On one otherwise average fall Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn, I was taking a ballet class at Mark Morris when I heard something that shook me to my very core. I was drenched in sweat and willing myself to make it through an impossibly quick and intricate petite allegro, when the teacher suddenly signaled the pianist to stop playing eight counts into the combination. We all turned towards her expectantly, waiting to hear what correction she would share with us. Instead, she took a deep breath, looked all of us in the eyes, and kindly remarked, “I just want to take this moment to remind you all that you are enough.” She paused, allowing the statement to sink in. After several moments of silence she continued on, reminding us that we all chose to show up on a Saturday when we could be anywhere else. The simple act of showing up, being present, and striving towards something–that was inherently enough. As I reflected on this statement, I felt tears begin to well up in my eyes. What a straightforward but profound sentiment. As I surveyed the studio, filled with a mixture of professional dancers and ballet aficionados alike, I could see that her words had struck a chord with each and every person in the room. Up to that point, I had spent my entire life and dance career chasing being enough. No matter how much positive feedback I received, the impossibly high standards I held myself to were always just out of reach. It wreaked havoc on my emotional wellbeing in and out of the studio. But in that moment, my perspective began to shift. You are enough. Those three words went a long way in filling a void that I had been desperately trying to fill for many years.
Truthfully, I’ve been attempting to write about this experience for months now and struggled to put words to my thoughts and feelings. But here I am, diligently typing away. What changed? I suppose it has something to do with the current disarray of the world, my own personal journey towards healing, and being keenly aware of the fragility of life these past few days. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I have grappled with negative self talk, anxiety, and avoidance of failure in my dance practice as well as in life. I know that I am not alone, my struggle is echoed in the voices of so many others I have opened up to about this subject. I believe we owe it to each other to be more transparent about mental health, both in the dance community and outside of it.
The culture of dance undeniably breeds perfectionism–we are bonded together by a constant and impossible pursuit of unattainable ideals. It’s an unjust and often toxic world that dancers enter into at an impressionable age. It is further complicated by the fact that our bodies are our tool. Unlike other art forms where you can distance yourself from the product, we are the physical manifestation of our art. Every day we walk into the studio inhabiting the form which will inevitably receive criticism and feedback. It is profoundly challenging to hear these words and not interpret it as a judgment call of who we are as human beings.
All that being said, it is well within our power to create change–both for ourselves and for future generations of dancers. As a society we’re becoming more open to talking about mental health, and I’m beginning to see more thought put into providing nurturing environments for training dancers. And yet there is still so much more progress to be made. The line between healthy self criticism and destructive thought patterns and behavior is incredibly confusing to navigate. How do we differentiate between challenging yourself to grow and dangerous perfectionist territory? A good starting place is paying close attention to your thoughts and feelings. If you find yourself experiencing burnout, constantly comparing yourself to your peers, feeling anxious about making mistakes, or practicing hypercritical self talk you might be engaging in destructive perfectionist behavior.
These days, I have a simple mantra that I whisper to myself when I’m feeling discouraged or plagued by self-doubt. Whenever the world makes me believe that I am somehow less than, I take a deep breath and I repeat “You are enough. You are enough. You are enough” until I feel the tension in my body begin to release. Dear reader, I wish I could virtually squeeze your hand and whisper the same sentiment to you. But since I cannot, please consider this a gentle and loving reminder: you have always been enough and you will always be enough. Keep showing up, putting in the work, and dancing it out.
P.S. Your friends are enough too. Share this with them–they could probably use the reminder as well.