Throughout Susan Jaffe's performance career at American Ballet Theatre, there was something special, even magical, about her dancing. Lauded as "America's quintessential American ballerina" by The New York Times, Jaffe has continued to shine in her postperformance career, most recently as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She credits the "magic" to her meditation practice, which she began in the 1990s at the height of her career. We sat down with Jaffe to learn more about her practice and how it has helped her both on and off the stage.
DT: Why did you start meditating?
SJ: I felt that I wanted to go deeper as a human being and an artist, and I know that developing a meditation practice really gets you very much in touch with your internal intelligence and intuition and all of those things. Other benefits I have found are that you have less anxiety; you are more stable emotionally and more peaceful.
DT: Did it help you as a dancer?
SJ: One gazillion percent, yes. Meditation is something that you need to do consistently. It is not like you do a meditation and you feel the improvement right then and there. You widen and deepen your capacity, and that just permeates your life. It permeates how you approach your life and how you feel. It permeates your intuition. It is a practice, like practicing dance. So it is not like "Oh, I did tendus today so now I am a brilliant dancer." You have to develop it.
DT: Did anything about your practice change when you transitioned to a teaching career?
SJ: When I was a dancer I was exercising all day. It was easy to get up in the morning and meditate. And when I became a teacher I thought, "I can't wake up at 4 in the morning, and then find time to exercise and then go and do my day." So I dropped my meditation for more than five years. And then one day I woke up and realized that I was not the person that I used to be. The magical energy and the vibrancy weren't there anymore. So I went to a weeklong meditation retreat, and after that I said that I would never go without it again. So I dedicated myself again, and it changed my life again. I will not go without meditating for the rest of my life. I get up at 5 every morning and meditate for up to an hour.
DT: Do you encourage other dancers and teachers to begin the practice?
SJ: Meditation has helped me so much that I created a six-hour course for dancers that will be going up online soon called "The Effect of Intention." In this course I talk all about the practice of turning your mind-set into a positive force that can benefit you as an artist and a human being. I taught it this summer at three on-site locations, and when I survey the dancers, they all want to know more. I think it is particularly essential now because the world has just gone crazy. And then there is social media and all these things that they are saying is increasing depression in young people.
DT: Any tips for beginners?
SJ: The very beginning of meditation is to sit with your spine straight. You can do it cross-legged with your hips higher than your knees, so sitting on a pillow. You can do it in a chair with your feet planted on the floor and your hands on your thighs or knees. But the most important thing is that the spine is straight, because that is how the energy flows up and down the spine more easily. Breathe in and out with the same amount of counts—many breathe in a slow six-count and then breathe out the slow six-count. And when your mind starts to wander, you just keep going back to the breath. Keep bringing your mind back to the breath.