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.


Musings of a Process-Oriented Perfectionist

(Shameless navel gazing below)

I’ve always had difficulty categorizing myself (because, you know, categorizing is one of humanity’s favorite hobbies) as a “type A” or “type B” personality. Too intense and workaholic-y for the latter, not competitive or results-driven enough for the former. Nor would it make sense to say that I’ve found a “balance” between the two–both because aiming for the midpoint of a (false) binary has never been my favorite way of resolving conflicts and because my approach to life feels too dogmatic in its own way to call “balanced.”

Okay, good luck with that, Natalie.

While dancers are often stereotyped as perfectionists, and I can certainly relate to having high standards, unlike Natalie Portman here, I’m totally okay with the idea that I’ll never be “perfect.”

I’m not really that type of traditional result-oriented perfectionist. Getting angry about not reaching unattainable standards of perfection isn’t really my thing. Not that I haven’t tried that. There was a time when I would get upset about having bad natural turnout. Then I realized that I could be doing rotation exercises instead of complaining.

My current mindset is different, though maybe almost as obsessive. I consider myself a process-oriented “perfectionist” for lack of a better word. Paradoxical? Maybe, but let me explain.

When most people first hear phrases like “change what you can and accept what you can’t,” they are most affected by the second part, finding peace in letting go of worries over uncontrollable factors in their lives. I saw that aspect, but I focused particularly on the first part of that phrase, taking it as a challenge. I became determined to test the boundaries of my controllable universe, to milk my agency for all it was worth, to turn every last changeable possibility in my favor before I started blaming the outside world.

I’ve always been a bit bothered by the way people most people throw around phrases like “do your best” or “try your hardest” like they mean nothing, like they’re just feel-good consolation prizes to give to people when they achieve less-than-satisfying results.

“Oh, you got cut at that audition? At least you tried your best.”

But did I? How can you assume that? While you’re trying to console me, I’m freaking out over that moment when I zoned out while one of the combinations was being given, the way I neglected to pay attention to my head positioning in that last phrase, how I held back just a bit during the improv section, that time last week when I spent an hour on Facebook instead of doing floor barre exercises–all the ways in which I was capable of doing better and didn’t.

“I know you’re worried about that test next week, but just do your best.”

Just do my best? Seriously? Literally, you’re saying that I merely have to do every possible thing within my power in terms of preparation and execution to make that test go as well as possible. And that’s supposed to make me relax? Why am I even talking to you when I could be memorizing a textbook? AHHHH!

Or at least some part of me is thinking these things. Obviously I can understand that people are just trying to be nice and–at least in this extreme literal sense–don’t really mean “your best” when they say it.

But that’s what gets to me. Because in my world “your best” should be reserved for the highest possible standard of work towards a goal: the most effective, effortful, well-directed, rewarding process that could exist within the given circumstances. It’s an ideal that is a little more achievable than unattainable perfection (in that it is technically possible) but is usually more difficult and less common than mere “success” in results.

Some people just want to be perfect. Some people just want to get that contract or that trophy or that picket fence. I just want to be able to look back at the end of the process and–no matter how it turned out–know that there was nothing else I could have done. And if I’m going to be honest with myself, I don’t think that I have ever 100% achieved that.

I’m not saying that this mindset is necessarily a good or bad thing. For me, it helps me develop a generally good time management and a sense of agency over my life. It also means that I frantically try to force every single person around me review my papers right before I turn them in, which is pretty annoying for people with better things to do. It means that I’m usually the first person to show up at a dance studio to warm up and the last one to leave, trying to take advantage of every moment I can find.  It means that I won’t get upset about a bad grade on a legitimately hard test that I couldn’t have anticipated, but I will freak out over missing a single question due to a careless error. 

It means that I take too long to make decisions, trying too hard to make them right. It means that I don’t spend time thinking about what I can never be. It means I’m trying to live without regrets. I have some anyway.

And just like “normal” perfectionism, it isn’t inherently neurotic or all-consuming: of course I waste time sometimes and make bad decisions and still forgive myself.

I’m just saying, there are more than two types of people in the world.