When it comes to dancing or exercising (or life in general), dancers are so good at the "push-til-you-puke" mindset. For some f*cked up reason we think that the more it hurts, the better we'll be. But that doesn't necessarily translate into actual reality. Especially when it comes to long-term success, it can actually take you out of the game sooner.
In our pursuit of outside perfection, of being the ideal dancer to please others and appear "good enough," we've almost completely lost touch with our bodies. What does this disconnect often lead to? Destruction. The sheer number of injuries in the dance world these days is a sign that we're not listening to what our bodies need but what others want (including our own mental demons pushing us to do more).
Now, I know what you are thinking:
How can you say that dancers have lost touch with their bodies? Dancers are so aware of their bodies! Look at the amazing sh*t we can do with them!
Well, you might be aware of how your body looks from the outside, the external image of ballet perfection you are trying to personate, but it's the internal awareness and connection that you most likely are missing. In other words, you've forgotten how to FEEL in your body - you dispassionately cut off from this organic thing you inhabit to impose your stubborn will against it. You bulldoze over your intuition (you know, that little voice telling you to stop practicing that jump when your knee feels like it's about to explode) to get what you want.
But it's precisely this internal awareness of your body that is key to your success. And it's something you lose through the years the more you rip and tear your body apart in your pursuit of the external ideal. Through traditional training, you're encouraged to constantly please others - your teachers, audience, peers, & critics. The more you lock into the bunhead identity and chase this external validation, the more disconnected from your body you get. The better you get at giving others what they want, the better you get at denying your own needs.
When you stop listening to your body, not only does it leave you vulnerable to injuries, but it prevents you from optimizing this unique tool that you have to perform your art with. As dancers, we think we're masters of our bodies; but we're just really good at sacrificing them for our art. We push them out of disregard to fit that perfect ballerina mold we think the dance world wants to see. And that destroys you - either from the inside out or the outside in.
Your long term success in your dance career requires you to nurture this relationship, this internal awareness of your body, in order to become a master of its movement. Think not only in terms of optimizing your body but preserving it. That involves listening to your body so you can work with it...not fight against it.
How do you do that?
First, in class and rehearsals, you have to appreciate that there may be some positions and moves that are anatomically impossible for your body. Respect where your limits are, and then find workarounds that are necessary for your body. So what if you don't have 180-degree turnout? So what if your à la seconde isn't up to your ear? Figure out how to manipulate what you have. Instead of copying ballet, you adapt it to your body. You still fight for your best lines...but make sure they are your best lines and not the ballet ideal that you are fighting for. It's the difference between stuffing your body into the ballet mold versus molding ballet to your body. One is destructive. The other is where true artistry comes from.
Then, when it comes to your cross-training, learn to strategically challenge yourself...without incurring unnecessary damage in the process. Most of us exercise with this "depletion" mindset where your goal is burn off as many calories or exhaust your energy stores as thoroughly as possible, leaving you spent and wasted at the end of a workout. But the problem with that kind of workout is just that - it leaves you depleted rather than enhanced.
Think of your cross-training as an opportunity to upgrade your body, enhance its parts, fortify & strengthen its joints, build its power. All of this needs to be done while minimizing unnecessary wear and tear on your body. Your cross-training mindset needs to switch from "go to the gym and kill yourself" to "go to the gym and enhance yourself." That requires you to stop pushing for external reasons (including those demons telling you to do more and more) and start listening to your body. If you learn to listen to your body, it will tell you when to stop...but also when to push. And that is a game-changer. It's this nuanced awareness that allows you to level up and stay in the game for the long haul. It's this nuanced awareness that allows you to be a master of your body.
Cultivate a relationship with your body where you treat it like your most precious experiment. Experiments require the physical act of testing, but they also require OBSERVATION. Don't let your hardcore mindset impose its will on your body while neglecting to check in with how it feels. As hardcore as you think you are....as dedicated to your ballet as you are, cutting off from your body and all its innate wisdom is not going to help you achieve your goals.
Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello