Pain and Dancing

Only really bad art is about pain. Let me re-phrase that. (La Guernica is brilliant.)

Art shouldn’t be painful to create. However, as The Roots (music group) say:

Tell you one lesson I’ve learned,
If you want to reach something in life,
You aint’ gonna get it unless
You give a little bit of sacrifice

Sometimes before you smile you got to cry,
You need a heart that’s filled with music,
If you use it you can fly.

It is very difficult to dance really hard day after day, for hours. I’ve never been in a full time company, but you can’t be in the world (of dance) for long without seeing that part of the job is managing the body’s issues. My last post concerned Trey McIntyre. In preparing the post I came across a video of a former Washington Ballet ballerina named Michelle Jimenez.  Michelle had danced Trey’s work, and I couldn’t help but post the video cause I thought it was neat. It belongs more properly here, though, so I’m moving it. You can see Michelle dancing in the last post. 



I enjoyed the video in part because working with the body is my daily life as a dancer. But I think what she said applies not just to all athletes, but to each of us. Every day we deal with a new body, and new mind.

In 2005 I wrote the piece below titled “Pain and the Dancer”. It was published in Bourgeon


Pain and the Dancer

Brianne Bland (of Washington Ballet) first noticed the pain in her foot in August. It continued through day after day of rehearsals, and two different long runs of performances, in which she starred. At the conclusion of the run of Giselle – in which she played Giselle – she went to the doctor. Brianne had three broken bones in her foot. It was November.

While dancing with Le Jeune Ballet De Paris Jonathan Jordan starred in a tour crossing five countries. The two broken bones in his ankle, which hurt before the tour started, were diagnosed during his layoff. Penny Saunders danced with a torn meniscus in her knee while dancing with Momix in Europe. For thirteen months.

This article is not about the frailty of feet. Or knees. Or the difficulties of staying healthy. This article is about the necessary acceptance of intense pain. These dancers took months to address their concerns not out of denial, but because working with pain is necessary, and commonplace.

In the February 1st, 2005 Washington Post article on NFL all-time rushing leader
Emmitt Smiths retirement, the man who will now be the active rushing leader in the NFL stated that success such as Emmitt has had, such as he – Curtis Martin – has had, only comes with pain. He states that everyone gets injured and it is the ability to manage and overcome injury that creates greatness.

Pain develops a person in a certain way. I worked as an Emergency Medical Technician for six years, and was struck by the varied responses to intense, sudden pain. There are those who become hysterical, and those who become calm. What makes a person have one reaction instead of another is difficult to say. It seems clear, however, that significant dance artists respond with calm.

Being a great performer requires a personal intensity that is unusual in those who
have not undergone great struggles. Cheryl Crow once croaked “what mercy sadness
brings.” It is in this vein that the generosity of performance built through pain can be
understood. Empathy with those in pain, empathy with strong emotion of every sort, is a
defining characteristic of a great dancer.

A friend once noted that to be a really good dancer one must enjoy failure, and
pain. Failure as it is through doing what one cannot do that one reaches the outer limits of the possible. Pain because it is the anvil upon which is forged the body, and thus the person, who can create significant performance. Nietzsche argued that “a species, a type, originates and grows firm and strong in a long struggle with essentially constant but unfavorable conditions.” And so it is that the dancers of today carry on in the tradition of the dancers of the last two hundred years. In pain.

R. Betmann 7/2005

Post-note: Since publication of this piece, Curtis Martin began the 2006-2007 NFL season running well. However, in mid-October he was forced to sit out for the remainder of the season due to recurring knee troubles. On July 27th, 2007, prior to the start of the 2007-2008 season, Curtis Martin quietly retired.


I’m fond of saying that you can’t teach someone to dance. They teach themselves. You give exercises and ideas, but in the end they learn or don’t learn on their own.

Helping dancers learn how to listen to their bodies while pushing limits safely is an important role that good teachers play for their students.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.