Posted on September 5, 2008 by


In my dance classes, teachers often repeated variations on a theme: “Don’t try so hard — just let go, breathe, and allow your body execute the movement.” I knew there had to be some truth to it, because teachers gave me the most positive feedback on the days I was sick, when I wasn’t able to try so hard. However, most of the time I just ended up fruitlessly and frustratedly trying to not try.

I received new insight to the problem when I joined the BYU Dancers’ Company. The company members learned a repertoire of six or so dances each, and we spent an entire school year perfecting and performing those dances. I remember a performance one night on our international tour, when we were dancing in Thailand. That night, for the first time, I felt like I was riding on top of the piece, rather than the piece riding on top of me. It was a profound feeling of freedom, power, and awe.

I learned a lesson that night; my teachers had been right, but they had only told me half the story. The other half is that, in order to let go, you first have to know what you’re doing. My teachers had been dancing for decades, and perhaps the movement comes so quickly and naturally to them that they don’t realize the step they take between starting to learn a piece and mastering that piece. For me, getting to that place took nine months of sustained effort on the same piece.

In the book The Glass Bead Game (which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it), there is a wise, kind professor of music. He tells Knecht, the main character, to work on playing precise eighth notes. Knecht asks whether music is about the precision of eighth notes, and the professor replies, “[Of course not. Music is about great and wonderful things, beauty and passion and the mystery of all creation.]” Knecht then asks how he can get his music to convey those things. The professor replies, “By learning to play precise eighth notes.” It’s kind of a Karate Kid, “wax on, wax off” sort of thing. I was frustrated with trying to move effortlessly in dance because I didn’t understand that you can’t do that until your basic technique and familiarity with the movement becomes a part of your bones and cerebellum.

Posted in: Musings, School