Adult ballet requires immense discipline, drive and determination. So many people who embark on their ballet journey later in life have these qualities and this is what helps them to achieve such remarkable transformation. But our intense desire to advance and progress is also what can make ballet frustrating and sometimes downright agonising! How do we balance our ambition with the need to surrender to our bodies and the ups and downs of the journey? And what is it that makes some of us so committed and determined, whilst others, who love ballet just as much, end up giving up?
Staying motivated isn’t an accident, it is often the result of considered action, not transient inspiration. I have found myself getting frustrated and giving up SO many times that I have lost count. I’ve lost motivation when I don’t see progress, when I’m too tired, when it feels too hard to come back after an injury, when I end up not enjoying it anymore because I am overly critical of myself. Equally, I have gone through phases of feeling relentlessly excited and determined to make it to class, irrespective of the weather, time or location! During these periods, I’ve even enjoyed conditioning, stretching and all the tedious side activities that usually feel like a bore. Why is there such a difference? And how do we motivate ourselves to stay committed to ballet despite our busy lives and all the distractions we find surrounding us in the modern world?
Define YOUR goals
The first major aspect of feeling motivated is clearly defining your goals. You have probably come across SMART before, good goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time based. This is a good checklist for dance goals, ensure they factor in your other life commitments and where you are at in your dance journey right now. Your goals need to be realistic, but they should be ambitious enough to inspire you. Aim to feel challenged and driven, not overwhelmed and hopeless.
When I first got into dancing, I had really abstract, non-measurable and non-time specific goals, for example, “become a good dancer.” What constitutes a good dancer and how will I know I am one? These are the kind of goals that leave us unable to track progress or celebrate improvements. When I tried to make my goals more specific, I still felt the same. I would set goals such as, ‘Get my middle splits by November.’ This is difficult, because the goal recognises an outcome but not necessarily what it might take to achieve it. You could train a great deal and still not satisfy this – leading to you feel demotivated, despite putting in ample effort. It is far better to say, ‘Stretch two or three times weekly with a focus on achieving my middle splits.’ By the end of November, you may still not be there, but you will have a clear record of the effort put in and a better idea of what it will take to achieve your goal.
How does this advice translate into dance goals for you? To be effective, I suggest setting targets in relation to two things, our Training and our Feelings. Here are some examples:
Between January and March, I will go to two ballet classes weekly, for a minimum of 1 hour each
Work towards feeling more comfortable in class.
I will know I have achieved this when I am copying others less and when I volunteer to stand at the front of the barre. As I feel more comfortable, I won’t mind if I am asked to demonstrate a step
In the early stages, it is good to set goals relating to effort and time commitment, these can be underpinned by broader goals relating to what you want to work on or improve. These kinds of goals are far more measurable and are less likely to leave you demotivated and overwhelmed.
Don’t be a perfectionist
I have struggled with perfectionism throughout my life, in my school work, professional career and certainly with my love of ballet. I confused perfectionism with work ethic, commitment and drive. But you can be committed, motivated and ambitious without perfectionism, and it is more sustainable to do so. Perfectionism leads to a deep dissatisfaction in anything being less than perfect, this impossible task is so overwhelming that it leads to a fear of failure and it is often what makes people want to quit and give up. In ballet there is always going to be room for improvement, you will never have the best turnout, turns or extensions. There will always be someone a step ahead and that is completely ok. Ballet is an art, not a sport. We are here to fall in love with it and share it, not master it.
It was perfectionism that led me to train excessively and unsafely and to not listen to what my body was saying. It was perfectionism that deterred me from coming back after injuries because I was too afraid to see the regression. We have our bad and off days, if we are too critical, we will eventually stop enjoying it. Yes, we should strive to work hard, but it must be complimented by a continual recognition and appreciation of what we are achieving. I have progressed more since I accepted that I will never be perfect. It sounds counter intuitive – but it is true. Because I encourage myself, I am more capable of enjoying class and celebrating the things I get right, and I find myself more organically motivated and present as a result.
Rely on habits – not emotions
Motivation comes and goes, every successful athlete, academic, actor and so on will be able to talk at length about the times they did not feel like training. Our feelings are influenced by our hormones, our daily lives, our relationships and even the weather! Nobody really feels like getting up and getting out in the rain to walk to class. But I once read that discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most. It is the bigger goals (refer back to point 1) that help us to sustain this level of discipline. It really depends on what your ballet journey means to you. If it is a hobby – great, make the time when you have it and don’t prioritise class if you don’t feel like it. But for those who take improving seriously (which is a lot of you) and find they continually don’t act in accordance with this, what is needed is discipline.
If you keep waiting until you feel like it, it might never happen. Humans are creatures of habit, and we need to have these routines to fall back on. Over time your habits become second nature. Just make sure they are habits which serve you, ones you chose freely, not those you fell into. This is closely tied in with how we define our goals, because our habits are only sustainable if realistic. So, think about what you can sustainably do and over time it will feel impossible to not do it. I go to a weekly ballet class, in the beginning I found it hard to go, difficult to stay committed when it was cold or dark, now it is as regular as sleeping and eating and I ALWAYS feel like it, because I don’t remember not going! If I had tried to formulate a habit of doing that five evenings a week, it wouldn’t have been realistic, the habit would never have stuck. Decide what you are willing and able to commit to and then do it.
Find your high note
Enjoy your time in the studio. This is hard in the early stages, because we can be so focused on getting things right or just keeping up. Don’t develop the belief that you will enjoy ballet only once you have mastered it. There is always room for technical advancement, so we must balance our desire for progression with our ability to enjoy where we are right now. I have a rule to fully immerse myself in at least one exercise each class, to quiet the critical voices and to truly enjoy the movement. I love grand allegro and I love ending the class on a high note, so this is my little gift to myself. For this small portion of class, I let go of the need to be perfectly aligned or technically accurate and just enjoy myself. Find one thing you can do that with, it could even be pliés– during that chosen exercise do not self- correct or criticise. This part of each class is valuable in reminding us dance is about expression as much as it is about improvement.
Celebrate your successes
At the end of each class, make a note of one thing you did really well (make a mental note of this or even write it down). It is important to recognise the progress you are making. This is because it is easy to forget where we started – our destination is in perpetual motion. It is this moving target that can leave us feeling unaccomplished, no matter what we achieve. Don’t forget where you started, maybe last month you were not sure what a plié was and now you follow most of the barre work, maybe you can point your foot a little more, hold a balance a little longer. When I have a day where I get annoyed that my double or triple pirouettes are so messy, I remind myself of the time I struggled to do quarter turns. To keep going, you must stop every once in a while, and take note of how far you have come.
Be process orientated – not goal orientated
Learning to become process orientated and not goal orientated in my life reframed how I perceived everything and totally changed how motivated I was. What this looks like in practice, is reframing things from ‘I want to be someone who has perfect pirouettes’ to ‘I want to be someone who dances on a regular basis and work towards improving their turns.’ The first sentence makes me panic about not being where I want to be because it seems so far away. In contrast, the process orientated approach makes the task manageable.
Being process orientated is a commitment to enjoying the journey, and in life that is really all we have. I developed an appreciation for this during a year when I lost many things, I saw a lot of people I love become sick, unwell, deal with life-changing experiences or move out of my life. It was a realisation that life is in perpetual flux, I don’t how long I have to dance, or how long I am well enough to do it. I started it because I absolutely love it and whenever I step in the studio, I want to experience that same joy. Surrender to the experience and enjoy it, and you will be amazed by how much more you flourish when you take this lightness and this energy into your class with you.
If you have any other ideas on how to stay motivated as an adult beginner – share in the comments below. If you think someone would benefit from this article, be sure to share it with them too.