Breaking Out of Repeated Failure: How to Turn on Your Ballet Learning Switch

Most of us have a pretty good idea of what it means to have the Learning Switch turned on or off. It is an actual change in the way your brain is working. You become more alert and you find yourself interested, suddenly grasping what you couldn’t understand before or being able to do something you couldn’t do before. - Anat Baniel (student of Moshé Feldenkrais) in “Kids Beyond Limits”

 Changing the physical environment, and the music, to get through piqué pirouettes on pointe plateaus.

Changing the physical environment, and the music, to get through piqué pirouettes on pointe plateaus.

The ability to ‘learn how to learn’ is a big advantage you have as an adult. It means that you don’t always have to wait until you stumble upon success, but you can direct your efforts consciously and in a smart way - thus speeding up your learning process and get more easily through plateaus and frustrations.

There is once concept that I found quite profound in this regard, and I first read about it in Anat Baniel’s book, from which I took the above quote. Anat Baniel was one of Moshé Feldenkrais’ first students, and she proceeded to develop her own method specifically tailored to kids with disabilities.

The concept centers around her observations that some kids struggled with learning, because they were completely stuck in an experience of repeated, expected failure. In other words, they did not expect to get better, they had simply given in into accepting that they would always get it wrong anyway. She framed this as the ‘Learning Switch’ being turned off. In contrast, a turned-on Learning Switch allows for effortless and playful acquisition of new skills.

So the Learning Switch is a metaphor for how open, or how shut off, your brain is towards a new skill that you are trying to learn.

Have you ever, since you started ballet, had the experience that you try and try something - but it doesn’t substantially improve? And then, over time, you kind of start to expect that it won’t work anyway, the next time you do it?

I often notice that with pirouettes. Like, when it’s time to do the first one during the center tendu exercise, or when the first diagonal comes up. It’s very subtle, but there is an underlying feeling of “oh, it won’t work anyway”. For you, it might be a particular jump, or a balance after a barre exercise.

[BTW - this does not only apply to ballet. Have you ever heard yourself or someone else say “I can’t do math”? or “I am not very well coordinated?” It all stems from the experience of repeated, and then expected failure, often since childhood. Of course you can learn math, and of course you can become well coordinated!]

So basically what is happening on a neural level: Your learning process breaks down. Your experience of repeated failing sets you into an emotional state that releases a swell of neurotransmitters which block the learning of any new skill. Your brain essentially shuts down the building of new connections, and you feel that not matter what you do, there is no progress in this particular area. So you start expecting the failure. The result being that the experience of failing and the non-working version of the skill you are trying to learn is only grooved deeper into the brain.

So….how do you break out of this vicious circle?

Here are some steps that will help turn your expected failure into eventual success:

Take a Break From Failing.

This sounds obvious, but might be harder to do in practice. Basically, try to avoid the movement that you are failing at for a while. The idea is to stop grooving the failure even deeper in your brain - so you are essentially weakening the neural connection of the failure.

So how do you do this in a ballet class? Let’s say your pirouette is the problem? Or a jump? Or the balance after barre exercises?

There are several ways of doing it: You can either completely avoid it or modify/simplify the movement so drastically, that it becomes very different. So for example, instead of doing a pirouette, you just go up into passe. Or for your balance, you just keep holding on to the barre, or do it on flat. As for jumps, you can just skip an entire exercise or the jumps altoghether, or mark in the back.

And for how long? From a neural perspective, several weeks would be a minimum. Anat Baniel gives an example in her book, where she would have a boy’s tutoring stop for two months before she would even start working with him. From a neural perspective, that’s more or less the timeline required for pruning connections. But, yes, I get it, it’s hard to do if you like taking class. In any case you should feel mentally fresh and unburdened before you attempt to do whatever you are trying to learn again.

Get Back in Observer Mode.

So once your brain has “forgotten” the failure, it’s time to go back at it. Ideally, maybe in a setting where you can just work a bit on your own, or with a teacher, or just recording yourself on video. And then just notice. What’s happening? Can you feel/sense/see what’s not working here? So the idea is to get from a state of expected failure and frustration to a state of awareness and curiosity. Take notes of your observations.

Change your Physical State and/or Environment

To me, this is one of the key elements of breaking out of habits and plateaus. In essence, this is to cut the connection between the failure and your physical experience of it. And here is where you can get creative. It can be anything. Taking a class with another teacher, or at a different studio, for a while. Wearing something completely different to class one day. Warming up for class differently. Making your movements extra big, or much smaller. Deliberately overdoing what you are trying to do. Changing to a different soft shoe or pointe shoe model. Or using different music (try pop or hiphop!) when you work on your own. Anything that adds an element of novelty to your brain for a while, or occasionally - so you can experience yourself unburdened from the previous frustration.

Break Down The Skill - YOUR Way

You can do this on your own or ask your teachers’s input. You go back to working on your pirouette/balance/jump or whatever it is for you, but the idea is to change the cues and ‘directions’ in a way that speaks to you, so that your nervous system can open up and really take in your repetitions. Go back to your notes or video recordings from Observer Mode and start working on what is most interesting to you. This is something you can do on your own, or even in class. Any time you feel frustration come up - go back to a modification/simplification, so you don’t close your Learning Switch.

Again: The main idea is to weaken the experience of expected and repeated failure in the brain. It will take a bit of experimenting, trial and error - but if you can in grain a sense of accomplishment, playfulness and curiosity back into your brain, your Learning Switch will happily turn on again!

Have you ever experienced prolonged frustration at something not working, despite practicing it a lot? What particular thing is it for you? Do you feel the Learning Switch on or off, depending on what mood you are in, or even what kind of particular class you are taking?