Friday, February 1, 2013

Another wonderful thing about ballet: Comfortable silence

One side of my family is of Finnish origin (a heritage I share with Johanna of Pointe Till You Drop).  My grandparents emigrated to North America (Canada and the U.S.), and I grew up immersed with many transplanted aspects of Finnish culture.  One is an appreciation for a good Finnish sauna, the kind with a wood-burning stove that produces sizzling steam when you throw water on the lake stones piled on top (a dry and stuffy hot room at the gym is NOT a real sauna!).  Another is a love of good strong coffee (the Finns drink more coffee per capita than any other nation).  And one of my very favourites that I have come to cherish more and more as a busy adult is the concept of comfortable silence.  For Finns, "silence is cozy, restful---even fun*", and periods of silence are not awkward pauses to be filled with idle chatter and small talk.  In North America, it seems that silence is something suspicious to be banished or avoided, and I will never get used to the tendency to fill every gap with some noise. 

Yes, there IS such a thing as awkward silence, such as the kind that occurs at business dinners with strangers, contentious family events, or other situations with a tense vibe where everyone is painfully attempting to keep the mood light or desperately reaching to find common things to keep the conversation going, but "comfortable silence" is something that you share with close friends and loved ones, where you can be in the same room, sitting on the same couch, engaged in separate activities but feel no need to speak or fill the silence because you just appreciate the cozy company and the peace.  I experience this with my immediate family members, a few close friends, and my partner…and also, in ballet class! 

I love the fact that ballet is mercifully nonverbal.  After a day filled with words, including presentations, work meetings, status reports, emails, phone calls, manuscripts, memos, and so on, I love the absence of words in the studio where the teacher's instructions, the pianist's music, and the quiet brush and soft landings of ballet slippers are the only sounds.  Sometimes I feel like walking into the studio is like entering a church or a monastery, where actions truly speak and words are insufficient.  It's a contemplative time where my thoughts, energies, and emotions can turn inward, and I can enjoy the presence of my classmates doing the same in comfortable silence. :)

I thought about this today while I basked in the peaceful work and comfortable silence in the ballet studio.  I hope you feel it too and incorporate a little comfortable silence in your own lives :)

*Quoted from a book on how to do business in Finland, called "Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf", by Richard D. Lewis.


  1. Kaija, this is so true about the Finns loving their comfortable silence - but it can be difficult for foreigners to understand. One of my teachers is French and she has told me repeatedly that she will never get used to the pre-class silence! This particular beginners/basic level class is the first of the evening, and students can take their places at the barre in advance. Which happens quietly. People barely greet each other, but it's not because they have no interest or manners.

    Finns have respect for your personal space, and it's perfectly acceptable not to engage in any small talk. It has also been said that Finns do not like to stand out in a crowd (generally speaking, because there are always exceptions to the norm). I suspect that many students would love to talk to to our teacher (who often comes in early to prepare), but that would mean drawing attention to oneself and possibly even invading the teacher's privacy. It's really about respect.

    Althoug I'm not your typical Finn. I spent my early childhood in Germany, close to the French border - a very chatty and tactile region!

    My own class (int/adv) is much noisier though. We know each other by name (not a given in a Finnish dance studio), and we are more confident in a ballet class environment. We might even be guilty of breaking the balletiquette and sometime talk in class. You know, whispers of what direction?/which foot?/my pirouettes suck today/other ballet related stuff. In between diagonals, when the teacher is not talking/looking at you/waiting.. So, rarely.

    I do love the calm before class. And the fact that all I have to do in class is to dance, and maybe nod or say yes/oui once in a while.

    Thanks for another awesome post!

  2. Thanks for your lovely input, Johanna. The area where I grew up was mostly settled by Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, etc. immigrants, so I didn't realize how much of the Nordic influence I had absorbed until living in other places in North America. I still hate small talk and standing out in a crowd :) That's fascinating that you grew up in Germany...I am always impressed by the fact that you write blogs in two languages (and probably know more!).

    My intermediate/syllabus class is more chatty, much like you describe, probably because we all know each other and have been progressing through the terms together. Our teacher is also very gregarious and his humor/positivity is infectious. Some days I like to drop in on an open class where I don't know anyone (although by now I always seem to run into someone I know from ballet!) and can just blend into the crowd and work on my ballet bugaboos.

    I hope we get to dance together some day :)

  3. I could not agree with you more, Kaija!

    I work in PR and spend the whole day talking and getting people to talk about things. It's so nice to silently work at the barre with people from all walks of life who share my passion for ballet. Its like meditation!