by Emily Kate Long
My last Finding Balance post discussed balance and alignment in the physical sense. I talked about how misalignments in the body can bring about sensory dissonance. In this post, I’ll look a different kind of alignment and dissonance: when our expectations of ourselves don’t line up with our work. Today I want to share some items that are not dance-specific, but very readily apply to the setting, meeting, and letting go of our expectations.
Labors of love come with high expectations, and high expectations demand a high workload. Dancers know this. Anyone who pursues art for a living knows this. The rewards can be huge, so the work is not easy. The first treasure I have to share is a list of ten rules for students, teachers, and life by Sister Mary Corita Kent, an artist and educator who gained reknown in the 1960s and 1970s. Merce Cunningham kept a copy of these rules in his studio. They are well worth hanging. Here’s the full list, from Kent’s Learning by Heart:
- Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while
- General duties of a student: pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students
- General duties of a teacher: pull everything out of your students
- Consider everything an experiment
- Be self-disciplined—this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
- Nothing is a mistake. There is no win and no fail, only make
- The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all f the time who eventually catch on to things.
- Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.
- Be happy whenever you can manage it. It’s lighter than you think.
- “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” John Cage
Hints: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything—it might come in handy later.
This list sums up just about everything needed to pursue excellence. What I really love about it is the emphasis on allowing room for errors and questions, and leaving no stone unturned.
As a complement to Kent’s list, and to illustrate a challenge I and many other dancers face, I also want to share Sheri LeBlanc’s essay, “The Perfectionist Dilemma.” In it, LeBlanc sensitively teases apart excellence pursuit and perfectionism, which, as she puts it, are similar only as far as the results each can produce. One gives us a healthy relationship with our efforts and achievements, while the other sets up for feelings of failure and inadequacy, no matter what we achieve. Expecting perfection from ourselves or from anyone around us automatically misaligns expectation with outcome.
What we have so far are guidelines for the pursuit of excellence, and thoughts on the damaging effects of perfectionism. My third offering is a tool to help us let go of our attachments to any unreasonable expectations we may have of ourselves. If our creative work is inherently experimental, as Sister Corita’s list suggests, it requires us to throw out unsuccessful outcomes continually. If it is to be enjoyable, it requires us to experience our successes as fully as we can. A talk by Matthew Brensilver on clinging and letting go from Zencast gives a ton of insight on letting go of beliefs, identities, and the need to be right. It’s a forty-minute, free podcast that I highly recommend. To summarize wouldn’t do it justice, but the angle he takes is the Buddhist teaching that all things and states of being are impermanent, so all can be let go when they don’t align with the present moment. I feel that approach is apt for dance, a living art.
The final item I want to share is an episode of Radiolab (another podcast) that provides a thoughtful and humorous look at misalignment of expectations in history. “Musical Language” takes a look at what happens between the ears and the brain when we hear unfamiliar or dissonant noises. I’m including it here because it features, at around 26 minutes in, the legendary riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The whole episode has to do with how the brain orders unfamiliar sounds and looks for patterns. I think there’s a parallel here for the way we try to make sense of our bodies and physical capabilities each day, or seek patterns to learn new movement. It’s also pretty funny to listen to, if you need a short science break to liven up your day.
Readers, I hope these four treats provide some new perspective on the subject of measuring up to expectations. They are thoughtful, entertaining, playful, stark, challenging—words that also describe the artist’s work.
Assistant Editor Emily Kate Long began her dance education in South Bend, Indiana, with Kimmary Williams and Jacob Rice, and graduated in 2007 from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s Schenley Program. She has spent summers studying at Ballet Chicago, Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, Miami City Ballet, and Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive/Vail Valley Dance Intensive, where she served as Program Assistant. Ms Long attended Milwaukee Ballet School’s Summer Intensive on scholarship before being invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II in 2007.
Ms Long has been a member of Ballet Quad Cities since 2009. She has danced featured roles in Deanna Carter’s Ash to Glass and Dracula, participated in the company’s 2010 tour to New York City, and most recently performed principal roles in Courtney Lyon’s Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Cinderella. She is also on the faculty of Ballet Quad Cities School of Dance, where she teaches ballet, pointe, and repertoire classes.