I think that at some point while growing up, lots of little girls want to become ballerinas.
Perhaps this is why ballet is often romanticized; it is all too easy to think about the sparkly Sugarplum Fairy, the floaty Giselle tutus, and the iconic pink satin pointe shoes, and forget that ballet is often mentally, emotionally, and physically excruciating.
Ballerinas are charged with making the nearly impossible look effortless and graceful, and so we tend to gloss over the long hours of repetitive practice; the musicality, artistry, athleticism, creativity, and sheer grit that is required to be a dancer; and the sacrifices ballerinas make in so many other areas of their life to achieve what are – relative to other professions – brief careers.
The twenty-plus years I spent in a ballet a studio (as an enthusiastic though unremarkable student – not a professional), took my daydreams of perfect pirouettes and turned them into something much tougher – skill sets and life lessons applicable in situations far beyond the stage and studio.
There isn’t a single day where I don’t take something I learned as I practiced demi pliés, and apply it to my professional or personal life, and I wanted to share those lessons with you:
- Discipline – Ballet, perhaps more so than anything else I’ve ever done, requires an intense amount of personal discipline. If you’re lucky, you spend year after year trying to push your body to do things it shouldn’t be capable of doing, and increasing your flexibility and strength in tiny, nearly immeasurable increments at a time. You show up on Saturday mornings for eight hours of lessons while all your friends are at the beach or the movies. You juggle your schoolwork and your other extra curricular activities with dance classes that happen five nights a week. You dress a certain way, stand a certain way, wear your hair a certain way, eat a certain way, and practice, practice, practice a certain way. To outsiders, it often seems unnecessary and perhaps even archaic. But to ballerinas, discipline is the foundation on which everything else is built.
- Endurance – I honestly don’t think until you’ve tried to support your entire body weight on the tips of your toes, in a wooden shoe, while simultaneously exhibiting perfect posture and turnout, and remembering complex choreography in sync with the composition, you truly understand endurance. In ballet, you don’t complain. You don’t argue when your instructor comes around and prods your hips into proper position and then lifts your leg six inches higher and tells you to hold it there. After a while, you don’t even blink when you slip off your pointe shoes and spot half-a-dozen newly bloody blisters. Even crazier, you do this willingly. Ballerinas often pay someone a lot of money to teach us technique, and then we spend all our spare time trying to improve. We learn very early on to simply endure the pain and discomfort – because they are paths to greater things.
- Patience – Hand-in-hand with endurance is patience. Ballet isn’t something you can pick up overnight, or even over a couple of years. Fouetté turns won’t happen before pirouettes, splits are impossible if you can’t touch your toes, and you probably can’t even understand what your instructor is saying until you learn an entirely new (and foreign) vocabulary. Ballerinas have to build upon each previous lesson, and master what often seem like insignificant skills before leveling up. It’s a great lesson to apply to life in general, where instant gratification rarely happens.
- Integrity – In ballet, each movement has to be precise, intentional, and clean. There is no room for sloppy technique or half-hearted efforts. You are “on” 100% of the time. This means each step, each piece of choreography, each pointed foot and port de bras is as perfectly executed as the last. Your movements have integrity; you don’t compromise them and you don’t make excuses. This mentality will take you even further in life than it will across the floor of a dance studio.
- Respect – Most ballet instructors inspire a healthy dose of fear in their students. Perhaps it’s because they often dress in all black, or maybe it’s because a few even correct our posture by pulling us up by our neatly bobby-pinned buns. More likely, it’s because we learn very early on to respect those who’ve mastered something so difficult. We also learn to respect our competitors and collaborators. From the student in class who has a perfect arabesque, to the choreographer whose creativity knows no bounds, we come into contact with extraordinary people every day, and we quickly learn to acknowledge and admire their talents.
- Poise – You can’t fake stage presence. You either have it, or you don’t. Ballerinas learn early on in their careers how to carry themselves with grace and serenity – even as our feet are bleeding, there are butterflies in our stomachs, and sweat is trickling down our backs. Ultimately, the show must go on, and we quickly develop the poise required to perform under all kinds of circumstances and in all kinds of environments. Grace-under-pressure serves us just as well in the workplace and in our relationships as it does during those dreaded thirty-two fouettés in the third act of Swan Lake.
- Passion – Last, but certainly not least, ballerinas are passionate people. We devote every ounce of ourselves to mastering a very difficult craft because we love it. We believe in music and art and storytelling and hard work and beauty and blood, sweat, and tears. If you love something so deeply that you’re willing to stick with it through struggles and setbacks, you will go far in life. Passion is an incredible motivator, and we have it in spades.