Trapped in the Rules Cave (Audio Available)

Reflection by Chloe Hart, 6 March 2016


Photo by Kate Hayter Photograph

Photo by Kate Hayter Photograph

My grandfather used to have a stone tumbler. Dispersed throughout the house, you would find bowls or boxes of rocks that had been knocked together repeatedly so as to rub off each other’s hard edges until each one became smooth, polished stone. Each of them had a unique shape, colour and pattern, but they shared the same glossy yet hard (it was still a rock) texture. When my friend’s and I would prepare ourselves for our ballet exams, I always thought our slick-backed bunheads resembled my grandfather’s tumbled stones. Ballet exams, similar to music conservatory exams for anyone who has been subject to one, are basically the stuff nightmares are made of. The examinees are dressed in meticulous uniforms: ballet tight, a leotard and slippers, topped off with a glistening, rock-solid bun. Each dancer was identified by a number on a patch that was pinned onto their stomachs. The examiner sits at a table at the front of the studio. On either side of her is placed a writer, to whom she whispers corrections, so that, God-forbid, she never has her eyes off her subjects. Of course, there is absolutely no sound permitted in a ballet exam, expect perhaps that of nervously knocking knees. Ballet exams, or a first exercise in discipline, began at age 8. Now, what I painted for you there was a pretty horrific image of dance school, but to be honest, I never really minded ballet exams. I was one of those kids that relished the mini-adult experience. I felt calm in the high pressure environment and found something meditative in the complexity and precision demanded in the task (although I couldn’t have articulated that at 8). Most importantly, I always felt ready for the exams. I knew the exercises like the back of my hand, I had listened to the teacher’s corrections, and I had come early and warmed up in a corner away from the nervous chatter of the other girls. I would go into my reasonably-confident and very concentrated bubble and everything would be okay. The discipline I had applied to my practice throughout the year allowed me to perform at my maximum and actually enjoy the delivery despite the nasty circumstances.

However, the word discipline comes with different connotations. Many of the definitions I read sounded militaristic, or as if discipline was uniquely a way to create conformity. To me, discipline is a structure, or a set of rules, set up to achieve a desired outcome. This outcome can be extremely personal; it can also change over time. Its purposes can range from health, to personal growth, to respect for one’s values, to the practice of art. What I believe becomes dangerous is when it becomes a simplification of good and bad, right and wrong, allowed and not allowed. I will admit to being guilty of this, to having created a cave made up of rules that I hid in through all of my childhood, and still spend lots of my time in. In Halifax, there is a legendary sculpture on the waterfront called The Wave (it is in the shape of a wave). You are pretty much not considered a Haligonian if you have never climbed it. There is a sign, clearly labelled in front, that says ‘please do not climb the wave’ but every time you go down there, there is a pile of children, scurrying up and over said sign. It normally takes them a few tries before they get to the top; you have to get a bit of a running start. But I confess: because of that sign, I never climbed the wave. I watched all of my friends go up, but I was too afraid of breaking the rules. Now, I am less afraid of punishment and more afraid of judgement from the small children who have the mounting technique mastered from years of experience.

The second danger I have encountered with discipline, arises if your structure becomes immutable, fixed in time, space and energy, as we like to say in dance. In high school, I took ballet, tap, jazz, modern and danced in a contemporary pre-professional company. My school here in Montreal is a distinctly contemporary school. I didn’t realize how different that meant the school would be until I started taking class. My teachers started to give me information that conflicted with what I had learned at home, and at first, I was very resistant to any change. From my perspective, what they were saying was outside of the long-standing walls of my rules cave. My ballet-specific discipline was saying “don’t you dare concede! That’s cheating!” It seemed wild and reckless and new-agey. However, the more time I spent at the school, the more I realized its students and teachers were extremely disciplined; it was just a different discipline, with different rules and a different practice. Then there was a second realization that I shouldn't trust everything my teachers here say either and that critical thinking skills are a crucial part of what I do. I have to take in the information that all of these people offer me and filter according to what I need as well as what I like. But the thing is, that's not specific to dancers, that it was a well-functioning human being should be doing on a daily basis. I am still working on allowing this filter that allows me to construct my discipline, to evolve and account for new goals, new information, and new values, rather than being confined to a rigorously created and respected, but outdated set of rules. How can my actions most effectively bring me what I want? Well, to answer that, I have to know what I want, which can change every year, every day or every minute.

We can also talk about discipline in its relation to work ethic, especially when it comes to artistic discipline. With hard work comes a big pay off – most of the time. Here-in lies the last pitfall of discipline. While having a good work ethic is an excellent tool, it can also be dangerous to believe that it is the only thing between you and success. I spoke a little bit about this over the summer, but I have definitely fallen victim of this phenomenon. It is an absolute gift to have been able to sincerely believe that I can do everything I set my mind to. I was privileged to have supportive parents who always taught me this, and in various circumstances I have proven to myself that if I work hard enough, I can get what I want. In other circumstances, simply believing that I could do it, gave me the opportunity to do so (eg. "I bet I could lead summer services!" "Sure Chloe, you can lead summer services!"). I am still working hard to remember that sometimes, inevitable and unbeatable obstacles might side-track you, and that under these circumstances, acceptance has to become a part of my discipline.

A huge realization for me this year is how complex and diverse my practice of dance has become. As a dancer and choreographer, I seek to communicate aspects of the human condition to an audience, using my own body. This inherently means that every moment of my life informs my artistic discipline, because every moment is an experience. As that’s all I have to work with, I had better collect as much experience as possible. Noticing the striking colour of the morning sky on my walk to school, reading poetry, acting with love, tuning in with my spirituality, indulging in chocolate and singing all the time, everywhere are all a part of my training, therefore I must be disciplined- attentive, rigorous, regular, observant- in all of these acts! Whether or not your goal is to enrich your art, you can learn to apply yourself with discipline to these practices too. Christopher Buice, a UU minister in Tennessee, described Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as understanding that “Forgiveness was a spiritual discipline that could empower one to work for greater justice in the world.” No matter where you choose to apply your discipline, I fundamentally believe that it must come from a place of passion. Passion is the fuel of art; in this way, every act becomes a practice of artistic discipline. The art of forgiveness. The art of meditation. The art of love. The art of social justice.

On your journey towards your passionate goal, be rigorous, be ambitious and be perseverant but remember that the rules of your game are not black and white. Sometimes the wild, unauthorized experience is the most enriching. Allow your goals and practice to change alongside your evolving identity and understanding of the world. Let new information flow through the walls of your rules cave and allow it to shift its mould. Change the changeable and accept the unalterable with just as much conviction. Work constantly and vigilantly to smooth over the rough edges, ridges and valleys of your rock, but always with the goal of revealing the unique, beautiful, fascinating colour of your tumbled-stone.

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