We stood in the semi darkness of backstage. Broken chairs and other junk loomed around us, the relics of previous shows performed in this grungy pub. Beyond the curtain the silence of many people waiting expanded. We looked at each other, shivered into character and quick marched out from behind the curtain into the light.
Ash and I share a few things in common. We both teach Pilates, we both hate riding our bikes in the wind and we both have a perfectionist streak as wide as an American highway. For both of us this streak has been a defining feature of our lives. Ash was a professional dancer in London. Anyone who has seen her teach her signature form and flow classes to music can see her innate rhythm. She successfully choreographed and danced in pieces that were performed across Europe. But by the end of her career she was experiencing moments of freezing, forgetting the movements that, until seconds earlier had been clear in her mind. She began feeling more and more overwhelmed by the prospect of another performance. I was a semi-professional basketball player. I’d played since I was seven and had genuine talent, but through-out the fifteen years that I played I always struggled with intense pre-game anxiety. It came to the point where, near the end of my time playing, I’d pull out one great performance every six weeks. Then I’d spend the lead up to the next six games with my stomach shrivelled like a dried shitake mushroom, terrified of everyone’s (insert: ‘my own’) expectations to play like that again. Inevitably I would bomb out repeatedly until everyone had looked away and forgotten I had any ability. Only once I had ensured that nobody thought I was any good was I ready to play again. Talk about a vicious cycle! So there Ash and I were, we both loved what we were doing, we both had talent, but at the same time were completely at the mercy of our own impossible expectations. Eventually, for the sake of our happiness, we gave up chasing our careers and moved on. As Brene Brown says in The Power of Vulnerability, “there are no perfectionists at the top.” Perfectionists only ever make it half way up the ladder. Then, paralysed by fear of failure, they curl into foetal position on their half way rung and rock and moan quietly until everyone has looked away. So when Ash and I started learning aerial silks and during our second class were offered the opportunity to perform a routine at an amateur aerial showcase, the perfectionist demons were very quickly at the door.
We did however, decide to take on the challenge. With just eight weeks until the showcase we began putting together a routine. And one has to ask, what changed in the time between leaving our respective careers and beginning silks that allowed two hard-line perfectionists to put themselves in front of an audience with only 2 months’ worth of practice. The answer to that, for me at least, lies in some humbling life lessons from my body. When I began Pilates in 2013 I had the (devastating) realization that my body was imperfect. My right back muscles, tighter than the left, my hips rotated to the right, my knees, one turning inward, one turning outward, and oh god those feet, I can’t even start. It was enough to make a perfectionist throw up her hands in defeat. In true perfectionist style, however I vowed to fix it all! I WOULD be symmetrical, I WOULD be completely free of all risk of injury and I WOULD GODDAMMIT do Pilates that was Instaworthy. Now four years later I do some incredible Pilates. But in every class I do, in every exercise I do, there are multiple things I can’t do. The guy who teaches Ash and I likes to say, with a classic (mildly sadistic) Pilates teacher smile, “well you know, Pilates is the great humbler.” What he means by that is that it’s never done. You never get to the end of what Pilates can teach you because there is no end to what the body can do. And consequently, you will never do everything that your body can do. You will never be perfect. What I’m trying to say with all this is that Pilates, and our bodies are a process. There is no final product, no premiership, no performance. Just the daily grind of finding out what works and what doesn’t work through the act of doing. Then slowly incorporating those improvements into the way we go about our lives.
The last story I want to tell is of the process of writing this short blog. I wanted to write a piece about ‘The Art of being a Good Learner’ (snappy title I know) and link it all to the experience of learning silks. The night before the showcase, there I was sitting at my desk thinking, “you are going to nail this blog, it’s going to be amazing!” Unsurprisingly two hours and hundreds of discarded opening sentences later, there I still was, banging my head against the wall. Perfectionism is insidious like that, it crawls its way into everything. In an attempt to shake it all off, I went to a salsa class. It turned out to be a great decision, as, in the mix of all the dancers was a writer. We stepped off to the side of the dance floor and got chatting. I told him about my struggles. My perfectionism was blocking me from writing my blog about perfectionism. He said that perhaps I was aiming for something a little unreasonable, (namely universal acceptance and awe at my writing skills) and suggested instead that I take on an idea from Leonard Cohen, to “abandon my masterpiece” and let what I could write come out, warts and all. It was good advice and not only for writing.
The next day, as Ash and I stood behind the curtain before our performance, perfectionist Gabby and Process Gabby were at loggerheads. On one hand I was bubbling, ready to let myself shine, to give a generous performance in which I didn’t withhold my energy or my talent but offered up what I had to the audience and to Ash. On the other hand was the voice that said, “don’t you know these people have PAID for tickets, your family is out there and they’ve given up their Sunday to watch you. This had better be a perfect show.” It’s in that moment, when two ways of being in the world are struggling for control,that the most powerful element of our humanity comes into play. And that’s the power to choose. The decision to accept what we, in that moment, cannot do. What we genuinely are incapable of and to let our imperfections be an acknowledged part of who we are. And simultaneously, to relish in what we can do, what we can give. When Ash and I stepped onto the stage in the grungy Eureka Hotel we were wonky, energetic, had poor grip strength and occasionally missed our timing. For just a little while we gave in to process, we abandoned our master piece. The result was a damn good show.