The Talent Myth

Although I’m an art nude model, I’ve started dancing ballet as an adult.  When people ask me why I took up this new hobby, I tell them it’s to improve my posing.  And although this is partially true (and it has), the real reason is because a photographer called me talented.  

Actually, I’ve had several photographers tell me that I’m a talented model.  Some people have an innate ability to move naturally in front of the camera, they say, and some don’t.  And according to them, I apparently have it.

I know they mean what they’re saying as a compliment, so I’ve always tried to take it as such.  But I never know how to respond when someone tells me that I’m talented.  Because I’m not a talented model: I had to learn how to pose the hard way.  

I grew up as a tomboy, so all of the hair and makeup styling necessary to get in front of the camera was brand new to me.  I had to learn everything from how to use a curling iron to how to put on mascara.  The first time I wore lipstick in my life was for my first shoot.  I felt like I was working from a deficit compared to every other girl that tried out modeling for the first time.  

But more than that, I did not have the innate ability to move in front of the camera.  I didn’t inherently have body awareness, or know how to pose.  Instead, I looked through countless art nude photographers' and models' portfolios.  I spent hours in front of a mirror practicing expressions, shapes, and gestures.  Before I ever got in front of a photographer, I made my best friends come over and take naked pictures of me until I felt comfortable with how I moved and looked.  

Saying I’m naturally talented feels like it disregards all of that work.  It’s disempowering.  It also feeds my impostor syndrome.  It makes me think: did every other model not have to work at this?  Am I the only one who didn’t have modeling come naturally?  

I kept falling back on the word “talent” to describe things I admired but didn’t understand how to do myself.

Listening to this latest well-meaning photographer describe all of my hard work as talent made me analyze my own use of the word.  And it made me realize something: I was making the same mistake in other fields.  I kept falling back on the word “talent" to describe things I admired but didn’t understand how to do myself.

Ballet dancers were a perfect example.  I’ve always admired them for their grace, strength, and beauty.  But as far as I was concerned, dancing en pointe was some type of black magic.  Being a ballet dancer meant that you had won the lottery of talent and the right genes.  I was impressed by models that could add dance repertoire to their poses, and wished that I could do the same. If we’re being honest, I wanted to be a dancer too.  But I was convinced I couldn’t have it.  I was too tall.  I was a klutz.  And I couldn’t dance to save my life.  

But how could I believe that modeling was a skill set, while any other type of art was inherent?  That didn’t make sense.  I didn’t think my music or my writing was natural talent either—I had watched myself go through the hard work of learning them, just like with modeling.  Shouldn’t dancing be the same way?

So me being me, I decided I had to give ballet a try to put the talent question to rest, once and for all.  One of my artists was a retired ballerina, and willing to give me lessons.  So I started an experiment: I wanted to see how far I could get in ballet with hard work, time, and my obvious lack of talent.  

Two and a half years of lessons later, and I’ve learned that ballet is hard, and that I’m definitely not a natural.  But I also learned that I can do it.  I’m just starting to choreograph my first en pointe routine.  Being en pointe is one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever experienced.  It feels like I'm using every muscle in my body, but at the same time I’m floating above the ground.  I imagine it’s something like how flying would feel, or yes, like some kind of black magic.  But it’s me.  I’m actually dancing.  

It turns out that learning how to model and how to dance en pointe have quite a bit in common.  Actually, learning how to dance ballet was just like learning how to model.  I practiced for hours in front of a mirror; I took pictures and videos.  I watched other dancers.  Sometimes I got stuck.  Sometimes I got frustrated beyond belief and wanted to quit.  Sometimes I got impostor syndrome and believed I was fooling myself for ever thinking I could do it.  But in the end, it was like discovering I had a super power.  Learning ballet made me feel like I could become competent at anything with enough work.  

So now I’m officially excising the word “talent” from my vocabulary.  I’m calling it a myth.  Because whether or not it’s true, it’s not relevant.  For me, being talented isn’t a predictor of success. Hard work is.