Cross Training For Writers: Think Like A Ballerina

Ballet remains the one career in which a girl gets to bring a crowd to its feet while wearing a tiara and tutu. Ballet’s history; its demanding, often petulant nature; its narratives, romance, melodrama and mystery enthrall audiences from Russia and China to Cuba and South Africa. Giselle and Swan Lake have a fairy tale quality that offers transcendent experiences of magical worlds. Books do the same. Great composers wrote ballets that continue to enchant centuries or decades later, and as writers, we share the hope that our books will endure too.

AmberFifiTutuImprovedBecause of the length, depth and range of a ballerina’s training, not to mention a constantly lurking expiration date, few get to the top of this demanding, competitive industry. Grappling with rigorous physical and aesthetic demands, the dancer must also display a sense of musicality and artistry, and she’s constantly under pressure to up her game. She faces rejection, criticism and insecurity as a matter of course. Sound famiiar? With this post in mind, I took a look at what ballet taught me, and what I in turn shared with my students.

There’s a common belief in the ballet world that it takes at least ten years to make a ballerina. Some debut while still in their teens or early twenties, so they start young. Mothers often send children to ballet class at age four, when they’re encouraged to play at dance, gradually learning the discipline and technique they’ll need to begin training in earnest around nine. Depending on the teacher (and so much depends on the teacher), a child who’s committed to ballet begins over time to develop the ballerina’s sleek muscles and trademark posture. There’s a reason we admire a ballerina’s body; it’s the visual embodiment of peak athletic and aesthetic accomplishment.

Young children learn to read and write early too, and they too depend on quality, engaged teachers. Many authors are born from discovering a love of reading, and grow up to become the writers who can’t imagine a life without storytelling.

AmberSnowI learned the three fundamental principles of ballet technique from my teacher, Martin Schönberg, a technical and artistic wizard. Without the awareness, understanding and assimilation of these components, dancers can spend their whole lives training and get nowhere, coming to terms instead with frustration, crushing disappointment and virtually guaranteed injury. Here they are:

  • Position. Throughout her career, the ballerina works hard to achieve beautiful lines. They’re back-breakingly difficult to produce and elusive, but her task is to make them look effortless. Each movement begins and ends in a position, which may be fleeting or sustained. It makes sense therefore that every position needs to be properly started and finished. No position in ballet is static. Even when standing still in fifth position, every muscle is strategically held: the outer thighs initiating turnout through the hips; inner thighs engaging with abdominal muscles to sustain turnout; back and shoulders and arms working together to lengthen the back of the neck and open the chest. There’s no evidence of strain in a ballerina’s face or hands, which convey emotion and artistry. Properly finishing a movement requires the ballerina to go beyond what even she believes herself capable of. She’ll achieve a seemingly perfect arabesque, for example, but will chase an extra inch of leg height, a more clearly defined, cleaner aesthetic line. If positions are technically sound and complete, the movements between them—the dance—becomes possible.

This approach benefits the novelist in a few ways, but I chose to focus on story structure. Structure is one of the most difficult aspects of writing to fix if it’s not working. With the first draft down, editing a structurally sound manuscript is much easier than having to dismantle one that’s structurally flawed. For this reason, we need to take time establishing our own ‘positions’: the acts (however many we choose–three is pretty standard); story arcs and plot points; establishing the driving force behind the narrative; voice; setting; and point of view. In a thriller a crime is often the driving force, while the plot provides the runway from which our story elements take off and on which they regularly land. Even during less dramatic moments or lulls, the narrative must hum with energy and sustain its role as the story’s connective tissue.

  • Transition. Transitions connect positions. Moving from one position to the next, the ballerina must sustain a number of elements, all of which create the flow, tempo, quality and character of the dance. To avoid injury when landing, she must use her plié (bend) before a jump, sustain her turnout at the height of the jump, and again use her plié when she lands. To create the illusion of flight, the ballerina uses the floor, constantly leaping off and landing—it’s the floor that makes elevation possible. How she works with her partner, dramatic engagement, music, timing and artistry all come into play in a synthesis of components that make for a whole bigger than its singular parts.

Story elements that come into play in the unfolding of a novel such as characterization, pace, dialogue, and use of language work together in much the same way. Through high and low points, dynamic and skilled craftsmanship will keep a reader turning pages, engaged in the story and its characters as they move through challenges, relationships and crises. Movement is constant and dynamic, generating momentum or respite for the reader where needed. A good book is never monotonous and shouldn’t be sluggish.

  • Opposition. Opposition occurs when one side of the body works counter to the other. Both hips turn out; both shoulders turn out; in other words, left rotates away from right and vice versa. Opposition works through every facet of position and transition, both vertically and horizontally. The counter-action strengthens and balances muscles, the resulting tension between opposites creating visual interest and facilitating co-ordination. Beautiful lines emerge from the skillful use of opposition.

Comparable to opposition, conflict in a novel pulls readers in and keeps them turning pages. The friction resulting from the clash of opposing characters and forces gives rise to tension and generates suspense. Conflict doesn’t have to be melodramatic; it can manifest in mild disagreement, internal debate or struggle, an argument, or a full-on fight. As integral as opposition is to ballet, so is conflict indispensable to the novel.

All art demands a solid foundation of knowledge and skill, which comes from a vibrant sense of curiosity and desire to learn and grow. The more writers know about their craft, the more they read, the more intensely devoted they are to their work, the more instinctive and productive the process of writing becomes. In ballet and literature, mastery emerges from a core of awareness, understanding and the will to exceed the expectations we have of ourselves.

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