Tuesday, February 1, 2011


My favorite Italian word is "sprezzatura." I first heard this word in a graduate class on writing literary criticism that I took a few years ago. My professor, Dr. Wertime (one of the best professors ever!) used this word in describing good writing. In a later class that I took with him, he used it again -- this time to describe the manner in which we should present our final projects. The word is translated as "seeming effortlessness." His point in using this word was to show how "we are chronic under-estimators" of how complex or difficult things are. (He said this so often, I have to use quotation marks to cite him.) The word can apply to just about any action, but he used in connection with writing.

Writing -- at least good writing -- is hard work, but reading something that is well-written is not. The easy-reading of a good piece of writing is not an accident, it is the result of "sprezzatura." Although the author labored over the piece for a long time - writing, revising, editing, revising again, more editing - the reader goes through the piece with ease and has no idea how much work went into writing it -- seeming effortlessness. If the work is well-done, it will appear effortless.

A similar concept appears in the book I am (still) reading -- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig is dealing with the concept of Quality in the book, and I am reminded of Dr. Wertime's description of "sprezzatura." According to Pirsig, Quality cannot be defined, but we all know what has Quality and what does not. Again, using writing as an example, when you read something of poor Quality, it will be painfully obvious -- it is actually difficult work to read something poorly written. It takes so much effort just to read it, the meaning of the work is lost. On the other hand, a piece of Quality work is a joy to read, and you don't notice the work you put into reading it, because you are able to focus only on the message that is being conveyed.

I shared all of that introduction to write about dancing.

Dr. Wertime often used the example of a ballerina to explain "sprezzatura." When watching ballet, the dancers seem to float effortlessly across the floor. But get out on that stage yourself and try some pirouettes,  and you'll see just how difficult ballet is. At the same time, when you watch ballet, you want the dancers to have "sprezzatura," to have Quality. You wouldn't want the dancers at a ballet to huff and puff and fall over in exhaustion at the end of a difficult piece. You want them to keep the appearance of effortlessness to the very last grand-plié. "Sprezzatura" is what sets apart the dancers who have Quality from those who do not. 

And let me tell you just how difficult it is to dance with Quality! I will no longer "chronically under-estimate the difficulty or complexity" of dance -- Georgian dance, at least.

I had my first actual dance lesson today after school. Before Christmas break, I went to a couple of the dance lessons with my students, and they helped me with some of the steps and arm/hand movements; but today I started lessons in earnest. And again, I will say that it is very difficult to dance with Quality and seeming effortlessness. It is a good thing that I am a decent athlete and in shape, otherwise I would be immobile right now. Dancing for over two and half hours taxes unused muscles in ways that can bring on lots and lots of pain! My feet and calves were tired by the end of the lesson, but thanks to all the running I do, they are strong and can take the beating. 

Wouldn't you think that floating across the floor like a butterfly with as little vertical movement as possible would be easy? It sure looks easy when it's done well (sprezzatura!). And it should be easy to hold my hands in the correct position while dancing, but it's not. Nor is it easy to combine a series of arm motions with a combination of steps. (I can do one or the other -- arms or steps -- but not both together....  at least, not yet.) But with 5 hours of lessons every week (Tuesdays and Fridays), I should get it down soon. 

Then I'll work on adding the "sprezzatura." 

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