How Natalie Portman Taught Me ‘You Have to Allow Yourself to be Imperfect’

A couple weeks ago I was having a serious conversation with a friend. I was feeling burnt out and overwhelmed. My mind was racing with problems I felt incapable of resolving but at the same time responsible for doing everything in my power and not knowing exactly what that meant.

My friend said something that made me stop and breathe.

“You have to allow yourself to be imperfect.”

It may sound simple enough. But to be honest, I don’t know that I really considered this an option. It made me think about the pressure many of us put on ourselves when the stakes are high and we are terrified of letting down people we love and/or letting down ourselves.

And eventually this thought pattern leads to Natalie Portman. I remembered the below article I wrote after watching “Black Swan” last year. This piece originally appeared on the blog, Rumor Control.

As I try to take in my friend’s advice, I found it helpful to remember the lessons I took from the film. Especially since, one year later, I’m still working on applying them.

Black Swan: Perfection Has a Dark Side

“When I look at you all I see is the White Swan. Beautiful. Fearful. Fragile.”

Nina is crushed and deflated. “I just want to be perfect.”

As I sat in a hushed cinema watching Natalie Portman’s chilling, Oscar-winning portrayal of Nina in “Black Swan,” I thought about what it really means to “lose yourself” in the pursuit of a dream.

The film centers on the unraveling of a girl who forces herself to go completely against her nature in order to land the lead role in Swan Lake. The audience watches, or in my case winces, as Nina’s mental state rapidly deteriorates until she quite literally loses herself in the tragic and climatic final scene.

Nina practices relentlessly and her commitment to dance is all consuming. But something is missing. Every move she makes during rehearsals is precise and expected. Controlled and empty. Her technique is unfailingly accurate and hopelessly restrained.

How could Nina possibly embody the White Swan’s evil twin sister, the Black Swan? The role demands passion – the one thing Nina can’t acquire through hard work, discipline, and self-deprivation. She is so focused on technique that she’s incapable of letting go and being authentically expressive. Her obsession with perfection leaves no room for passion. Passion is raw and dangerously uninhibited. Passion transcends perfection.

Nina is tormented by crippling self doubt and a chronic compulsion to live up to unrealistic expectations – both external and self-imposed. To her overbearing and fiercely controlling mother (played by Barbara Hershey), Nina appears less a daughter and more like a second chance at stardom. Her mother clearly sees Nina’s lead role as an opportunity to vicariously experience what she herself was never able to achieve as a dancer.

To the ballet company’s lecherous artistic director, Nina is a talent to be molded and manipulated. His only concern is making sure she delivers a flawless performance. The toll it takes on her mental or physical health is immaterial.

In one rehearsal he barks at Nina as she spins on point, her eyes filled with increasing desperation and terror with each rotation. “I want to see passion! Seduce us! Attack it! Attack it!” Nina’s rival (a new dancer who personifies the Black Swan played by Mila Kunis) shuffles into the studio arriving late. Nina falters and violently crashes to the floor. That night she practices the sequence over and over until she twists an ankle and splits her big toe.

My eyes were closed through a good portion of the movie. It just wasn’t easy to sit through watching the physical and mental torture Nina endures for the sake of art. Ballet is this symbol of elegance and grace inducing a feeling of serenity and awe to spectators. And yet it has ravaged the body, mind, and spirit of the prima ballerina everyone in the audience admires. What is on stage is unattainable. You are not watching someone tapping into who she really is; it’s not a beautiful expression of authenticity. It’s manufactured and it comes at a price.

As the credits rolled I felt so disoriented it was a struggle to put on my coat and walk out of the theater. To me the film was a warning about the perils of perfectionism and the consequences of having such a weak sense of self that your identity is completely dependent upon achievement. It made me think about what can happen when someone is motivated entirely by outcomes and external feedback.

My lesson: If you can’t achieve something while being true to who you are at the core, then you probably weren’t meant to achieve it.

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Centered in the Circle: The Power of Motionless Movement

Last night I started re-reading Muriel Barbery’s, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. One of the two central protagonists in the book is an extremely intelligent and incredibly disillusioned 12-year-old girl named Paloma.

Paloma is surrounded by privilege and endless striving. She is convinced life is absurd and has no real meaning: “People aim for the stars and end up like a goldfish in a bowl.”

And so makes plans to kill herself on her 13th birthday.

But at the same time, she sets herself a challenge to keep two journals – one for the mind, in which she writes profound thoughts, and one for the body, to record tangible aesthetic beauty – “things that, being the movement of life, elevate us.”After all, she says, ” if there’s something on this planet that is worth living for, I’d better not miss it.”

Well, Paloma’s first entry in the “Journal of the Movement of the World” reminded me of hooping and the potential to spin inwards and experience a deep and restorative calm. I remember watching hoop dancers and experiencing a deep sense of peace. I wanted what they seemed to have.

In the book, Paloma is sitting in the living room while her father is watching a rugby game. Usually she’d scarcely look at the television screen but something about a player on the opposing team entrances her. It’s not about his physical size or his athletic skill – though they are both considerable. What is so captivating about this player is the way he is moving.

Paloma explains: “…when we move we are in a way de-structured by our movement toward something: we are both here but at the same time we are not here because we’re already in the process of going elsewhere …”

But this player was different …”he was moving and making the same gestures as the other players … but while the others’ gestures went toward their adversaries and the entire stadium, this player’s gestures stayed inside him, stayed focused upon him … that gave him an unbelievable presence and intensity.”

In the hooping world, some might refer to the state described above as “flow.” But it’s more than that. I’ve watched hoopers with movement so liquid it appears they are gliding to a transcendent state.

When I re-read this passage I immediately thought about Jonathan Baxter. Baxter, as he’s known in the hooping community, is one of the hooper pioneers featured in the documentary, The Hooping Life, which profiles pioneers whose lives were transformed by the hoop.

Baxter started hooping as an inexpensive way to rehabilitate an injured shoulder in 2001. He wore a blindfold in his backyard to avoid seeing the reactions of his North Carolina neighbors who would likely find a grown man hula hooping strange.

Since childhood, Baxter had struggled with intense depressive episodes. He couldn’t control this deep sadness that made him feel there was no point in living and he made plans to take his own life. But even as he was looking into his last will and testament,  he kept hooping every single day.

It may not have been a conscious effort like Paloma’s journals but, nonetheless, one day Baxter realized the darkness was lifting. In The Hooping Life, Baxter talks about the separation between his mind and body disappearing. He went on to found the spiritually focused hoop curriculum, The Hoop Path. He teaches and inspires others around the world by sharing his experience and unique perspective.

But above all, I’d have to say Baxter’s very presence is his most powerful message. The video below, for me, epitomizes the essence of “motionless movement” Paloma describes in her journal.

Paloma concludes in her journal: “… what makes a great soldier isn’t the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy … it’s the strength he’s able to concentrate within himself, by staying centered.”

I’ve had my own battles with depression and there have been times when the negativity pulled me toward darkness. In my better moments, though, hooping brings me back to my center and to a place of hopefulness.

There is something very intense about spinning inwards, especially as the pace of life gets more and more frantic. It can feel like everything around you is spinning. Maybe concentrating on ourselves instead of reacting to our surroundings is the only way to stop feeling dizzy and to get grounded.

“That player was like a tree, a great indestructible oak with deep roots and a powerful radiance … yet you also got the impression that the great oak could fly, that it would be as quick as the wind, despite, or perhaps because of, its deep roots.”

Have you ever experienced moving without moving toward something? What makes you focus inward and how do you concentrate inside yourself instead of “intimidating the other guy”?

Read Baxter’s guest column on about why he loves hooping so much and how the hoop “animated” him.


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Plum Island in January

January 7, 2012. My boyfriend and I decided to take advantage of the unseasonably bright, warm sun and drive 45 minutes north of Boston to Plum Island.

The colors begged to be painted. But I’m not a painter.

Walking along the beach we found quaint scenes and make shift shelters. The extra little touches of decor made this one particularly inviting.

The smooth hard sand exposed by low tide was patterned with purplish stains, resulting in this cool animal print effect

I was struck by the image of this sumac tree against the late afternoon sky

Rows of winterberry trees offered a bold and unexpected burst of color amidst bare branches lining the dirt road

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Hoopiphanies: Malcolm Says ‘Push the Move’

Malcolm Stuart

The idea of Malcolm Stuart’s “Movement Exploration” workshop at HoopFest New England intrigued and intimidated me. Both of the actions in that name trigger feelings of anxiety and insecurity – especially when I’m expected to do them publicly.

But when I saw Malcolm’s name on the instructor list for the retreat I remembered watching one of his videos on  His moves looked surreal and I was blown away by his attitude of abandon. I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to be captivated in person.

So I walked over to the tent where a man with an impossibly thin yet chiseled frame was creating shapes with his body by moving in and around a hoop in entirely unexpected ways.

“Your body has more range than you even allow it,” he assured us. “You should be moving every muscle … If you’re getting tired, then you know you’re doing it right.”

Hoopiphany #2: If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying anything new. (And that’s bad).

Hooping in general, and Malcolm’s workshop in particular, forced me to reach outside my comfort zone and risk being a total mess. As a result, I’m starting to recognize and slowly coming to accept that chaos is always the first step in the creative process.

Malcolm advocated extreme exploration. This requires allowing yourself to experiment without moving towards a predetermined outcome.

“Straddle the worlds of control and out of control.”

Malcolm explained his process as two phases:

  1. “Conscious Flailing”
  2. “The Scientist”

“Conscious Flailing” is basically cutting loose with frenetic movement – jumping, kicking, swinging arms, tossing your hoop, anything goes. BUT the whole time you are flailing you are also fully present and aware of your body. You’re not trying to perform fancy tricks or think about choreography. And you may very well look absolutely ridiculous.

Malcolm insisted: Every movement is good and everything is interesting. When you stumble upon something cool, “The Scientist” comes alive to repeat it, break it down, and memorize it. And now you’ve invented a new move.

“At any given time you should know that you inhabit these two extremes – the flailing explorer and the scientist collecting data,”Malcolm said.

If you have 3 minutes, you can watch Malcolm demonstrate and expand on this concept in the promotional video below.

One striking realization I had during Malcolm’s workshop was that I have literally stopped myself several times in the past when a hooping move felt uncomfortable because I assumed I’d reached the end of my flexibility or because I couldn’t imagine where else to take it. During class Malcolm broke down a few of his signature moves and I had viable examples of how to take the foundation for moves I already knew to the next level. And then to the next level after that.

I started to wonder whether I might be holding myself back in other areas of my life.

And this is how you “push the move” …

During the class, Malcolm introduced the technique of “pushing the move.” Take something you know how to do that has some potential and keep doing it and experimenting. You can add to it and create a circuit by connecting the move in the opposite direction.

He told us all to spend a few minutes experimenting, starting with a basic move and exploring. He encouraged us to add spins or tosses to force us out of our comfort zone. People were dropping their hoops, hitting themselves, bumping into each other. They were flailing.

One hooper did a backspin toss on the ground and her foot hit the bottom of the hoop as it came rolling back to her. This gave her the idea to kick it and after a few tries and finding the right angle the hoop shot straight up and she caught it in her hand. What started as a mistake ended up being a legit new move to teach the rest of the class.

I find it takes me a while to loosen up even when I’m hooping alone. It’s not easy for me to let go and cut loose. To welcome accidents and allow mistakes to breed original expression. But when I get overwhelmed and too wrapped up in figuring things out, I try to remember Malcolm’s advice to “push the move.”

When I go back to the basics and get in a rhythm I start naturally upping the ante to keep myself challenged. The trick, I think, is in the layering. It’s having the patience with yourself to build on the foundations you’ve established.

The times I’m successful letting go of expectations and honestly experimenting are when I feel the most energized and excited. Most of the breakthroughs I’ve had happened when I allowed myself to spend time messing around and making mistakes.

I have to fight the voice in my head chastising me for wasting time, telling me I’m not accomplishing anything if I’m just going with the flow. I guess, in a way, it comes down to trusting that if you keep pushing progress will come at its own pace. But it WILL come. And you the mistakes you make along the way could be what lead you to the next great thing.

I tell myself I can be perfect and boring by sticking with what I already know how to do OR I can be imperfect and interesting by trying something new.

The people I’m most inspired by have the courage to live imperfectly. With that, I leave you with the first video I saw of Malcolm performing. It’s fun, unexpected, and original.

Hoopiphanies are what I am calling deeper understandings that I am working to apply to my hooping and to all other aspects of my life. This series is an attempt to explore how my hooping and non-hooping influences can feed each other and, hopefully, expand my community in the process.

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Hoopiphanies: An Origins Story

Riverfest June 2010.

I picked up my first hula hoop as an adult at an outdoor street festival in Cambridge, MA in
June 2010.

As I stood in the street clumsily shaking my hips and watching the hoop plummet to the pavement, I looked around me and saw little girls and 20-something hipsters smiling and hooping like it was the easiest thing in the world.

I thought, how are they doing that?! I was determined to figure it out.

In the following months, I discovered a vibrant hooping community of creative & joyful individuals. It was a refreshingly diverse group of all ages,  lifestyles, fashion sensibilities,  body types, and outside interests.  I quickly realized that spinning something around my waist was just the beginning of the new challenges and opportunities I would find here. And each of them would push me way outside my comfort zone. But they would be totally worth the effort.

Hooping at the Allston Street Fair, September 2010 (Photo Credit: Jeff Berg)

Over the past year and a half, my hooping journey has demanded a willingness to grow and face my inner demons in a way that I never could have anticipated when I casually picked up that hula hoop on the street.

Hooping has become a healthy outlet for coping with emotional and physical tension and it has been my portal to new perspectives, people, and possibilities.

Hoopiphanies are what I am calling deeper understandings that I am working to apply to my hooping and to all other aspects of my life. This series is an attempt to explore how my hooping and non-hooping influences can feed each other and, hopefully, expand my community in the process.

Hoopiphany #1: Before you assume something’s impossible and give up, grant yourself a grace period.

I ordered my first custom adult-sized hoop from the Boston Hoop Troop in August 2010. It was larger and heavier than the lightweight plastic hoops you find in the toy aisle at Target.  The larger the hoop, the slower it moves and the easier it is to use as a beginner.

A week later I attended my first hooping lesson in a Cambridge park with a handful of mostly experienced hoopers. I watched one of them reach her hand behind her back to grab the spinning hoop from her waist and lift it straight up above her head maintaining the rotation on her hand before effortlessly placing it back to her waist. All in one fluid motion.

Warming up with the Boston Hoop Troop for HONK! 2011

The move was called a lift and it turned out to be far more tricky than it looked. I reached my hand behind me and inside the hoop, and was frustrated when I knocked the hoop to the ground. When I did manage to grab the hoop and attempt lifting it up my body, my timing was way off and I ended up hitting myself in the head. The other hoopers watched me flailing and patiently offered pointers. I just couldn’t get it.

I felt discouraged and awkward. I started to think maybe I just wasn’t graceful or coordinated enough to be a hooper. I left the lesson feeling insecure. But later that week I put on my headphones and took my hoop outside to practice by myself without the pressure of learning any tricks. I was simply hooping on my waist to the music and I ended up leaping across the lawn and spinning for hours. I felt strong and free.

That day I wrote in my journal: Before I tell myself hooping is not my thing because I can’t do a move, I am going to practice every day for a month. I will just do whatever feels good and see what discoveries I make.

By the end of the month those lifts that seemed physically and psychologically impossible felt completely natural. I had also learned a handful of other basic moves.  By October I was hooping in the HONK! Parade down Massachusetts Avenue into Harvard Square. And by the beginning of November I had progressed to hooping with fire!

I started taking videos to track my progress. The video below is from Thanksgiving weekend 2011.

And so now every time I try a new “move” that feels uncomfortable, I remember how I felt at that first hooping lesson. I’ve worked – and I am still working – to shift my thinking from “I can’t do this” to “Let’s see what happens if I keep trying.”

For me, it helps to give myself a specific “expectations free” time period. That way I can’t let myself off the hook by saying I’m wasting time and I may never see a payoff so I might as well cut my losses. (Yes, I’ve had that negative thought pattern).  The worst that happens is the short span of time goes by and I don’t end up accomplishing the specific goal. Oh well.

Just think of it as an experiment – humor me. The next time you are frustrated and impatient with yourself – when you are on the verge of throwing in the towel- grant yourself a grace period. Make a commitment to yourself that you will keep trying, regardless of success, and then see how far you get.

I have a feeling you’ll surprise yourself.

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