Ask yourself this question:
Am I really doing ballet to create art…or to create an ego for myself?
Take your time. Really think about it. This is the type of question that isn't necessarily fun to think about. In fact, it can be quite painful to analyze. It most likely won't be a popular topic of conversation among your peers. This stuff is hard, and most people aren't ready to dig this deep. But if you are ready for it, this is the kind of question that can change your dancing from being an anxiety ridden test of your worth to a real passion that actually fulfills you.
Honest confession time. When I was younger, I used my dancing to define me. Sure, I loved ballet. I was obsessed with everything about ballet. I was a true bunhead and dedicated so much of my life to ballet.
What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t ballet I was obsessed with. It was building an ego - the need to prove I was special & “good enough” - that I was obsessed with. Ballet was just the channel I used to get that attention and earn my worth. If I got positive feedback, lead roles, praise...I was "good" and happy. If I didn’t…I was “bad” and worthless. I was constantly searching, aching for that next hit of validation from my peers, teachers, directors, and the audience.
But the problem with basing my worth and sense of self on these external sources is that no amount of feedback or praise was ever enough. I was searching for someone or something outside to give me a sense of worth inside…rather than taking it for myself. Instead of a source of fulfillment and artistic expression, ballet became a gaping black hole of neediness, a constant test of my worth.
My drive to do well in ballet had very little to do with the art itself and much more to do with developing my ego. It took years, decades even, to mature and be able to appreciate ballet for what it is…and to start creating actual art instead of an ego with my ballet. Ironically, that maturity came with finding my self outside of ballet first before I could be a real artist inside the ballet world.
This kind of transformation takes time (or at least it did for me!). But if you can stick in the game long enough to feel the difference between doing ballet as an art versus to support your ego, you won't regret it. Maybe you grasped this concept right away and never struggled with the need to prove yourself through your ballet. But, my guess is that the majority of us are tortured by this pressure of our sense of self being explicitly tied to our ballet, which negates the joy and fulfillment this art should provide.
I see it all the time in class and rehearsals…that look of utter disappointment and disgust on your face when you fall out of a pirouette or mess up the choreography. You dance as if your entire self-worth hangs on your every move. That kind of pressure is no fun! No wonder so many talented dancers quit before they know what it’s like to truly enjoy the art they are creating.
That’s why it is so important that you don't let your body and mind burn out before you get to appreciate your ballet for what it is. You’ll have been stuck in it, obsessed with it, given so much of your life to it…but you will never have experienced the transcendence of it. Ballet is a beautiful art, but not if you use it as a tool to build your ego.
So, how do you separate your ego from your ballet? You must give yourself time and freedom to explore who you are outside of ballet.
- Let your mindset and training methods evolve from what used to work in your past (A.K.A. doing as much ballet as humanly possible, breaking your body down as you force perfect lines, thinking the more you suffer the better you’ll be). Train in a way that preserves your body. Learn how to adapt ballet to your body…rather than force your body into ballet.
- Stop being obsessed with ballet. Obsession eventually leads to boredom. When you try to squeeze every bit of ballet into your day for years on end, you eventually get to a point where you are either so frustrated with all your efforts not paying off…or you just get bored. You start to wonder what else is out there. And so you’ll quit ballet to explore. But, you don’t have to quit ballet to pursue other things in life. In fact, those "other things" can nourish your art. You just have to find a new way of training, one that doesn’t involve dedicating every waking minute to dancing.
It’s awesome to be passionate about ballet. But that can only happen once you realize you are not your ballet. The quicker you learn that and value the person that you are outside of ballet…the quicker you will be able to truly appreciate your contribution to the art. It may sound ironic, but the less obsessed you are with ballet and proving yourself through it, the better you’ll find yourself performing it. Stop using ballet to create your ego…start creating true art instead.
And so, I leave you with this to think about:
“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.”
~ from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club
You are not your ballet.
Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello