Consistent Challenges are the Key to Improvement

All artists seek personal improvement, but what’s the secret?

About a week ago, I finished up my first year as a graduate student in dance at Mills College. My course work included four days a week of modern dance technique, ranging from Jose Limón’s/Doris Humphrey’s “Fall-and-Recover,” Martha Graham’s “Contract-and-Release,” Merce Cunningham’s split body awareness, and a myriad of contemporary and classic stylizations from the 20th and 21st centuries. I sustained a debilitating injury (minor tear of my biceps femoris hamstring) and have mostly recovered; I cried quite a few tears of pain and frustration.

My fellow students and colleagues have also struggled and triumphed. In addition, I have continued my training at the Salimpour School, beginning work on my Suhaila Format Level 5 and training for Jamila Format Level 4.

If I have learned anything at all in these programs, it is that consistent practice is key. But it’s more than just consistency: it’s consistent challenge.

Adult Students Aren’t Patient

Adults are a funny lot. Adult students often want the result without realizing the hard work it takes to get there. We see what we want, and we want it now. A friend of mine teaches cello, and many new adult beginner students have asked her how long it will take for them to play cello like Yo-Yo Ma.

Similarly, new adult students at the Salimpour School ask me how long it will take for them to certify Level 5 (the highest level of the program of which there are currently two dancers). The answer to these questions is complex. It depends on how hard you want to work, how much you want to be a master of your craft and your art. It will take you as long as it takes you, if you continue to work for it.

Hard Work Is The Answer

I will tell you what it takes to get there, though. Hard work. Consistent hard work that continually challenges your technical, creative, physical, and emotional limits. There will be tears. There will be frustration. There will be injuries.  …and there will be so many triumphs, joys, and accomplishments.

Many dancers talk about drilling, and while drilling can be an incredibly valuable element of becoming an accomplished dancer (no ballerina would ever go without doing her barre exercises), it is the difficult work that truly helps us grow. If you continue to drill, say, glute squeezes at a tempo that is manageable for you, it is unlikely that your dancing will ever improve dramatically. You’ll only ever be able to do hip work at the tempo at which you work in the studio. (Why would you want faster hipwork? Maybe that song you love calls for it at a particular part of the music.) If you drill them at a tempo that at first seems completely outside your abilities, but you keep a positive attitude and you work for it… ahh, then that’s where the palpable, embodied, and visible improvement lies.

Struggle Can Make You Stronger

Even plants benefit from struggle. Winemakers turn off irrigation to their vineyards in the summer, when the weather is hottest. You might think that this would cause the grapes to wither on the vine, ruining the crop, but it does the opposite. Turning the water off forces the roots to dig deep into the earth, and the vines grow grapes that have an intense flavor and rich sugars. The vines that struggle are the ones that have the potential to make a better wine.

Of course, humans are not wine, but when it comes to improvement, struggle is necessary.

Struggle Properly

In my training both at the Salimpour School and now at Mills College, my teachers ask of me work that I hardly ever thought possible for my own body. But I am tenacious. I continue to work to do movements and phrases that are just within my technical and emotional reach. I know there are things that might always be beyond my physical abilities, such as doing the splits, but I still keep working at those things.

My training might not bring me greater fame or visibility, it might not make me more money, and it probably won’t bring me love and adoration. I am not training for these fickle accolades. I train because I am in love with my own progress. I am addicted to the rush of reward chemicals that flood my brain when I can finally dance that combination on the left side without fumbling, when I can play that fast new finger cymbal pattern, or when I strike the final pose of a choreography that once seemed so outside my physical and technical abilities.

Your Work Is Never Finished… Celebrate That!

The lack of an endpoint might frighten some people, and it might discourage them. Why do something if you’re never done? For me, that’s why I do what I do. I see improvement in my work every day I show up for class. I also see it in my colleagues and my students. The students who don’t back away from a challenge are the ones in which I see the greatest improvement.

How do you get better at something? Do the things that you think you cannot do. There will be frustrations, there might be tears. That’s all right. If you can’t do them now, keep trying, and one day you will do that thing you thought you could not do. Celebrate that you did the thing. Then get back to work tackle the next challenge.

How do you keep yourself challenged in your dance practice? Tell us in the comments!