Write Like a Dancer

Eight years ago I dropped out of writing classes and signed up on a whim for ballet and modern dance lessons instead.

The writing classes, it seemed, were going nowhere.  The questions were always the same, the answers were as elusive as ever and the feedback had gotten pretty stale.  Besides, as one of those fidgety types who hates sitting still, I’d simply had enough of spending my rare free time in a chair.

Already an avid runner, cycler and swimmer addicted to movement, I was also craving a way to channel this physical energy into something more purposeful and expressive.

After just a few classes, dance had taken root in my system.  I found myself practicing leaps and chassées while running.  Rond de jambes and fan kicks made their way into my dreams.  Perhaps, I thought as time marched on, my writing days had come to an end.  I’d found a new love I’d rather be with — one I was willing to sneak off and spend time with several mornings a week during the same two-hour window I’d jumped through all sorts of hoops to reserve for writing over the years.

But even as I tackled the uncomfortable challenge of thinking without words, of allowing muscle memory to take the place of prose, I found myself growing as a writer.  Because dance, it turns out, like many of the arts, has far more in common with writing than meets the eye.

As with writing, the final product of years of hard work dancing appears neat and simple at first blush.  It tells a story with beauty, grace and impact.  Its many parts seem like a single entity with a life of its own.

Yet its inner workings are infinitely complex.  To master them, dancers have to pull together a multitude of disparate and often contradicting pieces.  They have to bend into positions they never imagined possible and stretch themselves.  Far.  They must listen, observe, synchronize, respect conventions and self-critique, their mind’s eye constantly scanning their work, taking stock of how it looks from the outside and how it’s functioning within.

Dance also offers priceless lessons for writers.  Ultimately, it was in these lessons that I found the guidance I felt were missing in writers’ workshops, and the inspiration I needed to get back to my WIP.  Here are just a few:

1. Learn to stretch.

Flexibility is key to creative expression, and goes hand-in-hand with strength.  So challenge yourself to stretch, body and mind, a little at a time.  Always try to go a notch beyond your comfort zone.

2. Use your core.

Find those innermost muscles, squeeze them and don’t let go!  Stay connected to them.  Centered.  It’s the equivalent of digging deep and writing from the heart.

3. Visualize.  Believe.

Conjure up an image of the result you’re striving for and hold it firmly in your mind until you get there.  Believe in it.  Harness the adrenaline rush this brings, and use it, too.

4. Observe yourself both closely and from a distance.

Scan your work constantly with your mind’s eye.  Take note of how it looks from the outside and how it’s functioning within.  Be as aware of every muscle, every twitch — or every word and every syllable — as you are of the bigger picture they create together.

5. Hear the music, respect the beat.

They will guide your work’s flow.

6. Work regularly, with discipline.

Each day of work lays the foundation for the next, building muscle and brain power that need continual nurturing to thrive.  Regular work at predictable intervals keeps you primed and ready to perform — and to surpass your own expectations when the time is right.

7. Every brilliant moment must be earned.

Beautiful, polished results — the ones the world will see — come only after countless unsuccessful attempts.   And they can’t be reproduced.  To get there again you have to start afresh and practice, practice, practice.  Write, edit, repeat.

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About Sharon Bially

Sharon Bially (@SharonBially) is the founder and president of BookSavvy PR, a public relations firm devoted to authors and books. Author of the novel Veronica’s Nap, she’s an active member of Grub Street, Inc., the nation’s 2nd largest independent writing center, and writes for the Grub Street Daily.

Comments

  1. says

    Sharon,
    Great analogy here. There are so many so many similarities between the performing arts and writing. I especially like numbers one and two-learn to stretch and use your core. I have a songwriter friend and an actor friend. When we get together to talk about the creative process I am struck by the similarities in how we go about our work. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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  2. says

    What a lovely, graceful piece. Unexpected analogy and well done. If being a balletomane is watching in wonder and gasping at the moves makes me a balletomane, then I qualify. (I also gasp at well turned phrases). Thanks for putting the two together.

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  3. says

    Having been a dancer before I began writing as a way of life I really enjoyed reading your insights to the two. Sometimes I just remember than often lugging around a lap top and hard copy is heavier than a lugging around a dance bag. Other times they are both pure joy.

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  4. says

    Thank you, Sharon, for this lovely analogy between physical and mental skills. Although we use our brain to make it all happen, we write with our soul ~ and a soul that can dance in any form will always find a way to express itself with passion.

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  5. says

    What a great post, Sharon! Lots of wise advice here. I also find that physical activity frees my brain to daydream about the story I’m writing. I can’t count the number of breakthrough ah-ha moments I’ve had while on my morning run.

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  6. says

    Sharon, nice post. My experience of writing (like any other art) is that it involves a constant pushing of boundaries, self-observation, and repetition until behavior becomes natural. Correction isn’t enough – there must be constant thought, integration, and growth.

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  7. says

    This is a wonderful analogy. I run, which is not an art, but frees up my mind for writing. My sister and daughter dance, and the form is gorgeous to watch–I only wish my body would do those movements!

    I do think any art form that requires discipline can help the other art forms you practice improve. Happy dancing!

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  8. says

    The first ballet I attended was Nureyev performing just after his defection in Toronto and thought “That looks easy.” HA! So, I signed up for adult ballet classes. I got onto pointe at age 35–one of my proudest achievements. To extend your analogy: Published authors make success look easy. It isn’t. But persistence and hard work will get you there. Thanks for the memories, Sharon!

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  9. says

    Really enjoyed your post today, Sharon. Time to get off my butt. I think I feel it spreading right now. LOL.

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  10. says

    Fabulous! As one who incorporated dance into my first novel, and who has written the narration for performances of kathak, a storytelling dance form of India, I love to see someone else make the writing-dancing connection.

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  11. says

    As a dancer, I cannot even tell you how much I love this post. (Also, my most recent blog post, linked below, happens to talk about a dance movie I recently watched!)

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  12. says

    Sure needed to hear this today! So much good advice! Each point addresses some issues I’ve been having lately with my writing. Thank you!

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  13. says

    Thanks everyone!

    Joan – Congrats to you for getting en pointe at 35. I’m 45 and it’s on my bucket list. You’ve inspired me to stop procrastinating taking that “step.”

    Anna – so true about the ah-ha moments. Running is definitely a fertile time for those, and so is apres-dance.

    Kristan – Nice to know you’re a dancer. Glad you can connect with this.

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  14. says

    From a runner, a writer, and tango dancer: I adored this. I need the movement too, And the recognition that it takes pushing that limit, day after day, to do the impossible.

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  15. Denise Willson says

    Beautiful, Sharon, just beautiful.

    “Chin up, arms out, and smile.” :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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