I grew up practicing ballet—fifteen years of plies, pointe shoes and pirouettes. I played Clara in the Nutcracker, got a chance to dance with the San Francisco Ballet in junior high, and got a whole lot of blisters.
Ballet is an exacting art form. One class I took was literally called “Perfection”. Every class, we eyed ourselves even more closely in the mirror than normal, trying to correct every flaw.
I didn’t get a complex or anything.
Perfectionism runs rampant in our culture. Brené Brown defines it thus: ““Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: “If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.””
I saw this in ballet all the time. Abusive teachers, students so worried about weight they starved themselves, and my own angst about performance and parts. If you weren’t the best, did you matter? Were you willing to do anything–even sacrificing your own health–to measure up to an impossible standard?
But despite all that perfectionism, ballet also gave me one of the biggest antidotes to perfectionism I’ve ever learned.
Her name was Claire.
Dance As If No One Is Watching
Claire was a few years older than me, and when she graduated, she went on to dance professionally, rising to the level of principal dancer.
That’s the ballet equivalent of getting into the all-star team for the NBA.
One year, Claire guest-starred in our spring performance, so she attended our advanced Saturday class a few times. I stood behind her once, and felt just the tiniest bit intimidated. But after about one exercise, I stopped being intimidated and started feeling amazed.
In ballet, you repeat the same basic movements in every class, in the same order: plié, tendu, fondue, developé, etc. The sequence of steps varies, but the order of class is as predictable as a nursery rhyme.
When I took class, I tried to do my best for the teacher. I worked hard so he or she would notice me. I tried to do the steps correctly.
When I watched Claire, though, I realized she wasn’t working for the teacher. She wasn’t aiming for correctness.
Instead, she danced.
Of course, technically, she looked amazing, but that wasn’t the part that entranced me. No, her face was alive. She looked like she was making art, rather than going through motions.
Here’s the craziest thing: The joy in her face wasn’t about working hard. No: it was a simple attitude shift. Instead of checking off boxes or impressing people, Claire tried to bring beauty into the world.
Our school’s Saturday class had no impact on her career. She wasn’t just keeping in shape. It wasn’t about proving she was the best one there.
It was about experiencing loveliness.
She practiced as if practice itself was a prize.
And in that class, I realized that attitude was available to me, right then, and right there. I never danced the same in class again.
Practice Makes Beauty
I love the phrase “spiritual practice” because of its double entendre. I love it especially because I didn’t understand the double meaning for a long time. Usually, we think of spiritual practices as sort of Better Person weight-lifting. We read our Bible to get closer to God. We pray or meditate to deepen our faith. We go to services to get More Spiritual.
Like ballet classes, practices can be as predictable as a nursery rhyme. Too easily, they become rote checkboxes.
But on a deeper level these little routines are actually faith. Not exercises to get us to a destination, but the destination itself.
Instead of God asking us to work up to some culmination of Faithful Person, we are given these ridiculously easy things to do that plant loveliness in our everyday. Practices bring beauty into our hearts without much effort. They give us a taste of true Perfection and make our whole beings come alive.
Not because we’re technically proficient. Not because we’re “good” at them. But bending our hearts to things of beauty brings joy.
It’s a mistake to pigeonhole “spiritual practices” as exclusively belonging to religion. Everything can be a spiritual practice, and every practice has a kind of spirituality in it. When we do anything regularly—whether it’s practicing piano, raising kids, gardening, or keeping house—we have the choice to do it with our faces alight, or not.
Every time we make a practice a simple experience to beauty, we find the antidote to perfectionism. By living our lives in the pursuit of beauty, we can find it literally everywhere. We don’t have to measure up to anything. We just have to live.
Instead of assuming it’s only worth doing ballet with your whole heart if you get the attention of the teacher, you find beauty no matter whether anyone responds.
Instead of keeping trying to be a “good housekeeper,” you can see taking care of people and stewarding resources is a beautiful thing, and enjoy the order for its own sake.
Instead of trying to become a “successful” writer, you can find meaning in the beauty of the written word every time you sit down to type.
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes everyday beauty possible.
And it’s always available, in everything we do. It doesn’t require hard work, or even proficiency. It just requires you to find the loveliness in the moment right in front of you—and savor it.
Image credit: Peter Overman with my modifications