Lessons from Ballet

I grew up dancing ballet from about eight to eighteen. Here are some lessons I learned.

  1. Never stretch cold

In a ballet class, stretching generally occurs after the barre – the first ~30 minute of class that is basically a methodical workout that drills all the foundational movements with the assistance of the barre (railing on the wall). You’re usually quite sweaty by that point, and you have a little cool down while doing your splits and other stretches. In contrast, in gym at school, we’d do some guided static stretches like holding your arm across your body or touching your toes before getting into activity, which seemed pretty weird to me. It now seems pretty much consensus among athletes and scientists that one should warm up before or during stretches to avoid possible damage. So as pretty much anyone reputable source would recommend, I reserve static stretching for after the workout.

  1. Take “bad pain” as a serious warning sign

Exercise can involve pain, but you need to be able to tell when the discomfort is healthy and when it is not. Pushing through “bad pain” is always a bad idea, and nothing is worth as much as your health. Ballet is generally associated with a lot of unhealthy things, such as very painful stretching, bleeding and bruised feet, etc. Because the focus is on achieving precise standards of how movements and forms look (rather than what movements and forms achieve as in sport) there can be disregard for natural physical differences. As a result some people can be led to do things that are unhealthy and unsustainable for them. In my case, some of the things I did with my knees and feet were probably bad for me in the long term, although thankfully nothing serious has resulted. So I’ve learned to make a clear distinction between healthy forms of discomfort and “bad pain.”

  1. The splits are useless

As someone who achieved right and left splits as a teenager, left and right over-splits soon after, and then totally lost it after stopping dance, I don’t miss them at all. Being able to do the splits is useless unless you’re a dancer or gymnast or something like that. There’s no health benefit to that degree of flexibility. It’s not inherently fun. People are impressed, but that does not mean it’s a good thing. I’ll gladly never do the splits again in my life.

  1. If you want to get better at something, do that thing

Don’t get caught up with other people’s business, especially on social media. Focus on yourself.

  1. Make your own meaning in daily life

One of my favorite pieces of advice is something I’ve heard in many forms. Barre is pretty prescriptive – the instructor tells you what the combination is and gives some pointers on what they’d like you to focus on, and then you do it. The advice is to not only work on what they tell you, but to make it an artistic exercise by trying to convey your own choice of story or emotion through the combination. That way, you have more fun, and you work on an important aspect of dance – communication! That made barre so much less boring for me. In real life, this translates to having intention in the things you do, even little or routine things, and staying present (not tuning out). Self-expression isn’t just a performance tool, but an aid to living authentically.

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