Ritualizing the Beast

Someone once likened ballet to a Japanese garden. It takes many years of consistent, meticulous work to create the illusion of naturalness, the illusion that a body, or a bonsai, was born that way.

Though I acknowledge that certain things were innate to my dancing, many things like line, rotation, flexibility and articulation were not. They had to be worked. I have a hard time convincing some of my teenage students that at their age, I was scarcely more flexible than they are now. When I confess that I too once struggled to do the splits, they look at me, wide-eyed with disbelief, as though I’d just confirmed the existence of the chupacabra. They cannot grasp how I got from there to here.  I assure them that the secret to flexibility had nothing to do with talent or grace. It had to do with discipline.

While some teenagers feel supported and guided by discipline, many are rebellious. They don’t yet understand that  you can’t fly free of the form until you’ve mastered the form. When given a stretch during class, they moan and groan and blame me for ballet’s standards as though I created them. I can still hear my own teacher, Madame Darvash, shouting “Don’t get mad at me. I didn’t invent it!” after I offered my own teenage resistance to a difficult movement she required of us. I try to reassure my students that discipline doesn’t have to be a dirge. What helped me, and what I encourage them to do, is to create a ritual out of it.

We usually think of rituals as marking endings or beginnings, like weddings and funerals, but it may also be used as the thing that carries someone through a prolonged change. It is a way of finding acceptance and can serve as a sacred space-holder in which to work on the thing you want to change, each day, or however often it is appropriate to do so.

It is also a way of finding out what is really important to you. Quite simply, if the new thing doesn’t stand up to the demands of a daily or weekly or so ritual, then maybe it’s not really in your heart. So in this way, ritual helps us to find clarity as well.

When I speak of creating ritual, I don’t mean lighting candles or incense or religious trappings of any sort, unless of course, that stuff has meaning for you. It can be something as simple as taking a few moments to go inward, to state an intention, to ask for and allow guidance. I think, perhaps more than ever in human history, we feel empowered to form an individual spirituality free from any church or dogma, so a ritual can be anything that works for you. Maybe a deep breath is sufficient.

I personally love the smell of burning sage but I know it’s not for everybody. I notice that people are very afraid of being labeled “flakey.” We are afraid of the vulnerability that comes with personal expressions of the heart, of infusing a ritualistic act with love. Nowhere is this more apparent these days than in a lot of the contemporary dances I see. Everyone looks so fierce and defiant. They seem to want to let me know that they can kick my ass. There is so much thrashing around and yanking of women across the stage with their legs spread open. The kids are very seduced by all this fierceness. They have a word for someone who is dancing hard: they call that person a “beast.” It’s no wonder that patience and meticulous work seem anathema.

Nevertheless, I remain undaunted in my efforts to get them to dig deeper. I find that the ritual of stretching is a good metaphor for anything we want to change: there is a place where you come up against your limitation and it is extremely painful. You breathe into that place and move back. Breathe and release. The pain subsides. Eventually, you move past it and you are not the same.

Now, I have spoken about mastery in an earlier blog, but I want to clarify something about the will.  I don’t think the will is supreme. That a strong consistently and positively applied will can change anything. I think for change to happen, it has to be in flow. It has to be aligned with other forces. But without the work, what is already there cannot be born. And the ritual is like the boat, the vehicle, the motor-cycle for all you beasts out there, that helps us across.


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