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Compare Me to a Turtle

a turtle in the desert

I know "turtle" is not the animal most dancers would like to be described as. Most of us would prefer to be called a swan, or a gazelle, or maybe a cat, but hear me out. Being a turtle can be a good thing.

First of all, there's the whole "tortoise and the hare" story where slow and steady wins the race. That is a great metaphor for ballet class. Clean attention to detail now + consistent hard work will lead to success. Skipping steps in training to get vocabulary on stage before the dancer has the correct foundation will never lead to long-term success. Sure, they might win a competition this year (depending on how technique-focused the judges are) but that gap in training will only become more and more obvious over time. Likewise, sacrificing alignment to look super-flexible might get attention on social media, but it doesn't create movement habits that are safe, sustainable, or can be built on for more advanced work. The most amazing dancers all reached their level by being slow and steady, focused and hard-working. All of them.

But there's another lesson we can learn from turtles as well: a turtle can only go somewhere when they stick their neck out. Inside their shell is nice and comfortable. Outside their shell can be scary. And necks are vulnerable. Sticking their neck out is a great chance for a predatory bird to attack. But if the turtle wants to go anywhere, they have to stick their neck out of their shell.

Developing artistry also requires vulnerability. It's a very real chance for someone to give stinging criticism. What makes it even worse is that, unlike technique, artistry doesn't have a "right" or a "wrong" way to do things. There isn't even one single thing to do. Artistry is the combined effect of many small choices the dancer makes and every choice is a chance for something to go wrong. Should I be more delicate as I present my foot into this piqué, or is stronger going to be more effective (dynamics)? Should I break eye contact the first time my partner comes on stage to appear shy, or should I maintain it a split second longer to communicate attraction (eye-line)? The choices go on and on.

Developing technique also requires vulnerability. A dancer has to leave the safety of what they are already good at. The only way to move from double pirouettes to triples is to try, re-evaluate, try, re-evaluate, try . . . as many times as it takes. There will be falls along the way. There will be days when none of the pirouettes look good. One of my mentors told me, "You have to let the kids go through the ugly phase to get to the good dancing," and she was right. And the dancers have to be brave enough to go through the ugly phase. They have to stick their neck out to move forward. And once they achieve triples, they stick their neck out again and go for four turns.

Bonus lesson: turtles are resilient. As a species, they have survived five mass extinctions! Can you imagine? One day you're minding your own business with the dinosaurs and the next day the dinosaurs are dropping dead all around you--and you keep going. It kind of puts that bad day/bad audition/bad performance in perspective a little. Falling on stage is not fun but we didn't die, so we come back into the studio and keep going. There are goals to reach and next steps to take.

We may not want to look like turtles (mostly because their shell is a fused spine and rib cage, and ballet really needs spinal mobility) but we can grow a lot by imitating them. Some days we need to work on developing our slow and steady side. Some days we need to practice sticking our neck out and being willingly imperfect. And every day we need to come back and keep trying.


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