How Many of Us Wear the Red Shoes?

A life lesson from a classic film about dance

Posted Dec 22, 2010

Moira Shearer as Victoria Page

In the film, young ingénue Victoria Page (played by prima ballerina Moira Shearer) is forced to choose between the chance to be a "great dancer" under the wing of impresario Boris Lermentov (played with breathtaking intensity by Anton Walbrook) and her life with her beloved husband, former musical director of the Lermentov company, Julian Craster (played by Marius Goring). In a parallel to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Red Shoes, in which the magical shoes of the title take over a young girl and force to dance endlessly, the story ends tragically. (I don't want to spoil too much—please see the film for yourself!)

There's an obvious issue of gender here which we should acknowledge—that of whether a man in her position would be forced to make the same choice between career and love—but my focus will be more on the costs of wholehearted dedication to any goal by anyone. I don't think it has to be a woman, nor does it have to be dance: achieving the pinnacle of success in many fields of human endeavor requires an almost superhuman devotion that would seem to rule out any other pursuits, including love. Think of training for an Olympic gold medal; achieving fame in film, theater, or music; or becoming an world-renowned writer, artist, or intellectual, all of which require exceptional dedication and focus.

Please don't misunderstand, I do not mean to speak against pursuing dreams or goals, which can be an important source of meaning and joy in life. And it can seem at times that that particular meaning or joy can be achieved with nothing less than ultimate devotion. But few of us will be satisfied with just that one type of meaning or joy. For instance, successes are often the sweetest when shared, but there will be no one to share them with if you shun all human relationships in pursuit of your dream.

Maybe the key is to not to abandon your dreams but to broaden them. The Olympic hopeful may be dreaming of that gold medal, but is she also dreaming of having no friends or lovers to experience that joy and pride with? What was does that success mean to her? Will it make her happy, even given the extreme costs? I think the lesson is that we can pursue our dreams wholeheartedly only if our dreams themselves incorporate balance, balance between all good things life has to offer, rather than just success in our chosen fields. We can dream of success and people to share it with, which for most of us would be immensely more joyful and meaningful, and then we can pursue that "composite" dream with focus and dedication.

Victoria Page couldn't find that balance, and she suffered the consequences. From her and the movie, we should lean to take control of our own "red shoes" before they take control of us.

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