Ballet Barre and Memoir

November 11, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Kara Tatelbaum

Pliés, tendus, dégagés…whether you’re in Paris or Poughkeepsie, ballet barre exercises are the same. Most professional dancers are in class by 10 am every morning, whether they’re home or on tour. The routine is expected. You show up for class. You start with pliés. After thirty years of leotards and tights, I know this in my bones.

When I began to write my memoir, I was all over the place. The freefall of rants in the margins of my appointment book felt liberating at first. I scribbled fiercely on the subway, in between dance classes, during rehearsals, and in grubby corners of the gym. One night, after a Pilates class I taught was randomly cancelled, I tried organizing everything I’d written. The sheer volume, disorder, and lack of structure made me dizzy. I knew I had something. But what was it?

I’m sure other writers have faced this too. Especially those of us without formal training. We start with a little bit written here and there. That builds up and makes us wonder what to do with all of it? Am I writing a book? Help! 

At this point in the writing process, I think a lot of us run to find a writing coach, class, or group to join. We look outward to get someone else to figure out what we’re doing. This costs money and time and can also easily waste both. You’re still in freefall and haven’t established any sort of boundaries to anchor your new practice. The act of writing is personal. The discipline of writing is too. Before letting others in and seeking professional help—be it a writing coach or therapist (I ended up getting both!)—focus inward and buckle down. It’s time to establish a writing routine.

Yes, it’s that simple—and inexpensive! But routine takes discipline. This means committing to a time, place, and repetition. Especially for us writers who may not consider ourselves writers, a dedicated routine helps shape our emerging writer selves. You have the impulse to write something, see it through on your own before inviting others in. What begins as a random, personal happening will become an established process. Your process. 

While pleasing the ballet teacher is an integral part of a dancer’s training, ballet class is also where you can take chances, push your technique, fall and get back up. There’s no question you must be in the studio each morning for that to happen. Show up for your teacher, but first for yourself. But how do you show up as a writer? Look right, look left, there are no sweating bunheads cramped on either side of you trying to achieve the same goals. No long stationary handrail for support. No precise start time. No instructor or feedback. Dancers build technique and then push limits. Perfect two pirouettes, then go for three or four. I couldn’t take writing risks in this abyss! I was falling before learning any proper technique. The dancer in me craved routine and repetition. So that’s where I started.

The evening I went through all my writing, I decided to wake up at 5 am the next morning, before my dance and Pilates life started and get to “work.” For me, that meant to show up to write and keep going. The custom centered me. Each morning, I put on my dance clothes, poured myself some form of hot caffeine, popped open my secretary desk, and stuck to it. 

I let myself continue to scratch notes freestyle whenever and wherever too. These improvisations proved to be the guts of my story. Before ballet class, rehearsals, and sessions with clients, I worked on my writing. Sometimes I reread what I had written other places and copied it into my computer. Other times I’d edit the parts I’d inputted or organize what I had written into sections, which later became chapters. I grew to love editing; it felt familiar, like rehearsing in dance. The same way I manipulated dance movements (bigger, smaller, upside down, faster, slower…) I cut, pasted, and played with my words. Making them perfect. Making them fit. 

A year later, I had the first draft of my book. 

I had grounded myself as a writer with the disciplined routine of a dancer. Ballet class starts standing at the barre. Writing begins sitting at my desk. Same time each morning. I showed up.

Turns out my 5 am routine worked for querying too. A few months later, on a pause between pliés and tendus, I snuck a look at my inbox and found I landed an agent.

—————–

Kara Tatelbaum’s debut memoir Putting My Heels Down: a memoir of having a dream…and a day job—a brutally honest look at her life as a dancer and very reluctant Pilates instructor trying to make it in NYC—was released by Motina Books on International Dance Day (April 29, 2022) and was a #1 Amazon Bestseller in Modern Dance. Find Kara on Instagram or visit her website

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§ 16 Responses to Ballet Barre and Memoir

  • cynthia518 says:

    Inspiring! Dance on in writing, dance and life.

  • Thanks for the reminder. Practice. Routine. Technique. These concepts keep showing up in my reading and social media feeds this week. One step at a time, consistently, over time.

  • amandalerougetel says:

    Good parallel between the discipline of dance and of writing. Thanks for the good read!

  • Boy, this post hit home. There is so much discipline involved in an independent creative life (aka freelance writer working from home). It can be daunting, to say the least. I, too, have my scribbled notes, and two large binders filled with pages and pages of one to three paragraphs of a fantastic chapter beginning (or ending, as the case may be). Then there’s the almighty lonely 20,000 word draft on my laptop. Every day, I am tortured by the BIG decision: should I try and organize all those bits and pieces, or just devote the day to sitting at my desk and stretching the word count closer to 80,000?

    • If you’re looking for advice…I say ORGANIZE! The visceral act of putting your bits and pieces into piles is exhilarating. Sitting in front of the computer…is…well…sitting in front of the computer. There’s time for that too.

  • charwilkins75 says:

    I found that in the discipline of a practice (for me it was meditation), I found freedom: freedom from and freedon to. Repetition in its simplest form such as the ballet barre exercises you described, and for me the breath and attention to sensation in the body, free us from the rumination in our heads, and in doing so, free us to see and feel what is here, what is true in the moment. And perhaps to know what we most need to write.

    • On it’s best days that is ballet barre and also writing. The repetition allows for this release and when it does it feels so good! The best way to achieve this for me is showing up. Thank you so much for reading and responding!

  • lgrizzo says:

    I like thinking of my desk as a barre!

  • I loved this. I love the observations about (let’s just call it) the physical side of a writing practice. Your you: ballet. For me: tai chi and qigong. And I’m really glad that you got your book finished and got a deal. That you released on International Dace Day was a gray. Do you know that there is a World Ballet Day on November 2nd, 2022

  • Hi Kara, Thank you for creating the brilliant content and helping me, people all around the globe to gain more knowledge. As a regular consumer of your podcasts, I have realized that most of the questions you ask applies to your own ongoing subjects & concerns in your various ventures and personal life which is good. However I would appreciate if you could broaden the spectrum a bit more. Just a recommendation to make the already brilliant content, even more helpful. Thank you.

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