Noodling: The Creative Power of Solitary Practice
Mastery and authority in dance do not necessarily come as a result of perfection, or even consistent flawless execution, but from the confidence built by thousands of hours of practice in which exploration and discovery trump tension-inducing performance anxiety.
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly mentions the "10,000 hour rule", asserting that the key to success in any field is dependent on practicing a specific task for a total of about 10,000 hours. (For movement, in order to proprioceptively train an action correctly, a minimum of 7000 repetitions is necessary.) It means that for a dancer to acquire mastery, they must practice for about ten years. If you do the math, 10,000 hrs divided by ten years is 1000 hrs per year, divided by 52 weeks is approximately 19.23 hrs per week, which amounts to about 3.2 hrs/day of practice six days a week for ten years. (See note at the end of this blog.)
For most dancers, the bulk of this practice takes place in ballet classes. But I want to talk about the importance of practicing alone, without the eyes of a teacher or your colleagues on you - both can be inhibiting. Mastery doesn't come from not making mistakes but from having the freedom to make them and explore.
When I was 12, my first ballet teacher gave me the keys to her school - The Ballet Studio. She'd known me for some 5 years and saw I was completely dedicated and obsessed with ballet. I was desperate to practice, and had no room at home to do so, though at night while I was supposed to be in bed, I was using my dresser for a barre. Sundays, when there were no classes, I was driven to the studio by one of my parents, let myself in, locked the door, and gave myself a ballet class for two hours. Just now I realize how extraordinary this situation was. Giving keys to a 12 year old, allowing her to be alone in a studio, trusting her - this was a great gift from my teacher. In those hours, I worked, puzzled, studied my line, steps, arms, turns, jumps. I invented choreography, cried, raged, and celebrated. I noodled, working to try to understand how classical ballet technique could be applied by my body.
This experience taught me that working by oneself is essential. Unconstrained by time, by the need to do certain sequences as given, you can surrender to a process that is completely organic and directed from within. Guided by curiosity, desire, frustration, determination, and the hunger to "get it right" working alone gives freedom to explore in whatever way is necessary, not dictated by the conventions or time constraints of a traditional class, or by whatever dogmatism may be driving your teachers. Imagination serves inquiry and can be used to invent exercises that facilitate kinaesthetic understanding, liberating the body from the tension born of expectations. Shame flees and is replaced by curiosity and discovery.
At eighteen, I became catastrophically ill and was told to give up dancing. I was heartbreaken. It took nine years before a life-saving surgery changed that fate. I went back to my old studio. Though my teacher had died, one of her students had taken over. I was so weak, I could barely get through barre. That's when someone told me about Pilates. A year later, I had a tiny studio built in my basement, put a barre, mirrors, and a reformer there, creating a studio sanctuary. I practiced there many hours, and also took classes wherever I could. Within another year, I was performing at the Met Opera in NYC.
Now in my own Pilates studio in Portland, OR, working by myself is my principal practice outside of teaching. I use this practice to problem solve in my own body, and to help me understand the problems of clients and students. I experiment with exercises, stretches, different planes of movement, changing resistance, gravity, intent. Essentially, the studio becomes a laboratory where the purpose is investigation, not the accomplishment of perfection or some predetermined outcome. This freedom is precisely what drives private sessions. Here, in conjunction with clients or students, I allow their process, their needs, to move them, and together, we explore. I also encourage everyone to go home and work alone. Solitude is the mother of creativity, the incubator of discovery, and the cradle of understanding. Noodling is essential to success.
(Note: dancers, who usually begin studying around age 6, will not spend 3 hours a day, 6 days a week, in a studio unless they are part of a professional school. In-studio practice time increases as students get older and more proficient. It eventually evens out and does take about ten years, with the last 3-4 loaded with about 4-5 hours of dance six days a week. Master teacher Haydee Guttierez used to say that it takes ten years to make a dancer. She said this before Gladwell's book was published.)