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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Learning how to fly
Animated, Autumn 1997. Brian Thomas on spreading your wings
"To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference." Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1).

I am fascinated by the 'inner life' of subjective experience; my own and others. It is this fascination with the 'hidden' that, for me, makes psychology so compelling. 'Why did he or she do that?' is one of the must interesting questions there is. The fact that people regularly act in ways which amaze and confuse us clearly shows that the inner, private, life can be profoundly different from the outer, public one. We can explore this dichotomy further by using a quadrant based on the 'public-private' domains of experience. By examining those things 'known and not known to self' and 'known and not known to others' we can see that we are in fact four 'selves': the Public, the Blind, the Private and the Potential.

Our public self comprises those things known (about us) by ourselves and others. Our private self is comprised of those things known by us but not known by others. Our blind self is comprised of those things known (about us) by others but not known by ourselves and our potential self constitutes our unknown possibilities.

The new-born infant is 100 per cent potential plus blind self. As he or she grows and interacts with the world the public self gradually develops and finally the private self begins to emerge. The private self is the I, the real me, it is where we make sense of our experiences and feel the raw immediacy of psychological life. It is also here, as Joan Didion (2) poignantly describes, where "...the tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions." My experiences of working with dancers, teachers and students has led me to the unfortunate conclusion that, for many, the private self is not a particularly happy place. Time and again I have encountered insecurity, low self-esteem and a deep sense of inadequacy. Why is this? To throw some light on this question it will be useful to explore the development of the private self.

Paradoxically, the private self is largely a social creation. Self-esteem is primarily social self-esteem. Because we are social animals, what others think of us is vitally important. As we mature, a series of 'significant others' - parents, teachers, siblings, close friends - shape our emerging sense of who we are and, most importantly, our sense of worth as an individual. Also, we learn to differentiate between worth earned for what we do (the public self) and worth given for what we are (the private self). If love, attention or esteem are perceived to be contingent on what we do rather than what we are, the seeds of psychological discontent can be sown.

I believe that we are persons first and teachers, writers, dancers, second. However, society tends to commute verbs into nouns and the individual becomes 'a dancer' rather than a person who dances. This is an important distinction, to see someone as a category - dancer, lawyer, unemployed - de-personalises them. When personal identity is ignored or denied ethics become fudged. History is littered with examples of unimaginable horrors perpetrated upon de-personalised individuals, be they Hums, Tutsis, Serbs or Croats.

My fear is that much dance tuition places too little emphasis on the person who dances and too much on the de-personalised 'dancer'. I have heard teachers identify students by their physical limitations - "the one with sway back legs" - and I have witnessed throw away remarks of such callous hurtfulness as to be incredulous. The feeling, sensing human being is disregarded and a mechanistic, skeleto-muscular 'dancing device' is substituted - in the name of 'art'. I for one will not work this way.

Dance is an exacting subject and it requires perseverance, tremendous effort and total commitment to succeed. What it does not require in order to succeed are misery, self-loathing and helplessness. We must not forget that dance is there for those who dance and not the other way around. My feeling is that in many instances the subject exercises an unhealthy level of definitive power - and power corrupts.

We now live in a world of unprecedented change where the 'career-for-life' has disappeared. What individuals increasingly need to be is flexible and proactive, not waiting to be taught but leaning what they have decided to learn and identifying and broadening their repertoire of generic or 'transferable skills'. Every professional, irrespective of their specific area of expertise, needs to adopt this approach and become what I have called a 'generalised expert'. This autonomy, above all else, requires a strong sense of self-worth and this is what we must build in our dancers and students. Without this they will not even try new things.

Every subject has two curricula, what is taught and how it is taught. The first curriculum impacts on the public self and the second on the private self. What may be good for the first can be catastrophic for the second. It is possible to create a dancer and destroy a person. Those who work hard because they fear failure, or ridicule, do not truly learn, they internalise nothing. 'Success' merely provides temporary relief at the avoidance of failure (which is always looming in that well lit back alley) and failure is cataclysmic. There is no joy, everything exists in the public domain only, while the inner world starves.

When I work with dancers, artists, students and teachers we look at ways of preventing a healthy passion from degenerating into a destructive obsession. A key factor for teachers is to ensure that they communicate positive perceptions of their students' self worth independent of their performance as dancers. I also help students and dancers avoid the trap of setting themselves goals that are partly dependent on the performance of others for their achievement. Goals such as passing an examination or gaining a part in a production are highly susceptible to chance and luck. It is possible to pass an examination because the examiner has failed the previous five candidates and is worrying about being too critical just as it's your turn.

Of course you can also fail for the opposite reasons. Whether you get a part in a production can depend on the producer not having a headache when you are on or on who turns up with you. I advise students and dancers to treat such 'successes' and 'failures' with a healthy level of scepticism.

The key is to set yourself demanding personal goals over which you have total control, the amount you will practice, the nutritional diet you will follow, the performance targets you will strive for. Work hard but keep your goals realistic and, wherever possible, measurable. And when you reach them - celebrate hard!

Be aware of your blind self and listen carefully to people you respect. Recognise however that we have a tendency to internalise criticism more readily than praise, so balance the judgements of others. Do not allow yourself to be defined by those individuals (always failures themselves) who take refuge in the destructive criticism of others and remember that someone else's opinion is only that: an opinion.

Finally, understand that it is possible to be too concerned with your subject. The Czech playwright Vaclav Havel (3) recognised this when he wrote: "The attempt to devote oneself to literature alone is a most deceptive thing, and often, paradoxically, it is literature that suffers for it."

Broaden your interests. Spread your intellectual wings a little. I guarantee that you have not exhausted your potential self: there is more to you than you think!

Brian Thomas, Consultant Psychologist and Director of QED Quality and Education in Dance. Contact 01443 692536.

1 & 2 Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, On Self Respect, 1968
3 Havel, Vaclav. Disturbing the Peace, 1986 tr. 1990.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001