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What the ballet world really needs [on World Ballet Day]

Today is the first ever World Ballet Day!

Today, five of the worlds top ballet companies are taking the world behind-the-scenes for a live-streamed window into their studios and the work of their brilliant dancers and staff.

I’m looking forward to the glimpses I’ll get of that rare blend of focus, fun and fragility in these beautiful people, the similarities and differences in the ballet world the world over and the stirring of the memories and stories and experiences I hold in my own heart being part of this world of ballet.

In my work now as a counsellor and performance psychology teacher, I get to see another very personal side of the behind-the-scenes dancer. I have the very humbling privilege of walking with dancers in their real-life-streaming realities – sometimes tears stream, sometimes it’s untapped thoughts and feelings, at other times life begins to stream again after burnout, injury and loss.

In holding the hopes and hearts of these precious dancers closely, here are my three biggest dreams for the Ballet World today…

Freedom from fear

One of the deepest desires I have for the dance world is for dancers to have the freedom to learn and try, to stretch their boundaries and develop their skills and expression without fear… fear of being judged, fear of not being good enough, fear of failing.

Fear sets dancers up to avoid the exact risks that will bring them forward. Sometimes the fear is internal, sometimes is is instilled from the earliest of experiences or once-off words from students or teachers that cut deep.

Fear can be a powerful motivator.

I’ve seen many a teacher draw upon it to get quick results from students, or directors using subtle threats to keep dancers on edge to perform at their best. I’ve seen dancers restrain themselves from a slice of cheese for fear of the fat contained within.

Fear can seem to work in the short-term, but in the long term, it has a reverse effect on motivation, on learning, on passion… it dries these these things up. Fear can spoil the soul of a passionate dancer.

So how does the ballet world free its dancers from fear?

Dancers need to start listening to their own bodies, trusting themselves to know their needs and limits and how they work best. [pullquote position=”right”]Dancers need to ask themselves, “if it weren’t possible to fail, how would I dance today?”[/pullquote]

Dancers need people around them who believe in them, who encourage and reward their progress toward individualised goals rather than piling on unrealistic expectations or comparisons with others.

Dancers need teachers who see experimenting, failing and making mistakes as unproblematic parts of the process of learning, because that is where progress happens.

If dancers can work without fear, they will discover the wonder of true creativity…

A culture of creativity

It is ironic how few ballet dancers consider themselves to be creative.

Many dancers are quite afraid of being creative… perhaps this has to do with the rigorous training, the exact images of right and wrong execution of steps, the high standards of perfection.

I struggled with this too as a dancer, believing I was more like a paintbrush than a painter, something someone creative “used” to do their creating with, rather than an inherently creative being myself. I think my creativity was buried for a long while under this safety net.

Being creative means exposing the real self, doing something authentic, being vulnerable, open and honest. And this is a very risky thing when you’re afraid of criticism, failing or not being good enough.

And yet this is where the magic happens. Creativity inspires choreographers, moves audiences and differentiates the dancer from the athlete.

Most choreographers today are interested in collaborative creation and are looking for dancers to interpret, experiment with and develop their work creatively.

So dancers need some space for their creativity (which I firmly believe ALL dancers possess, like it or not!) to grow and thrive. [pullquote]Creativity is a great prescription for perfectionism because it displaces fear and draws out courage.[/pullquote]

I would love to see more dancers get in touch with their own creativity, just imagine the beauty and authenticity and choreography that would emerge!


Contentment in your own skin

Lastly, my deep desire for the ballet world today, is for dancers to find contentment inside their own skin – in who they are as people –  behind the leotards and tights and costumes and make-up.

A dancers’ identity is often sewn as tightly to their profession as their ribbons are to their ballet shoes.

Ballet easily becomes the biggest judge of success and ability and self-esteem and so many dancers lose touch with a little (or a lot) of themselves in pursuit of their idea of the ideal dancer.

And yet, as with creativity, [pullquote position=”right”]seeing a dancer who is content in their own skin is one of the most refreshing and beautiful things[/pullquote]. There is a dignity that speaks very clearly and makes for a convincing dancer.

For some reason, from a young age dancers learn to defer their evaluation of their own self-worth to their ballet teacher’s opinion of them. They look to their teachers for affirmation and direction and somewhere along the way, forget that they are actually the experts on themselves.

One of the most rewarding things I find working with dancers in the counselling room, is offering them the opportunity to think for themselves, learn to trust themselves, listen to their own body and find their own resilience, strength and direction to draw from.

I believe the ballet world would be a wonderful place with more dancers who who really knew themselves and liked themselves and looked after themselves.

So, go enjoy World Ballet Day!

Be fearless, be creative, be content!

🙂 Philippa

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