Balance is a deceptively simple concept
This article is part of a series of end-of-year student reflections
By Nicole Leung
Every day at school I am surrounded by students and teachers as curious and passionate about their art as I am. It’s what I’ll miss most about Juilliard after I graduate. Over the last four years, this open-minded environment has led me to question many things I once thought I understood. For example, “balance” is a deceptively simple concept that I’ve always struggled with as both a dancer and a person. Now I am reconsidering what it means to me.
Last semester, in a master class with Andrea Miller (BFA ’04, dance), the founder and artistic director of Gallim, I had an aha moment. We were lying on our backs when she told us to hover our arm off the floor and observe which parts of our body tensed up. I felt my chest, back, and arm muscles contract. Then she challenged us to repeat the action but without any tension. Even with such a small movement, I struggled to decondition my body’s urge to grab and hold. But eventually, I managed to lift my arm while simultaneously letting go. This acute awareness made me realize how absurd it was to hold unnecessary tension. “If I was holding this much tension during such a small movement,” I thought, “how much habitual tension was I holding in more complex movements? How much could I let go?” Then Andrea told us to maintain our balance on one leg while keeping our body in a constant state of motion.
It was the first time I’d heard the contrary idea that balance was not about holding, but rather about letting go of tension. I felt myself falling toward the floor, and the moment I became aware of something inside me that wanted to tense up, I told myself to let go. To my surprise, I did not fall to the ground. Instead, a different part of my body counterbalanced and pulled me in the opposite direction. With each sway “off-balance” I began to let go of the idea that I was falling at all, and I realized I was riding a natural succession of movements that collectively kept me on my foot.
In that moment, the very notion of balance was called in to question. Was balance, like the noun, defined by a perfect position between opposing directions? Or was balance an action that demanded I accept my imperfections? After all, who is perfectly symmetrical? I observed as my limbs flailed around the axis of my standing leg, yet I had not fallen nor placed a hand to the ground. Was that not the action of finding my balance?
I recalled something our anatomy teacher, Irene Dowd, had taught me. She said that no position is static. I used to obsess about achieving a specific line or shape, especially while balancing. I used to think, “if only I could control every muscle and bone in my body, then I would be perfect.” But the more I thought balance was something I could grasp and hold on to, the more impossible it became. Balance is a movement that I was trying to turn into a position, and perhaps my desire to control was itself a form of tension that I needed to let go of. Although a dancer’s beautiful, suspenseful balance may appear static, it’s composed of thousands of micro adjustments in quick succession, too small to be seen by the naked eye. Irene explained that the human body wasn’t meant to be micromanaged. That in fact, the best way to achieve any movement goal no matter how big or small, was to zoom out, visualize the bigger picture, and allow the autonomic nervous system to connect the dots. As I swayed wildly on one leg in Andrea’s class, I realized that I had to let go of my desire to control and allow my autonomic nervous system to make the necessary adjustments to keep me on my leg. Eventually, my erratic movements became near invisible micro adjustments, and for the first time, I felt I could balance forever.
This remarkably simple idea has been life changing. I have discovered that balance is about awareness, and that when I am aware, I can let go of unnecessary tension so I’m able to best respond to the present moment. I experience the truth of this statement every time I balance in a dance class. While I once approached every balance with apprehension, trying to control and correct my inherent asymmetry, I now find myself balancing with ease and awareness. I have learned to trust the wealth of knowledge my body contains from years of training. I trust that it has its own inherent sense of balance and that it knows how to best respond to the present moment. I’m simply along for the ride! I am also learning to let go of unrealistic expectations of my body, as well as the urge to control specific outcomes. It’s an ongoing process, but I choose to accept my body as it changes every day, and in every moment.
Experiencing balance in my movement practice has opened my mind to finding balance in other areas of my life as well. I’ve often been encouraged to find “balance” in my diet, spending, work, relationships, etc. Whatever it may be, I have found that the same thing that helps me balance on one leg in a ballet class also helps me balance everything in life; awareness is essential to balance and tension is the antithesis. I can identify and let go of tension by becoming aware of myself internally (physically, mentally, and emotionally) and externally (my surroundings). And I know the value of letting go of unnecessary tension, whether that takes the form of physical soreness, or anxiety about things beyond my control.
Kyle Scheurich (BFA ’14), one of our Gaga teachers, once said, “letting go is infinite,” and I think I now understand what he meant. We are always in a balancing act, whether we are standing on two legs against the forces of gravity or standing up against adversity. We are constantly responding to an unpredictable and ever-changing world, most of which is beyond our control—a statement that now fills me with calm. If I’m to stay balanced, in the broadest sense of the word, I must continually let go of the things that weigh me down, and trust that I possess all the knowledge I need to respond to even the most precarious situations.
Dancer Nicole Leung received her BFA in May 2022