If you’re soaked in sweat by the end of the first plie exercise, you’re doing it wrong.
I used to think it was “correct” to be working so hard that what should be an easy warm-up becomes a heart-pounding, sweaty ordeal.
So too we see this trend in fitness, but just because you’re sweating, red in the face, and tired does not mean you’re being effective. Making a fitness class “hot” does not automatically make it more useful (although our brains may perceive it so if we’re taught that to sweat and work hard is synonymous with “better”).
Plies, the first exercise to prepare us for a ballet class, should set the stage for the rest of the class: To find a sense of effortlessness. But when we are in a tug of war with our bodies, creating this illusion of “ease”, is anything but easy.
What if it didn’t have to be an illusion? What if “effortless” was the natural intended state? What if our bodies were hard-wired for freedom in our movement? If this is true, then it doesn’t make sense to try harder to work less. It’s paradoxical, like yelling at a dancer to relax.
Things become effortful when our body loses its optionality; an injury, a behavioural pattern, or a habitual way of moving that once served us (but was never meant to be permanent). Through learned disuse, we “forget” ways of moving.
If there’s a block in the road, we take a detour, a less ideal, longer, more frustrating way of getting from point A to B. For every forgotten movement, there is a detour, too.
Missing movements are the block in the road to effortlessness. We need to accept that perhaps there are some pathways we need to rebuild, because that detour is starting to piss us off.
So part of letting go of effort is first to find “what’s missing”. Which movements are you being denied? Which ones are you protecting yourself from because, at one particular point in your life, it served you to avoid them? Avoidance may not be serving you now. You need a new option, or rather, reclaim an option back.
The next step is to explore that uncharted territory. This can be unpleasant, but there is a whole map of your body to explore, especially the uncharted, fuzzy areas.
You may have vague recollections that exploring one area of the map seemed threatening and unsafe. Or maybe you can’t even remember visiting this part of the map, but I promise, you’ve been through all of it before (with the potential exception of some significantly limiting experiences in childhood/birth…).
Be brave enough to explore the unknown, and trust that it really isn’t that unknown. You’ve been to each part of this map before, and this will seem so evident to you when you trigger the memory by taking the leap of faith.
When you are moving with a complete map, you know that you’ve visited every corner (or are in the process of). You can feel confident that “you” won’t become lost, because you know where you are. You have reference.
Now, with this complete map, you find yourself standing in first position. Things feel, easy… Unexpectedly so. Your weight feels centered in your feet. Your legs naturally rotate into the position you want them to with little extra effort.
“Ahh”, you think to yourself, “Now I can start to enjoy the movement!”
Because you finally had enough of the detouring, the extra energy expended trying to get “around”, and not allowing yourself to move “through”. And because you were brave enough to explore the missing movements on your map that once felt unsafe, or difficult, or plain foreign.
Valgus, pronation, exhalation, pelvic posterior tilt, spinal flexion and extension: Perhaps these movements were not on your radar. You may have experienced that you couldn’t breathe and you were off balance, as you explored these motions, but you stuck it out and put them back on your map and taught yourself they were safe. Reclaimed them as yours.
And now there is no need to create a maximum effort contraction to simply keep from falling over, or to get to “neutral”. There is no need to hold your breath as you enter these motions, because you’ve practiced breathing through them, creating a safe environment for them to take place.
And this word, safety, is huge. When we don’t feel safe, we will find a strategy. But we don’t want to be dancing with strategies, we want to be dancing.
With a complete map, you’re simply standing there, waiting without purpose, confident that your body knows how to react because it has this wisdom it didn’t have before. So you can stop thinking. Start letting go of effort. Feel a sense of uncontrolled, yet anchored, momentum, not a restricting sense of “tightening” to forcefully achieve the desired aesthetic.
And you look over and see the woman across the room sweating buckets after plies. And you can’t believe that this exercise, that once would have had you sweating, too, felt like nothing. Like nothing, but like everything: Effortless embodiment. Joyous, reactive movement.
And if we can move through our whole lives like this, effortlessly, because we’ve fearlessly explored the missing pieces of ourselves that we were denied, what can’t we do? How much energy could we conserve? How present could we be if we’re not fighting just to stay on our feet?