The process that leads to performance: Chasing perfection, catching excellence
At the beginning of the 2018-19 dance year, Evelyn Ireton – director and founder of Houston Academy of Dance and West University Dance Centre – selected a quote from Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi as her theme for the year:
Perfection is not attainable,
but if you chase perfection,
you might catch excellence.
Some folks may find it odd to look to a leader in such a rough-and-tumble arena as football for inspiration in guiding something as refined and elegant as dance. But it makes perfect sense when we consider the process that leads to performance.
As we reflect on the 2018 bowl season for college football and the playoffs for the NFL, perhaps it’s appropriate to turn our eyes to the great Vince Lombardi and the curious connections between professional sports and ballet.
This year’s theme is one of many notable quotes by Lombardi:
“Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.”
“It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get up.”
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
“If you’ll not settle for anything less than your best, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish in your lives.”
“The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”
Themes that resonate in these ideas are: persistence, hard work, resilience, desire and commitment. These are qualities that can lead to excellence in dance as well as on the gridiron, or, as Lombardi put it, in “any chosen field of endeavor.”
Dancers often start very young. At that age they have a hard time getting anything right on a dance floor. They can’t get foot positions straight in their heads. Hand positions? Same. It is a major accomplishment just to get them in a straight line and standing on the right mark.
But peeking through what seems to be chaos is magic. There is a dream that grows into an actual “maybe.” And these little dancers learn how to learn dance, even if “real dancing” eludes them. They have fun. They learn how to practice. And they get better.
Fast forward to the advanced dancer. At this level it sometimes seems less pure joy and more hard work. Expressions in the rehearsal room are focused and feet are beat up. Knees are taped and sweat runs down faces. But these dancers can almost fly, and that means sometimes crashing. It hurts. Maybe it’s embarrassing. But they get back up. And they leap again, and again, and again, until the landing is pure grace and the floor is their friend. The “maybe” of their childhood has become more than something to dream about. It’s now a goal to claim, and in that we find the joy we might have missed earlier.
These are dreaming little kids grown into artist-athletes in full bloom. Vince Lombardi would have recognized the process that leads them to excellence. And so would a surprising crowd: the NFL.
Herschel Walker is a bobsledder, sprinter, and mixed martial artist. He played college football for the University of Georgia, earned consensus All-America honors three times and won the 1982 Heisman Trophy. He also studied ballet:
“I started ballet in my early 20s. I studied for about ten years. Ballet is probably the one of the hardest things I've done, almost like MMA. People don't give it a lot of credit and think it's easy, but it's very difficult. For an athlete, you use muscles you really don't use, and ballet is something I really respect.”
Lynn Swann is a Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. From age 4 through high school, he studied ballet, modern dance, and tap. He credits the skills and discipline he learned in rehearsal rooms for creating the “athlete” that went on to a national championship at USC, 4 Super Bowl rings, and being named the NFL Man of the Year in 1981.
Closer to home, the Dallas Cowboys installed ballet bars in training facilities for the team’s stretching and conditioning programs. The work that we see every day in the rehearsal room helps keep players healthier and lowers the risk of injury.
Dancers will tell you that they work hard. The staff at HAD and WUDC know the work these artist-athletes do is demanding, but that it pays off. Now, you know some of the biggest stars of the football world know it, too, not just in the general, inspirational statement sense, but in the practical application of dance training and discipline.
Regardless of the playing field, the process-to-performance sequence is tried and true: Chase perfection, catch excellence.