We went with friends at the weekend to see the movie "First Position." It's a documentary that follows a handful of youngsters, aged ten to seventeen or so, who are vying for glory--and the chance for a successful career--at the Youth America Grand Prix competition in ballet dancing. A diverse group--one girl comes miraculously from traumatized, war-torn Sierra Leone, a young lad from relative poverty in Columbia, a pair from Israel--they share only their single-minded passion. The work involved consumes their whole lives, not to mention the lives of their family. Quote aside from the incredible expense involved, it's mercilessly demanding on their young bodies. It also requires a dedication that is little short of obsessive, and given the relatively low "demand" for this art form in the contemporary world, the chances for success in the field are slimmer even than in most others.
You have to admire the tenacity of these young people, along with their superlative physical agility and their boundless aspiration. Their physical work is harder and longer than anything I have had to do in my life, and they devote themselves to it in the spirit of a passionate pursuit of perfection. There is something about the exercise of such discipline, I believe, that gives them a special quality as human beings: a sense of purpose, a respect for others, a gracefulness and charm, and--I'm reaching for a word that has the ring of "wholesomeness" without being quite so condescending. They must be very much in touch with themselves, acutely conscious, their awareness honed to a fine point by suffering gladly accepted and daily experienced for the sake of their art. Unusual, too, in youngsters of this age, is their emotional maturity in the sense that they are clearly able to register their feelings and, at the same time, to subordinate them to their goals. They are certainly very special people.
I was impressed, too, by the adults in their lives. Certainly, there was at least one "tiger mom" amongst them, but for the most part the parents seemed genuinely supportive, following along with their children's hopes and dreams with a certain sense of awe. Required to make enormous sacrifices, they do so for the most part with good cheer and without reservation. The film offered glimpses of the relationship between young student and adult coach, whose work seemed to require a fine balance between patience and demand, supportive love and standards that to many of us would seem overly exacting. Missing, perhaps, was a closer look at the role of the competition's judges, responsible at the end for the hard decisions as to who would triumph and who would go home disappointed.
I was left wondering about the sheer physical torture--there's no other word for it--inflicted by this art form on its practitioners. Injuries among dancers are as common and as debilitating as those caused on the playing fields of professional sports and, like professionals in sports, dancers are so highly motivated that they will ignore the pain and get on with the work, causing themselves still further damage. Watching this film you can only wince at the images of the abrasions of sore feet and the contortions of human bodies forced into positions for which they were not designed. And the obvious, external injuries are matched by the internal ones, the expectation of perfection and the intolerance of failure, the pain of disappointment and the rigors of self-judgment.
Still, as my friend Stuart pointed out as we drove home, these youngsters do seem to engage in their passion willingly. It is their choice that brings them back to the dance studio every day and to embrace the pain and the discipline that choice entails. If it is a form of torture, it can only be described as exquisite--both in the experiencing of it and in the results. Now, if writers had to go through the same, maybe there would be fewer of us vying for the attention of a dwindling supply of readers! We sit comfortably enough at our computers and risk growing plump as we exercise our fingers only at the keyboard. I am not, however, tempted to get up and dance!