Flying Fingers or Tapping Toes: Art is Art is Art

User:Jean-no [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons, User:Jean-no [FAL]
First there were difficulties securing a vehicle, then foot tendinitis, then unprotected chest met deck edge, leading to multiple rib fractures. (At which time my mantra became Go pain killers! Yay for modern pharmacology!)

Between one thing and another, it seemed like life was conspiring to keep me from fitness-dancing. When I restarted this January, I’d gone three years without hipping to a hop.*

Now, six weeks into my classes, it’s become apparent to me that writing and dancing share certain similarities, particularly around the the challenges and benefits of restarting after a lengthy break.

What is a writing life without tenacity? And what is tenacity unless it’s an ability to recommit when one encounters failure or interruption? So if you’re out there, wondering how to begin or resume a project, perhaps this extended metaphor will provide an extra push.

I had no idea how much I missed dancing until I busted my first move.

You’ll see this theme repeated throughout this post in that thinking about an activity is fine—mental rehearsal can be a necessary step to summon courage—but it can never replace action. How could I have forgotten one of the deepest pleasures in my life? The euphoria of moving to a particular bass line? I don’t know, but I managed, and I’m not alone in my retrograde amnesia.

All hail the remodeling abilities of human hearts and neural circuitry.

When you’re learning a dance routine, it’s natural to start with smaller steps, to avoid transferring your weight until you’re sure you’re moving in the right direction. Such measures prevent pileups in the corner.

Also, there is the matter of breathing. In my case, I’m inordinately fond of oxygen, but I found my baseline fitness wasn’t as good as I’d imagined. Dancing left me a sweating, breathless mess.

However, regular practice transforms the once-challenging into the easy, the impossible into the accessible. This happens much faster than I’d anticipated. As of this week, despite the addition of flourishes and stylistic details that would have overwhelmed me in the first days, I’m keeping up with my peers.

Benefits accrue to the dancer long before their “work” holds value to others.

Unless they want to get a side stitch from laughing, no one in their right mind would pay to watch me dance. I don’t expect that will change. But in the studio, in the heat of it, I don’t care.

I’ve already noted the immediate benefits: the collision-avoidance, the fun. I haven’t mentioned the community. Turns out I was missed, and that’s a wonderful feeling to have and to reciprocate. Could I have shared coffee with this group of generous women in the intervening years? Sure, but I would have missed our shared pride, the sense of belonging to a community of practitioners.

Physicality and competence carry over into my non-dancing world.

  • Our atypical winter has meant icy streets and sidewalks for months. With improved balance, I walk with more confidence, knowing I have a better chance of recovering from slips.
  • Movement and musicality have become default responses, not alien or forced. So if a song comes on while I’m prepping dinner, I’ll find myself shimmying between counter and fridge.
  • This weekend, the ToolMaster caught me doing an arabesque in the laundry room. I’d developed a back kink, and the arabesque works. Go figure. Before dancing, I suspect my pain would have stayed below the threshold of awareness for hours, altering my mood, mobility, and thoughts with unconscious suffering. With my newfound body-awareness, however, it was a simple matter to notice the pain and apply the remedy.
  • Similarly, I’ve been tracking my writing, and despite the classes eating into my time, my word count has actually increased. I attribute this to heightened mental clarity and the ability to call on a heftier sensory repertoire when facing the page.

Lastly, dance provides a unexpectedly deeper understanding of voice.

These dance classes take place all over our city, and the owner strives to provide standardized instruction. She wants students to be able to switch classes without becoming confused or lost. In a sense, there’s one curriculum and one test of competency.

Doesn’t that sound like the opposite of art?

Watch us, though, and you’ll soon get a different idea. For example, while we execute the same basic steps, the woman who dances to my left maintains an erect carriage. Her movements are fluid and graceful, even when she’s doing chest pops. She cannot present an unpointed toe. To my right, the polar opposite. This woman attacks the dance, lunges deep. She snickers a little during the chorus.

In a “laboratory” that pushes for conformity of movement and an informal dress code, where all sweat and strain to the same tracks, given forty different “subjects”, you’ll see forty different results. Ladies and gentlemen, I submit this is an expression of voice. As you might expect, some are more naturally pleasing than others.

Unboxeders, do you participate in non-writing art? Do you find it influences your writing? If so, how?

*No bling was harmed in the making of this article. Though Jan’s class includes a range of dance styles, from salsa to jazz, she’s chosen to write mainly of hip-hop, the hope being she’ll sound edgy and contemporary.


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. Elizabeth says

    Your post makes me miss dancing!

    When I used to dance, I was very exacting with myself. As in my writing, I tried to improve through practice, self-critique, and discipline. The focus and energy I developed separately in writing and dance fed off of each other, but the relationship wasn’t close.

    Now I draw. I have no training and no standards. When I finish a picture, I’m aware that it’s only mediocre, but I feel a deep sense of achievement anyhow. Every time I finish a picture, it’s the greatest picture ever. Of course, with no standards or discipline, I’ll never improve.

    But that’s ok. Somehow, having a creative pass time of a non-critical, feel-good nature really helps writing. It inspires me to work harder at writing and builds up a store of energy for dealing positively with critique. Drawing keeps my creativity flowing. When I look at my most recent greatest picture ever, I think that if I can make such a nifty drawing with no practice, my writing, which I practice often, must have potential. It’s a good confidence boost. More directly, it sometimes helps a story along to do character portraits or sketch out a comic strip version of a scene.

    I’m always curious to know if other writers and artists have a secondary artistic or creative pass time, and if they judge this creative work or try consciously to improve it? Jan, are you self-critical about dance, or is your improvement subsidiary to the fun and community?

    • says

      “Jan, are you self-critical about dance, or is your improvement subsidiary to the fun and community?”

      Excellent question. Yes and yes. How’s that for commitment? ;)

      From the website to the teachers, everything about this franchise is phrased to embrace activity and fun over presentation. That said, there is an invitation to make it beautiful, both as an individual and as a group. Between the focus, my goals, and lack of pressure, I mostly forget to be self-consciousness.

      Every once in a while, though, I’ll catch an unexpected glimpse of myself in the mirrors. If I’d had any fluidity until that point, it’s pretty much guaranteed to falter momentarily.

      Perhaps the wordcount increase comes from rehearsal? From learning to feel and release that hypercriticality? Julia Cameron, if you’ve read her, is adamant about the value of artistic play.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Worried You’ll Have a Disappointing Book Launch? Meet LynDee Walker, Antidote (Includes Book Giveaway)

  2. says

    I’m afraid I don’t dance — that would be dangerous! I have “Adams feet,” which are flat feet and an ankle that turns very easily. During physical activity like dancing, I have to pay so much attention to my feet to make sure I don’t fall that I get very little out of it.

    But I have been doing visual note taking (coincidentally, I have one posted at the link below). I’m no artist, but it’s fun to do. Even at work, I’m using it for to-do lists and to work out schedules, and things like that.
    Linda Adams – Soldier, Storyteller´s last blog post ..When All Your Characters Are Seated Around the Dinner Table

  3. says

    Great post! I’ve taken a few art classes over the last couple of years and I always leave them feeling artistic and creative and inspired, and I believe that translated into my writing. This post made me realize how much I’ve missed those classes and the tangibility of working with fabric and color and texture. I think it’s time to bring a little of that back into my life. :)

    Oh, and I always find a good bike ride clears my head and gives me energy, which also translates into my work.
    Madeline Mora-Summonte´s last blog post ..Motivational Monday

  4. says

    I believe any form of exercise benefits the writer. I feel energized after a two-mile run and my mind is sharper. I wish this snow would melt so I can run again without fear of being run over. Congratulations on returning to dance. It sounds like it is paying off in many ways. Thanks for sharing your experience.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..What is the Ideal Word Count for a Novel?

  5. says

    I groove with everything you say, Jan. I started taking dance classes again a little over a year ago, and the benefits for me are just what they are for you. Being in class and looking across the mirror to see all of us doing the same thing together is exhilarating in a way my writing life can never be (it being a solitary pursuit).
    Natalieahart´s last blog post ..You are the hero of your own life

  6. says

    I really connected with this even though I only do the ‘aging white man shuffle (with overbite).’ I miss writing novel length fiction in draft-mode. As you know, Jan, I’ve been doing some remodeling. The parts of it that stir that inner (all but lost) joy are the parts that have me in the woodshop. So while I may not be dancing for the joy of it, I do feel that yearn and stir for woodworking (random-orbital sanding for the joy of it?).

    Love the metaphor for voice, too! That makes total sense to me. Even if you locked us all away from each other with a very specific writing prompt for a flash fiction piece, the variation would be vast.
    Really wonderful post, and I’m glad you’ve got your groove back, EB (Edgy Boss).
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Getting Lost In History

  7. says

    I love this post, and as someone who was just dancing last night in my kitchen (my son’s response? “Awkwarrrrrrrrd!”), I know the joy of the dance.

    Yes, I am a dancer stuck in the body of a writer; that said, I am more of a private dancer (no, Vaughn, not a dancer for money). No classes or public shows. Only my cats know my true talent.

    I’ll tell you what, though: I make art when I cook. Sometimes it’s terribly ugly art, and other times it’s quite nice. The kitchen’s where I find my domestic creative joy. But cooking without a recipe (the pantser version of cooking) also means it’s impossible for me to replicate that Moroccan Stew that I made back in 1998. I have tried, and my husband says, “Good, but not like the stew of ’98!”

    Oh well. That culinary creativity brings me joy. It keeps me creatively fresh. And it keeps my husband hungering for the Stew of ’98. I figure as long as he’s longing for MY elusive stew, he won’t stray. ;)
    Sarah Callender´s last blog post ..Scary

  8. says

    Although I’m a klutz, my alter ego is a graceful dancer and she can hippity-hop with the best of them, dance a tango that will leave men’s hearts beating hard, and jump as high as my Jack Russell terrier.

    But, seriously, my other creative outlets are photography and cooking. I can spend hours playing around with images via Photoshop, and when I get hungry, make a foccacia pizza that will put my local pizzeria out of business.

  9. says

    I used to take dance classes, and I can identify with your comments on the way they might affect writing.
    I don’t do that any more, but I have taken up music composition. Don’t worry that I will do anything to reduce the esteem in which you hold Beethoven. I compose for personal joy and as another way to pray. However, just as the music gives a new facet to my prayers, it also opens up my writing in other ways. It encourages me to look for just the right word instead of one that is a half step below best. It helps me work for better flow and rhythm in a phrase I might otherwise have spit out and left behind me. I think any art influences the way you produce any other art form.
    Thanks for a great post.
    Katherine Harms´s last blog post ..Looking Back at Yesterday’s Gospel

  10. says

    Jan — grinning reading your post. I was linking the comparison of the same dance steps all over town, to how we writers sit at a keyboard at a desk and type. Doesn’t mean the results resemble each other in the least. I’m a tapper :-)

  11. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Love this post, Jan. And uggh! I can relate to the rib thing. I cracked mine cleaning the bathroom (yeah, housework is that dangerous for me), it was the most pain I’ve ever felt, right up there with kidney stones, but I digress and don’t worry this isn’t a long list where I’m going to compare ailments to art, (although to judge by my aunt that can be an art form).

    For several years, I worked as a kitchen designer. Despite most clients slavery to current trends, leading to an inexplicable fondness for roosters, most kitchens eventually took on two voices blended together in what I hope was a pleasing harmony. The client’s and mine. And no two kitchens were ever the same, despite the fact, the same designing software used and all kitchens usually consist of sets of cabinets and drawers. So, I hear you about the writing loud and clear.

  12. Peggy Foster says

    Jan I compared your dancing and writing with me being on the treadmill and writing. I used to walk and I lost thirty pounds from April until November of 2011 but like we all do I let it creep back again. So on new year’s day of this year I decided to lose the weight for good. When I started walking on the treadmill I was so tired because I wasn’t used to it. But I kept on walking a little at a time and now I’m doing about two to three miles a day three times a week. The same thing applies to writing. When I first started writing it took me some time to figure out what I wanted to say because I wasn’t disciplined and because I haven’t written in so long. I used to write when I was a teenager and then I went on to other things and now I have picked it up again. Now I have been writing more and more and it’s easier for me.
    As far as the creativity part listening to music helps me. Sometimes when I hear a song the words inspire me and helps me to create something for my character. It also helps me write the story for my character better. Thanks for a great post!

    • says

      I haven’t been brave enough to try a treadmill desk, Peggy. Kudos to you for restarting, and for your progress. (Both past and present.) Aren’t we humans funny in our capacity for self-deception? Good think we have as much or more ability to become conscious and restart.

  13. says

    Does Just Dance on the Wii count? :)

    I’ve found that, while I don’t participate in a different creative activity outside of writing (there is only so much time in the day), I do find a connection between exercise and writing. Getting that clarity and becoming “unbound” from my head and the daily concerns really helps to get my creative groove on.

    I’ve just returned to yoga, and I love the way my body feels when it’s stretched and strong. I think it carries over to writing by giving me the strength to take risks I might not normally take when my mind/body is feeling overwhelmed and constrained.

    I love the analogy you give between dancing and voice. It’s spot on!
    Lara Schiffbauer´s last blog post ..Funny Friday Photos

  14. says

    I love this post! It speaks to me so well. I danced in high school for four years, but dropped it after that until recently. “I had no idea how much I missed dancing until I busted my first move,” is just exactly how I would describe it. And I agree with all of your tie-ins. This is a great metaphor, and very nice post!
    Annie Neugebauer´s last blog post ..Ways to Give Back to the Book Industry

  15. Carmel says

    Love your posts, Jan! My other serious creative outlet (I can get sidetracked by many) is knitting. What’s weird about it is that, instead of one feeding the other, one pulls me away from the other. I think it’s some kind of weird brain thing. I lose interest in one whenever I’m all immersed in the other. I can do both at the same time, but I don’t get the same enjoyment. Like I said, weird.

  16. says

    Loved this post, Jan. I’m a huge advocate of anything that promotes good health and is fun to boot. My friends and I danced a lot when we were younger, I don’t know why we ever stopped.

    I have two words: Muscle memory. It is amazing what we can do when we stretch any part of us to reach for something more. It doesn’t matter if practice makes perfect, it matters that in following through we gain confidence to make the accomplishment our own.
    ddfalvo´s last blog post ..JUST DRIVE (Or How to Live With Your Muse) ~ Redirect

  17. says

    I walk, and I believe walking is an art. Whether it’s country art: great loping strides, a horselike body with a human face, and sweeping views of whatever vista you live near — or city art: a delicate dance with left-side-of-the-sidewalk-walkers, a thousand angry motor vehicles, and creepy old men — there is a step and there is a rhythm.

    It rarely helps me to write. It does however, make the writer in my brain shut his mouth for once.
    jon´s last blog post ..Face + Words

  18. says

    I horseback ride, which sometimes feels like art! Training a horse from a gangly lump of clay into a sleek, muscled athlete seems very artistic to me. Perhaps that’s just me waxing lyrical about my passion, but I certainly enjoy it. :) I suppose we can bring art to anything we choose.
    Selma´s last blog post ..What’s your type?

    • says

      I’m sure all equine people would agree with you.

      I don’t ride, but I’d agree 100% with your last sentence. I can’t think of an occupation or pursuit I’ve undertaken where the aesthetic and intent didn’t matter. For instance, I’m sure if we googled coat-hangers we’d find someone somewhere whose tracking the clever, the useful, and the downright beautiful examples of such an ordinary implement. It’s a wonderful world, isn’t it?