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Life Lessons Learned From Dance

Kim Tapper dancing professionally

Imagine my excitement when I found out that the theme of this issue was dance. Why, you might ask? What does a Life Coach know about dance? Well...before I became a coach I had the great opportunity to be a professional dancer. Yes, professional. That means I made a career out of it – got paid and all (paltry salary at that, but a salary nonetheless). So as I pondered this article and all the many things I could share about dance, what came up were all the lessons – the life lessons – I learned from life as a dancer.

My first mentor, Era Wohner, was a former professional ballerina who loved us like a grandparent does. She taught us to respect the people who came before us and to honor that we were building on their achievements. “You must find your own unique voice as a dancer, but you must first listen to what others had to say.” In every dance that is re-staged (meaning a previous person has already danced the steps), you are literally dancing in the footsteps of those who went before you. The lesson? Pay close attention to what you can learn from others and then dig deep inside to discover your voice and the special qualities you bring to the table.

Dancers are famous for their great posture – long, elegant necks, upright torsos, and graceful movements. Every time we slouched Mrs. Wohner would shout, “Stop apologizing for yourself!” Not only did she help us find our postural muscles and dancer’s poise, but also she taught us the value of standing tall, being confidant and believing in ourselves. To this day, when I work with teenage girls in particular, I pass on these teachings, “do not apologize for yourself,” by trying to disappear. You are worthy of being here and being seen, so stand up tall!

Mrs. Wohner often repeated a story about being backstage as a young dancer in the corps de ballet during a production of “Swan Lake.” The leading ballerina was nearby and said, “I’m so nervous,” to which Mrs. Wohner exclaimed, “You? But you’re the best! You get nervous?” “Stupid girl,” the lead snapped, “the day you stop getting nervous is the day you are done!” She used that story to teach us that nerves indicate you are alive; you care! Whether it’s a job interview, your 500th performance, or an important conversation with a loved one, be fully present in that moment. Let nerves serve as a reminder to you that this moment matters. If you feel nothing, then it’s time to make a change.

Dancing Kim Tapper

As I got older and rehearsals became more complex we had to learn how to balance our energy to get through sometimes eight hours of dance a day. There’s a term called “marking” used for when you are getting the moves more into your brain than your body. You also mark a piece when you are trying to conserve your energy before going “full out.” But sometimes you can get so used to the habit of marking that you never really go full out and suddenly when you do, you find you cannot sustain the endurance and energy needed to actually do the steps. It’s like training for a marathon but only ever doing the light day practice run and never trying the full thing. Dance taught me to recognize when it’s time to mark and when it’s time to go full out. And we’ve all heard the phrase, “life is not a rehearsal.” You are the lead in your own life story – the performance is this life, now! You need to make sure you are not just marking your way through your life. Do not make motions without real intentions. Find out what’s important to you and go for it fully!

Sometimes when you go for it fully, you wind up being the star! But remember, the star only shines if the crew around them helps. Over the years I learned to make friends with the “techies” because they’re the ones who could turn the lights out on you while dancing (or make a lot of other things go wrong)! They also knew a whole lot about many things I knew nothing of. They helped me gain other perspectives while I was striving towards my goal. Being kind to the people around you will get you to your goals. The people in the wings of your life are often the unsung heroes. Make sure they know how much you appreciate them. And remember that you also stand in someone else’s wings - look for people in your life that could use a boost from you. What can you do to make them shine? The true dance of life is a balance between the times we give and the times we receive; the times we lead and the times we follow; the times we lean and the times we support.

Throughout it all you take risks! Whether it’s going up on your toes in pointe shoes (not exactly natural!), or getting lifted by a partner 6 feet in the air...with just one hand!...each step involves risk. The key? Prepare as much as you can, and then take the leap! In life sometimes we need to throw ourselves forward. Practice every day making smaller decisions, conquering manageable challenges in order to strengthen your ‘muscles’ that help you take the bigger risks. Remember, sometimes you might feel like you’re going backwards but maybe you’re just getting a running start to become airborne!

There are so many lessons I derived from my dance career but I’ll leave you with this last one: the magic. Whether it’s in “Swan Lake” or on “So You Think You Can Dance,” one thing that all dancers have in common is that they make it look easy, magical. Done well an audience should leave the theater in awe and wonder. But behind all that magic is a lot of hard work. My dance career showed me real tangible evidence that practice does indeed make perfect (or as close to it as possible). And that for something to be magical, you have to show up and do the work – bring yourself fully and passionately to the moment and give it all you got. What happens after that – whether you fall and get back up, whether you get a standing ovation, or whether you simply leave the moment exhilarated from your own efforts, knowing that you gave it your all...that’s where real magic lies.

“We learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same.” – Martha Graham

Ballerina from behind 

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