Beyond the Barre part 2

Noodling: The Creative Power of Solitary Practice

Mastery and authority in dance do not  necessarily come as a result of perfection, or even consistent flawless execution, but from the confidence built by thousands of hours of practice in which exploration and discovery trump tension-inducing performance anxiety.

In  his book Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly mentions the "10,000 hour rule", asserting that the key to success in any field is dependent on practicing a specific task for a total of about 10,000 hours. (Physical therapists learn that in order to proprioceptively train an action correctly, a minimum of 7000 repetitions is necessary.) What this means is that for a dancer to acquire mastery, she/he must practice for about ten years. If you do the math, 10,000 hrs divided by ten years is 1000hrs per year, divided by 52 weeks is approximately 19.23 hrs per week,  which amounts to about 3.2 hrs/day of practice  six days a week for ten years.  (See note at the end of this blog.)

For most dancers, the bulk of this practice takes place in ballet classes. But I want to address here the importance of practicing alone, without the eyes of a teacher or your colleagues on you, both of which can have effects ranging from inhibition to falsification – which is another form of inhibition actually.  Mastery, paradoxically, is not about not making mistakes; it is about discovering and embodying corrections for oneself.

When I was 12, my first ballet teacher, Myrl Lawrence, gave me the keys to The Ballet Studio (the name of her school). By then she had known me for some 5 years. She saw that I was completely dedicated and obsessed with ballet. I was desperate to practice, and had no room at home to do so, though often , at night while I was supposed to be in bed, I was using my dresser for a barre. In any case, this meant that Sundays, when there were no classes, I was driven to the studio by one of my parents, let myself  in, locked the door, and gave myself a ballet class for two hours. It is only now, as an adult, that I realize how extraordinary this situation was. Giving keys to a 12 year old, allowing her to be alone in a studio, trusting her – this was an amazing gift from my teacher. In those hours, I worked and puzzled and studied my line, steps, arms, turns, jumps. I invented choreography. I wept. I raged. I celebrated. And I noodled, working to try to understand how classical ballet technique could be applied by my body.

My experience is that working by oneself is essential. Unconstrained by time, by the need to do certain sequences as given, a dancer can surrender to a process that is completely organic and directed from within. Guided by curiosity, desire, frustration, determination, and the hunger to "get it right" working alone gives one freedom to explore in whatever way is necessary, not dictated by convention or the time constraints of a traditional class, or by whatever dogmatism may be driving one's teachers. Here imagination serves  inquiry and can be used to invent exercises that facilitate kinaesthetic understanding or liberate the body from the tension born of expectations. Shame flees and is replaced by curiosity and discovery.

From age 12, fast forward 15 years. I was 27. I had had to give up my ambition to dance due to being catastrophically ill. After a life-saving surgery, I went back to The Ballet Studio. My teacher had died and one of her students had taken over. I could barely get through a barre I was so weak, and someone told me about Pilates. A year later, I had a tiny studio built in my basement, put a barre, mirrors, and a reformer there. It was my sanctuary. I practiced there many hours, and also took classes wherever I could. Within another year, I was performing at the Met Opera in NYC.

Now in my own Pilates studio in Portland, OR, working by myself is my principal practice outside of teaching. I use this practice to problem solve in my own body, and to help me understand the problems of clients and students. I experiment with exercises, stretches, different planes of movement, changing resistance, gravity, intent. Essentially, the studio becomes a laboratory where the purpose is investigation, not the accomplishment of perfection or some pre decided outcome. This freedom is precisely what drives private sessions. Here, in conjunction with clients or students, I allow their process, their needs, to move them, and together, we explore. I also encourage everyone to go home and work alone. Solitude is the mother of creativity, the incubator of discovery, and the cradle of understanding. Noodling is essential to success.

(Note: dancers, who usually begin studying around age 6, will not spend 3 hours  a day, 6 days a week,  in a studio unless they are part of a professional school. In-studio practice time increases as students get older and more proficient. It eventually evens out and does take about ten years, with the last 3-4 loaded with about 4-5 hours of dance six days a week. Master teacher Haydee Guttierez used to say that it takes ten years to make a dancer. She said this before Gladwell's book was published.)

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