Of all the lessons that I learned as a student of dance, this one is my favorite. It struck a chord at just the right moment for me as a young dancer. I had been struggling because I was working too forcefully. I had an unconscious belief that to get ballet right, one had to struggle and push oneself. This was a misinterpretation. Yes, for certain, dancers like any other artist/craft
person must strive to perfect their craft and are bound to tackle obstacles and travel peaks and valleys of accomplishment throughout their career. But there are intelligent, sensitive ways to work, as well as narrow minded, forceful ways to work. And I was suffering with the latter at the time. I wasn’t working intelligently. Yes, I was focusing on technique and I had good direction from my teachers, but I was obsessing over technique. I was pushing myself but there was no clarity or inspiration behind the push. Instead, there were mostly fears and a need to be perfect.
With a good teacher, time, and maturity, I began to learn the nuances of “good work” versus “hard work” and what that means for a dancer. I was surprised to discover the secret lies first in one’s attitude toward oneself as a dancer, and second in one’s imagination; in one’s ideas and the imagery that surround the steps and movements one executes. The imagery a teacher gives you and the imagery that you create for yourself is what gives you true understanding of how to express a movement and how to do it in an inspired way so that you enjoy it and those watching enjoy it in turn.
The experience that turned me in the right direction regarding “good work” in the studio or “sensitive work” as I like to think of it now was something interesting my teacher Madame Charisse said to me in class. I was struggling with a pirouette combination during center work and she noticed and walked over to me. She touched my arm and said, “sometimes dancers don’t have to work hard to achieve something, it just happens, like that, like magic. It really does happen, more often than you’d think.”
It was so cool because she knew just what to say to me based on where I was mentally at the time. She knew how to phrase her wise advice so that it would influence me. If she had said Mary, you need an attitude of effortlessness. If you allow yourself to experience the movement and enjoy it, the technique that you have been drilling into your body will naturally do its job and you will achieve the desired results. I would have found a way to beat myself up with that and work too hard at doing what she described. But the way she phrased it “like magic” zoomed me into a place where allowing space for something to happen of its own accord was the only option. It was exactly what I needed and It was a gift that changed my whole attitude toward myself as a dancer for the better. It was a life line.
By stressing that spontaneous achievements can and do happen she cleverly gave me a window of hope and I thought “yes, I believe that”. Madame Charisse was like a guru for me so she was the perfect person to give me this message for it to work on my mind. I hadn’t been consciously aware that I had lost faith in myself and lost the healthy confidence in myself that was the key to inspired dancing. After that point, I began to heal from the mental pitfalls that had become habits which were blocking me from dancing well and happily. More and more often I began to think “it happens like magic, it can! it does! It happens all the time”. And I began to embody this concept and regain the confidence and joy I had lost over the years. I was feeling excited and hopeful during class now, I felt that at any moment something wonderful could happen and it often did after that. I highly recommend this healthy mental attitude that at any moment you may do something fantastic, you just need to be ready for it by remembering it can happen. Just like that – like magic.