What My First Year of Ballet Taught Me

Because the etiquette … strove for symmetry and order, ballet was imbued with an anatomical geometry and clear physical logic that also had transcendent implications.1 Jennifer Homans

At the risk of cliché, I was destined to find ballet. Okay, “transcendent implications” aside, what I’ve discovered over the course of a year differs greatly from what brought me to ballet in the first place.

In hindsight, dancing ballet was the next logical step in a series of interests that hinted at deeply rooted qualities in me: a fascination with patterns, the need to place rigorous physical demands on my body, and necessary complex, long-term challenges in my life.

I’ve learned enough in a year to understand that I still know very little, but I’ve been reflecting on what the past year of effort has taught me about myself and the way I approach new challenges.

Embrace Being a Beginner

For me, the most difficult part of starting something new is being a beginner again. After spending years of proficiency in other domains, being “bad” at something is humbling, to say the least; letting anyone witness me be bad at something is simply terrifying!

But years ago, I learned from my teacher Art Lande that dismissing the duality of “good and bad” can be the most liberating thing regardless of one’s level of experience. To approach a moment as a beginner grants the freedom for exploration and innovation.

In my case with ballet, acknowledging my state as a true beginner helped me bypass much of the frustration inherent in learning such a technically demanding task for the first time. To this day, I am not ashamed to say, “I don’t know what that is” if there is part of a combination I have never done before or a word is mentioned that I’ve never heard before.

Being a beginner is my new favorite thing to do and has opened up doors in the dance community and beyond. Embrace being a beginner.

Foundations First, But Know What You’re Building

I’ve never been good at patiently sitting through introductory or foundational lessons for anything. There’s something about just trying to accomplish “the thing”—even if it’s hanging together by a thread—that keeps me deeply engaged. Because once you’ve done it, you know it’s possible, and the next time will be better because just imagine what you could do with a solid foundation.

I started off, appropriately, in a beginner ballet class. I didn’t know plié from tendu, and “first position” was where you held your hand on a guitar to play the first four frets. The mountain was starting to reveal itself and the sides were looking steeper by the minute.

Eventually, I caught on to some of the terminology and my brain was learning to chunk the micro-movements together into abstract concepts. I was beginning to feel like I was dancing.

But then…the intermediate class combined with the beginners one day because of a scheduling conflict; it was quite an eye-opener. For the first time, I had some framework for what was happening and what was expected in a ballet class, and, for the first time, I could discern a drastic difference in how the intermediate students executed the same movements I was given.

But it was undoubtedly the best class I had taken up to that point because I could see where I was headed, and I could emulate what I saw, even if I didn’t quite understand what it meant. When the teacher recommended I take the intermediate class from then on, I couldn’t help but think that I still had so much of the fundamentals to learn.

So occasionally I went back to basics with the brilliant Lily Balogh. She had been hired at Ballet Lubbock to help develop the school curriculum, so there we were, tackling level 2 tendus—no trivial task when done correctly.

Then Cynthia Dragoni came in for a summer intensive and confirmed my suspicion about my own foundations: “shape of the foot; straight knees; only do tendus for a year” or something to that effect. It was the most reassuring feedback I’d heard all summer because the bigger picture had ceased to be obfuscated.

I am trying the difficult things, recognizing and aspiring to the technique I see in others, and returning often to the basics. Foundations first, but know what you’re building.

Bring Your “Irrelevant” Experience

…successful adapters [are] excellent at taking knowledge from one pursuit and applying it creatively to another, and at avoiding cognitive entrenchment.2 David Epstein

I’ve always known that learning new skills is one of the things that makes me tick. But it has taken some time for a pattern to emerge regarding the types of things I eventually get bored of and the types of things that stick. What I’ve found is that my sustainable interests are the ones that are challenging in the “right” ways.

My background seemed immensely distant from ballet. I had spent a decade as a musician, almost as long studying and practicing ashtanga yoga, and was in the middle of a career change to computer programming. I assumed much of the mobility and body awareness from yoga would help with ballet, but that was about it.

Less of the yoga than I assumed actually translated to ballet. It felt like working with a completely different body, to be honest…and not a particularly capable one. But concepts started to creep back in after the initial fumblings with my own physiology. I could abstract the ways in which concepts like mūla bandha were being articulated in ballet terms.

And the more I danced, the more I realized a variance in musicality among dancers. Rushing or dragging, staccato or legato, understanding how to push or pull on the meter, understanding subdivisions, creating consonance and dissonance with timing, and the list goes on. These concepts had been deeply rooted in my being through music, albeit, expressed with a different toolset.

And the permutation…goodness the permutation and the combination and the sequencing of movements. Simple math as it is, it’s still math. I feel I had an aptitude for drumming due to a love of pattern and permutation, and here it is again in ballet. Lily casually explained a new barre combination one day and we spent the next half hour devising variations on the theme just using permutations.

I could continue with many more concepts I’ve repurposed over the past year, but a few realizations were enough for me to realize that ballet fit snugly between some of my lifelong pursuits and that they could all inform the other. Bring your “irrelevant” experience.

Dance as Much as Possible

Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory. K. Pattabhi Jois

I learned that there is no real substitute for “doing the thing”. I initially assumed that my body awareness would translate nicely from yoga, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. True, I have a decade of yoga to thank for open hips and a supple spine, but the type of functional strength required for each of the disciplines felt very different in my experience.

Once I recognized this gap, my inclination was to find ways to supplement ballet with training outside of class. But for what little I gained in isolated articulation, I still lacked in the connectedness of movement across my whole body and, more noticeably, the ability to think about sequences of movement while executing them.

I honestly feel that this is still one of my biggest obstacles after a year: getting the low-level details of each movement from the cognitive system to the automatic system. Even though this is my current project, I saw the most progress occur the more I danced, so I ultimately dropped the extracurricular training and sought out more opportunities to dance ballet.

No doubt, ballet is physically and mentally demanding, but if it’s something you fall in love with, then why deprive yourself of the joy? Dance as much as possible.


After a year of ballet, I wish I could say that I am a great ballet dancer. But to be completely transparent, I doubt most days whether I’m even a passable dancer. Then I think back to my first point: I am still a beginner. Despite this, I am grateful to have performed in several productions with professional and pre-professional companies over the past year and that the opportunities keep coming.

My technique is steadily developing even though I get relatively few opportunities to train seriously on a weekly basis. I try to make the most of the hours I get and always remember the depth and nuance of the fundamentals. But I also try to never shy away from the challenging things, just to keep an eye on where I’m headed.

Daily learning is non-negotiable for me, and even though it isn’t always about ballet specifically, more often than not, there is commonality to be found amongst efficiently-functioning systems. I never let one particular interest overcome my identity as a curious person.

And lastly, I just love to dance. I love to move. I have to move. Movement is proof that I am alive and every day I am grateful to be living in these few precious moments I have been given. So next time you see me, if I seem down, remind me to dance.


  1. Homans, J. (2010). Apollo’s angels: A history of ballet. Random House.
  2. Epstein, D. (2019). Range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world. Riverhead Books.