Break the Rules Like a Ballerina: 4 Ways to Break Through

I love math. I love ballet. Both are chock full of seemingly hard and fast rules, rules that help geometric things maintain integrity, represent the laws of nature, and create efficiency. When I was a student I took great satisfaction in seeing mathematic principles at work in ballet -- angles, velocity in action, inputs yielding outputs. This uncanny mathematical expression is part of what initially attracted me to ballet.

Yet viewers process ballet through a subjective lens, feeding off of emotion, nuance and each artist's unique stage persona. While rules and norms underlie ballet technique, one must surpass the rules to move from technician to artist. Thus as dancers we have a complicated relationship with rules and what we should or shouldn't do. And the moderating inner voice barking all those "shoulds" at us? I call her Norma. And, sometimes, to create real art, this is how I get her to shut up.

Use the mold as a guide, not a blueprint.

2015-12-17-1450371215-9354028-Usethemoldasaguide275.jpgMy greatest growth period in ballet came once I strayed from the blueprint. I was dancing a relatively small role in the ballet Coppélia, which gave me the freedom to be creative because I did not have to match lines in the corps de ballet or carry the ballet as the lead. So, with little risk, I initiated an internal experiment. I secretly started trying to dance a little weirdly, varying the small details in my dancing, such as how my hand swooped through an arc of movement, or the cadence with which I initiated a step. I strayed from the mold a bit and spiced up my three-minute solo with my own playful brand of individualism. Sure, rules still applied -- I had to maintain a level of precision, musicality and technique. But, I also wanted to lighten my internal mandate for exactitude. I wanted some wiggle room in the pathway between points A and B. The experiment worked! The dance took on a richer, fuller shape as I enabled myself to curiously explore the choreography simply by silencing Norma for a moment. It was a breakthrough; I was no longer hemmed in by paralyzing perfection.

Julia Erickson in William Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated
Photo by: Aimee DiAndrea

Guess what? You're weird so just go with it.

2015-12-17-1450370795-8202456-Embraceyourweirdness.jpg275.jpg When did the word "weird" take on a negative connotation? Oh right, that's Norma again, pushing for conformity. Well it's a losing battle to think that you're anything but totally weird. And thank goodness! Make it work for you. Weird is beautiful, and amazing, and what drives innovation, art and creativity. Ask yourself: Who's really hemming you in, holding you to normalcy? Chances are it's you, not the forces around you. Take a deep breath and celebrate the weirdness. Share it. Consider those you love or admire most: Are you drawn to them because they walk, talk and look like everyone else? No. If they did, they wouldn't be special to you. What makes them compelling is their uniqueness -- they are an individual moving from point A to B with graceful imperfection.

In my own "dance experiment," I'm not sure if anyone consciously noticed the embellishment to my solo, but I noticed the tenor of my dancing shifted to a higher, more self-actualized place. The dance was no longer the perfect execution of the normative rules of ballet; rather, it was so very "me."

The Ultimate Ballet Photo Bomb
Photo by: Duane Rieder

Know which "shoulds" you should kick to the curb.

2015-12-17-1450371381-7368164-Knowwhichshouldstokicktothecurb275.jpgSocietal rules and norms exist for a reason, many of their origins valid, useful and even noble, protecting us from slipping into Hobbesian disorder. In ballet, certain tenets are physical, mathematical truisms and therefore considered "correct" -- when I piqué arabesque, I must plié and push off from my back leg in order to achieve the position. We generally accept norms because fundamentally we all want to feel loved and accepted and advance within our respective worlds. Our big challenge as modern humans, and as dancers, is to strike that balance between conformity and individualism -- this is how we advance creatively and professionally.

Decide which rules and norms aren't relevant to your dance. Heed Henry David Thoreau's recommendation: "Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something." Why do you have to take the well-trodden path when what you really pine for in your heart is something beyond that -- whether it be a career change, joining the Peace Corps, or dying your hair purple and wearing mismatched socks? Whatever it is, I am confident that if you filter out which rules really shouldn't rule you, the reward will be worth the risk.

Catch and release.

Photo by: Rosalie O'Connor
Julia Erickson & Alejandro Diaz in La Bayadére
Photo by: Rosalie O'Connor

You must let go to achieve. Take it in, feel it, give it back. Ballet is fleeting. The pessimistic industry saying laments that you're "only as good as your last performance," meaning the impression from live art is quickly replaced by whatever comes next. But seen from a glass-half-full perspective, the performance never ends. We are all just moving through, learning, messing up and getting up again... attenuating and refining. We take in that last performance, and we give it back to history because -- as with the rest of life -- it is ephemeral. Don't get bogged down in what software developers call "creeping elegance," letting the perfectionistic minutiae persist past the point of diminishing return. It can quash your spirit in the process. Just trust that the work you've done is enough and allow yourself to round up -- hit send, take the picture, submit the article, and start dancing to the beat of your own drum. You rule.