My last post about taking beginning ballet class just scratched the surface. Now I’d like to attempt to write more about the background reasons for studying ballet, and the effects I am discovering.
As I mentioned previously, my initial reason for exploring ballet was to go add something to my physical apparatus to bring back to doing music, and to explore the ways in which all the arts are connected – particularly music and dance. The kinesthetic dimension of music – movement and flow and dance – is rarely discussed amongst classical musicians, yet it is critical.
The tactile sense of one’s body in relation to space is the sense of proprioception, and this somehow needs to be engaged in the kinesthetic process of music. (Coincidentally, this week’s RadioLab episode addresses proprioception and what it’s like to lose it.) These two things – the kinesthetic in music, and proprioception – go hand in hand just like sound and hearing.
So dance has already markedly affected the way I relate to music. Hearing the 1st Movement of Dvorák’s 7th Symphony recently, for the first time I consciously perceived it as a waltz. Surely I felt that subconsciously before, but this time was just different, having just learned waltz turns. Taking this further, just today I was watching my favorite part of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker – the transformation of the living room, and after the battle scene, the transformation of the Nutcracker into the prince. It is one thing to play this music, conduct it, analyze it. But this time watching the scene, I suddenly realized that the way to get closest to the enchantment and grace of the music is indeed to dance it. Preferably literally, but at least in one’s kinesthetic and empathetic imagination. Getting as close to the music as possible is the lifelong quest of a musician, and it’s taken me this long to fully apprehend this transformative insight. Before my own class begins, I’ll watch the earlier class or rehearsal rehearsal in progress with a faint smile on my face – I’m finally getting the other side of the music.
Other connecting-the-dots insights come randomly. In a book on ballet I found at the library, one phrase jumped out at me – for a ballet dancer to learn to control and coordinate all parts of one’s body like an orchestra. If one can lead an orchestra, then there is hope that she can also learn to coordinate and synchronize the components of her own physical self to achieve a more graceful way of being in one’s body from moment to moment.
Another unexpected but huge benefit is that dance brings me out of living in my head, absorbed in my thoughts, to being in the physical present. And this goes back to a basic principle of Zen to live in the present moment.
Taking dance class was a conscious choice to create a reality and a way of life around the pursuit of beauty and creativity and new beginnings. We create worlds with art, and we change ourselves for the better by placing ourselves in contexts where our attention is drawn to what is beautiful and graceful, and to choosing to create that in the moment with whatever we are doing. Doing ballet is a very direct path to discover what grace entails, and as well to access the ethereal.
In one class our teacher taught us George Balanchine’s gesture for openheartedness and vulnerability. An artist needs both of these qualities. Finding the physical gestures and attitudes for these enables us to experience those states of mind – the body and the mind both influence each other. And I have already used that gesture before a performance, to good effect. Hence the possibility of learning new habits of mind through practicing – as much as possible, living and breathing – dance.