When I was a child taking ballet and “being a dancer,” my teachers and parents coddled my difficulties with math always claiming that my brain wasn’t wired for it. Though it was easy to accept this excuse then, as I grew older this really bothered me. I always knew I didn’t understand some concepts because they didn’t come as easily (easily being important) as moving my body. But I did know one thing, dance was ever much an analytical process as math. When you are taking a ballet class there isn’t anything really creative about it. Studying you are not creating anything new and there isn’t much room for original ideas. Much of ballet is focused on technique and not creativity. Much time is spent analysis the body and how it is executing a step: was my head in the right place? Was my balance centered? Was I turned out? Did I stick that landing? Was that on time? There isn’t much creative about a ballet technique class.
This is why I was always a little miffed about this classification: if you are a dancing, then you are being creative.
Most of these comments are generated from the misconception that you are either left brain or right brain oriented. The old stereotype goes something like this: the left brain is deductive, mathematical, and logical; the right brain, however, is artistic, visual, and creative. People still hold on to this old science tightly. They cannot conceive the path of a prior dancer becoming a computer programmer.
What science is discovering today is that the right and left sides of the brain work together. The left side appears to be focused on the details whereas the right side more on the broad picture and general connections. It is like the left side of the brain is macro vision and the right side panoramic. Language, for example, is processed by both sides. The left side focuses on grammar and punctuation. The right side on intonation. Without both, meaning is not the same. Being creative isn’t a matter of brain dominance it is a matter of approach. Do you suppress (analytical) thoughts, ideas, emotions with critical analysis? It is about suppression verses discovery–of right versus wrong.
It took a long time for me to find my artistic dance side. I had to let go of technique and start focusing on feeling. For a long time I fought this transition. When I was sixteen I had my first glimpse into my dancing inadequacy–my artistic inadequacy. I had long been taking dance classes in a different city. I loved these classes; I felt strong and a master of technique. Not because my technique was perfect, but because of the affirmations I received from improving my technique. I was now a part of the so-called elite ballet dancers (at least that is what I felt) who understood technique and knew how to apply, even with my limitations, to my dancing. Everyone who didn’t subscribe to my ideals were of lesser understanding and thus talent and skill.
To keep in shape one summer before I went off to study ballet at a summer intensive program, I took some local classes–classes I had long ago abandoned as inadequate. The instructor I knew for a long time. I often had in the past ridiculed and made fun of her dancers for their poor technique. The classes I took that summer didn’t focus on the same things as I had been used to focusing on in my other classes. So secretly, I felt that I was better. My teachers were better, and therefore in some twisted way I was a better dancer. I don’t think at the time I even realized I was doing this. I had fallen in love with executing technique and doing it right because my teacher would award praise. It felt good to feel like executed something technically right. So I focused, focused, focused on all the technique but never the artistic elements of dance. My summer class instructor pegged my inadequacy quite pointedly by saying I danced like a robot. I puffed myself up on the inside and thought nothing of it: I had the technique and that is all that mattered.
I would say I kept this habit for years to come. The only glimpse of creativity I touched was during a performance trying to be in character. I wasn’t really equipped though to perform in character. I couldn’t see the whole because I was still focusing on the detail. I hadn’t learned to let go of my inner critic. Later I started dabbling in choreography. My first attempts were so methodical–adhering to the precise beat of every measure in the music. Later I started working with a modern dance company. They worked on technique, but it was never their focus.
At first, I held onto my arrogant, technique driven style of dance. Though gradually through my work with them, I left a lot of that behind. It was a lot of work. I still got labeled as a technician instead of an artist even when I tried my best to visualize, create an emotion, and dance it. This criticism was more devastating than any negative comment on my technique. I know how to fix technique; it is tangible. I didn’t know how to be a better artist. I didn’t know how to incorporate the core of myself into my dancing. I was still protecting her; and my shield was always technique.
The only way I got in touch with my core style and true dance self was to start doing improvisational dance. I was able to connect my emotion and music for the first time by simply letting go and moving. I spent a whole summer working on this and nothing else. Just because you are improvising doesn’t mean you are not going through the motions; that is why it took many long hours to get to a point where I was being creative. Later I learned to balance technique and creativity–sometimes even compartmentalizing them so I can work on one or the other. It meant not seeing my dance, other dancers, or choreography through the analytical, detail oriented goggles of the technician. Wearing these goggles I found nothing was surprising, exciting, interesting, or meaningful without brilliance. It really limited my enjoyment of the experience. It was okay but never ecstatic. I was okay but never good enough–technique can always be improved. Yet at the same time, strangely, I felt superior to everyone because I could point out what was lacking in everything else–yes, including myself.
Taking off those goggles meant seeing the whole picture. Now I could be touched by dance as an art. My heart was opened, kinder, and truly humble. A dancer’s technique was background: high jumps, multiple pirouettes, perfectly arched feet or turn out, I didn’t notice anymore. At least, it didn’t impact my opinion on the dance or the value of the dancers. It opened me up to having more meaningful dance experiences.
I look back at myself during those times, and I feel rather ashamed of my attitude. I spent so many years being told I was creative and the whole time I was being a technician: no feeling, no style, boring. I was dancing with my “left brain.” My love for dance wasn’t a love of art or creativity. I wasn’t in touch with myself; I was in touch with technique. It was a love for how good I felt to have command over my own body. I felt a great amount of pride in my superior balance, my spot on pirouettes, or a extraordinarily high jumps for such a short dancer. There was nothing more elating than to be pulled out of class to demonstrate one of these moves for my peers. I felt a great amount of pride in my ability to impart correct classical ballet technique to my students.
Yet, when someone said to me “she did all the technique with none of feeling,” did I acknowledge what was being said? No, because I couldn’t. Without that technique, what was my strength? What was so special about my dancing? It took me a long time to realize that there wasn’t anything special about my dancing. I didn’t really connect with my fellow dancers; I didn’t allow them inside. I didn’t feel my roles; I executed them. When I watched videos of myself I saw how this or that looked weird or how that was an amazing something or another. I never reflected on the feeling or what I was communicating to someone else (fellow dancers and audience). Though I was constantly calling myself and being called an artist.
As in any art form, there is a technical craft that goes in hand with the expressive art form. The technical/analytical side is the support mechanism for the vision/emotion/feeling. An example outside of dance, is photography. Photography is great because there is a lot of technical equipment and concepts that appeal to analytical personality types. One’s working knowledge of light, shutter speed, or proper lens use doesn’t mean he or she is going to take a compelling photograph. One must learn, in my opinion, to cultivate the vision, open the door, and quiet the critic. Gaining greater technical skills will only enhance the vision, feeling, imagination, and intuition. Great artists are measured by how the touch others not by the tools and techniques they use to create the art. Masters like Van Gogh and Monet painted with style; it wasn’t all about their technique.
I truly believe in a balance. It is my goal in life to always tend to balanced states, no extremes. When your art from gets dissected into little technical pieces, it isn’t art anymore. Too little technique and it is an abstraction of the art form. Finding harmony between the two is key. First becoming aware of my ideas and feelings and not using the inner critic to suppress those things was the first step. Creativity isn’t a matter of left brain or right brain. When I talk about dancing with my left brain, I speak of dancing with my analytical side first instead of my heart. It is the critic: always trying to be right, on the right path, doing it the right way, always validating myself through my technical skills, always searching for validation for those technical skills, and worst of all validating or devaluing others based on their technical merits.
As I start studying dance again (tango), I will always try to remember technique is important and must be cultivated, but it is not the most important thing. It wont make me a superior dancer or a better person even though greater mastery builds greater confidence. Great technique doesn’t inherently make me a better dancer, and it most certainty will not make me a better dancer than other dancers. I may develop better technique than another dancer or have a natural talent for movement, but that alone doesn’t make me a better dancer or student. Each person is a complete package of strengths and weaknesses. I will be humble with my strengths as much as I find my weaknesses humbling. I will treat others with the same respect. I will not let my growing confidence lead to arrogance. My intent will be to create an uplifting, positive experience not only for myself but for those I have the opportunity to share it with. This is achieved through humility, kindness, flexibility, and an opened heart.
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