Tuesday, March 9, 2010

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then...

In the pre-race dawn of last Sunday morning, my fellow teammates and I were huddled in a small pack awaiting the start of the run and trying desperately to keep from freezing. I was wearing leg-warmers; a teammate said to me, "Only a dancer would wear those to a race!"

In the post-race sunshine of last Sunday afternoon, my fellow teammates and I were stretched out on the grass, enjoying having finished our runs. I complained about having broken a fingernail; a teammate said to me, "How did you break a nail? You're a runner!"

Delighted. I was delighted at both of these moments, at both of these labels. But why? With the families at the camp I taught at this weekend, we discussed the labels we place on one another. With some of my high school students, we talked about the labels we place on ourselves. Tonight at the temple where I teach, I asked the students about what they are rather than who they are... it's been on my mind.

First of all, why did those labels delight me? I teach dance for a living; in fact, I make my living exclusively by teaching dance. In my spare time, I often go dancing just for fun, and I'm a member of a performing dance company, so I spend lots of time rehearsing and performing. I've choreographed for big shows, like one last year at the Kodak Theater, a show which included performances by the Idan Raichel Project, Rami Kleinstein, and Achinioam Nini (these are huge names on the Israeli music scene, if you don't happen to be steeped in Israeli culture!). I freakin competed in the International Golden Karagoz Folk Dances Competition in Turkey in 2003. I'm clearly a dancer. And yet...

And yet for some reason, I hesitate before calling myself a dancer, thinking I don't quite deserve the title.

I have run 180 miles in the past four months, I completed my first marathon a week and a half ago and I'm going to run my second in another week and a half. And yet.

And yet for some reason I hesitate before calling myself a runner, thinking I don't quite deserve the title.

If I were one of my students, I would tell me unhesitatingly: if you do it, you are it. And you can be many things at once.

In fact, I tell them that all the time. If you dance, you are a dancer. You may not be the best dancer, or a professional dancer, but that has nothing at all to do with the fact of being a dancer or not. If you sing, you're a singer (even if you're tone-deaf like me). If you run, you're a runner: there's no per-week mileage requirement for some magical exclusive club.

The other side of this coin that I stress heavily when talking to my kids is that you aren't *just* any one thing, and that there is a danger in the limiting we do when we say we can't do something because we aren't something. Oh, I'm not an artist, one says, shaking one's hand and one's head and taking a step backwards. Oh, I don't sing. Always that same wave of the hand, the same step backward.

You do it by doing it, I've been telling them lately. You do it by doing it, I've been telling myself lately.

Some kids already knew a dance I was teaching the other day, so I had those students demonstrate with me - more feet for the other students to watch, plus the room was too small for one circle anyway, so it worked out best to pull out some of the kids. "Watch how they do this thing," I told the others. "Try it like that."
"But they're dancers," objected some of the others.
"So are you," I responded.

But they didn't believe me. You do it by doing it, I've been saying.

I see them being afraid to try things they aren't already good at. How are you supposed to become good at it if you don't try? I ask. The more you do it, the better you'll be at it. You know how you become a fast reader? By reading. You know how you become a good runner? By running. As another local dance teacher would say, to great comic effect: Practice makes...

How can I, but I can't, but I'm not...
You do it by doing it, I've been telling them lately. You do it by doing it, I've been telling myself lately.

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