Comparisons…like apples and oranges.
Summer intensives offer so many opportunities for growth and learning. If you go away to another school, the experience is also an opportunity to see how you measure up against other students.
My first few summers away were full of observation. I remember being in awe of some students, watching them almost obsessively and trying to imitate their technical and artistic bravura. There was always this period of intense watching before I could shift my focus back into my own body.
Overall, observation and imitation helped me pick up little things that I hadn’t been exposed to before, like stylistic flourishes and different qualities of movement. And as I got older, I continued to observe other dancers and “steal”** from them, but it occupied a lot less of my energy because my work became more about my own needs.
Comparisons Done the Right Way
I am a proponent of observing fellow dancers in your classes and learning from them. But in my experience, many students approach this exercise in a negative way, comparing themselves and coming to conclusions about how “bad” they are, and how good everyone else is. If this sounds familiar, or if you think that you might be spending too much time looking outside yourself instead of inside, ask yourself some of these questions:
- How much time do I spend during barre and centre looking at someone other than myself?
- What thoughts are going through my head when I look at other dancers?
- Are my thoughts positive and constructive?
- Are my thoughts negative and critical?
- Am I making comparisons between those dancers and myself?
- What is the nature of those comparisons?
- Am I ultimately learning anything by looking at other students in my class?
- Am I improving by using the information I’m getting from observation?
If you find that you are spending more time looking at other people than working on your own stuff, you might want to ask yourself why that is. Are you hiding from yourself? Or are you just very distracted?
It is really only useful to observe others up to a certain point, after which, your work really needs to be about you.
If, on the other hand, you are using observation as a tool to improve your dancing, and it isn’t interfering with your own concentration, then you’ve probably found a good balance.
Think of comparisons as opportunities to learn or “steal” something, rather than a measure for how you fall short or don’t measure up. That is, “I really like how she scoops up her foot in coup de pied as she’s doing a developé…I’m going to try to do that.”
That’s much more helpful than, “The way she articulates her feet is amazing; there’s no way I can do that.”
Framing your observations in terms of what you can learn changes the reason for looking, as well as the impact- and it makes observation worthwhile rather than upsetting or damaging to your sense of self.
** The art of the steal: A teacher of mine once told me that all artists “steal” from each other. Musicians imitate their predecessors, painters mimic their teachers, and of course, dancers do as well. “Stealing” is when you see someone do something in a way that moves you, or makes sense to you- it can be technical or artistic- and then you imitate it. Most of us do this instinctively without even thinking about it, because the training model encourages it. We watch our teachers and we mimic their way of moving. I always found this to be one of the great reasons to watch other dancers closely.