Earlier this month I took my daughter to the North American Championships of Irish Dance. It was the culmination of a decade of hard work for her and for dancers she’s known since first grade. Three of her dance friends did so well at this competition that they qualified for World Championships. One of the things I found encouraging is that one of the girls who’s going to Worlds was not the most promising beginner dancer. She had oodles of talent but couldn’t remember an entire step to save her life. The young man who is also going on to Worlds was the shyest little boy I have ever met—and yet there he was standing up tall, dancing his heart out, in front of hundreds of people. I never would have guessed seven years ago that he’d be in the limelight and loving it.
These winning dancers put in a brilliant set of dances on competition day but what was telling to me was watching them practice the day before under the intensely critical gaze of their teachers. They were so strong on that practice stage but even so their teachers had a torrent of corrections to their body position, rhythm, strength, and speed. These young dancers were capable of world class performances and yet there was still a long list of things to improve. It made me think of my own experience of having my writing critiqued (thankfully a far less sweaty experience) Here’s my take away from Nationals.
1) A champion listens to her mentor as whole heartedly as possible, not defensively or with an attitude that her work is somehow the exception to the usual rules that govern the art form. She doesn’t hedge or make excuses for work when a mentor points out a flaw. Except when a clarifying question is needed, a simple thank you is the most useful response to criticism.
2) A champion not only puts in the performance, but also the drill work that builds the strength for performance. Barre work, weight training, stretches, and drills, are not wasted time and effort but an integral part of the eventual performance.
3) A champion watches other dancers with intensity and focus in order to learn from the best. A champion is uplifted and not threatened by excellence in other dancers.
4) A champion dances with joy. This was perhaps the most moving part of watching these young dancers take the stage as world class competitors. There is no college scholarship or professional dance career for Irish dancers. It’s done entirely for the love of the art form and to honor the culture that saved it’s traditional songs and dances in the face of oppression. Each dancer I watched was there because they love dance enough to do it—not just at dance class but at the bus stop and at lunch and late into the night. And each one of them radiated that joy in every step on stage.
I love story like these young competitors love to dance. I love what story can do in the life of a reader and I love the puzzle of pulling a story together from the disparate threads of my imagination. Going forward I’m going to try my best to take critiques with equanimity and put in the hours of practice and pages of rough draft that make good prose roll freely. I am going to redouble my effort to read the best writers in my genre with more concentration to learn all I can from them. And more than all that I want to let my joy show on every page. The Olympics is coming up in a few short weeks and I hope we can all take some inspiration from the dedicated athletes we watch there.