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Author Guest Blog: Ballet and the Martial Arts?

May 3, 2010

Phillip Starr has authored three books on martial arts with Blue Snake Books, sharing his wisdom from over 50 years as a practitioner and teacher of martial arts. For more information or to purchase Starr’s books, click on their covers at the bottom of the page.

Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1890.  Unless you’re an avid fan of ballet you’ve probably never heard of him and I feel fairly safe in assuming that you couldn’t really care less.  But you should.  Listen up.
Nijinsky was born into a family of dancers and so it was only natural that he would continue along that line.  At a time when Russia maintained a monopoly on the ballet, Nijinsky eventually became Russia’s greatest ballet dancer.  More than that, he was/is very likely the greatest ballet dancer of all time.

Nijinsky was able to perform perform a jump and fly across most of the entire stage before landing!  The stage upon which ballets are/were performed is quite large and a jump of this length borders on the superhuman.  Moreover, many observers attested to Nijinsky’s  strange ability to seemingly defy gravity; he would descend from a jump slower than when he initiated the technique and ascended!
Now, what does this have to do with martial arts?

Lots.

Skill is skill, regardless of what one practices – whether it’s martial arts, ballet, hatchet throwing, or underwater basket weaving.  The requirements for true mastery are are the same.

Nijinsky took his chosen art to another level.  He wasn’t satisfied with simply being able to do what every other ballet dancer of his time did.  He wanted to excel, to go beyond mere technique.  And he did. But he didn’t do it by intellectualizing about it.  He didn’t do it by finding reasons not to practice, by giving up whenever he had some minor ache or pain, or by listening to those who insisted that he’d never make it.  He didn’t achieve this supremely high level of skill because he was satisfied with what he could do or by being content to adhere to the level (of ability) that were considered the “norm.”
He succeeded because he devoted himself to his art, his practice, and because he pushed himself past the “accepted” limits.  This isn’t to say that he practiced “stupidly.”  He didn’t try to do more than his body could handle at any given level.  If he had, he would likely have injured himself and set himself back several months or even years.  No, he practiced “smart.”  He knew how far he could push himself at any given stage of training and he took his time.  Most importantly, he didn’t quit or slack off.  He kept at it, one day at a time…day after day, month after month, year after year, determined to “go beyond.”  He set goals, worked to reach them, and then set goals again…over and over.
Sure, we’ve all heard or read stories about past masters of various martial arts who transcended technique.  Some, like Morihei Uyeshiba (the founder of aikido), lived well into the twentieth century.  But how many of us have aspired to reach the levels of skill that such men achieved?  It’s much easier to look at their examples and say, “Wow!  He was a really great master!  I sure wish that I could reach that level of skill.”…and then forget about it.

Here’s a hint…those masters didn’t do that; they didn’t engage in mere wishful thinking.  A dream minus effort equals an empty wish.  They knew that and they didn’t daydream about what they wanted to do.  They started walking the path, knowing that they would undoubtedly encounter many hardships along the way.  But that is the only path and anyone who desires to acquire real skill must walk it.

If we don’t aspire to reach their levels of skill what is the future of the martial arts that we so dearly love?

Can we not aspire to go beyond the levels that they reached? Who says we can’t?

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For more info and insights from Philip Starr, check out his books below!

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