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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Ballerina and the Basketball Player

So where do Marie Taglioni and Kobe Bryant come in?  What do they have to do with my belly dance journey? 
And you might also wonder, Who the heck is Marie Taglioni?
For balletomanes, that’s easy.  Marie Taglioni was the first ballet superstar.  She was the first ballerina who danced in a modern style, that is, similar to ballet today.  In her time (she lived from 1804 to 1884), she was the idol of Europe.  All that is interesting and noteworthy, but what sets her apart was that she accomplished all this without having any real innate ability or even the “ballet look.”  She is described as being awkward, almost misshapen, with a rounded back and skinny legs.  Nor was she a great beauty. 
Marie Taglioni came from a family of itinerant performers and dancers.  Her Italian father was her main ballet instructor.  Eventually the family ended up in Paris, which was the center of ballet at that time.  Marie knew she was not good enough to audition for the Paris Opera ballet.  So she set up a regimen for herself that involved six grueling hours of training a day.  Over a period of months, she developed extraordinary strength and endurance.  She could hold a pose, like an arabesque, for a count to 100, something most ballerinas today would find impossible.  She danced on a very high demi-pointe, almost on pointe.  What makes that remarkable is that at the time there were no ballet shoes, and certainly no “toe shoes” with stiffened or blocked toes to make it possible to dance on pointe.  She and other dancers used ordinary shoes, which were soft and lacked any support for the foot.  She trained herself so that she could perform amazing feats of strength and precision, without grimacing or straining or appearing stiff.  She developed a style of dance that seemed effortless and soft, even ethereal.  That is what most ballet dancers strive for today as well.   
One of the most remarkable things about ballet is that it requires the strength and endurance of an Olympic athlete, but without the grunting, straining, and grimacing that goes with most athletic efforts.  (I’d like to tell the guys at the gym about that.)  So, after months of training, Marie not only became a dancer with the famed Paris Opera, but went on to become the sensation of Europe.  Not because of innate talent or beauty or perfection of form, but from determination and hard work.  (I learned all that about Marie Taglioni from Apollo’s Angels, A History of Ballet, by Jennifer Homans.)
What about Kobe Bryant?  He is probably one of those people who was born with the genetic capacity to do amazing things with his body.  So I was surprised to hear a sportscaster say, in one of those downtimes when they have to fill the air with chit chat and obscure statistics, that after the team’s regular practice, Kobe stays behind and practices extra hours.  No wonder he’s great.  (And it pains me to admit that, being a Spurs fan.)
The book The Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, examines what makes people great at what they do, whether they are musicians or athletes or computer geniuses like Bill Gates.  Among other things, he discovered what he calls “the 10,000 hour rule.”  People do not become great in a chosen endeavor until they have worked at it for 10,000 hours. 
I don’t know if I’ll reach the 10,000 hour mark.  If I never missed a day, I’d be 86 years old by then.  But, hey, why not?  As long as my body holds out, what’s to stop me?  So thank you, Marie and Kobe, for inspiring me to take up belly dancing at my advanced age, with no prior experience, and a bad hip. 

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