I’ve always loved dance. As a kid my mom would cart my sister and me around to opera, art exhibits and dance. I snored through opera. I read through museums. But I fell in love with dance.
I read Twyla Tharp’s autobiography, Push Comes to Shove, because Tharp is one of the greatest modern dance choreographers of all time. I also read it because Tharp is a force of a woman: strong, clear, powerful, and honest.
For Tharp, honesty in dance was everything. More than pretty. More than appealing. Finding that honesty in her art – and offering it – was the highest priority and the truest order:
What we did was natural and honest. Pretty was never an issue. What was pretty anyway?… If a movement felt good, that was pretty, and to this day those moments when my mind surrenders and my body takes over and moves of its own accord, governed only by muscles and reflexes—falling where it wants, stopping as it can, building the momentum to speed—are the only instances when I recognize true order.
And yet, as strong as Tharp was, she faced the same demons everyone faces: the demons of doubt and fear. The imposter complex reigned large in Tharp’s mind:
Trying to find a toehold in dance-making, I shuttled back and forth between my desire to dance and my fear that not only would I embarrass myself as a choreographer but the critics in the audience would say I wasn’t even good enough to be a real dancer.”
I found this heartening, as I do every time a successful artist or entrepreneur speaks truthfully about fear and doubt and pain. It’s why I have written so often of fear and doubt. To know that fear and doubt are not excuses. They are more like bad weather: we can let ourselves be driven indoors by it or brave it and carry on.
To deal with her own demons, Tharp devised the following method:
In those long and sleepiness nights when I’m unable to shake my fears sufficiently, I borrow a biblical epigraph from Dostoeskvsky’s The Demons: I see my fears being cast into the bodies of wild boars and hogs, and I watch them rust to a cliff where they fall to their deaths.
Because no matter how big her success, no matter how much world-wide recognition and fame she achieved, each new piece was a stepping into the unknown and the unknown is always terrifying:
It’s a little more extreme than counting sheep, but it’s far more effective for me…. Maybe it’s a little pathetic that after all this time I need this sort of pep talk to deal with my demons, but the unknown is a fearful place, and anything new is a step into the unknown.
To make the step into the unknown, to have the strength to do it over and over again, Tharp returned to an unshakeable belief within, and a single, dominating question:
Today I’m grateful for the relative obscurity of my first five years as a choreographer. I had time to develop my own backbone, to find what I deemed important without having to cater to public taste, so that when reaction finally came—both negative and positive (for they can be equally misleading)—I was well grounded. There was no financial remuneration and little attention paid to me those first five years: so I simply went on asking myself, “Do you want to do this or don’t you?” Today I keep both money and celebrity from standing in the way of asking the same question every day.”
And then she created. Constantly. She creates today. At 74. She has never stopped creating. It is the constancy of, and the devotion to, her creation that has led to mastery:
Mastery is an elusive concept. You never know when you achieve it absolutely—and it may not help you to feel you’ve attained it…. We can recognize it more readily in others than we can in ourselves. We all have to discover our own definition of it….
More than anything, I associate mastery with optimism. It’s the feeling at the start of a project when I believe that my whole career has been preparation for this moment and I am saying, “Okay, let’s begin. Now I am ready.” Of course, you’re never one hundred percent ready, but that’s a part of mastery, too: It masks the insecurities and the gaps in technique and lets you believe you are capable of anything.
And capable of anything she is. Tharp continues to choreograph and tour and show the world what is possible when we create in spite of the fear, when we leap over and over into the unknown, and when we give all with courage and truth.
So create. When push comes to shove, simply create.