From the ages of three to 17, dance was my “thing” — my primary after-school activity, my source of exercise, my creative outlet. Though I never intended to dance professionally, my experiences with the discipline have had an enormous impact on me. I committed hours upon hours each week to ballet, tap, jazz and modern styles as a child and teenager.
While dance gave me strength, flexibility, balance, an artistic way to express myself, incredible memories and a powerful sense of focus, it also reinforced a mentality of perfectionism that I have since found hard to shake. And while dance isn’t completely to blame for these thought patterns in me, they have certainly gone hand in hand.
In ballet — which is often described as the foundation of all dance — you aim essentially to achieve perfection: perfect posture, perfect body placement and perfect lines. Dancers contort themselves into unnatural positions to create this illusion by turning their hips, legs and feet out, dancing “en pointe” (on their toes), etc. Though ballet demands an ideal nearly impossible to achieve, dancer training can act as a kind of journey to hover ever closer to that perfect, seemingly effortless performance.
Growing up, I would use my dance studio’s floor-to-ceiling mirrors to examine the technical and physical minutiae of my positions and self-adjust constantly. Teachers would give constructive criticisms of dancers’ movements every few seconds and occasionally comment on our bodies. We’d rehearse each piece of choreography to death leading up to end-of-year performances and compete with one another for coveted lead roles.
Since coming to the University of Michigan, I’ve continued to pursue perfection, which had felt so salient in my years as a dancer. And I’ve noticed similar thought patterns of perfectionism, overachievement and competitiveness in many of my classmates. It seems natural in the environment here. Our role as college students at a top university asks us to constantly work toward high grades in our classes and involve ourselves in the “best” possible extracurricular activities, jobs and internships.
This forward-looking, overachieving approach is often thought of as an important component to developing perseverance, discipline and drive. The University implicitly encourages perfectionism through deeming its students the “Leaders and Best.” But I’ve found it difficult to sever my perfectionistic approach to my work from other aspects of my life — to put the cycles of self-critique that come with perfectionism on pause and just be.
I stopped dancing when I came to the University. I explored different interests, focused on academics and found my place on campus. Unlike in dance, I can’t measure my success in college by the height of my jumps or the precision of my turns — seeing my progress laid out in the mirror in front of me — but I still began to consistently judge my work in other ways, striving toward earning typical benchmarks of achievement like As and internships.
At the same time, in focusing on other aspects of my life, I wound up spending two years lacking a regular exercise routine, trying to squeeze in time for late-night visits to the gym and feeling completely disconnected from my body. On a whim the summer after my sophomore year of college, I bought an unlimited summer package at a yoga studio a few minutes away from my Chicago apartment.
And though I didn’t enter that studio intending to find anything more than a regular class schedule for workouts, practicing yoga seriously changed my relationship with myself. It helped me begin to unwind the years of conditioning that motivated me to sacrifice my well-being in pursuit of achievement. Since taking it up, I have not only been able to find strength, flexibility and most other benefits of dance, but I also surprised myself by creating a small space to shed my inclination to yearn for perfection.
The rooms of the studios where I’ve practiced are mirrorless. There’s no performance at the end of the year to look to. Movement is appreciated for the sake of movement and not for an audience. No one competes with you, and you don’t even compete with yourself. Process and presence are valued. Teachers correct you only to prevent injury or suggest a deeper expression of a pose. There’s no such thing as a perfect pose. You meet each class with what you have, and it’s enough.
Through yoga, I’ve sought a sense of daily presence and acceptance of things as they are. And while I get this feeling through exercise, I truly believe exploring any space and taking any regular time to cultivate acceptance of our present selves is absolutely paramount to success in college. Various facets of our lives may take unexpected twists and turns, and perfection doesn’t truly exist. In an environment where overachieving is the norm and where individual accomplishment is idealized, we must take time to separate our worth from our résumé and from our work.
Stephanie Trierweiler can be reached at email@example.com.