The problem with pirouettes (a ballet parable)

Back when I was a bunhead, I developed a huge block when it came to pirouettes. They were the bane of my existence. I could do a single turn with very little trouble, but when it came to double turns, forget it.

I couldn’t get enough momentum for multiple turns while still keeping the correct form, and when I did make it around, I would be so startled that I would fall out of the turn.

(Here is an amazing turner. Which I was not)

My teacher, obviously, wanted me to be able to overcome my block. She was training me to be a professional ballerina, and multiple pirouettes are a basic requirement. She found my block intensely frustrating…

…and she let me know it.

“Single turns are unacceptable!” she would snap, “DO IT AGAIN.” I would try, and fail, and she would sigh in a way that made me feel about 2 inches tall. “No. Do it again,” she would growl, seeming to tower over me.

…It occurs to me in hindsight that she was actually several inches shorter than me by this point, but she seemed very, very tall.

But no matter how much she yelled, how many hundred times we did the exercises, how frustrated we both got, my turns, if anything, got worse.

When I went away to study at Walnut Hill, I was astounded. My teachers sensed my desire to improve, and they empathize with my frustration and self-criticism. They offered suggestions based on their experience, and if their initial suggestions didn’t help, they thought outside the box. For example, one teacher suggested that toning my core muscles and my arms would help my turns, and that made a huge difference.

Their approach slowly helped me realize that, while pirouettes were definitely a problem area for me, that was OK. Dancers have strengths and weaknesses. It didn’t mean I was hopeless, it just meant that I needed to work on that particular area even more. It was OK to fall, so long as I got back up and tried again.

The best teachers know that yelling and threats only make a challenge seem more scary. Instead of losing patience and screaming, they say something closer to “It’s OK. I see that you *insert problem here* Why don’t you try again and this time *insert possible solution*?” I’m not just talking about ballet here either.

I did manage to do consistent doubles (on the right side, at least) by the time I’d spent a year with the teachers at Walnut Hill. Their multiple viewpoints and corrections -coupled with the fact that not one of them ever lost patience or yelled at me- helped me to work through the block and make progress (although I admit that I dreaded pirouettes for the rest of my time in ballet class).

I’m telling this story for a reason, of course.

When you’re trying something new and you can’t quite get it, what approach do you take with yourself? Do you mentally tell yourself off, shaking your head at your own incompetence and your sub-par performance? Or do you dust yourself off, acknowledge your feelings of frustration, try to see the problem from another angle, and try again ?

So often I find I’m stuck in Option 1. The kinder option is always the better one. We just need to remember that it’s there.

0 thoughts on “The problem with pirouettes (a ballet parable)”

  1. My problem has always been when I try something new if I’m bad at it, I proclaim that it’s stupid and never try it again. If I’m good at it, I get nervous that I may never be able to live up to that first attempt, and never try it again. I’m trying very VERY hard to work past that, because I’ve only got one shot at this life, and I want to be brilliant.

    1. Also, this post reminded me of a friend of mine, who recently was beating herself up because after deciding that her son was going to give up his soother, she “caved” and gave it back to him, and she felt like a failure. I told her that showing compassion for your child is NEVER the wrong answer. I think that can be applied to most relationships, including that which we have with ourselves.

      1. I can so relate to both you and your friend! I don’t have a very good track record with this either. And I find it so ironic that the day I posted this was the day that I turned into Crazed Psycho Mama and was ragingly cranky all day long. Hard on myself and hard on Xander. Just figures.

        But then, I guess I could look at this situation as one time I tried and sucked…and now I need to be nice to myself and find a new solution (and, actually, we did…I’m taking the night off!). So…I guess…it’s not that ironic after all… <3

    2. Me too. “Can’t win, don’t try” is sort of my joke motto. I’d like to NOT be like this, but I guess I’m a perfectionist. I HATE failing, even if it’s only in my mind. I’m trying to work on this too, but it ain’t always easy!

      1. It actually drives me more than a little crazy that I’m sooo frozen by my own perfectionism, because goes against everything else I believe in. I’m better than I used to be, but it really is an up-hill battle. I try to look at it like this. When my kids (or anyone else, for that matter) do something (anything), and they don’t do it perfectly (or get frustrated by their inability to do what they want to do), I would never say (nor do I even think), “That’s horrible. You should give up now. Anything not done perfectly is not worth doing, ever.” So why do I think/tell it to myself?

        1. Oh yeah, I know what you mean! We are SO mean to ourselves! I’ve heard the same thing about other aspects too. Like the whole body issue…would I tell someone else “God, you look horrible and fat today”? NO. Or would I say “Oh my God, you’re such a lazy slob”? NO.

          But somehow we do it to ourselves all the freaking time and we don’t think anything of it. Weird and horrible.

    3. Unfortunately, I find myself in the same “I’m stupid, I’ll never try again” mode as Corinne. I feel like it’s so much harder to learn new things the older I get (or I just use my “old age” as an excuse). I gotta keep reminding myself that the brain has plasticity and can continue to change and grow–and I should let it!

      1. Somewhere I once heard “I give myself permission to SUCK,” and I thought it was the most beautiful idea ever. I still have trouble with it…but I’m trying hard to remind myself that it’s OK to try something and not be awesome at it. I have a habit of taking things too seriously…like mini golf and pool and karaoke and things that are just supposed to be fun and not matter at all. And that’s not even stuff I’m trying to actually *learn* and *do well* like the pirouettes.

        I’ve read that children who were praised a lot as kids can actually develop crippling self doubt…they’re afraid to try and to suck because clearly their self-worth is tied up in the being-awesome-ness. It was a very interesting argument.

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