(results not typical)

Alternate title: Progress in mirror is farther/closer than it appears (like those warnings on car mirrors, but more lame)

This is a post that I’ve been sitting on the fence about writing for a while now, a couple months at least. The reason for the delay is mostly because I was so ridiculously busy, and I didn’t want to just write whatever I could slap together in spare moments and have it be misconstrued. Also, I wanted more time to think about it, to possibly pull myself out of whatever dark mood I may have been in that would have me thinking those things – if after giving it time I still had something to say then maybe there was something to it. Or, as always, perhaps I’m just weird.

Anyway. Ramble start:

Whenever a classmate in class compliments me, or asks me to help them with their ballet after class, whatever they’re struggling on (port de bras, ballet walks, balancing, etc.), something I always do is mention how long it took me to “unlock” said skill.  Why? Because it’s the truth.

I don’t know what it has to do with exactly, perhaps my childhood and how I was never good at anything athletic or physical. I just feel a need to acknowledge how much work – how much sweat and tears  – went into it, above all feel the need to clarify that I am not “good”, that I instead worked so extremely hard for however far I’ve gotten.  As a child I was told I had flat feet, as a child I would fall over if I tried to run quickly (I found out recently this was possibly because of my hyperextension and locking my knees), my posture was terrible (my mom would call me “the vulture” as I sat in my characteristic pose, hunched over a book), I was extremely inflexible and clumsy, all that stuff I always write about. But people in class, they don’t know all this – all they see is that they are brand-new beginners and I seem to know what I’m doing.

So, I tell them. And – this part’s really hard for me to explain, without this turning into a novel – I honestly believed that I was telling them for their own benefit as much as for mine. For me, it’s an opportunity to set the record straight, for them, a way of lowering the pressure on them – like, ‘of course you can’t do it yet, it takes this long!’ (no, I did not say that part out loud). You see, I have this annoying urge to be helpful. Whenever I see an underdog, I root for them. It’s just my nature – perhaps because I’ve grown to identify with the underdog, not with the “winner”. I’m the kind of person who has screwed myself over to help someone else out – whether this is a quality or a character flaw is still to be determined or debated. But, what I’m trying to illustrate is that I want nothing but the best for my fellow dance students, want them to meet goals as I have, and if there’s an opportunity to help out after class or something, I’m all over it. (And no, I’m not annoying and go up to people unsolicited and start offering my opinion or anything like that.)

Then one day, as I explained to a classmate how to pas de bourre (and, what helped me, and how long it took to get, and how she’s already so much better at ballet than when I’d only been ballet-ing for three months like her) in the locker room after class, I had a thought: what if I’m not helping them out by telling them all it took, what if, if anything, I’d been hindering their progress?

This thought didn’t come completely out of nowhere. The night before, I’d watched a video on youtube about a late starter who had started ballet at 17, having never danced before, and was now in a pre-professional school two years later, and planning to audition for a company in another two. Not only that, she didn’t even take a class more than twice a week for about the first year.So here I am telling brand -new beginners that it took me two years to have a stable-ish balance on releve on two feet, and still can’t pirouette on most days, so ‘don’t worry about it, it takes time’. For those classmates who are still young enough to have a career as a dancer, am I better off keeping my progress – or lack of – to myself?

From reading the comments, people were saying that that young lady’s story is “inspiring”. Maybe it’s because I can’t relate but … I just can’t relate – I mean it’s cool and that’s great for her and all that, but I can’t say I feel inspired. When I was a very discouraged brand-new beginner, stories about people starting from “zero” (which now I know really meant that they had done a different style of dance, or at least musical theater in childhood, or color guard during high school – basically, it wasn’t from couch-potatoland, it was from something athletic) and making it to a career – which apparently my regular school has had a few off  – were not inspirational; instead they made me wonder what was wrong with me. But then, even if I had started a decade earlier, I wonder if I would have improved faster. Probably not, given how I was in even worse shape then, but if I knew then everything I now know… well, I do wonder at what could’ve been…

Anyway, I feel a little guilty for not being inspired by the story, like I’m being an immature envious little brat, which I probably am.  I hate it when I have irrational feelings like that about ballet progress, but as much as I try to talk rationality into myself sometimes the class environment brings out competitiveness – and insecurities.  I will continue to work on it.

In the meantime, perhaps I should keep my stories of slow progress to myself? I fluctuate between ‘ yes, stop for the common good!’ and ‘no! I have a right to share my side of it, and besides, they did ask me for help’, tell myself that I’ll just keep the explaination factual, but before I know it I managed to have a conversation with some one – not just someone, but several people (which is a feat for me in of itself) – and it came up how long I’ve been dancing and all that. And the whole time I’m like ‘oh my gosh – people actually want to talk to me! It’s so bizzare and I feel somewhat guilty for almost enjoying it, thinking ‘if this is how things had been a couple decades ago or more perhaps I wouldn’t have this fear of people and terrible anxiety and self-doubt. Maybe that’s what they mean in all those ads for ballet for children about developing confidence!’ and then I have to stop that train of thought because, honestly, unless there’s a time machine available to me there is absolutely nothing I can do about the past, so I may as well not waste more time dwelling on it.

At least I’m dancing now – at last – and at a skill level that I don’t mind most days (the exception would be on audition days). I dance and I’m happy, inspired by the music.

24 thoughts on “(results not typical)

  1. Sarah Doudna

    Since I’ve been teaching I’ve been amazed at how different people are, how different their bodies are. A dancer will tell me she studied when she was six and stopped now she’s an adult and she’ll dance and move like a professional and someone else will say the same thing and not be able to stand up straight. I think a lot has to do with early development, crawling, genetics, and things over which we have no control–or like you said, things that are past. One dancer will struggle with tombe pas de bourre. Another will pick things up their first day that blow me away. Jealousy is normal and human and I admit I feel a little the same way about these success stories. And then there is the mind. Some people have lots of confidence and others just don’t. I wish I knew why that was.

    1. kit Post author

      Some good points…great to hear the perspective of a teacher.
      For what it’s worth, I never managed to learn to crawl, and was around 20 months old when I finally learned to walk. I guess I’m doing ok for myself, all things considered.

      1. Sarah Doudna

        Very interesting. If you want to read about it, there are lots of articles about functional training and specifically crawling can help adults train their bodies. I learned about this from a ballet teacher training I did with a physiotherapist, and then again at my gym!

  2. Trippmadam

    In my opinion this 17year old is not very talented but also very lucky. We all know that normally things do not run smoothly like that. For most people, it is a struggle. Dance as well as life. As my teacher said: blood, sweat and tears. I’d rather have someone like you tell me: yes, it is hard work and it will take time, but with lots of diligence and effort you will come through. I tend to get frustrated if Little Miss Perfect demonstrates a step saying “oh, this is so easy, really!”, while I still struggle with telling my left from my right foot. I tend to ask those fellow students whom I know as hard workers, not the naturals.

    1. kit Post author

      Yes, the more someone gos on about how easy it is to do something – especially something that’s really not coming to me – the more I get frustrated that I can’t figure out. I much prefer it when people acknowledge the effort and time it takes.

  3. asher

    From what I’ve seen, it seems like “don’t worry, this took me forever to learn” is really helpful for a lot of dancers (particularly adult students, who tend to be very focused and self-critical). Maybe not all of them, but many.

    One of the things that seems to happen frequently — both with my peers in ballet and with my dance-for-aerialists students — is that they get really hung up on trying to do a thing exactly right, and it gets in the way of doing other things (not just technique things, either — things like having fun and actually dancing, which can be surprisingly important even in performances).

    Sometimes it makes an enormous, visible difference when they ask about some technique thing and hear, “Don’t worry — you’re doing really well! It took me forever to learn this.” It’s like a light comes on in their eyes, and they think, *Oh, I don’t have to be perfect, yet!* and they relax a little, which helps them get out of their own way. Sometimes, it even works better than actual technical advice.

    I can say that I’ve found this sort of thing immensely helpful coming from my instructors and classmates — there’s nothing quite like hearing one of the company’s principles, a dancer who you respect and admire enormously, confess that his turns were horrible for years, and that he still has to work on them and think about them.

    For me, at least, it isn’t discouraging — it’s inspiring. It makes me feel better about the inconsistency of my own turns, and that helps me not go into the pirouette combination thinking, “All right, here goes nothing, wonder how I’m gonna hose this up this time?”

    I hope this is useful. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, too, since I somehow learned how to carry my arms (regarding which: they still totally do crazy backwards things occasionally, but at least they do so in nice shapes, now?) and I’m forever saying, “No, seriously, this has basically taken my whole life; you’re progressing so much faster than I did!”

    1. kit Post author

      That whole wanting-to-do-it-exactly thing so resembles me. It’s not so much my perfectionist tendencies – though they play a part – but the fact that if I don’t get told exactly what to do with, say, my arms, during a specific step I feel like I don’t know what to do with them, and then they either get in the way or I feel super awkward (hooray for teachers that just have you put hands on hips). So when I know what I’m *supposed* to be trying to do, even if I’m not there yet, I feel less awkward than just not trying to do it. I agree that it can get in the way of important things like having fun unfortunately.
      Wow, hearing from a principle that they struggled with turns for years too sounds super encouraging! I’m going to remember that one for when I’m feeling down on my turning (lack of) ability. And you’re right – that’s definitely inspiring, not discouraging.

      1. asher

        >>(hooray for teachers that just have you put hands on hips)

        Yes, this! I definitely find it helpful when I’m learning complicated steps or combinations of steps.

        We did this with our dance-for-aerialists class today. They’re learning pas de chat, and the legs are enough to think about, there (also, if the hands stay on the hips, the shoulders are less likely to try to “help” with the jump, as they sometimes do).

        They did a great job absorbing it (I wish I’d thought to demonstrate it that way, but at least Aerial A thought to say, “…And I want you to do this with your hands on your hips!”). I think not having to worry about that element helped them relax, which helped them get the movement down.

  4. Dancing Dork

    Hi Kit! I recently found your blog and I love that you share your experiences this way. It makes me feel better about many beginner troubles! 🙂 I also tell people that it took me a while to learn something, because when I was just starting out in a mixed jazz class, looking at the more advanced people was extremely discouraging and I *wish* someone would have told me “I used to struggle just like you do”. You realise in theory that everybody has to start somwhere, but when you see someone dance really well it’s all just so hypothetical. Maybe it’s inspiring for some that that girl learned so much in just two years, but I think it can also be discouraging when you discover you aren’t making progress quite as quickly.

    I also take dance classes with a lot of people over 40 who are prone to say “you can do this because you’re young, but I will never be able to learn any of this”. It’s definitely true that things get (sometimes much) harder with age, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make progress at age 40 or 50 or 60 or that I just waltzed into the studio one day and was instantly good at things because I’m 26. I wish there was a way to explain this without sounding like an arrogant young person… I’m always sad to see someone give up after six weeks or so when it took me three months to notice progress.

    So I think you are right to tell people that it takes time to master a certain technique. If they learn it faster than you did, it might even boost their self-esteem. 😉

    1. kit Post author

      Hi there!
      Glad to hear that reading about my ballet experiences has been helpful. When I first started I wish someone had told me about the beginner struggles too (especially how long the “beginner” stage lasts). I totally get what you mean about how you know everyone started as a beginner but the way they dance now just makes you forget. Most of the people I know who are really good have been dancing for at least a decade, since they were children with or without breaks, so they don’t really have a frame of reference for when they were a a brand-new beginner. Most beginners I meet do end up quitting after weeks or months, and do tend to expect much progress quickly.
      At my regular school most of the dance students are between 18-22, so I’m the older student by a decade or so, but at other studios I dance at there are adults of all ages. I have seen people improve a little at drop-in classes at the other studios, but then they stop coming to class. I think that the way my regular school works, with us pre-paying for the whole session of classes, gives a little more incentive for finishing out the session instead of quitting after a few weeks. If it hadn’t been for that I don’t know if I would have lasted the first three months, to be honest (I probably wouldn’t have gone to my second class…). If people at my regular school improve quicker on average than at the drop-in classes I think it’s due more to regular class attendance than age. I agree that a person can start at a later age and still see improvement, but visible improvement that takes many months or years may seem like too much of a commitment or investment, too far off in the future in an age of instant gratification. Especially if due to schedule conflicts, responsibilities, or other circumstances, people have to take time time off and feel like they are re-starting from scratch. Being motivated to practice on your own can get hard sometimes (though luckily there’s now the option of youtube classes at home)…

      1. Dancing Dork

        The people who remain in my ballet class now range from 20 to 50 and love it even without rapid progress. The ones who did get upset about it all booked a second class, and someone has even built a barre at home! I use my other dance classes for gratification. Basically, hiphop is great for general fitness, ballet is great for technique and dance-specific fitness, and my jazz just profits from both at this stage.

        I know what you mean by the difference between drop-in classes and pre-paid courses. All my courses are pre-paid, and although I’m now looking forward to each and every dance class, that’s the way it’s going to stay until the end of the year or so. Wouldn’t want to ruin a good thing with laziness – or overzealousness. There’s a big dance school close to where I work where you can attend any and all classes you want for a very reasonable yearly fee. I would probably overdo it within, like, two weeks… or I would start taking a week off here and a week off there and wouldn’t go as often as I had intended.

      2. kit Post author

        Oh, I’ve been curious about trying hip hop, especially after I watched a really cool youtube video that was half ballet and half hip hop fusion. Unfortunately, it seems my slowness at picking up dance also applies to hip hop, because some of my dance friends who do hip hop were trying to teach me some steps and I was just not getting it – and I kept pointing my foot instead of flexing it. I can see how it’d be a great all-body cardio workout though, I just need to find a beginner class that is actually for beginners (or try to pick up the basics from youtube). Jazz also intimidates me because it’s so fast! Even though ballet is extremely challenging, I think how we start off slow, and at the barre especially, makes it a little less scary in the beginning.

      3. Dork

        Yeah, hiphop is quite different (and quite fast, too). I’ve had some trouble separating jazz and ballet because they are so similar that I get terribly confused sometimes. But if you start in a beginner’s class in either, I think you should do fine. We always do slow warm-up exercises before the actual dancing starts. The difference is that, at least for me, it took only a couple of months to feel like I was actually dancing in jazz&hiphop. Ballet is still mostly struggle, I’m guessing it will take years.

      4. kit Post author

        For me at least, it took about two full years before I had my first “I’m dancing!” moment – and even then those were sporadic. I’ve heard dance teachers say that other styles of dance have a quicker learning curve, so I guess we’ll find out if I do end up working the courage to sign up for beginner (which ends up being more like open level at my school, since there’s so many talented – and advanced – hip hop dancers in class) hip hop or jazz for the next session. In the meantime, I’ll prepare myself by youtubing and getting as familiar with the steps as possible.

  5. ladysquadron

    Naw, I think it’s helpful and it’s fine! Once I told someone about the rombe de jambe – I am lousy myself, but I felt bad that she wasn’t passing it through first.. I felt stupid after that, though, like I was trying to be a know-it-all when I am really the worst in class. I think they’ll understand that you’re being modest and encouraging. I would really appreciate and understand it if someone spoke to me the way you did, too 🙂

    1. kit Post author

      Oh, I’ve felt like that before (like I’m one of the worst in the class, so why am I giving anyone suggestions), but honestly, dfferent people pick up different aspects of technique at different speeds, so even if everyone is better at some things, there are bounds to be things you can do better too. Since for whatever reason I progressed much quicker at barre work than center, I could see what things others needed to work on as early as when I’d been doing ballet for a year and a half, but since I still fell over in center quite often I didn’ dare say anything most of the time ’cause I felt so Beginner. And now that people ask me, I still feel like a know-it-all, especially when I know all the terminology in French. So I feel much better knowing that what I say is helpful or encouraging.

  6. Holly

    I know this is old, but what is the dancers name from the video? Great post, by the way. I can’t relate, because I am a very new beginner myself, but interesting to read.

    1. kit Post author

      Her name is Alexandra, I believe. The video is on youtube, it’s called “Late Start, Going Pro” and it was posted by a user named Ballerinas By Night.
      (I didn’t embed the video because I didn’t know if it was rude to post someone else’s video to basically say that I can’t relate. That, and I felt kinda bad about myself for not being all “Yay! Inspirational!” about it…)


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