When the Student Teaches the Teacher
The young woman you see in this picture is a Renaissance Woman (a Polymath) in every since of the word. This beautiful woman came to me as a private student who was interested in taking ballet. After talking with her for a moment, I realized quickly how brilliant she truly was. She came to ballet as a teen who also is a talented violin player. This is something that one would not immediately think could translate to ballet, but it does. She feels every part of the music in a way that can not be taught by anyone. She loves so much about life and has a thirst to learn about so much of life and the world around her. This excitement about the world is quite contagious. Her positive attitude and wish to learn are infectious.
At this point in my career, I have the pleasure of choosing which dancers I train privately. There have been dancers, for various reasons, I have handed off to another teacher. It is never about the talent of the individual dancer. It is about the willingness of the individual dancer to push themselves, accept corrections and apply them as well as their attitude toward learning new things and thinking differently about themselves and the world.
This week, as I prepared to teach this lovely Polymath, I was in for a complete surprise. There was a sudden shift in my view of my students in general thanks to her that I would like to share with you.
She is quite exacting with herself and encouraging and forgiving with others. Both are qualities I am sure we recognize within ourselves.
After working hard at the barre, we moved to the center to work on something new. After trying several times, we returned to the barre to perfect the action. Sadly, by this time, her mind was willing to continue the exercise, but her body was not able to continue. Her legs, back and abdominals were all exhausted. I suggested we end her lesson and she quickly said no. After taking a drink of water, she returned and tried again, but her body had frankly had enough. I again suggested that she call an end to this lesson and we could pick up at the same place again next week. She again said no and this time insisted that she work on her flexibility instead. Again, I suggested she pack it in and she calmly informed me that she was not ready to quit and wanted to continue, but this time with stretching. With a small impish smile, she actually placed her hands together and said please. When I gave in, she jumped for joy. There was a new excitement and energy in her. All she needed was to change activities for a moment. She was not giving up on herself or on me, she was giving her mind and her body a vacation for a moment so that she could come back fresh.
This is something, as a teacher, I tend to forget. When we are trying our best and our mind and body can go no farther, it is perfectly acceptable to take a step or two back and try something else before returning to the same task. Stopping an activity does not mean that we are giving up. It simply means that we need to take a step back and come back when our minds are fresh.
The important part about this entire thought process is the part where we return to the exact thing we had an issue with in the beginning. In this case, the student was trying to master pirouettes en dehours. She tried them in the center and at the barre, however has so much power and strength that she had a small problem controlling her power and would over rotate. This is something that is common with strong dancers. After trying for at least twenty minutes to slowly fix the issues, her body and mind had had enough. So, we spent time working on her flexibility, extensions and arabesque.
This work paid off quite well as you can see. Her work in arabesque became quite stronger and more secure. After, she moved to the center and beautifully executed a pirouette en dehours. Her mental state was much happier at this time, she was much more relaxed and her mind was ready to command her body.
This taught me a few valuable things I hope will help me, my students and anyone reading this blog.
1. Taking a break is not giving up
When you take a break, you give your mind and body a chance to reset. By resetting your brain and body, you are making sure that you are giving yourself the time you need to process what you have just learned. It is impossible to assimilate a great deal of information quickly without the time to do so. Taking a step back and doing something completely different, is at times what is needed for our brain and body to finish processing the information bouncing around in our brain. You are not a failure when you take a break as long as you go back and try again.
2. Just because it is hard does not mean it is impossible
There is a joke I like to tell my dancers when they complain that something is "too hard". "If it were easy, we would call it football!" Please do not take this as a belief in football being easier than ballet. It isn't. It is differently hard. In ballet, we must exert ourselves as an elite athlete while making it all look effortless at the same time. It takes a long time for each movement to look effortless. It takes a great deal of physical and mental exertion to achieve this ethereal quality so desired in dance. This does not mean it is impossible to achieve. It does mean that if you want it, badly enough, you must be willing to work hard for it. If it is worth it to you, you will make it happen.
3. Make sure what is in your sight is realistic for you
Your perfection is not your neighbor's perfection. This is something that is hard to remember, especially for dancers. We demand our turn out reach an unnatural 180°. Not every dancer is able to achieve this. Not every dancer needs to. Every single fouette you execute will not be exactly perfect. Nor should it be. Take a hard look at yourself as a human and not as a superhero. What is realistic for you and your body. I am not telling people that reaching for their dreams should not happen. Instead I am encouraging my readers as well as myself that those dreams can and should be broken down to bite sized and meaningful goals. By reaching each goal one at a time, dreams are achieved.
4. There are no mistakes, just happy accidents!
This is actually a quote from Bob Ross. Yes, that happy painter from PBS who is always so joyful while painting landscapes and "happy little trees". The more I teach and the more I live, the more I realize that he is right. There is much to learn when what we do is not perfect. These are not mistakes. These have been known to become fodder for the choreographer in the room. These are easily turned into lessons about how to do something better. Learning how to do things better after not getting it perfectly, means we are one step closer to our dreams.