Inspiration in a different form.
Ten years ago, I had the pleasure of watching Sarah Lamb dance the title role in Swan Lake for the Boston Ballet. The premium paid for sitting in row F was worth it. As a kid, I watched the video countless times and I was used to hearing beautiful music accompanying beautiful dancing; so the first thing that struck me was the clanging of the shoes against the stage. Ballerinas go through years of training and mind-numbing pain to make effortless leaps in the air, but here, I was reminded that they’re human and not, in fact, weightless. Being so close to the stage, I could see the details on the costumes and even the different facial expressions of the white and black swans, both played by Ms. Lamb. I got to listen to a live orchestra play one of my all time favorite collections of classical music while watching a world class dancer, and it was an experience that I’ll never forget.
Ms. Lamb is still dancing, and is currently a principal at the Royal Ballet in London. I wish I could find clips of her from Swan Lake, but all I could find was this performance of The Dying Swan, composed by Saint-Saens. The video doesn’t do her justice.
I’ve always been in awe of the grace in beauty projected by ballet dancers and I was curious to learn more, so I watched Ballerina*. The film documents the everyday lives of five Russian ballerinas at different stages in their careers. Each year, the Vaganova Ballet Academy accepts 30 students for an 8 year training program. Half don’t graduate and maybe 1 or 2 can achieve fame and success as a ballerina. The first year students are about 9 years old and at that age, they already display more discipline and dedication than most people I know. The teachers stress the importance of self discipline because eventually, the weight of the show will fall on their shoulders. Upon graduation, if hard working, talented and lucky, the dancers are hired by a company.
As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but make comparisons between ballet and my experience with martial arts. First of all, my training doesn’t compare so I won’t even go there.
One of the biggest hurdles for martial arts teachers is finding young, committed students. Ballet is ingrained in Russian culture so competition is very fierce and the art has developed to a high level of refinement. Americans don’t have any single activity to represent our culture, and kids are often semi committed to multiple activities rather than fully committed to one. I am all for having well balanced kids with skills across different disciplines, but at the same time, each activity needs fully dedicated students to take it to the next level. The least I can ask for are students who want to be in class to train martial arts. Students who really want it.
One thing that would help is if we make martial arts more mainstream while keeping as much of its essence as we can. It will inevitably be watered down, but a goal could be to spark enough interest so that people are curious enough to learn more and in greater depth. The Russians imported ballet from France and took it to another level. There’s no reason why martial arts can’t be taken to the next level by anyone as long as they’re dedicated.
My students ask me almost every class, “When’s the next test? Are we testing today?” The positive is – they’re eager to show what they know and to learn new material. The downside – they want to move on before building a good foundation, and they want a belt to prove it. In Ballerina, one dancer learned about her promotion from reading the program and seeing her name under the next level in rank. Of course, she was in her 20s, but how do we teach young kids how to be patient and to focus more on self improvement rather than being better than the others? Although competition can be healthy, being better than someone else doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve improved. Teaching patience (if it could be taught) is difficult when kids can get instant gratification everywhere outside of class. I would very much like to reward my students for hard work without making a show of it, but it seems like we need to have a balance.
Trailer for Ballerina:
To be continued…
* Ballerina is available on Netflix
Interview with Sarah Lamb on dancing Onegin (January 2013)