Zen and the Art of Ballet: 10 Tips For The Journey

Ballet is a great ‘in the moment’ activity, but if your mind tends to wander to negative or judgmental places, blogger and author, Terez Mertes lends these 10 zen principles to help you bring focus and balance to your ballet journey.

Once upon a time I danced onstage.

A woman in white adopting a pose of meditation.

Photo by RelaxingMusic

But now, in my middle age, I am a parent and a writer, overworked and overwhelmed as we all are these days. Which is why every year, twice a year, I make it a point to escape the chaos and make my way to a private retreat center.

Three to four days of sitting in silence, alone, emptying your mind of thoughts, might not seem like the kind of thing you’d do to enhance or jump-start your ballet practice. And yet, here I am back home now, refreshed, renewed, with the calmness and clarity of new insight accrued serving me well, everywhere I go and encounter challenges.

Ballet is a different kind of challenge.

For me, these days, it’s a recreational option. It is 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.

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 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 ever 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) 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.

Ballet student in a deep cambré to the back.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

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.

Ballet, with its high standards, the quest for perfection, is fraught with the risk of failure. We’ve all been told we shouldn’t be afraid to fail, but let’s face it, it’s uncomfortable, it hurts, and if given the choice most of us will avoid it. But I’m learning, ever learning, to not be so afraid of it. Even learning to – gulp! – appreciate it, for what it continues to teach me.

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

– Winston Churchill

PS: If you’re interested in learning more, some wonderful Buddhist writers on the lifelong journey of mindfulness are Cheri Huber, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh. Check them out.

Terez MertesTerez Mertes (who also publishes as Terez Rose) danced once upon a time, but is now a blogger and writer whose stories and essays have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Literary Mama, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and San Jose Mercury News. Anthology credits include Women Who Eat (Seal Press, November 2003), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales, June 2004) and Italy, a Love Story (Seal Press, June 2005). She blogs as The Classical Girl at www.theclassicalgirl.com and you can check out more of her work at  www.terezrose.com.

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  1. Lovely, Terez, very moving. You give voice to what so very many of us experience in class every day. As we age, it is both humbling and exhilarating to take class with dancers who are young and lithe. I try to tame my ego and look to them as the next generation (or 2!). I study them for ways I might help them if I were their teacher or coach. But more often than not, I look at other dancers who are my age – how are they handling these changes in their bodies and abilities? The best of them find new ways of moving and experiencing dance; they continue to express themselves yet in smaller and more subtle ways.

    We sometimes feel we exist in a vacuum and that no one feels the way we do or that we must be wrong to feel envy or regret. Thanks for reminding us that it’s not uncommon.


    • Leigh, thanks so much, in turn, for your comments! I’m so glad my words resonated, and your thoughts, in turn, were rendered so beautifully. Your reply is like an essay in itself. So nice to read!

  2. Thank you so much, Nichelle, for letting my thoughts (and ugly little confessions) and learned wisdom be voiced here. I’m so grateful for this wonderful site, and grateful that you allow members of the community to share in this way! (That would be #11 on the list, now that I think of it. Gratitude!)

  3. MarySue Hermes says:

    Very nice, Terez! The older I get, the more important these points are!
    Looking forward to my yoga class tomorrow morning… 🙂

    • MarySue, your comments reminded me that much of the shift from ballet mind to a more peaceable “Zen” mind has come, as well, through my yoga practice of the past 18 years. Great stuff! Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Nice piece , but no mention of Aikido. . . . .the Zen martial art that is something like a cross between fighting and dancing. I’ve just started on my journey with Aikido. . . . . but what a revelation. . . .or perhaps a discovery of ‘sameness’ what I know about dance expressed in a different way.
    Is this dance or is it fighting?

  5. So beautifully put.
    #3 “Be present.” Yes! It’s the only way you’re ever going to learn that combination! Seriously, taking class (or teaching class) is the ultimate mindfulness exercise. If you allow your mind to stray for even one second that could spell the difference between an assemblé en tournant and disaster.
    #2 “Your body is exactly how it is supposed to be… regardless of its size or shape, it is beautiful.” In ballet terms I see this a little differently: it is the MOVEMENT that makes you beautiful. Statistically, ballet dancers are no more physically attractive than your average mortal; it’s when they MOVE that they create beauty. Take the 3rd Cecchetti port de bras, a very simple movement sequence in ballet that we teach even absolute beginners. It is a way to express the natural beauty of the body. Whenever someone asks why we use turn-out in ballet, instead of answering just do the 3rd Cecchetti port de bras and they’ll get it. Stepping into 1st arabesque is another – slightly more advanced – movement that radiates beauty, and so is the stretch from 5th position croisé into tendu croisé devant, with accompanying port de bras and épaulement. Besides the endorphin rush of taking class, there is the visual expression of beauty that is so satisfying.

    • @Carla, #2 – beautifully put, these are exactly my feelings, too… In contrast to what many people say, I think that ballet creates self-confidence and self-love – just because the movements are so beautiful in themselves. And it’s not only how the movements look from outside, but also the feeling they create from the inside once you do them… What a great artform!

  6. Andrew, I LOVED that Youtube clip. Was just mesmerized by it. I know nothing about Aikido, but I liked what I saw there!

    Carla, ooh, yes, it’s the body in movement that becomes the ultimate beautiful thing. Well put. And I love that port de bras isn’t something that degenerates as one ages. A “mature” ballet dancer can still have a beautiful port de bras, even when extensions and leaps fall short of what once was. Your description, above, was just lovely.

  7. For you information, and you should be able to see it in the video, the basic principle is to move your opponent in a circular movement (up down sideways) till the balance is lost. Then the throw takes place, the defender counters with another circular movement – so the exchange is circles with circles – which is what makes it look so elegant.

    Training in Aikido transfers easily to most dance forms, but particularly so to Argentine Tango and Swing. Aikido training makes one very sensitive to the most minute changes in balance.

    I’m going in the opposite direction, and the transfer from dance to Aikido seems to work well. I’ve apparently been a big surprise to everyone in the Aikido class

  8. >Training in Aikido transfers easily to most dance forms, but particularly so to Argentine Tango

    I believe it! I was amazed how fitting it was for the music, and how beautiful it all looked. My teen son is into Tae Kwon Do, and he’d love for me to do some training in it, but I know it’s not for me. Aikido, however… ooh, that might be the middle ground we discover together one day in the future.

  9. A link for you son Terez
    Kickboxer (Tae Kwon do) v Aikido

    It also discusses the purely defensive nature of Aikido – sometimes known as ‘the peaceful’ martial art. It instills in students that it is morally wrong – and weakness – to attack first.

  10. This is way of ballet – but the fastest and most brutal martial art is competition Sabre fencing. My son is University it Blue in Sabre (I did Epee at University) and competition coach. The reaction times and speed of a competition fencer will make them outclass anyone in any other martial art.

    It’s short, its brutal, its blindingly fast and its about killing. . . . . a good hit is the same as a kill.


    It’s universally recognized in the martial arts – unfortunately it does nothing for your dancing skills. . . ..

    Thought you might want the information for your son.

    Ballet starts again or me on August 4th. In the meantime its Aikdo, Argentine Tango and Yoga 🙂

  11. Andrew, thanks for more interesting info! My son has studied some fencing; in fact, so have I. (My theater major days, back in college.) Neither of us took it beyond a year, but it gave us both tremendous respect and admiration for the art.

  12. Great post, I totally believe in finding Zen through dancing and other aspects of my life such as yoga.

  13. Thanks for your comment, Brad, and yes on the yoga, and yes, on almost every aspect of life. Yesterday I was muttering all my wise words to myself (because I’d forgotten them all) as I struggled with parenting issues, family dynamics issues. Amazing how quickly the wisdom slips away when life gets stressful. : /

  14. This. Is. Everything.