Just when I think I am getting the hang of my yoga practice, one of the world’s top ballerinas pulled her mat in front of me last night. And I do mean top ballerina—like, best of the best of the best. And I know it’s not a competition, but I was feeling pretty great about my improving strength and flexibility, until—let’s call her Ballerina Jane—shows up.
Of course it was hard not to watch her. Or perhaps more challenging was to not let her catch me ogling her pre-class stretching routine—which, by the way was the most beautiful freak show I’ve ever seen. (She’s way too flexible to be human, but watching her muscles contract and elongate was awe-inspiring, especially so close up.) At one point I thought, “OK, now you’re just showing off…” I couldn’t not stare.
Anyway, the class started, and while I tried to concentrate on myself, Ballerina Jane was right in front of me. She excelled at most poses, and struggled with other moves—just like everyone else. But Ballerina Jane also reminded me of students in class who are so stubborn when it comes to altering something they feel is one of their strengths. How many times do you give a student the same correction that she doesn’t take, especially if it means lowering an extension or decreasing the number of pirouettes? All they see is the end point, and in their minds, going back to the drawing board to fix a foundational issue is not an option.
We were in “bow pose” when I made this realization. In this posture, you lie on your belly, reach back to grab the tops of your feet, and by pushing through your legs, lift up and arch your back to make a wheel shape. (See image above—it’s a tad different than what we do in class, but you'll get the gist.) While we’re getting into the pose, the instructor calls out directions: “Keep your knees about 6 inches apart—and if you can’t get all the way up in keeping your legs close together, don’t do it.” Basically—less is more when you do it correctly. Sound familiar?
I glanced up at Ballerina Jane, and her legs were a good foot-and-a-half apart. Sure, her back was perfectly arched, and her head and feet were high in the air—it looked good. But all the while, the instructor kept calling out “Legs together, legs together!”
Now, clearly I’m not a yoga instructor, and there’s no way to be certain she was blatantly ignoring the instructor’s corrections. But it got me thinking about technique vs. dancing.
In teaching pre-professional dancers, where do we draw the line between demanding perfect anatomical technique and letting them occasionally break the rules in order to really soar? Does that line exist? In class, we preach anatomically sound movement. But does that always fly in performance? What makes a dancer too safe, or worse, boring? And when a dancer reaches such an advanced level, how do you help her navigate the difference?
On the other end of the spectrum, we often worry about students who are so caught up in perfection, that they belittle themselves and harp on their every mistake. In that case, take a look at this article by Linda Tarnay, “The Perfectionism Problem.” She addresses how to help students who are too self-conscious or are discouraged by a plateau in improvement. (Click here to read.)
Photo by Nathan Sayers, courtesy of Dance Magazine.