|A studio at Amor de Dios flamenco school in Madrid.
I have had moments in my career where I have been detrimentally humble. I’ve blown off compliments by shying away and saying things like, “Oh it really wasn’t that good” or “It could have been better.” Such replies to genuine compliments insult the giver of the compliment. It took me a while to understand that and to be able to thank people for the compliment rather than hide from it. It wasn’t that I was overly humble, it was a lack of confidence for the work I put into my dancing and a lack of gratitude for the people who have helped me out along the way. Unfortunately, that sort of reaction is especially common for women; there are countless articles about how women don’t “toot their own horn” or just take pride in their accomplishments. The other extreme is just as bad, replying to a complement with, “Yeah, I know I’m great” or something implying that. No one likes to work with a diva who has to always be right and lacks the humility to collaborate. Writing a blog post about humility challenges me–I’m not trying to say I’m great because I’m humble; I want to investigate how humility has to be worked at, just like any other attitude, and its essential role in the arts.
After successes, it can be easy as an entertainer to let your ego inflate. What keeps me in check is knowing the endless possibilities in dance. It’s not so much comparing myself to others and thinking well there are lots of people who dance as well as me or better (though being inspired by other artists does help); rather, it’s knowing that room for improvement and new explorations always exist helps keep me humble.Like being a scientist, you can only discover something if you have a drive to learn more. Trying new things, challenging oneself, taking different classes, and pushing one’s own boundaries keeps humility and excitement present.
“Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.” Madeleine L’Engle
I can’t imagine having any success in dance if I weren’t fully present when I rehearse and perform. And it takes work being fully present–in mind, body, and soul. It doesn’t happen every time I am on stage or in the studio, but that I strive for that.
“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” -Thomas Merton
That quote sums up why to be an artist, one must be humble–to truly express oneself, rather than hide behind artificialities is the beauty of art, that’s how it reminds us of our humanity.
When I have had the opportunity to speak with or take class from my favorite artists–the dancers that really speak to me through their work, not the ones who wow with fancy tricks and gimmicks–I am often surprised at their humility. And it’s not a false humility. When you compliment them, they don’t blow off the compliment with a “Oh it was nothing, or it wasn’t that great, or this part was not that great, etc.” They know how much work they put in, and genuinely thank the giver of the compliment. I’m reminded of Martha Graham saying that all she wanted to do was make one person in the audience feel something. For Graham, art functions as language, a way to transmit to the audience and connect in such a way that we are reminded of the human condition.
In reading about artists and humility, I came across the essay by Eli Siegel “Art as, Yes, Humility.” Here is an excerpt, and you can find the whole essay here.
“Humility is the willingness to see things other than oneself as having meaning for oneself. This humility makes for pride; for pride, in the long run, comes from the comprehensive and accurate way one is affected by reality, the universe that is under one’s nose and is far away. The artist is more humble than is customary, because, as artist, he wants things to mean more and more to him; he wants to see more and more. To see is to be humble. All seeing, while an expression of oneself, is also a submission. In artistic seeing, humility and submission are pride and grandeur.”