrections there can be no advancement. Actually getting those coveted corrections is always good!

    Thank you for your comment. :)

  4. Thanks for sharing! Great observations. It is said that "perfect is the enemy of good"... that sometimes perfectionism can get in the way of a number of things: satisfaction, progress, etc. I guess the mystery is to strike a happy balance, whatever that is for each person. Glad that you went back and are able to enjoy ballet even more than before!

  5. Hi Jeff!

    "Perfection is the enemy of good" - that quote is very much to the pointe! I had a friend who would practice pirouettes in her living room, but in class she very rarely pushed herself beyond one. She could not go to class if she feared she would fail, and always made a silly spectacle of herself when she made even a small mistake. Like, who cares? Everybody is just trying their best and no one is there to judge you! Eventually she quit. Has not come back. Avoids me because I did and am doing well..

    I am still very critical of my dancing, but now I understand that it really is a work in progress. You know, more than the sum of its parts. I am very happy I went back, one of the best adult decisions I ever made!

    Thank you for your comment :)

  6. You truly are an inspiration!!!
    Keep up the good work <3

  7. Another 30-something adult ballet-er here...I found your blog linked from Adult Beginner and I am thrilled to find "my own kind" here on the internet :)

    First of all, this post rang completely true for me...perfectionist, accepting of criticism but not compliments, AND I am half Finnish (mother's side) :) It takes sisu to pursue ballet as an adult, both physically and even more, mentally and emotionally to keep it all in balance and enjoy the journey. I look forward to reading more of your great blog!

  8. Ballet is not all about perfection. Because no one is perfect.

  9. And if ballet is all about perfection, does it mean that I can't dance ballet?
    I mean that atleast I'm not perfect... Don't know 'bout u...

  10. If you read closely, I wrote that nobody is perfect, but that it is about the pursuit of perfection and the bars we keep setting for ourselves. Some of us have the tencency to be perfectionists, that means we have a harder time being ever completely satisfied. But I have finally gotten better at excepting my many, many flaws.

    You see, I am far from perfect. And perfection in ballet is really a very abstract idea, not tangible at all. Nobody is perfect, yet everyone is beautiful and special in their own unique way. I am pretty sure I made my point very clear on this?

  11. Hi Kaija, so happy you found my blog!

    Yes, you understood my point and that I´m writing about being overly critical of one-self and the perfectionism that is not a rare plague among ballet dancers. Someone else seems to have interpreted this post differently, like I´m saying that you have to actually be perfect to be a ballerina!

    You are so right, it does take sisu! As well as a healthy dose of self-confidence, plus lots of drive and determination. And let us not forget Passion!

    So much fun meeting you here, Kaija! And thanks for your comment :)

  12. I think the key difference in perfectionism, the kind that you write about in this post, is that it arises from within and is internally directed only...I am a perfectionist because I tend to expect perfection from myself (not from others) and and overly critical of myself (not of others) while simultaneously being aware that perfection is not often realistic or healthy. Instead, I try to adjust my inner monologue to "progress, not perfection" and assess myself to the standard of "would I say this/expect this/make this judgement to a goof friend or classmate?" I am so harshly critical to myself but am more compassionate and balanced towards others...I need to reconcile this and that is the challenge of perfectionism. I highly resent any OUTSIDE message that I must be perfect yet I berate myself with that message...that is the disconnect that some readers may be reacting to.

    Having high standards is good; having impossible standards is not...and I like the way you described it here :) Some personality types just seem drawn to activities like ballet!

  13. Kaija, I could not have written it any better than you just did! It continuously amazes me how much alike we (dancers) can think!

    I might view any dancing with a critical eye, but I always find the greatest joy in seeing enthusiastic and hard-working dancers (pro or recreational) do what they love to do best. Regardless of perfect-or-less-than technique. You really cannot put parameters on passion!

    Still, I try my best to improve as much as I can. You know, be a better dancer than myself. Every day, every time. Today it might be the placement of my heel, tomorrow about more ballon in my jump. The real fun in ballet is making all these new discoveries, not worrying whether I´ll ever be "good enough"! Just took me a while to get here :)

    Thanks again for your very well written and insightful comment!

  14. I love your blog.. Nothing to say more..:)


To That Special Ballet Teacher

To that special ballet teacher, who not only teaches you about technique, but helps build your confidence, nurtures your inner artist, ...