I know that anyone would consider their own field of attempted achievements to be a frustrating one, but I would argue that ballet is at the very top of the frustration spectrum. (Except that spectrums are usually portrayed as being horizontal rather than vertical, but you get the idea) After all, in most pursuits, you can count on improving over time. Maybe you’ll occasionally hit a plateau for a while, maybe your skills will suffer if your motivation and dedication wane, and maybe you’ll have a bad day or week or month or year sometimes, but in the long run, hard work will pay off to some extent. Ballet doesn’t necessarily work like that, at least not for everybody. Once you reach a certain maximum proficiency level, predetermined by your degree of innate talent and your physical limitations, you won’t be able to get much better. Eventually, your skills will level off and stop improving at all, and no matter how hard you work, you’ll sit there at your horizontal asymptote forever, glumly aware that other people’s horizontal asymptotes are unfairly higher than yours.

Actually, I am exaggerating a bit here. For one thing, it isn’t true that ballet is unique in this aspect; I’m sure that the same thing is true to some extent for any field, although in many cases the asymptotes may be reached later in life, or they may be closer to the same level for different people. Besides that, the asymptote image isn’t entirely accurate because it’s always technically possible that improvement will occur later. I still maintain my case, though, that ballet is the most frustrating of any type of endeavor.

Here is an example of what I mean. The first time I did a good double pirouette, I think I was about thirteen. (To any more skilled dancers out there, yes, I know that’s pretty pathetic, but hold your contempt for a moment. It gets worse.) Now, seven and a half years later, it’s still a rare occurrence for me to do a decent triple, and on a bad day, I am still entirely capable of failing to achieve a clean double. That’s not unusual for me, which is really sad. To put that in perspective for any of you who don’t dance, that would be comparable to what it would be like if I, as an English major, suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember who William Shakespeare was. Or if a math major suddenly forgot how to multiply and divide fractions. Or if a chemistry major blanked out when trying to think of the chemical formula for water.

What’s even worse are those frequent moments when I somehow fail to point my toe or straighten my knee or something basic like that. I’ve known better than that for most of my life. Those kinds of errors could be more accurately compared to trying to read a book and struggling because I inexplicably can’t recall what sound the S makes, or trying to count but not knowing what that number is that comes in between three and five. And I don’t mean pi; I’m pretty sure there was an integer somewhere in that range. There has to be, because three and five are both odd, so there must be an even number between them. Right? Or is five even? I thought it was odd, but now I’m not so sure… I really knew how to count yesterday, honest.

That’s what ballet feels like. Except with a lot more injuries.