The Discipline of Dancers

Discipline tends to get a bad rap these days.

In productivity circles, it is equated to white-knuckling your way through tasks with iron-jawed determination, which will naturally and absolutely end in failure.

In diet circles, discipline is the same as holding your teeth together, sitting on your hands and mutely shaking your head “no” when birthday cake is thrust at you…also doomed to failure–maybe not this time around, or the next, but inevitably you will cave because the human psyche is weak and discipline is artificial.

But is it?

And is discipline really the evil monster on your shoulder, making you do what you don’t want to do?  Always?

That’s why I find ballet dancers fascinating.

The physical discipline of dancers of all stripes interests me but in particular, because I know that world a little better, ballet dancers tend to blow my mind with their dedication and iron-hard willpower…that you can only ever see if you turn your head and glimpse it from the corner of your eye.  There is a grace and calmness about their discipline that is admirable.

If discipline is a sliding scale moving from physical discipline to mental discipline, ballet dancers would be at the far opposite end to writers.  All our demons are in our heads.  Our body just comes along for the ride.

On the other hand, if writers could build some of the physical discipline of dancers into their lives, along with their mental stamina, I think we would all benefit immensely.

A perfect example of this is a video I found on YouTube, Munchies’ “Counting Calories With A Ballerina“, which sucks in your attention for more reasons than the theme of the video.  Theresa Farrell speaks in the opening minutes of the video about ballet being the perfect blend of physical and mental discipline, although I suspect that the physical discipline comes first and the mental discipline comes along for the ride, the opposite of writers.

For the same reason, I love the introduction chapter of Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, where she says:

After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves—write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon—but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.

It’s the same for any creative individual, whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory. The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. And this routine is available
to everyone.

Tharp is a celebrated American dancer and choreographer with some impressive credits to her name, on stage, in film, and books, too.  Her professionalism and discipline seeps onto every page, so much so that some reviewers call her “didactic”.  I think she is merely speaking the way she truly thinks, warts and all, honed from her years as an active dancer.

Although Tharp is speaking about creativity in the quote above, notice the use of the words “routine” and “habit” and “daily patterns”.

Tharp further adds:

I will keep stressing the point about creativity being augmented by routine and habit. Get used to it. In these pages a philosophical tug of war will periodically rear its head. It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work.

If it isn’t obvious already, I come down on the side of hard work. That’s why this book is called The Creative Habit. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits. That’s it in a nutshell.

Direct, as I said.

White-knuckle discipline is counter-productive.  You’ll run out of oxygen if you hold your breath too long while forcing yourself to do whatever it is you think you must.

I don’t think all discipline, however, is evil.  Leavened with the power of habit, it is useful and worth the time to embrace it.

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