On Talent and the Physical

I used to believe that only people born with natural talent could do physical things. And I knew I wasn’t talented.

When I was five, the doctor recommended ballet classes because I had problems with my ankles. Ballet isn’t a particularly good exercise for weak ankles, but it was one of the few physical classes available for girls back then.

My teacher put me in toe shoes. Clearly she didn’t know anything about strengthening ankles. Toe shoes probably made my ankles worse.

I don’t remember much about those classes, but I came away knowing I wasn’t talented.

I was always one of the tall kids, so I figured I could play basketball (even if my parents thought it was silly). The PE teacher told us that anyone who could run a mile around the track could play basketball, so I did it, only to discover that the test only applied to sixth graders. After that, I went to a school that didn’t have basketball for girls. I used to shoot layups before PE class, trying to get good just because I wanted to be good.

But despite that, PE class informed me that I wasn’t talented. I got picked last for teams. I could never get the volleyball over the net. Or the tennis ball, though I liked tennis.

I could ride a horse, though I never rode as much as my sister. I used a bicycle to get into town until I got a driver’s license. Mostly I spent my time curled up with a book. I was “smart,” not physical.

The first chink in my wall of belief came from watching The Avengers. Not the superhero movies, but the clever British spy spoof TV series from the 60s. Mrs. Peel, as played by the late Diana Rigg, was an awesome fighter because she had trained in martial arts.

A seed was planted in the back of my mind: Learn martial arts and you won’t be at risk from men.

Of course, martial arts was physical and I was untalented, but the idea remained.

Yes, stories matter, even high camp sixties TV. 

Fifteen years later I signed up for karate at the YMCA in Wichita Falls, Texas, showed up late for class wearing the wrong clothes, got on the mat even though there were no other women there, and fell in love with something physical.

And, no, I wasn’t any good. I’d spent most of the years in between not being physical. I slipped past PE requirements in college by getting enough hours to be a junior after one year. Outside of riding a bicycle for transportation, I remained the person who curled up with a book.

Bodies are capable of learning a lot, but they need to move to learn. And mine hadn’t been moving much.

It took years of training (first in karate, then in aikido) to undo those initial beliefs. Most people who take up martial arts aren’t particularly talented, but a few are. Watching the talented succeed while you plod along can be disheartening.

But if you stay with something physical because you love it, talent begins to matter less and less. You start to care about principle. You start to understand what your body can learn and how that can transform the rest of you.

You start to realize that we’re physical creatures and that using our bodies is an important part of who we are. Talent has nothing to do with it.

Now I believe that I am a physical person, that moving my body is vital to who I am. I’m no longer sure what it was like being that person who assumed that I didn’t get to do physical things because I wasn’t and would never be talented.

I was also right that learning to fight showed me I didn’t have to be afraid of men.

Right now the only safe physical activities are ones we do by ourselves. I miss the contact with others, but I still try to move.

It took me a long time to learn that I could be physical. I’m not going to give it up.

4 thoughts on “On Talent and the Physical

  1. This sounds like my life story: I was put into ballet in part to help deal with the fact that I walked on my toes. It was a disaster: I have shortened Achilles tendons (because of walking on my toes) so I could not even sit up straight on the floor if I had my legs out in front of me. My teacher appeared to find this a moral failing on my part, alas (paranthetically: YOUR TEACHER PUT YOU IN TOE SHOES? You don’t get toe shoes until you’ve been studying for years, building up the muscles that will support you in this extraordinarily unnatural activity. At least that’s what I was told. Repeatedly. When I asked.)

    I didn’t discover myself as a physical person until I started taking stage combat, which required all sorts of skills I had heretofore neglected. I, who had never liked PE (which never liked me back) was happy to drill for hours, back and forth, doing hand-to-hand, quarterstaff, and a variety of sword-work. I was likely in the best shape of my life, and I was… graceful! Who knew? I think it was because stage combat had a narrative, it wasn’t just “jump over this thing because I said so” or “hit this ball”, none of which I cared about. With stage-combat I was part of a story, and it was fun.

    1. Toe shoes. At six. When I was taking ballet to build up my ankles. And hell, just think about the cost of those shoes and growing feet. Your teacher was certainly right. Be thankful that you never wore those torture devices.

      It occurs to me that maybe martial arts speaks to me because it also has a narrative. It’s not necessarily part of the story, like stage combat, but you do certain moves in response to other moves. And the forms and katas are a fixed set themselves, a kind of story.

      And I always did want to do stage combat. Or choreograph fight scenes for movies.

  2. Ditto! I was late 4os when I read John Bingham’s The Courage to Start. He said a person could waddle like a penguin and still be a Runner and finish a marathon and I wanted to do that. And I did. That lead me to believing I was allowed to go to the gym and lift the big girls weights. At 62 I’m stronger and more mobile than I was at 20 and I will keep going.

    1. Oh, the joy of finding the ways that work for you. I walk now rather than run (and I never ran far) and I love that, too. And if it’s ever safe to go to the gym again, I will do a tad of lifting, not to mention hitting the heavy bag.

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