Serving Others Through Ballet Instruction With Sarah Arnold

GUEST CONVERSATIONS

May 28, 2021

PTR 81 | Serving Others

 

Ballet is a graceful dance form that everyone loves for its finesse and focus. But for dancers to bring themselves to the next level, many of them pursue teaching, which makes them realize the importance of serving others. This is exactly what Sarah Arnold discovered on her own ballet journey. Joining Susanne Puerschel, she tells how her passion as a ballet dancer led to a ballet instructor’s life. She explains how her current endeavors allowed her to make dancing not only all about herself, discover the right way to motivate her students, and even transcend into healing and social issue. Susanne and Sarah also discuss the role of ballet in appreciating oneself, diving deep into how it plays out on self-care and taking a break in times of challenge and injuries.

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Serving Others Through Ballet Instruction With Sarah Arnold

Our special guest is Sarah Arnold. She has been a ballet teacher for many years. She and I connected through Instagram and I said, “You have to come on the show,” because we see eye-to-eye in many ways. I wanted to introduce her to you. I wanted to shine a light on her because she has many experiences. Sarah has trained with Sacramento Ballet and San Francisco Ballet after receiving a Ford Foundation scholarship. After a ten-year professional career in Europe and the USA, she became the Director of Ballet Idaho’s company school, as well as directing her own ballet academy for 25 years.

She is certified in Progressing Ballet Technique. She has augmented her studies with David Howard, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Finis Jhung, Jurgen Schneider/Vaganova syllabus, Lisa Howell and most notably, Maria Vegh. Her students have joined companies such as Pacific Northwest Ballet, Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, and LINES. To Ms. Arnold, teaching is a lifelong pursuit and she is always motivated to share her knowledge and experience with her students. I cannot wait to share this interview with her. You will fill your cup up. Without further ado, here is Sarah.

Sarah, thank you so much for being on the show. I enjoyed our very first conversation via Zoom. I cannot wait to get across all the points that we talked about in our two-hour conversation.

We had a lot of common points and a lot of common ground to cover.

Thank you for being here. I appreciate you taking the time.

It’s my pleasure.

Let’s start off with a few ice-breaking questions that I like to ask to bring you a little closer to the audience. What is your favorite comfort food?

French bread, San Francisco sourdough. I will eat that. I love sweets, but if I have sourdough with real butter, that’s my weakness.

That’s German too. That was how I was brought up, with real homemade bread. The bakeries back then were so good. That’s always something that I fall back to.

My father’s heritage is partly German. We would do a hike up at Mount Tam on Sundays. We would often come home, have bread and blue cheese. He told me it was part of my heritage. I love them or Ry-Krisp but sourdough, for sure.

When a parent dies, what you're left with is just love. Click To Tweet

Where were you born and raised? Where do you live now?

I was born in Portland, Oregon, but I only lived there until I was six months old. We moved to California to the Bay Area. I’m living in the house that I came to when I was six months old.

That’s why I’m asking the question. This is such a beautiful circle, isn’t it?

Yes, it is because I lost my mother in 2020. It brings up a lot of emotions to think that you’re going back to the home that you were raised in. It reminded you too much of your parents or perhaps reflecting on things. All it did was make me feel safe and embraced. I have so many things of hers around and memories. My good friend said that when a parent dies, what you’re left with is just love and that’s what happened. There are always things between moms and daughters. Anything that was between us has faded in the background. I see the legacy and the love she left for me and living here in our family home again. It’s in the hills and it’s surrounded by nature. It’s very comforting. I feel so fortunate.

What an endearing story. Thank you for sharing. I love that. We forget in our daily rabbit holes and daily banters, particularly with the people who are closest to us, what it is all about.

That’s true. It is part of feeling close that sometimes you can take advantage of those you love the most because you think they’re always going to be there, not that I did that. When they’re gone, you are left with what they taught you that mattered. She taught me a lot of things. She taught me to be a strong woman and to be a family-oriented person. I love that because I have children of my own.

That threw me off. I was thinking of my own mother and we haven’t spoken in quite some time. I’m going to find my thoughts again.

That had happened to me and my mother as well. Hopefully, that will resolve and it does. It is so typical. One time, it hit home right here in this bookcase. I came home when I was living in another state. One time, I noticed a book. It looked like she had been reading it in the ’70s or ’80s. It was called My Mother/My Self. I looked at it and thought, “Is that for her and me, or her mother and her, or maybe all of us?” I thought, “She is introspective,” but she never let that on too much. She always said I was too sensitive or that the world would end in my personality. I was like, “That’s just an artistic personality.” She did think about those things. It’s typical with mothers and daughters.

What’s your favorite place to travel to. Let’s assume you could travel.

It would either be Hawaii or Ireland because my mother’s family is from there. I think it’s such a beautiful place. It feels like home whenever I go there. I love it there. I love the people, scenery and the space that Ireland has.

PTR 81 | Serving Others

Serving Others: It is part of feeling close that sometimes you can take advantage of those you love because you think they’re always going to be there.

 

Last but not the least, what’s your favorite childhood memory.

That’s a hard one. I don’t know.

It doesn’t have to be the favorite. What comes to mind?

What comes to mind is all the lazy days spent in a swimming pool. My whole family played tennis except I did not. When they were at the tennis and swim club, I would go out in the pool or the woods and play with acorns and do little creative things like that. They were out competing in tennis. I thought, “I don’t like that. It’s hot and sweaty. Who wants to do that?” I was swimming around the pool and loving it. I have a good memory of a story my father used to tell. He saved my life because at three, I started to drown in that pool and he rescued me. I spent a lot of time in the pool, but I still love water to this day. It’s a good association with water.

What brought you to dance?

My father brought me to dance. His family was all either bankers, mathematicians, but pianists as well. My great-grandfather immigrated from Germany to British Columbia. They moved down to Seattle. He also played piano in an orchestra for a living and taught piano. His son learned that and then my father learned that. There was always a grand or a baby grand in the house. Whenever I was going to visit my father on the weekends and him playing Chopin, I wanted to dance to that. That’s all I could think. I would dance around in the living room and wish I could learn to do that. It was the music that inspired me and the classical music. When he would drive me back and forth from his house, he always had classical music on the radio. It was about an hour drive between the house I grew up and where he moved to. I think that was it but I was not able to start ballet when I wanted as I mentioned before. That was delayed, but that artful expression is what precipitated that desire.

You followed in the most common footsteps. You went to Sacramento Ballet. You trained there and at San Francisco Ballet. After ten years of dancing professionally, you started teaching. Talk to us about that journey. I’m highly interested. Our first conversation was you shared quite a bit on what that was. I would love to bring that back on what your experience was because that was a little further back. Some of the readers weren’t even bought off. Let’s just say it that way.

Are you referring to the journey from ballet dancer to teacher or student to ballet dancer to a teacher?

Student to ballet dancer to a teacher.

When I was nine, I wanted to start classical ballet. I finally asked my mother. For whatever reason, she said no. What I recalled was she said, “No, it’s too late to start.” Nine would have been perfect and ideal. I waited. My best friend in junior high had some pointe shoes of her sister. We put them on in her kitchen and held onto the chairs. I thought, “I still want to do that.” Another friend of the family had a dance recital. I went to it and they gave me a pink tutu. I dressed up at home. I never lost that.

When you're not happy somewhere, go somewhere else. Do not become a victim. Search out what you need. Click To Tweet

I also think I went to The Nutcracker with my mother when I was little. I’m at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. I was thinking also then, “I want to do that,” but I didn’t have the opportunity. When this girl down the street started going at fifteen, I told my mother, “Can I please go with Amy?” The ballet teacher lives in our subdivision. She would roll down the hill in her car. I would jump in and go take a class. I would stay there and take whatever class was around. My mom would come to pick me up or sometimes I got a ride home with them. It worked out.

My mom was a single mom. She was working. I think maybe she didn’t feel like she could devote the time getting me to and from. My father stepped in and agreed to pay for the lessons, which was nice. I think it was because he had an artistic background on his side. My mother’s side said that I have the teacher side because there were a lot of teachers in our family in Ireland. That had combined for that. Anyway, I trained through high school. I didn’t know if I could be a professional dancer, but within that first year, I said, “That’s what I want to do with my life.” I would ask my teacher, “I don’t know. I can’t tell you.” Of course, no one can tell you. I developed this passion and vision of, “That’s what I wanted to do.” I thought I have to go to college because I don’t know if I can. That was when I enrolled at UC Davis. I spent a whole year not taking any quality ballet class. Something in the PE department was terrible.

I remembered standing in the drama department looking at the stage, getting tears in my eyes, and saying, “What am I doing?” It was very dramatic. A nineteen-year-old, “What am I doing?” I vowed, “I’m going to be a dancer, but I’m going to stay here and get my Psychology degree.” That was when I started commuting to Sacramento Ballet. After two years of training in Sacramento Ballet, I went to San Francisco Ballet and had an audition to be in their summer program and they gave me a scholarship. They thought I was sixteen. I was nineteen. I subsequently found out that Val Caniparoli, who was my age, also did the same thing. He lied about his age.

Back then, they didn’t ask for your birth certificate. However, what is the big difference between a sixteen and a nineteen-year-old when you think about it? Not a lot. There is in terms of their program. I got braces late when I was past sixteen. I went back to school to get my degree. I had other dance experiences and training. I also got a scholarship in New York with an offshoot from Joffrey called Dancer School that Dennis Wayne started. I was to be married. I do regret that decision to come home and not pursue a dance career in New York. I had an agreement with Ronn Guidi from Oakland Ballet and he said, “Please do come home. Please come back. I want you to be in my company.” I wish I hadn’t done that because that was a very devastating experience with that company with that man because of the way he treated his dancers.

I spent those years dancing. I would say the common thread in my training and dancing was because I started late, I was on a perpetual quest to learn as much as I could in the shortest amount of time. Therefore, I don’t think that my quest was conventional compared to your training, which would be the envy of most American dancers, to be able to go to a state-operated school and just be taken in the wing and trained. That’s everyone’s dream, to have a structured syllabus and a career path put before you, with all the sacrifices you might have made for that, which I know there were many. That was so different. I’ve always had to put it together for myself. I believe it’s also a hallmark of my teaching. When I look at people I teach of any age, I’m trying to look at all these different bodies, personalities, abilities, commitment. How can I get them to feel and learn as fast as they can because that’s what I wanted?

I did that in ballet companies too. Sometimes if I wasn’t getting what I wanted, which was that first experience, I left. I went to one in San Francisco that I did like and love. That’s my advice for dancers. When you’re not happy somewhere, go somewhere else. Do not become a victim. Search out what you need. I know because of various reasons, the way you were brought up, the school you might have been in or it’s your personality. Please have the courage to do what’s best for you.

This is such an important message that you put out there. I want to make sure that everybody reads this one sentence again. You do not have to settle. Go and find your happiness. Not every company and director is a match and that’s okay. There is abundance out there. The only lack is in everybody’s head. Thank you for pointing that out. It was one message that I could have used when I was dancing. It’s also something that is being taught in schools, “There are not many jobs out there. Take what you get so you gain the experience.” If you’re not in a good mental space and you don’t have the courage, the mindset or even the ability to put yourself out there again to find perhaps a better place to exist in.

Dancing is all about you. If you’re not getting what you need, you must search and find that. Now, with online resources, we have so much more to find what you need. With that in mind, that’s my segue into teaching. It was all about me in why I love dancing, but then when I started teaching, I hated it because I was dancing still. When I quit dancing, I left behind my dancer ego and then it became all about my students. How gratifying that is because if they succeed, it becomes all about me again. It’s a success. It’s so fun. It’s a connection. If you’re teaching people younger than you, it’s intergenerational. If you’re teaching adults, then it’s about, “You’re like me, but maybe you didn’t have the chance when you were younger to do this. Now, let’s do this together.” It’s more gratifying than dancing to me.

I’ve read your post and I’ve so much resonated with that. That’s where the gap is for the teachers who are perhaps struggling or where we see all patterns being repeated. It’s because they can’t let go of standing in the spotlight. They haven’t quite yet understood that there’s a difference between being a dancer and a dance teacher. Do you mind going there with what you pointed out in your post? It’s beautiful and important.

For one thing, I do think it’s pretty simple. If you’re wanting to dance all the combinations out in front of your students and you are looking at yourself in the mirror and it is still about you, you should not be a teacher. You’re not teaching. You’re performing. That’s some other need that’s there. I don’t think it serves your students. That’s something that teacher needs to ask themselves, “Is this what I want to do?”

PTR 81 | Serving Others

Serving Others: If you want to dance in front of your students and look at yourself in the mirror, you should not be a teacher.

 

“Am I doing it because I don’t see any other ways? Is it because this is the next logical step?” We forget to understand, when I say we, I’m naming the industry itself. The mechanism that this whole bubble is in. The belief is that there’s a limited amount of things a professional ballet dancer can do after because they don’t have an education. Becoming a teacher is the next best thing. It is not for everybody. If it’s not in your heart, if it doesn’t bring you joy, then you should not be doing it just because society may have single that, “This is the next logical step for you.” There are ten million other things that you can do. Just let go of your ego. That’s all it is. A great ballet dancer doesn’t equal a great teacher. Those two have never been put together.

They never coalesced. The reason that I like teaching is because it’s a creative challenge. You’re always learning. With dancing, I felt a little less happy because I couldn’t choose what I wanted to learn or do all the time. That sounds immature, but it is the nature of the beast. You are a boy and a girl and you are doing what you’re told and that’s okay. I was okay in my twenties. When I got in my twenties, I was like, “No, I’m not doing this anymore. I want to make my own choices.” Since I started late, I didn’t have that brainwashing that you must always follow. I also went to Catholic school, not in high school though. When they asked, “Who was going to become a nun?” I was one of the kids who did not raise her hand. I said, “I don’t want to do that.”

When you have an independent spirit, you can’t take it as a hard mold to fit in sometimes unless you’re feeling part of the process, but you’re not going to be part of the process in a ballet company. There are other things I loved about being a dancer. Going to the barre and not thinking, just doing. Going out on stage, performing and feeling that character. I love the artistic element of dancing. I love being a dancer but not forever. I was obviously a teacher much longer. If you could dance as long as you could teach, I think I still like teaching more.

One thing I didn’t share is how I rejected teaching when I quit dancing. I tried to find something else to do. When I dance, I was so obsessed with it. It obsessed with my personal life. It ran my life. The person who I didn’t stay in New York for who I married, we had gone off to Ireland. He couldn’t get a job there and I had to leave the company to come back with him. Our marriage fell apart and I blamed ballet for that. I said, “I have been so obsessed with that. I never put my husband first. I wasn’t realistic. This is ruining my life.” That was what I thought. I did something else. Because I have a Psychology degree, “I’m maybe going to get a Master’s in Psychology.”

This is what you could say to dancers who are looking for a career change, “Go and take a career personality assessment test at your local community college.” That’s what I did, except the moral of the story is it came up as an actress, artist and musician. They didn’t have a dancer. I went, “They don’t have any new ideas for me.” That was when I decided to take a stab at teaching again. I realized, “I’m not dancing anymore. I was exhausted dancing all day long and a six-hour rehearsal in class.” Like I said, trudging up the hill in San Francisco, they teach at a little school with a bunch of kids. I thought it was silly. I didn’t understand, “What are they doing? They’re not serious.”

This is exactly the reason why I did not get into teaching. I could never see myself being around children regardless of what age group and I’m not being serious about it. I could not see and embrace the gray. I only saw the black and white.

Your model was a serious school. My model was a serious me and you only dance to become a professional. That’s why I could not understand for 24 years why adults took ballet. Now, that’s cats out of the bag and I’m teaching adults. They’re going to be like, “Thanks a lot,” but I don’t feel that way anymore. That was my initial feeling, “Why would adults take ballet? What’s the point of that? You’re not going to dance professionally in ballet.” It was so narrow-minded. It’s incredible because ballet or dance has so much to give you that I learned what it has to give over the years. That’s the initial journey. Those kids, I was like, “I’m not your babysitter.” That’s how I felt. I never even babysit as a child either, maybe once. I didn’t know about kids.

After I stopped dancing, I went to teach a summer intensive with serious girls for six weeks. The bug bit me. I remembered 1 or 2 girls coming up to me who were eleven. One particularly was a very gifted girl who could dance professionally. She danced at a high level at a university like the highest dancer there. She said, “I want to dance like you when I grow up. I want to be like you.” I looked at her and said, “No, you don’t. I want you to be better than me.” That was when I thought, “I liked this because they’re looking up to me. I feel all this love to give back to them.” It almost makes you cry to think about that because that’s the essence of teaching. I knew it was in my personality. I got more joy out of that, giving and connection with someone than I did getting on stage and making it all about me because I started to be drained away as a professional dancer, that joy.

There were so many thoughts coming into my mind, but this is so fresh. Dancers are all about them at any given point. I believe that that exact thing is what holds them back from becoming excellent. It’s not only how do I look better, but it’s also all the limiting beliefs that they are hanging on to. They’re fighting for the limitations at any given point because the industry itself has such a limiting ring around itself that it keeps fighting for until now that making it about yourself is to their own detriment. I had this a-ha moment not too long ago when I was sharing my fears in a mastermind of what I want to do and where my purpose is. One of my coaches stepped in and said, “You’re making it all about yourself. What about the people who could benefit from you? What about everybody else out there because you are right now just talking about yourself? Everything is about you.” I fell to my seat. I felt somewhat shamed because I should know this. I should see this coming. This is why we have help.

There’s even a headspace of desperation. It’s about you and I got to go somewhere as a dancer. That’s how I felt anyway, “I’ve got to achieve. It has to change. I have to grow.” It’s this constant quest for perfection.”

Dancing is all about you. If you're not getting what you need, you must search and find that. Click To Tweet

That’s different around growth. We’ll get into that, but let me finish my thought here. It came to me. Everything in my career was about me, my insecurities, fears, bad habits. When I stepped on stage, it was about me and not the people in the audience I was serving. That was where it came to me. Dance companies are about themselves. They are about serving themselves and not the audience because if it would be for the audience, we would be asking many different questions. We would be way more active as a whole as an industry in finding different ways on how to put ourselves out there and serve our communities, not by just posting old performances on YouTube. That’s why I’m saying, “Yes, it is about ourselves. It is in the way of achieving excellence, evolving and growing into the next whatever phase or evolution of arts companies. It is time to be born.

To expand the image and the service, that makes a lot of sense.

Look at how many decades we have been doing the same thing. Look at companies like North America, for example. If one is doing The Sleeping Beauty, everybody is doing The Sleeping Beauty in the same season. If one company is doing Giselle, every other company is doing Giselle on that season. That’s where I’m like, “We’re so afraid of being individuals. We’re so afraid to stand for something, be somebody, and serve the people who are coming that we forget everything.”

It is so important to remember what your base is. What is your base? What is your first position? What is your plié? What is your relevé? Those three major steps of a dance, what is that in a company? It’s all about, “We need to train our dancers on being on TikTok. This couple hasn’t given their $10,000 yet. We need to yell some more here.” We have no energy. That love that brought tears, we’re not acting from a place of love anymore. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see all of this abuse happening. We wouldn’t see all of these stories of assault, limitations and mistreatment in the industry. It is this fight for existence that has nothing to do with love. I believe if we were finding our way back to love, back to first position, things would be much different.

Things would fall into place because it’s the natural order. Whereas there’s this other dark side order that represents self-serving greed in various forms through all of humanity on all levels. You see this common thread coming through seeping into ballet. I can say when I worked for a ballet school that had a ballet professional company associated, I had four years of working with a board and I saw what they were going for. I saw how they pushed the artistic staff to do the classics because they thought that’s what people understood and wanted when it was just one particular billionaire’s vision.

As you said, “Could we look at the community?” That’s what we need to look at, the community coming together to speak and support each other. Now, it’s a time of healing, not alienation or separation. We’ve had these rumblings we know for years. People are talking but the chatter is getting louder because it’s affecting us on all levels because of the pandemic and other things I could say that might be political. It is that nasty side of human nature. There’s such a beautiful love part that we all share. It’s fear that’s causing it.

I’m so glad we went here because it is so deeply on my heart that healing is the next step. We are so unearthing every single misconduct. Everybody is full of emotions. These emotions are all over social media, regardless of what kind of emotion, anger, fear, outrage and blame. I see a lot of pointing fingers. “It’s your fault.” It’s everybody’s fault.

I believe I mentioned that I see that on Instagram, pointing fault at past ballet teachers. I’ve had people say things that are out of line, but again, my personality, I’ll speak for myself was, “I’m out of here. I’m moving on. I don’t like what you said. You didn’t treat me right. I know that not everybody has that sense of self or independence and doesn’t want to do it.” That person should be called out. That has to stop because not everybody is going to react and be able to leave or they might just absorb it and then they’re hurt inside. It’s awful to see.

My philosophy is we’re not ignoring that those people said that, but can’t more of us who are ballet, who are in a leadership position. Ballet teachers are in a leadership position. You’re in the classroom. Everybody looks up to you as an authority in what you’re talking about, and hopefully, a mentor and an example. Some people who were not been able to be the mentor have failed. They have failed as a human first. It’s nothing to do with their ballet technique. It’s they failed as a human.

As you know, I left a studio because those directors failed as humans and one of the people who work there failed. That was it. No more. I want to acknowledge everyone who has been hurt by horrible things that may be said about your weight, body, or even your turnout or feet. It sticks with you for a lifetime. I have my memories too, but can we rise up to take the positivity to a stronger level because there are a lot of people who care. We have always cared, but it is just the way it is. The negatives always outweigh the positives. It’s the 80/20 rule.

PTR 81 | Serving Others

Serving Others: Take the positive side of the glass half full rather than half empty.

 

I lovingly disagree. We tend to, as human beings, it’s in our nature to look at the negative first, dwell and roll in it and make it as big as we want to because we’re addicted to the drama. It’s an evolution of humankind to take the time and wire our brain in a different way and rewrite what we see because every story, everything that we experience can have two sides. It depends on how we’re looking at it. I think we’ve trained ourselves so kindly and purely on seeing the negative because we’re survivors. We’re still in that fight or flight. It’s in us.

Our two-billion-year-old brain is that. We have evolved so much that if you are not in self-development, if you are not interested in yourself as a human being, Jim Rohn said that, “Psychology is for everybody.” Everybody should have a basic knowledge of Psychology. You will always see the bad happening first and not be able to even look at the light over here. That’s training. That’s just as much training as you can do on your barre every day in your kitchen. You can train yourself to see the great in everything as well.

What I’m hearing you say is that that training provides hope for change so look at the positive.

Yes. Here’s why. It’s because we cannot think of something else if we can’t see it first. If we only concentrate on the problems and the challenges, that’s all we’re going to see, but if we concentrate on solutions and the light, that’s what we’re going to find.

It’s going towards the light. I also know what you were talking about in terms of evolution. If we go way back to our patterning within our genetics or DNA of that caveman thing that we go back and eat the sour berry, “That’s so bitter. I have to get away from that,” that’s a negative experience that trained us to survive and other various examples. The negative sticks with us because it helped us survive. Now, we’re in modern-day society and we can train our brains to change. I would like to be on board with that, but I don’t want to trivialize what I’m saying either like, “It’s Pollyanna. Ballet is so wonderful. Let’s just forget about all those horrible things.” We acknowledge them, but let’s get a plan together. There’s one hashtag I like on Instagram and a lot of adult ballet people use it, #ProgressNotPerfection or #ProgressOverPerfection or something like that. That’s a great attitude. To me, that is an example of, “Let’s reframe this.”

It’s not about not being aware or conscious of the truth. That’s not what I’m saying. Not everything is sunshine and rainbows. I have bad days. You have bad days. Everybody is going to have a bad day. We can say, “I’m fine.” That’s almost the answer that works anyways. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the real sense of, “I can look at the glass half full or half empty. That is how you do the little things. That is how you do the big things.” You need to teach yourself first that your glass is always half full and not half empty. You can look at situations. Even if you’re not feeling well, you can look at it from a different perspective as well. You can look at it from a negative or a positive perspective.

You’re saying that “Let’s start with a basic presumption. Let’s take the positive side of the glass half full rather than half empty. Let’s choose that rather than the other downer one.”

It’s the “I can’t” or “It can’t be done” mythology that is being put out quite often. I hear that a lot, “That’s impossible,” or “This is going to take forever.” Says who?

If I listened to what people thought at 15, 16 years old, I never would have pursued a career in dance. I think it’s so important to have a can-do attitude, keep hoping and do what you can for your end goal. Maybe your end goal changes. Be flexible.

Can we get up into the perfection game? I have been in that world for so many years. I didn’t even know back then that it was what I was trapped in, in the perfect world and need. The assumption that I’m only worth it when I’m perfect. It only came to me with stepping into entrepreneurship because there’s nothing perfect about being an entrepreneur. There’s nothing perfect about building a business. If you’re wanting to be perfect, it’s going to take you ten years to build your business.

The negative sticks with us because it helped us survive. Click To Tweet

You’ll never do anything.

You can’t because you’re not giving yourself the grace to learn. This is where it is so important, particularly in the teaching of ballet and dance that wanting it to be perfect or putting that on the students is having long-term effects on their life.

I would like to comment directly on that. I feel the teachers who put that expectation on the students are only serving their own egos. That infuriates me because that is a person. What I would rather see supplanted there in terms of the glass half full is let’s go for your personal best, not for perfection, because then you will succeed if you do your purpose. It doesn’t mean I want you to try less or be less committed and making it to class. I’m saying, “Do your personal best, not my idea of perfection. When you succeed, I succeed and I can tell everybody what you want at a competition because I trained you.” I tell you, “I am so sick of that,” because that’s not what teaching is. It isn’t about you. It goes back to the same thing.

In my personal experience when I began teaching, I said, “I want to get as far away from anybody who I saw as a teacher or a ballet director who made it about them.” They usually were damaged people who got a kick out of manipulating their students or dancers and watching them suffer or trying to please them for whatever twisted reason. Maybe those people weren’t obvious, but you know they are because they said bizarre things and you were expected to take it. That’s a twisted ego and then they’re just playing on ego. Again, walk away. You don’t have to be around that person. It may be hard, but it’s the best thing.

Here’s what I came to conclusion. The industry itself has made suffering physical pain and emotional pain as something that comes with the occupation. You have to do whatever it takes. It has been taken to way too many dimensions. It has been stretched beyond its ability to stay together. This is why we’re talking. This is why we have this conversation. I don’t know how much more we can stretch it and there is such a warped reality around what is needed in terms of pain. What could be fun? We’re not asking the right questions. You have a choice. Everybody has a choice. What I find beautiful in your story is that you always made it very important that you have a choice. If you do not like it or it doesn’t align with you, I am choosing me over everything first. That is important. I see so many dancers not doing it because they have the belief that in order to become, they have to fit into this world. They cannot be them, but they have to fit in.

That’s so sad.

That’s the truth though and this is why we’re seeing so many illnesses, so much abuse, and all of this stretching going on because it’s completely out of alignment, power struggle, and disorders, everything.

Physical pain sometimes is part of the art. I remember and I’m sure you do, dancing performances with tendonitis or a blister or whatever because you had performance series and you had to do it. I don’t think we’re talking about that so much as the psychological pain and the mental constructs put around you that you’re expected to pull through, even if it isn’t logical like other jobs. I don’t know other than we need to get people out of power who are not healthy individuals. That would be my suggestion, my first step and that dancers learn to know that they can be something of their own person on their own and create a new thing. Maybe those dancers leave that company, find their own sponsorship and do their own little series. What the heck? Why not? Who told you, you had to stay there and be that? Is this something in your head that, “If I don’t dance in this company, I’m nothing?” Maybe that’s part of it.

Why is that? Why do you think you’re nothing because you don’t have the title. It is the full circle of self-preservation, self-love and knowledge of oneself. There was something that came to mind when you talked about physical pain. Physical pain as in blisters or sore muscles, I wasn’t referring to that. I was talking about the physical pain that goes beyond acceptance. Let’s say when people dance with stress fractures because they don’t think they can take a time off. Who was that? I heard the saying, “Whenever I got injured, whether or not I had to take some time off to heal or could I push through it?” That was the mental state of that person. It wasn’t about the illness. It was, “Can I push through it or not?”

PTR 81 | Serving Others

Serving Others: Keep hoping and do what you can for your end goal. Maybe your end goal changes in the worst. Be flexible.

They were afraid of losing their position in the company or pleasing the director or getting that role. I think you got to have discerned, “What do I want? Is that director putting that pressure on me? Am I willing to do that to myself because I don’t want to lose that role?” I feel like the latter is true. It’s probably not the director telling you, “You must do this or you’re going to lose that role forever.” They might say that, but I don’t feel like directors think about you that much. You usually set your goals yourself as a dancer, “I’m going to push through this because I don’t want to be ignored next time. I want to show I get my chance. I want to move up.” What if you took that away and you say, “I care more about my body. I’m going to take this time off to heal. If they don’t have a place for me in this company, I’ll figure out something in the interim and work something out?”

Here’s a small example. I remembered when I was dancing, I was getting shooting pains in my big toe joint. I thought, “I’m going to get those horrible bunions.” It was one of the reasons I quit because I said, “I don’t want to be a crippled old lady. How am I able to walk all my life? Pointe shoes aren’t worthless to me.” My husband was looking at my foot. We have a bay window. I had my leg up in attitude sitting on there while we were eating dinner. He looked at my toe and went, “What’s that?” I said, “That’s a beginning of a would-be bunion. It’s not too bad because I saw so-and-so dancer’s feet in the New York Times.” I said, “We got to dance at that level all that year. There are a lot of female dancers who would get that in their foot.” I said, “I had the pain. I don’t want to do that anymore.” It’s one of the factors. I don’t want to have that, a hip replacement or something like some people. It’s not worth it.

What are you putting first? What is the most important thing for you?

It’s health.

It should be, “Health is your new wealth.” You can’t buy health.

Don’t be shortsighted with your body. That’s a message I would like to put out there because my body is in pretty good shape for my age. I can’t say that ballet would have caused anything, but to just say I was a dancer and I was at risk for something. No. In fact, speaking of stress factors, I was in a company and the dancer was to dance Juliet. We were in company class. We were doing relevé from the corner. She did chassé, coupé, grand jeté and attitude, that Bournonville one. She had a leg warmer on. Her back foot stuck inside the leg warmer. This stayed straight. She had a stress fracture. I think the director knew. I didn’t know. It sounded like a log breaking. It cracked. It was the most god awful sound I ever heard in my life. I watched her fall to the floor. The ambulance came and took her away. She didn’t dance Juliet. She was out. I don’t know how long she was out. I didn’t see her again because I left that company. Anyway, she’s a beautiful dancer and she had just come back. She knew she had a stress fracture. She didn’t want to lose that role.

It’s not worth it. I came to the conclusion that there’s always a reason for when these kinds of things happen. Injury is your permission to come back stronger. It is somebody hitting your restart, your reboot button. You get another shot at it. You get the opportunity to recreate who and what you want to be.

Taking that another angle besides recreating and making maybe a new path for yourself, every injury I’ve ever had, I’ve always come back stronger as a dancer because it was caused usually by a technical fault or a weakness within my body structure. I always came back stronger and learned something. I see even though injuries are incredibly painful and you are worried and hate to be out, you usually end up being much better off when you return. There’s a silver lining, whether that stands for something different.

You’re being taken out of your hamster wheel, your daily routine, and it opens up more possibilities as in, “What else can I do for me that I can carry on to when I returned to the studio and the stage that makes me a better dancer?” It’s not just in the studio where you create yourself as a dancer. It’s not all about dance that makes you a great dancer. It’s everything around what you are, who you are showing up, what your values are, what messages you are taking in, and who your friends are. All of this matters. We’re not looking at it as something that’s important.

I don’t think of it that way. I was thinking more about filling your life with experiences that enrich you as an artist. That’s what I always thought about if I had time off like, “Can I paint? Can I go to a museum? Can I go to the ocean and dance around?” These are personal things that matter to you that might enrich you. Read books. Let’s say you wanted to come and do a romantic ballet, read Jane Eyre or something. Who you surround yourself with is important too, your extra activities. In dancing, you don’t have many extra activities. You don’t have any extra time.

I have heard that a lot. I remember that was exactly my thought process too, “There’s no time to do anything else.” I have now learned that it’s not the truth. We’re using that as an excuse, as a cop-out because it’s uncomfortable. You have twenty minutes a day to read. You have twenty minutes to listen to a podcast. You have 40 minutes to go outside. You can even take ten minutes to sit down and meditate. As dancers, we’re taught that only if you train 6, 8, 12 hours a day, will you see a compound effect that you will get better, which I don’t agree with anymore. However, what I’ve learned is that if you consistently, day-by-day, get 1% better in one certain area, 365 days will make such a huge difference, you won’t believe it.

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Focused intention is what you’re saying.

If we’re looking at successful people and we look at their habits and thought patterns on how they react, how they create, and what questions do they ask, I find that the art dance particularly doesn’t look even there. We have all of these little girls and boys wanting stardom. They want to stand in a spotlight, but they’re only looking at the dancers who made it big. They’re not looking outside. They don’t look at Olympic athletes. They don’t look at a Steve Jobs and a Tony Robbins out there. What’s their daily routine? How did they get there? What’s their life like? This is what I mean. It is so important to broaden the horizon of this bubble. The more and more everybody stays in that bubble, the more unrelatable it will become because the world outside of that bubble is expanding and awakening and a little bit on a woo-woo inside.

It’s the truth. Look at the Women’s Movement and everything that’s out there. That’s my advice when you’re stressed with an injury or you don’t know whether or not you can take time off, take the time off. Watch as many ballet videos as you want to and then do something else. It is important to be diverse. That’s where that bunhead mentality came from. Do you remember? I was called a bunhead. There was nothing else in my life allowed. I had to sign a piece of paper when I entered the school that I wasn’t allowed to do anything else, no outside activities besides dancing.

Somehow that seemed like a badge of honor to be able to tell people. I remember like, “I can’t get a suntan. I can’t have stretch. I’m not supposed to go skiing. I’m not supposed to ride a bike.” As I said before, after I danced, I started mountain biking, and doing things, my quads didn’t get big. I got down to fighting dancer weight by accident because I was doing something aerobic. It was healthy and my thighs were not monsters. They were lean. It was fine. It’s a lot of myths. That was so naive of our teachers and things. I could see you don’t want your dancers to get injured, but your thighs aren’t going to get bigger by being athletic unless you’re predisposed to something. That’s not likely.

This was a lovely conversation. I want to ask you one last question. With everything that you have experienced over the years, if you could talk to your sixteen-year-old self, what would you tell her?

What I’m going to say is going to surprise you based on everything else I’ve said. If I could talk to my sixteen-year-old self, I would have said, “Why didn’t you stick with your original intentions and go for exactly what you envisioned yourself and hoped for?” That is, I did not take up a couple of opportunities that came my way for dancing. Because of fear, I chose the easier way out. That was, in particular, when Harold Christensen gave me that scholarship and I finished his summer program. When he said, “You can stay on being an apprentice.” I said no and I went back to college. I was afraid. I didn’t think was a possibility that I could drop out of college and do that. I regret that. I wish I had explored that.

It happened again when I graduated from college. I went to New York and got that scholarship with Dennis Wayne’s school. I could have stayed in and been an apprentice. I went home to get married instead and went back to that company where it wasn’t a good environment. I wish I had stayed. I didn’t stay because I was afraid of being alone. I thought I was going to be with this person who I had been with since high school and that was easier. I should have done those things in retrospect, but I also realized my younger self was afraid to do it. I was afraid to be alone. They seemed more comfortable.

I wanted to have that degree. I wanted to have a safety net, but in retrospect, what was I thinking? Wasn’t that my goal? I regret that because I feel like if I had done those things, I would have accomplished the larger goal of being in larger ballet companies than the smaller ones I was with, so I would have had the full range of experience. Now, I don’t care because I realized to me my real career was teaching. I do think my sixteen-year-old self would say, “Why didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you have the strength to do it?” I know why I didn’t. It was personal history in the family and things like that. I probably couldn’t do anything, but it’s okay.

Sarah, thank you so much. Before we hop off, what’s the one thing that you are doing right now? Where can we find you?

What I have been working on since I closed down my ballet blog, I have thought of pulling back from teaching as much in-person full-time for two reasons. One, I’ve always thought about training students in eight-year segments. I didn’t want to start overtraining students in eight-year segments. I phased out a group when I left that other studio. I became interested in online teaching. What I’ve learned in the pandemic is that Zoom has enabled that to be more personal. Even though you’re not in the room, you can see and help them. It’s almost the same. That’s what I’ve been concentrating on. I have a YouTube channel and I have expanded on Instagram. I took a break for almost a year because I’m helping my mother.

I’m interested in, “How can I help people in a Zoom ballet class and impart some of my experiences?” I’ve been concentrating on specific topics of the workshop. I’m a Progressing Ballet Technique teacher. I teach that on Zoom. I’ve been working on the theory and practicum of a pirouette. I’m doing some workshops on that. It’s different topics. I find that that’s a fun thing. I’m meeting lots of people from around the world and I’ve been focusing on adults. I’ll be back to teaching in person with intermediate-advanced kids. I had a wonderful studio. That’s my main thing. It’s picking and choosing what I want when my mask is on.

You should always pick and choose what you want. Life is too short.

That’s our message here, “You are in charge.” Thank you, Susanne.

Thank you so much for this lovely conversation. I appreciate you. All of this was beautiful.

I learned some things, too. Thank you so much.

Thank you, everybody, for reading. We will be back soon. Bye.

Resources for Sarah:

About Sarah Arnold

PTR 81 | Serving Others

Sarah trained with Sacramento Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet after receiving a Ford Foundation scholarship. After a 10-year professional career in Europe and the USA, she became the Director of Ballet Idaho’s company school as well as directing her own ballet academy for 25 years. She is certified in “Progressing Ballet Technique”, has augmented her studies with David Howard, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Finis Jhung, Jurgen Schneider/Vaganova syllabus, Lisa Howell (Perfect Form Physiotherapy), and most notably, Maria Vegh.

Her students have joined companies such as Pacific Northwest Ballet, Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Lines. To Ms. Arnold, teaching is a lifelong pursuit and she is always motivated to share her knowledge and experience with her students.

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  — Susanne shares a quick thought that came to her after hearing a quote. Who told you that you are not deserving of what you want? She remembers how this feeling showed up in her life and how other people’s limiting thoughts would so easily be accepted as hers. Watch the episode here: Listen to the podcast here:   Who told you that you are not deserving of what you want? And I’m back. […]

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Past Episodes 

There is a better way to pursue ballet at the professional level. Instead of dancers pushing beyond their body’s limits, there is a healthier way to train your body, your mind and your spirit to soar. To become the best at your craft, you must be healthy. The mentality of surviving to make a performance perfect is an old paradigm that needs to change. As athletes, dancers must thrive in order to shine and connect with their audience. This new approach, leads to fulfillment, strength and longevity. It allows you to give more of your heart and soul on stage, creating an unforgettable experience that moves your audience. And that’s the whole pointe. 

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