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Embracing imperfection: How to stop chasing an unattainable goal to be “perfect”

“Perfect is the horizon that vanishes as you approach it.” - Kathleen McGuire, Dance Magazine

As humans, we have had instilled in us, from a young age, the value of doing things the “right” way - to be score high on exams, to come in first in a race, to get into the esteemed university or program. These textbook standards of success lay the foundation of how individuals measure their self-worth, lacking any room for being “average” and, instead, putting pressure on people to amount to something “better,” whatever the definition of that ambiguous term may be. The same is ever-present in the dance world, as dancers fight for bodily and physical perfection in a way that young scholars seek an “A.”

Standing in a room lined with mirrors, in a leotard and tights, dancers face scrutiny each time they step foot into the studio. In fact, those with true passion for the art beg for their instructors’ attention, wishing for constructive criticism that can then be applied and, in turn, nudge them along the way toward their end goal - perfection.

Contrary to the beliefs of so many aspiring dancers, and even those dancing professionally, does perfection even exist? My answer: no. No single human executes everything in the “right” way. There are very distinct definitions in which steps should be taught and performed, but even between different disciplines of dance, these expectations differ. Every dancer, from Fonteyn to Baryshnikov to Zakharova, has made errors throughout his/her journey or gone about moving in diverse ways. We are people, not robots, and our mistakes (and differences) are what make us who we are. The issue should not be, then, how to become “perfect,” but, rather, how to embrace, embody, and encourage all of what makes us individualized artists. And the funny, yet disturbing, reality is that we put this weight on our own shoulders.

First, we must stop comparing ourselves to others. Far easier said than done, social comparison remains a prevalent issue in today’s culture. The studio simply exacerbates this, as body image concerns mix with technical flaws to create a perfect storm (pardon the pun) of personal defeat. Rather than watching peers in class or pre-professional prodigies on Instagram and, in turn, feeling inferior, spark within yourself motivation. Set eyes on future goals that will allow you to grasp challenging movements, but do not let yourself get caught up in doing something “as well as” or better than someone else. Use your time in the studio as a way of bettering YOU, only comparing yourself to how you performed in the last class or rehearsal. Reinforcing how sub-par you are in relation to Jenny will not make you a stronger dancer or person, for that matter. Encourage Jenny while continuing to respect and promote your own abilities!

Second, we must stop reflecting on what we do “wrong” and focus on what we do well. As dancers, the default mindset is to find some fault, no matter the size, in one’s work. The art of dance thrives off of feedback, corrections, and applications, and it is imperative to recognize areas in which we are in need of improvement. What often happens, however, is that we zero in on a handful of mistakes rather than reward ourselves for an abundance of triumphs. We grow so fixated on the one wobbly turn that we struggle to applaud all of the heart and work behind the performance, itself. With modern-day technology, dancers are so easily and readily able to record videos of themselves, only to later watch and, critique, and ruminate over. Watching a recording of a performance can prove to be one of the most reinforcing or disheartening experiences - it is all determined by the dancer’s perspective. Try making a list of the movements you execute well in class or the qualities, both valuable and appealing, that make you stand out onstage. There is a place for working to iron out our flaws, but, as artists, there is an equal demand for complimenting oneself, even if only in your own head.

Third, we must question who deems what is perfect in the dance world. While technique can be ridden with flaws, so much of dancing lies not just in the mechanical execution of the movements but, instead, the heart behind them. Many dancers are so technically sound that they may be considered more near to perfection than the remainder of us, but they appear flat and stale onstage. Other artists may not possess as great strength in technical ability, but the passion which they exude before an audience outweighs that which they may not have in their extensions or turns. Perfection lies in the eye of the beholder, and though a distinct standard is set in the world of academia, the line is far more blurred in the dance world.

Fourth, we must be kind to ourselves. Just as algebra does not come easily to all, neither does dancing. We must accept our own personal drawbacks and remind ourselves that we, after all, are human. Some things will take more time to achieve, while others may simply never be attainable. Fighting with our physical, mental, and emotional selves will not help us become what we desire. If anything, it will hinder us from achieving any form of personal success. Getting angry at yourself for failing to land a triple pirouette in class will, likely, not result in a clean turn. More often than not, the more a dancer obsesses over a particular movement, in a given day, the more frustrated and physically fatigued he/she will become and, consequently, the worse he/she will dance. Perfectionism acts as a viscous cycle - the underlying need to be great can so easily fuel or destroy one’s ability to achieve their goals. We all have bad days, even those at the very top. Do not punish yourself for being human; forgive yourself for not being a robot!

Fifth, we must adapt. Just as someone who struggles with biology may shine brightly in English class, a dancer who loves to jump and turn may be challenged by high extensions. As athletes and artists, we have to play up our strengths and use them to our advantage. Though we need to consistently work on those movements or performative qualities that prove daunting to us, it is necessary to be aware of the things that allow you to spring your wings and fly. Someone who adores fast footwork and sharp, staccato movements may not prove the best fit for Odette in Swan Lake, but she could certainly grasp both the technique and character of Kitri in Don Quixote. Knowing the type of dancer you are, particularly as you advance to higher levels, is extremely beneficial. But we need to use this knowledge to better understand how we can attack our least favorite steps as confidently as those we feel most comfortable with.

Sixth, we must be proactive. Discipline and dance are synonymous. It is no wonder that many dancers always perform well in school, as such discipline and determination carry over into their academic life. We need to continually monitor our mental health, set achievable goals, and resist the desire to push ourselves into overextension. You will not be able to execute a clean entrechat quatre the first time you ever try it. Being a dancer means being a continual work in progress. We must clearly define goals that build upon one another, just as levels do at TSDPAC. Try outlining the process of mastering (or at least coming close to mastering) a particular movement. Start with the simplest breakdown of the step and add difficulty ever week/month as you grow stronger, until you, eventually, arrive at your destination.

Lastly, and likely most importantly, we must reframe how we define the concept of perfection, itself. Imperfection provides, with it, so much personality, intrigue, and room for growth. If a dancer were to reach a state of pure perfection, there would be nowhere to go from there. Dancers constantly drive themselves toward improvement, even in the most minute ways. Half of the joy of training and performing lies in the hard work and diligence it takes to get anywhere near such an ideal. And this is what pushes dancers, of all calibers, to continue doing what they do. Dancers cannot fit into a cookie cutter mold, as much as esteemed directors, namely George Balanchine, believed in possible. We now welcome numerous body types, races, and gender identities in the dance world, something that I applaud and will continue to fight for. According to previous standards, such dancers possessing the aforementioned qualities never even had a chance of being perfect. And the pursuit of such perfection would leave them missing out on so much more.

As a dancer of twenty years, I am no exception to the perfectionistic susceptibility. My desire to be perfect, in all realms of my life (from school to dance to relationships), led me down a dark road. At one point in time, dancing grew to be more of a chore than anything else. I would count corrections given to me during class, going home and replaying them in my brain, over and over again. I worked to apply that feedback in the studio, and every time I failed to do so, I would reprimand myself for being a bad dancer. Obsessively watching videos of myself performing and outlining every mistake that flashed across the screen, I have spent so much time crying over my own pursuit of perfection. Not only did my obsessions suck the joy out of dancing and negatively impact my creativity and performative freedom, but it led me to an incredibly severe eating disorder at the age of 11, one that brought me close to death. I vowed to myself, as I grew older, that I would reshape my relationship with dance, in an attempt to rediscover the joy and reward it once provided me. It took until my college years to really find myself as an artist, to accept my own drawbacks and celebrate the things that I thrive in. I lack flexibility and beautiful feet, but I have strong jumps, graceful upper body movements, commanding stage presence, and a whole lot of heart and soul. I will never love slow adagios, but now, instead of banging my head against a wall for falling out of something, I work to move on. And this makes the days where I do succeed all the more special, as it proves to me that I can still surprise myself. Honing in on one faux pas is not what will help you foster your artistry. Looking at the big picture will.

Work is everything. Growth is everything. Perfection is overrated.

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