The Great Debate Of Ballet & Perfectionism

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It’s no secret that the world of ballet is cutthroat and highly-competitive, leading to the endless quest of perfectionism in most dancers. Despite perfectionism being a born trait in most, (ballet) dancers (especially) tend to develop perfectionism at some point in their lives, thanks to the environment and learned experience. After all, how many times have you been on the receiving end of “you must…” statements?

1. It’s Relentless

Alright, no one ever said that being a ballet dancer was going to be easy, and we get it, we really do. But there’s always something next. The next exam, the next audition, the next competition, the next performance… sometimes it never lets up, and you feel like your whole dance life is just a series of “next”. Forget about relationships, this is what “thank u, next” by Ariana Grande is referring to. It can be hard to even take a breath, for you’ll always be pushing yourself to learn a new variation or perfect a difficult move. We’re definitely not against progress, but when progress is made just for progress’ sake without much thought and appreciation behind it, it’s easy to forget why you even started dancing in the first place. Now, you’re only looking to turn triples, get your leg next to your ear, or jump the highest.

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2. Flaws First

Ah, this should be something we’re all familiar with. In class, we actually get torn down more than we are built up, and somehow this has become the norm. Dancers get praise sparingly, but will get criticised heavily for putting one toe out of line (literally). And really, it’s been going on for this way for so long that hardly anyone questions it. Your teachers were taught that way by their teachers, and their teachers before them. Ballet dancing is a highly visual art, and we all want to see aesthetically pleasing things. Therefore, we’re quick to point out faults, or “ugliness”. Your teacher has probably yelled “POINT YOUR TOES!” countless times, but maybe all you’ve got for excellent balance was a grudging small nod, or maybe a surprised “good!” for your successful multiple turns. It just always seems like we’re not good enough, and never will be.

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3. Bodies

As dancers, we use our bodies as our main tools. We’re so accustomed to what is the ideal ballet body – long, lean lines with sculpted (but not bulky) muscles – that anything else is utterly unacceptable; proof that we’ve been using our bodies “correctly”. And since we are constantly scrutinising our bodies, even we are overly critical of what our bodies look like. I mean, sure, especially with the leotards we wear, a great deal is put on display, and who wouldn’t want to look like perfectly-sculpted Gods and Goddesses? But it’s bordering on absurd trying to mould everyone into the same shape and size to uphold the “ideal ballet body”. We also know that almost every ballet dancer (if not all) has fallen into the trap of “not skinny enough”, including ourselves. There’s always a little more slimming to do for the thighs, the hips… maybe if our buttocks were a little smaller we could jump a little higher… the fact is, short of cloning, we’re all going to look different, and the “best” we look will not be the same as another person’s. It’s high time we all recognised that, and work towards our own fit and healthy rather than the “ideal” one.

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4. Formations

Ooh, anyone who has danced as a corps de ballet before would know this. The corps are basically formations – perfect formations, and are watched just as much as the soloists. Think about it. When you mention Swan Lake, your brain may naturally go to “white swan-black swan”, but then to a general audience it’s most likely Act 2’s Entrance of the Swans. And no one can deny that that is a classic in itself. Each “swan” must be exactly identical down to the movements and timing, and God help any lost swan who accidentally moves an inch out of place. We hate to say it, but it’s true. It’s all about the lines, clarity and synchrony. When you’re so used to this sort of discipline, you carry it over to even when you’re dancing on your own, only wanting the best and nothing less. Personally, I feel that dancing in a formation could trigger perfectionism more than dancing solo.

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5. “Toughen Up”

“You must be tougher than this.” “The show must go on.” We can’t say we disagree with these two statements, but very often the line is blurred, or we are told that in the ballet industry, this is how it is. No matter how much we suffer, we just bear it, “suck it up”, and go on with it, leaving many dancers to suffer in silence, or do nothing about their pain/injuries. There was even a meme going around at some time that compared a ballerina on stage holding a perfect arabesque en pointe  with the label “injured”, with a footballer lying on the grass holding his ankle with the the label “healthy”, or something similar. (Footballers are known to act on the field?) Dance training is tough in itself, and when we get injured, we are often blamed for “not taking care of ourselves better”. The problem is that it is very difficult to tell the difference between determination, or knowing your body’s limits. Injuries are an occupational hazard for ballet dancers simply because we just don’t know how to quit sometimes. It’s always “keep going keep going keep going”, and while you may be mentally strong enough to “keep going”, your physical body may not be. And that’s how injuries happen. After that, you push on after a day or two, lest it cost you your progress, or a role. (I’ve done this with a severe knee injury before that may never heal now, and I do not recommend, but I definitely understand.)

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6. Comparison & Competition

When you’re dancing with other people, it’s only natural for you to compare yourself with other people, and gauge your performance/progress based on their performance/progress. A little healthy comparison could be just what you need to stay on top of your game or to give you that little push to do better, but too much and you risk tipping over into the abyss of “I will never be good enough anyway”. And teachers, may we suggest you to compare your students in a healthy, wholesome manner, such as “This movement by student A is correct, and here’s how everyone can achieve it”. Not only will you be giving student A praise, but you will also be telling your students that it is indeed an achievable goal, so everyone feels good. We think it makes a great deal of difference instead of saying “Why can student A do it but not you?”

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7. Social Media

A newcomer in the decades- (or centuries-) long perfectionism of ballet dancing, social media could actually be the worst. We always see photos and videos of other dancers accomplishing amazing feats, and we could be left with a feeling of inadequacy. I know I personally feel like I’m not sure if I’m actually motivated or demotivated after scrolling through crazy good ballet Instagram accounts, but I try not to let it affect me too much. After all, people do tend to only post their best, not their worst. Also, we don’t know just exactly how much work they have put in to get to where they are today. Last but not least, there will always be someone better than you. Always. But are you going to let that stop you from dancing and doing your best?

So dancers, we know you’re trying your very best. Give yourself a pat on the back. Take a break. You’ll come back better and stronger on your journey, so long you don’t give up. In case you feel like you need a pick-me-up because you’ve been feeling really down due to dancing lately, check out our article on 6 Ways To Cope With Dancer Burnout. But, we’d like to know your thoughts! Is perfectionism an outdated concept in ballet dancing, or is it still very much relevant? Are there ways we could help curb the negative effects of perfectionism in ballet? Let us know in the comments below!


Yiing Zhi

Embarking on the journey of self-discovery through dance.

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