I’m A Better Backpacker Thanks To Ballet

Melanie Doskocil is a ballet teacher, former professional, and writes over at Ballet Pages. You may recognize her name, as she’s guested at DA before with articles on managing stress as a teacher and a woman, and the realities and pressures of elite training. This time she investigates a lighter but no less insightful subject in the first of a series of posts we’re calling Ballet’s Un-X-pected Lesson Files. Enjoy!

Ballet has helped me be a better backpacker!

No, it’s not because I have better balance, or coordination, and certainly not because my body is stronger, or healthier, or more flexible. My history includes enough injuries that it’s surprising I can even hike, much less lug a huge backpack 15 miles into the wilderness.

IMAGE Melanie on a snowfield in the Holy Cross Wilderness in Colorado IMAGE

Melanie on a snowfield in the Holy Cross Wilderness in Colorado

Actually, I’m a better backpacker because, thanks to ballet, I am spatial.

It’s not a typo. I did mean spatial, not special.

Though, any non-dancer who has spent time in the company of a group of dancers knows how “special” we dancers are!

  • We have our own language: a mixture of french, English, arm and leg waving.
  • We have no qualms about jumping up in the middle of a restaurant or other public place to demonstrate something funny that happened in class that morning.
  • We have little if any personal space boundaries with our dance friends, which often makes our non-dance partners uncomfortable.
  • We can be caught at any hour of the day, mumbling over steps and trying to solve choreographic problems.
  • We give up family functions and holidays because the show must go on, yet…
  • We’ll happily join you at the dance club after an 8 hour day of rehearsal, just to let off some steam.

Spatial Awareness

What I’m talking about is an extra sense that dancers develop from years and years of training.

Whether you’re a ballerina, a tap dancer, a hip-hop dancer, it doesn’t matter. We’ve all had to learn to move outside of our comfort zone in a large group of people, without smacking into anyone. Ballet dancers probably learn it earliest since they learn at a very young age how to space themselves at the ballet barre. But any dancer who has ever had to dance in, and maintain, a formation has developed this extra sense, or heightened spatial awareness.

Spatial Awareness: the awareness of our relationship to things around us and where we are in space.

Ok, ok, all you non-dancer partners and family and friends, get up off the floor. Stop rolling with laughter.

I know that dancers outside the studio can seem like the clumsiest freaks on the planet – bumping into couches that haven’t moved in 10 years, tripping over unseen ripples in the carpet, knocking over cups of coffee that seemed strategically out of reach.

I know you are amazed every time you see your dancer perform. You marvel at how this clumsy oaf you know can be a divine god or goddess of subtlety on stage.

My theory is that most dancers are unaware of their extra sense, their spatial-ness, and they don’t use it much outside the studio.

Besides that, dancing is so demanding on mind and body, some just “tune out” when they are out of the studio. They turn off all their amazing dance abilities to relax and let the mind and body recover.

So how does this relate to backpacking?

IMAGE Melanie on top of Mt. Shavano in Colorado IMAGE

Melanie on top of Mt. Shavano in Colorado

Does it keep me from bumping into trees? Tripping over bears? Knocking over boulders? Well, sort of…

The ability to know where I am in space at all times was useful in the studio. Now that I’ve retired and taken up backpacking it’s become more than a cool ability in the wilderness.

I have found that I have an innate sense of my relationship to the trail I am on, the mountains that surround me and the direction I am going. Now that I’m no longer dancing, my “ability” seems to be on, all the time (except around that stinkin’ couch!). It’s become very useful as my beau and I have developed a liking for route finding and off-trail explorations.

It’s helped me learn to read, orient, and follow a topo (topographic map) with fair precision.

It’s guided me off treacherous ridges, helped me on un-maintained trails and it’s especially useful if I’m off-trail, mushroom hunting.

I am sure there are plenty of non-dancers that have this ability in the mountains as well. I am sure it can be a learned ability for some. My beau seems to have been given the ability to be almost consistently sure the trail lies exactly opposite its actual direction.

Some rely on their GPS, though I was out on a trip with an REI manager who swore up and down that his GPS was telling him we were 2 miles from where we really were. He stuck by his GPS, I trusted my spatial-ness, we got out the map… guess who was right!

Melanie’s Top Excursions

I’ve done most of my backpacking in Utah and Colorado and, while I’m by no means an expert, or even widely traveled, here are a few of my favorite spots:

The High Uinta Wilderness close to the Utah/Wyoming border. A mountain range that runs east/west with drainages that run north/south. Pristine high alpine lakes, stunning views from windswept treeless ridges, mountain goats, bears, fish, solitude. This is where I started backpacking, right around the time I retired from dancing.

White River Wilderness, Holy Cross Wilderness, Snowmass/Maroon Bells Wilderness in Colorado: These are in my back yard and some of the wildest places left in the US. Stark granite batholiths, pristine high alpine lakes, glaciated valleys, bears, marmots, solitude, soul infusing beauty.

IMAGE American Lake near Aspen, Colorado IMAGE

American Lake near Aspen, Colorado

My amazing spatial awareness ability is not just useful in the wild either. I feel a constant orientation to my physical surroundings. On a lonesome highway, in a crowded store, in the wilderness…

Do I dare say, I never feel lost?

What an amazing gift dance has given me!

It’s just another reminder of how a dance background and dance education not only give us gifts in the present, but continue to feed us for a lifetime.

And speaking of gifts…

IMAGE Sunset at Eagle Lake in Colorado IMAGE

Sunset at Eagle Lake in Colorado

I’d like to submit the following hidden dancer talents and abilities to Ballet’s Un-X-pected Lesson Files:

  • The ability to push through self-imposed limitations
  • The ability to handle stressful situations with grace and ease
  • The ability to think outside the box
  • The ability to multi-task
  • The ability to see with eyes “in the backs of our heads”

Can you think of some other, perhaps surprising, traits or skills dancers develop?

Have you noticed where or when these have come in handy outside the studio?

IMAGE Melanie Doskocil, director of school at Aspen Santa Fe Ballet IMAGEMelanie Doskocil directs the School of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet with over 20 years of professional dance and teaching experience. She began her professional dance career in 1989 with Ballet Arizona and continued on to dance with Oakland Ballet, Nevada Ballet Theater, City Ballet of San Diego, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Mia Michaels RAW, and Odyssey Dance Theatre in Utah. Ms. Doskocil began teaching in 1995, for City Ballet of San Diego, under the mentorship of Steven and Elizabeth Wistrich. She continued teaching and began directing at Center Stage Performing Arts Studios in Utah, where she created their pre-professional ballet program. Melanie has mentored with master teachers Jean-Philippe Malaty, Tom Mossbrucker, Hilary Cartwright and the excellent faculty of Marcia Dale Weary’s Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. She shares her teaching stories, ideas, and some favorite ballet classes on her blog at www.balletpages.blogspot.com.
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  1. Terrific essay, Melanie. I love the special “language” we all share as dancers. 🙂 To answer the question posed, I would suggest that as dance *teachers*, we have a more tuned-in ability to read people’s body language than the average person. Because we are constantly looking at our students’ bodies, how they move or don’t move, we are more aware of how another person is feeling non-verbally. I think this ability comes in handy a lot in non-dance situations! 🙂