Open Ballet Classes and Impostor Syndrome (aka It Doesn’t Get Better)

As I’ve been realizing lately, adult open ballet classes can do a lot to knock out feelings of illegitimacy. And not in the ways you might expect.

You know that pesky impostor syndrome which is always reminding you that you don’t deserve to be where you are or doing what you’re doing? As if that there is some line that divides the legitimate from the illegitimate, and you can’t feel comfortable or confident with yourself until you cross it. What and where that line is can be shifting and uncertain: would perfect turnout make you legit? A spot in a conservatory? A company contract? Still, you remain convinced that this line exists and that the end to your insecurities, the point where it all gets better, lies somewhere above your head.

Impostor syndrome definitely isn’t unique to dancers, but in such an uncertain profession, it can be particularly hard to shake. That’s where open classes come in.

Open classes bring together a wide assortment of people ranging in age, background, ability, and relationship to dance. The class probably has a level specified (beginner, intermediate advanced), but that doesn’t stop people outside that range from showing up (this is particularly the case in smaller cities with fewer classes and therefore less stratification between professional and recreational classes). There are current professionals, tech employees who danced as kids, 70-year-olds who took up ballet at 65, teenage bunheads, 50-year-old retired principal dancers, college students, and oftentimes someone pregnant. There’s people with their legs by their ears and people with their legs barely off the floor.

And what’s beautiful is seeing all these people not just dancing together, but also all working their butts off, struggling, and messing up at times. Not necessarily struggling with the same issues–one person might be figuring out how to squeeze out that fourth pirouette while another is working on a single–but nonetheless working through issues related to their respective points in their dance journeys with the same focus and energy.

There’s something about seeing a gorgeous professional falling out of turns or a beginner standing in the center with unwavering presence that will crush your lingering impostor syndrome. Your weaknesses and and challenges don’t mean that you don’t belong there–they mean that you very much belong there and you can be comfortable and confident about your place in the struggle.

Because no matter how good or bad you are, there is no line of legitimacy that will fix everything: the struggle never ends! And that’s a good thing, I promise.

See, most popular depictions of ballet focus on the “obsession with perfection” aspect. But in reality, while perfectionistic ideals are a thing, dancers learn that actually being perfect is clearly not.

This never happens. Really.

So you have to get pretty comfortable with perpetual imperfection. That’s not always easy, but it can be pretty awesome if you approach it the right way.

There’s a certain sense of liberation in knowing that anything you do will fail in some form or another: then you can toss out that annoying fear of failure and just focus on failing better, failing the way you want to.

And once you realize that you’ll never “arrive”–that really no one will–you can stop freaking out about not being “there” yet and just immerse yourself in the journey: the plies, the tendus, the sweat, the studio full of warm stinky bodies, the music, the mistakes, the tiny adjustments, the joy of movement, and that glorious daily grind.

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Blanking In Ballet Class: 5 Ways You Deal

Don’t lie. You’ve done it before. You’re in ballet class and you’re totally paying attention to the combination being given, and then somehow, it’s a minute later, the teacher is asking “any questions?,” and your only recollection of what just happened is “I think it probably had some tendus in it.”

You have a couple seconds to figure out the right question that will get you the info you need without admitting total failure. Fortunately, you know these question strategies to get you out of your (maybe too frequent) times of desperation. (You know you’ve used at least one of them.)

combo

At this point, it’s already too late.

  • The Ambiguous: “What’s the transition after the pas de bourre?” There were at least twelve pas de bourres in that combo. After a couple “This one?” “Sorry, I meant the other one” exchanges, you’ll be able to piece the whole thing together.
  • The Nitpick: “Can you go over the por de bras/ head/ timing on this section?” You want to sound like you’re being extra detailed and sophisticated, but really you have no idea what just happened and you just need an excuse to see it again.
  • The Communal Effort: Clueless person 1 asks a question about the beginning of the combination. After that gets sorted out, clueless person 2 asks a question about the very next section, and so on. Warning: this requires a certain amount of group telepathy and faith that a critical mass of the class is as lost as you are. It can also be thwarted if too many people are relying on the next strategy:
  • The Non-Question (aka the Free Rider Method): Say you know the combination. Hope that at least one other person is honest enough to ask the question you need. When this doesn’t happen you’ll have to resort to the highly obvious side-eyes-delayed-mirroring strategy.
  • The Candid: “Sorry, I blanked. Can you say it again?” Woah. Props to you for telling it like it is. This might not go over too well in certain settings, or if you use it too many times, but everyone else in class is secretly grateful for your honesty. And let’s be real, we all can see right through all those other fakes, anyway.

Flakes (The Semesterly Poetry Attempt)

It’s that time of the semester again when I write poems to make up for absences in Allegra Kent’s ballet class. I think I deserve brownie points for this one because I made it rhyme and I never make stuff rhyme. In other news, it snowed.

Flakes

Every snowflake is different

I’ve heard them say

But will each still be so special

On a warmer day?

 

When the flakes turn to slush

To murky rivers on the street

A faceless soup

Of flakes once discrete?

 

Were they ever really special

If no one stopped to see

Their brilliant little moments

Of ephemerality?