It's often been said that there are two types of people in this world: Those who can do 16 fouettés on pointe - and those who cannot.
...Alright, you got me, the 'often' part of that statement is a bit of an exaggeration, but my old ballet teacher and I have said it enough times to make up for the rest of the population, trust me. Unfortunately, for a large majority of my earlier dancing years; up until the age of thirteen or so, I fell (literally. That's right.) into the latter half of this category. The fact that I was joined by the rest of the 7 billion odd people who could not do 16 fouettés on pointe (90% of whom probably wouldn't know a fouette from a faille.. or a croissant come to think of it) didn't really comfort me that much. I wanted to be part of the select, I wanted to glide effortlessly through turn after turn with an angelic smile and perfect spotting, I wanted to finish with all the gentle elegance of a feather wafting smoothly to the ground - not like the sack-of-potatoes-falling-off-the-wagon technique I had currently mastered and perfected - I wanted, essentially, the impossible. Or so I thought.
Every week, at the end of Pointe class, I would lounge with practiced casualness on the studio bench, dawdling with my pointe shoes and feigning the odd hip flexor stretch whilst surreptitiously waiting for the rest of the students to wander out the door. The second I had the studio to myself, I would dash back over to the mirrors, flash an optimistic smile at my own reflection, and proceed to fouetté my heart out again and again. Yet it seemed that no amount of practice was sufficient to earn me a 'sweet sixteen', I was always, torturously 1 turn, or (worse!) half a turn short. It got to the stage where I was sneaking off to the bathroom at school because I couldn't resist the urge to check on my fouettés ('What if I'm having a good turning day and I miss it?!'). Not that maths was ever even momentarily fascinating to me - 'Algebra?? No thanks, give me allegro please!' - but I was in danger of becoming known as 'that student with the tiny bladder' all because I was busy sneaking off to practice my spotting and improve my preparation...
When I got home I would then spend hours on YouTube, watching the likes of Alina Somova, Gillian Murphy and Svetlana Zakharova performing fouetté after fouetté, pausing, replaying, analysing. As if if I just squinted hard enough I could magically absorb their skills by osmosis or something.
Months passed, seasons changed, my fouettés defied all efforts of improvement and remained awkwardly poised on the edge of success... just one more fouetté and I was sure something in me would be different. In some tiny crevice of my brain a little voice was telling me that reaching this milestone would mean I had advanced to the next level of 'ballerina'. I had to fight down waves of guilt whenever I mentioned that I was a dancer, because then a much louder, obnoxiously haughty voice in my head would start shouting; 'What kind of a self-respecting person considers themselves a ballet dancer when they can't do sixteen measly fouettés?!!'. ...Thanks brain.
Now perhaps like me, you're waiting to read that there was a magical moment in which suddenly something clicked, and I had an out of body experience where all of a sudden everything made sense and I glided around in a perfectly seamless 16 fouetté turn, and never struggled with them a day in my life again. *Spoiler alert* I got there little by little, and some days - every now and then - I still stuff it up.
And yet, I almost managed to convince myself that that fairytale moment had happened too. But the reality is much less miraculous, and a lot more exciting. No, there won't be a instant of magical clarity. You won't feel like a completely different person. Your life won't change. In fact, you might even forget when you wake up the next morning that anything particularly interesting has happened at all; that's the nature of the game you see. The pay-off is that there's always another pay-off around the corner. Because do you want to know what my very first thought after I landed that 16th fouetté was? After a fleeting moment of celebration, my impatient brain insensitively stole my thunder by deciding to ponder 'Now how long before I can finish with a double?'. And just like that, the moment was gone. I didn't feel like a superior version of myself, I didn't feel perfect. I did feel some soothing level of satisfaction - and don't get me wrong, I was very glad that I'd achieved what I'd been working towards - but I had already set my sights on the next hurdle, and already managed to convince myself that when I could land the sixteen fouettés with a flawless double and a flourish - well then - then I would feel like I had arrived in some manner. ...Right?
You guys are pretty smart cookies, so I'm going to skip ahead to the epiphany part of this little anecdote now. Accomplishing a goal or overcoming something that challenges you as a dancer won't trigger some miraculous transformation. You'll never feel invincible. There will always be moments of uncertainty; a turn you didn't land right, a nerve-wracking wobble during a penche, a momentary blank during an allegro combination. Everything that makes dance so utterly awe-inspiring to behold is that here we are just ordinary people, who for every second we're moving are constantly defying the odds, defying our inherent, fallible human-ness and creating something flawless. A triple pirouette isn't beautiful because it's easy, it's beautiful because it's not, because somehow a human body is shunning the pull of gravity, defying physics and refusing to get dizzy, to wobble, or fall. Or maybe, occasionally, you do wobble, maybe you finish a little shakily. Maybe you feel momentary defeat but in reality we need those moments, because the times that you do waver only make every time you don't that much more extraordinary. Each second of pleasure you feel through dancing is a culmination of every struggle and every testing moment you endured to get here, your body can relish the effortlessness of a Jeté because behind that gliding elegance is the recollection of all the Jetés that came before this one, each a little easier, a little less encumbered than the last. Dance is the ultimate, most exquisite exemplification of the power of human will. Nothing but sheer, obstinate, unwavering dedication separates a dancer's physical capacity from the capabilities of the 'average joe' sitting spell-bound in the audience.
Remember that every time you feel disheartened because you aren't 'perfect' yet. Remind yourself whenever you're having a bad day that the more mistakes you make and the more struggles you have to overcome, the more extraordinary you are and the more inimitable your success is. You don't 'earn' the right to call yourself a dancer when you dance perfectly, you earn it each time it feels like you have so far to go and a million things to improve and yet you're still going, you're still standing in the studio ready to keep reaching for it, to not give up. When you're driven by the challenge and the struggles, instead of by the applause...that's when you know you're in it for the long run.
So rejoice in the everyday victories and the little achievements dance constantly brings you, because whilst audiences may be seduced by the magic of the stage-lights and the impossibly serene faces onstage, persuading them to believe that dancers must indeed be perfect, the allusion is never self-deceiving. And that's the way it should be.
Happy dancing friends. x
Article by Elly Ford