A Dancer’s Guide to Writing

I began dancing when I was ten years old, and have never stopped.  Ballet, jazz, tap, modern, musical theatre, I love it all. To me, my passion for dance plays perfectly into my passion for writing.

How, you ask?

Dance is communication.  Dancers have the ability to manipulate their body with musicality and form; good dancers can do this while also conveying emotion; and great dancers will make all of that seem inconsequential as they transport you to another world.  And writers do all of this with their words, rather than their bodies.

I firmly believe that everyone can dance.  All you need is the desire to do so, and the courage to get your butt onto the dance floor.  The same is true for writing: Everyone can write, all you need is the desire and courage to do so. But the difference between a dancer and a great dancer is the same difference between that of a writer and a great writer: passion and training.

So in that vein, here is my Dancer’s Guide to Writing:

  • Know your craft. You cannot become a prima ballerina without knowing how to plié. So don’t assume you can write the next bestseller until you understand the importance of grammar, character development, and story pacing.
  • Practice makes perfect.  Even Baryshnikov, one of the most celebrated ballet dancers in history, knows he must take class everyday. Writers are no different.  Your first draft will never be perfect.  Recognize that revisions are just a part of the writing process and be prepared to sweat through them regularly.
  • Merde. Just as actors tell each other to “break a leg” before a performance, ballerinas will wish each other “merde.”  In French (ballet’s mother tongue), merde means “shit.”  Legend says that this tradition began back in the days of the horse-and-carriage, where the success of a show could be measured by the size of the audience (and therefore the number of horse-led carriages).  In short: the more horseshit in front of the theatre, the better.  So what does this have to do with writing?  The more successful you are, the more shit you will have to put up with.  Erroneous reviews, ridiculous criticisms, unfair expectations… shit will happen.  Expect it.  Welcome it. It means you’re doing something right.
  • Dance like no one is watching.  Don’t hold back out of fear of what people might say or think.  As an artist, you must be willing to lay yourself bare.  Don’t cater to an audience, your passion must come from within. How can you inspire others if you do not inspire yourself?
  • Do it full-out.  In dancer terminology, there are two ways of dancing: marking it, and doing it full-out. Typically, dancers only “mark it” when they are learning a new piece of choreography, but once the steps have been committed to memory, dancers are expected to do it “full-out.”  In other (more vulgar) words, “marking it” means half-assing it, whereas “full-out” means balls-to-the-wall.  Marking it might be easier, but you’ll never learn what you’re capable of until you go full-out.
  • The show must go on. The lead has laryngitis, your costume ripped, the stage manager is drunk, someone spilled water on the stage, and there are only eight people in the audience?  Doesn’t matter.  Life is always going to throw roadblocks that may make you feel like there is no chance of success.  Ignore them.  Don’t let anything distract you from your goals.  The page is your stage, and no matter what, the show must go on.
  • Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had it right: don’t let mistakes keep you down.  “Work like a soul inspired, ’til the battle of the day is won.”

Ruth St. Denis once said that dance is a form of communication that can “express what is too deep to find for words.”

As authors, let it be your goal to prove St. Denis wrong.

~ Laura Sheehan, author of DANCING WITH DANGER (Red Sage)

Dancing with Danger (cover art) - by Laura Sheehan

[This article was originally published in the December 2012 issue of LARA Confidential, the newsletter of the Los Angeles Romance Authors (LARA) chapter of the Romance Writers of America and may be shared or reprinted with credit to author and chapter.]

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