Zen and Ballet: 10 Tips for the Journey


It’s time once again for my annual trek to Vajrapani for a three-day silent retreat. Last year, upon my return, I penned an article for Dance Advantage about how my meditation practice paralleled, oddly, my experience in taking ballet classes. Rereading it now, I’m grateful for the wisdom I’d accrued last year and utterly, wholly lost in the ensuing twelve months. Dang. I’d thought it was permanent wisdom. Silly Classical Girl!

So for myself, and you, dear reader, in case you didn’t catch this essay last year, here’s a repeat of some powerful common sense wisdom you can likely apply to your own life journey, be it ballet-strewn or not. (You can check out the original, modified article here: http://www.danceadvantage.net/zen-and-ballet/ )

Um, just how is ballet is like meditation?

Regular meditation is a challenge. Ballet is a different kind of challenge. Granted, it’s more pleasure than discomfort. It’s art, the beauty of applying movement and focus to music. And yet, it’s a breeding ground for dualistic thinking. Observe the following:

  • Even on good days, you sense you can always do better.
  • There is an image in your mind you’re striving for, that you can’t seem to ever reach.
  • There is always someone better than you. (If this is not the case, you’re taking the wrong class.)

My own ugly little confessions


I watch other students. I judge them. I study them. I use them as a template to decide how I am lacking. There is a tight feeling akin to grief that eggs me on, tells me to work harder, to strive more, tells me I am losing.

I remember who I once was, performing onstage, and it’s not who I am now.

I want to dance better. I am grimly determined to dance better.

In class, I lose all sense of equanimity. Instead, envy fills me. I want to look like her, and her, and her. I want to be thinner. Have a smaller waist. Thicker, longer hair. A narrower chest. This big shelf I carry will forever consign me to the “matronly” look, and that so doesn’t look good in the ballet studio’s mirror. I want to be happy like the others all seem to be. I don’t want to be me.

It is what it is

Duality. Desire. Ego. They run my life. The Buddhists gently suggest that, in order to find peace, ease suffering in your life, you should examine these culprits, observe them, try and distance yourself from their control. By staying in the present, what is, you are freed from “what once was” or “what really, really needs to be.” It is possible to make your way through life in this gentler way, not so caught up in right and wrong, good and bad, past and future, grabbing for what you want, running from what you hate. When I approach life through these parameters, I like myself more. It’s a novel feeling.

Being in the moment


In my sitting meditation practice, my goal is to simply observe the breath, my thoughts, the constant stream of them, striving to return to the present no matter how alluring or compelling the current thought tugging at my psyche seems. It is interesting to note that, outside this practice, ballet is my greatest “remain in the moment” activity. For ninety minutes of ballet class, I am there wholly, mind, body and spirit. If I allow my mind to wander (and it does; it’s terrible, my worst fault in ballet class) off it will go. I’ll get sucked into some past drama, some future worry, and before I know it, the teacher is cuing the music, motioning for us to take our places at the barre for the ronde de jambe a terre exercise (always complicated), and I don’t have a clue what I just observed her demonstrate. Bad girl! Bad ballet dancer, bad meditator! 

But meditation isn’t about blocking thoughts, nor is it reprimanding yourself for getting it wrong. You aren’t “good” when the thoughts are slower to arise and “bad” on a day the thoughts race and mill about like mice on steroids. It’s like pirouettes in ballet class. You have good days where it all flows. You have bad pirouette days. Just awful ones that make you shake your head and mentally recalculate just how many months/years you’ve been trying, and for this result? It’s usually about your focus, your balance, both physical and mental.

Gentle tips to help you on your own journey


I’d like to share these ten nubs of wisdom I’ve accrued through my practice, that seem to apply to both daily life and ballet. They help me along the way, although darned if I don’t forget all the wisdom a day later. Luckily, this list is here to remind me and reteach me, every single day.

1) Wherever you are in life, at this very moment, and in your ballet practice, is precisely where you’re supposed to be. Don’t waste too much energy or mind power wishing otherwise.

2) Your body, likewise, is built exactly how it is supposed to be. And if it is healthy and supports you, regardless of its size or shape, it is beautiful. You are beautiful. Don’t let the mirror decide where your beauty begins and ends.

3) Be present. Be here now, in the class, in your life. Observe the way your attachments and aversions often dictate your moods, your choices, and limit you.

4) It’s good to improve on a regular basis in ballet, set personal goals, but don’t withhold satisfaction with the way things are right now. Don’t live your life waiting for the day things will be easier, or better. The reality is, that day in the future when things are “better,” you will find a new “better” dangled before you like a carrot. It’s all an illusion to pull you from your life in the present.

5) It’s all about the journey, the process of learning, not the destination. Once we stop the learning, we stop living.

6) Learning ballet (or maintaining the practice) is hard. Life, in general, is hard. But it’s the hard stuff, these forays outside your comfort zone, that make it so rich and worth living.

7) Observe everything with gentle compassion. We are all on this journey, on parallel roads. Each has its bumps and smooth spells. We all made choices in life that put us where we are now. We deserve to be cherished, and respected. Particularly by ourselves.

8) Some days it all comes together. You’ll have moments of startling insight, power, clarity, and it will feel like You Have Arrived. This includes pirouettes.

9) The next day, or ballet class, you may find yourself stumbling back to square one. This includes pirouettes. This should not be construed as failure. It is simply another facet of the learning process.

10) Pain hurts, both the physical and emotional kind. Don’t judge your own pain, even if it stems from competitiveness or disappointment. If it is there, burning, whether or not it is noble, have compassion. Compassion of the self is where it all begins, and is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Harsh self-judgment is nothing more than pain on top of pain.

Last but not least: enjoy the dance. Because that’s what life is. And the music is calling us to rise, leap in, and participate with all we have, all we are. Go for it.

And now, I go for retreat…


7 thoughts on “Zen and Ballet: 10 Tips for the Journey”

  1. Wow—the dance advantage post was a year ago? Impossible! I just read it, it seems like. Which is my truth about being present in the moment—-regardless of what happensm, it all passes and the great dance of life continues, over and over and over again. So, as my mother (that is, our mother) liked to say when things weren’t going well, “this too shall pass”. I just didn’t appreciate exactly how fast it all would pass–
    even more true for this quickly getting older beautiful woman who is glad she can’t see clearly in the mirror any more. The wrinkles don’t seem nearly as pronounced!

    • Kathleen – yikes, I forgot to reply to your comment. Good thing you’ll still follow me here, regardless. ((Um, right?)) Well put, about this great dance of life continuing over and over and over. (I’ve yet to get to the part where it all passes so fast, tho. Right now, it still seems like a very long haul with me in the doldrums. Maybe it has to do with parenting a spirited, challenging teen…)

      Oh, my, yes, you ARE a beautiful women and your wrinkles are NOT pronounced. Thank Mom for giving us nice, wrinkle-free skin, huh?

  2. Great post! As a fellow meditator and dancer (hopefully I can be considered a dancer), there were so many times when I found myself nodding my head. The meditative aspect of it was one of the (many) things that made me grow to love ballet. Love the ten tips – on a good day I remember them and live them, on a bad day I need a little reminding.

    • Paulina and Kate, thanks so much for your comments!

      Ooh, Kate, love that you’re both a meditator and dancer – I rarely find the combination among my meditator friends, and dance friends. One or the other. Kind of like playing the violin and doing ballet – it’s usually a one-or-the-other thing. Or yoga and kickboxing (I’m the real anomaly there, let me tell you.)

      Thanks again, ladies – always a treat to hear that others like the wisdom/article too.

      • You’re right; the combination of meditator/dancer is hard to find though I hope this will change in the future. For what’s it’s worth, I’m also a musician. I played violin as a kid for a few years and now I play guitar.


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