I believe that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I know this is contrary to the standard line — we’ve been pursuing excellence and being all that we can be for years now. But I’m getting tired of the superlatives, and of the effort it takes to achieve them. We don’t play tennis, we work on our backhands. We don’t drink wine, we specialize in certain varietals. We don’t have hobbies, we have obsessions. And while my professional life in dance has been one long obsession with the human body and how it moves, I regret the sense of exclusion that can sometimes make. Over and over again, people who learn that I’m a dance critic feel they must denigrate their own understanding of the field in order to acknowledge my skills. In a world that prizes experts, they feel unable, unwilling to do something they think they cannot excel at.
Several years ago, I was arguing with a good friend who was considering changing her profession in order to write. She’d been very successful at the several different jobs she’d had while I’d known her, but she was apprehensive about this change. “What if I can’t do it — what if I can’t really write a book?” I was getting frustrated with her goal, her desire for success, and wound up blurting out my fundamental thought, that if the work was worth doing, it was worth doing for itself, not for the result. It was worth doing no matter how badly you did it.
For many years I taught beginning dance classes at a local university. My students were not looking for a professional career in the performing arts, indeed, many of them took my class because it fulfilled a distribution requirement and met at a convenient time. Most of them were willing to try this new activity, most of them could put their pride in their pocket when I asked them to stand as if they were royalty and open their arms like the curtains on a stage. Only a few were truly recalcitrant, but most of them were hesitant about this kind of physical expression. And almost all of them were quite awkward at the beginning. They took a risk, and that risk was rewarded, but not in a fairy tale manner, where they were magically transformed into Suzanne Farrell or Savion Glover. They had a taste of a dancing life, and even though some of them were quite bad at it, they did it, and the doing was the important thing.
I’m a terrible singer. I’m actually ok on my own, but any time I try to sing with someone else I’m just flat enough to make horrible harmonies. But I don’t stop singing. I apologize sometimes, for the cacophony I make, but singing is so fun, that despite my ineptness I just don’t quit. It’s worth doing, and just like dancing, or writing, or many other human activities, it’s worth doing badly.