Diana Vishneva Leaves ABT

On Friday, June 23rd, I had the pleasure of watching Diana Vishneva’s final performance with American Ballet Theatre. It was a beautiful and emotional goodbye and the New York audience showed up in droves to applaud her.

This is not a review of the performance, but here are some good ones if you’re interested:

From Wendy Perron of Dance Magazine: Vishneva’s Farewell: A Great Ballerina Leaves

Haglund’s Heel Blog: Onegin: Passion Perfect

And this New York Times’ article, Flowers, Flowers, and More Flowers, has gorgeous photographs.

I love watching Vishneva dance; she embodies the qualities I work on with my dancers every day: fearlessness, confidence, and artistry.

Fearlessness

Diana Vishneva is fearless. I still remember vividly watching her descend the staircase in Romeo and Juliet, at the start of the balcony scene. She didn’t walk or even run down the stairs – she flew. Her feet touched every other stair and then every three or four stairs as she picked up speed. The audience gasped audibly. I remember raising my hands to my eyes, fearing she was going to fall before reaching her Romeo.

But she didn’t. Instead, she flew off the steps with a leap and ran across the stage, like a young girl in love: impetuous, free, and unthinking.

In a performance of Swan Lake with David Hallberg, her Odile piqued into an arabesque and tipped into the supported lean as her Seigfried was still crossing the stage. Again, audible gasps from the audience. But Hallberg made it, as she knew he would. And if he didn’t, her attitude seemed to suggest, she’d be just fine.

Vishneva is not afraid to take risks onstage and that makes for very exciting ballet. I have to imagine that fearlessness comes from her immense trust and confidence in her dancing body, as well as not getting stuck in her technique.

Confidence

As a former dancer and an avid watcher now, one thing that bugs me in professional dancers is a lack of confidence on their faces. You’ve seen it: that sudden drop of the performance smile when something technically difficult arises as if to announce, “I’m not sure I can do this!” Even at a company like ABT this happens.

But not with Diana Vishneva. Regardless of what she’s feeling inside, her facial expressions always register complete confidence. She is completely in her body when she performs, embodying the “flow” or being in “the zone” that strong mental fitness skills can deliver.

Vishneva has lovely technique, but it is not the first thing I noticed about her and it’s not front and center when she performs. It’s there like a skeleton or a scaffolding: without it, there wouldn’t be anything to “hang” her performance on, but it’s not what I pay attention to when watching her. Her body executes the technique, but it’s like speaking a language: I’m interested in what she’s saying, not so much how she’s saying it.

Artistry

Vishneva is an actress; she inhabits the characters she dances, body and soul. And that is part of what makes her so much fun to watch.

I remember watching company class onstage one Saturday and looking for her. I could not find her, although I was pretty sure she was there. Eventually, in the back, in a corner, I spotted her during adagio. I kept my eyes on her and was surprised at how tiny she looked. No matter where she is on the Met stage, my eye is always drawn to her, even when she’s not dancing much. But during class, she was just another body in motion up there.

I realized that when she performs, she PERFORMS: she’s an artist. Class is just that: class, a warmup, a way to get ready for the moment when it counts.

My Work

When it comes to my work, I want my dancers to watch people like Diana, who dance beyond their technique and who focus on the message of their dancing as well as the medium. That takes work and it takes trust. At some point, dancers need to trust in their training and let themselves go. And that takes a lot of confidence in one’s self and in the process of learning to dance and performing. That sequence of events – work, trust, confidence – is one that takes a career to master. But it is so worth every minute of work for it. Because the outcome is sublime. It’s a performance like Vishneva’s last at ABT: one that lingers in the mind’s eye for days and weeks later.

 

Nutrition at the Birmingham Royal Ballet: a Mixed Bag

 

This article about the nutrition of dancers with Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancers Victoria Marr and Matthew Lawrence, got me thinking. If you haven’t read it, take a peek.  Here’s what it’s got me thinking about…

1. Two-thumbs-up for the shift away from telling “heavier” dancers to stop eating, and instead directing them to company resources like nutritionists.

Even better that “things have gone to the nth degree with nutrition” (Marr) and dancers are even getting their bone density tested. (A wellness advocate’s dream…)

2. Two thumbs down for the ever-rigid ballet aesthetic which turns away beautiful dancers if they “don’t have the right shape.”

“You still have to be quite skinny and you have to have long, lean muscle. There’s no getting away from that. Ballet is all about aesthetics,” says Marr. I know this, but it still pains me.

3. Two half-sies thumbs for both interviewees eating whatever they like, according to the article. It’s great that they do not feel constrained, but it’s a little sad that they confess to eating “rubbish,” including “Kit-Kat bars” and “chips.”

On the one hand, they are professional adults who can eat whatever they want, but with so much access to nutrition and care, how did they end up with such low-quality snacks? I’m all for splurging, but aim high and go for the good stuff. (Like…Mast Brothers chocolate, for example. Why waste your calories on junk?)

4. Two palms up in the “huh?” gesture for Marr’s conflicting comments on food amounts: on the one hand, she says there is a “preconceived idea that dancers have to keep their food intake down in order to keep quite skinny,” which she claims is untrue, but then she confirms it by saying, “I don’t need to eat inordinate amounts of food to get the energy I need. You don’t really. It’s a myth.”

So, dancers don’t have to eat “inordinate amounts” of food to get the energy they need?

Problems: 1) “inordinate” is too subjective: what does that mean, exactly? and 2) everyone is different.

While Marr may not need to eat a lot, that generalization shouldn’t be applied to all dancers. Furthermore, many dancers do lower their overall caloric intake in order to achieve the proper look. By the time they become professionals, they are so used to eating that way it may feel totally normal. It doesn’t change the fact that compared to an average person, dancers eat considerably less food.

5. And, finally, two thumbs up for proper screening. That neither Marr nor Lawrence have faced issues around their weight at BRB made me think about the selection process. Most companies have a rigorous screening process wherein dancers who do not fit the aesthetic of the company are not usually hired. I used to think this was terrible, but I have come around to understanding the potential good of this practice.

If a company has a strict aesthetic, then I think it’s correct that they screen and hire appropriately. Is there anything more disheartening than landing the much-coveted contract, only to be told you must lose weight?

Until the ballet aesthetic changes worldwide, dancers should not be hired at one weight on the condition that they drop to another before they are considered stage-worthy. Surely, this practice leads to a greater number of physical and psychological problems.

Ultimately, I like to think the ballet world will be forced to alter its aesthetic to accept more “normal”-sized dancers. But until then, it seems imperative to not put dancers in the position of having to lose weight in order to keep their jobs, which is why being particular about the aesthetic right out of the gate seems like a better choice to me.

But enough of what I thought. What was your impression of the article?

Perspective is What’s Missing in Dance

The recent story of a horrendous attack on the Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Sergei Filin, has brought to light one of the less glamorous aspects of the dance world: the lack of perspective it can foster.

Regardless of the motives of Filin’s attacker, we can be certain that throwing acid into the unsuspecting man’s face outside of his apartment in Moscow was not warranted. What decisions – artistic, financial, or otherwise – could Filin have made that could have ever encouraged such a barbaric act? The answer is none. But in the world of dance, where perspective is often hard to come by, the stakes were high for his attacker.

Perspective 1.0

It isn’t hard to lose perspective when immersed in dance- dance professionals spend many hours a day enclosed in a studio or theater, surrounded by the same people and issues, day in and day out. They rarely have time to interact with people outside of the profession or to experience their concerns and dreams in a different context.

How is one to find perspective under such conditions? I remember having to work consciously to gain perspective on my dancing life, both as a ballet student and later, a professional. Casting decisions felt devastating, and injuries made me feel that my dreams were disappearing before my eyes. It took time to realize that these setbacks didn’t mean I was going to die, or that my career was over, or that the AD disliked me.

Perspective 2.0

But the perspective needed to situate my disappointments, fears, or anger into reality was a long time coming, and I was not aided by the dance world. For that, I always relied on my friends and family, people outside of the world I inhabited.

The perspective I gained never undermined my goals or made me less serious about my chosen profession. Instead, it helped me see what was really important, and how to handle the unexpected challenges of being a performing artist.

Starting from zero

The New York Times article ends with another truly disturbing fact from Filin. Apparently, he claimed the attack wasn’t as bad as when he danced the first act of Swan Lake on a broken leg because his mother was in the audience. “…if they shut the curtain and announced that something had happened to me, Mama would not tolerate that,” recalls Filin. “So I danced until intermission.”

Only in a world where perspective has been lost, would that inner dialogue even exist.

Meditate, Breathe: Summoning My Inner Tibetan

This morning I escaped to my Ashtanga yoga practice. I needed to meditate and breathe, and not just in the usual sense.

Since last Friday’s horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I have been on a roller coaster of emotions: pain for the victims’ families, friends, and teachers; immense sadness at the loss of so many innocent little children; horror at the  senselessness of such a devastating act.

I have also been angry at our country, our leaders, our health care system- all people and institutions which should be capable of working together in  a manner which could have prevented this from ever happening. These feelings and a sense of helplessness in the face of it all have kept me slightly nervy and emotional all weekend.

So this morning, I really needed to get out of my head and into my body and breath. I thought it would help me, and it did, but in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

In the middle of my practice, I found myself drifting towards thoughts of the event: things I’d heard on the radio, images I’d seen online. My eyes would well with tears and I caught myself grinding my teeth. “Come back to the breath,” I kept telling my mind. And then, out of nowhere, “Peace.”

Repeating “Peace” brought me to a quieter place emotionally, and I was able to finish my practice.

It also gave me a small personal epiphany about meditative monks, like the Tibetans. I had never been entirely sure how I felt about monks removed from the world, praying and meditating; I confess I have wondered sometimes how those actions could make a difference.

Today, I think I had a tiny glimpse into the power of a meditative practice: I felt active. I felt connected to those families. It is something to experience compassion and pain for someone else’s suffering, to hold it in your own mind and heart, and then release it on the breath. The relief I felt at being able to do something, anything, was powerful; I can see how it could even be healing.

Princess Aurora Reimagined as a Wild Child

Matthew Bourne, the creator of the modern interpretation of Swan Lake with male swans, is now working on a version of the Sleeping Beauty. Princess Aurora will go into her 100-year slumber in 1911, which means she awakes to her Prince’s kiss in 2011.

Bourne is working with designer Lez Brotherston to re-imagine this classic tale. Brotherston has the fun challenge of showing the passage of time from the 20th to the 21st century through sets and costumes.

This recent article in the Guardian  goes into detail about the creative relationship between Brotherston and Bourne; it’s a fascinating look at how they work together to arrive at what we see onstage.

Bourne’s Swan Lake

I was blown away by the psychological drama of his Swan Lake when it came to New York City a few years ago. In addition to being gorgeous, the male swans were menacing in a way that female swans never seem to be. Their danger added such depth to the story’s drama.

I also found the embellished details around the story to be just brilliant, like the way the swans came out of the prince’s bed to attack him while he was sleeping. These were not gentle animals. The pathos of the prince’s mental state was made manifest in the violent aggression of the flock.

Updating the Classics

As much as I love classical ballet, the classics can be challenging for today’s audiences. The helplessness of the female protagonist in particular, is something I have a very hard time relating to. I know I am not alone in wishing for new interpretations that give ballerinas something more substantial to express than their longing for a prince or their desire to be free of a monster. This is where Bourne, with his interest in re-imagining the classics, makes his mark. He dares to see the narratives with new eyes and to rewrite them where he feels they no longer work.

For Sleeping Beauty, it sounds like Bourne has some clever tricks up his sleeve, like imagining Aurora as a bit of a wild child, “a force of nature trapped within the formality of the palace.” And her wild nature may come from her mother Carabosse.

Wait, Carabosse as Aurora’s mother? What? Exactly.

Read the article and keep your ears open for the premier of what is sure to be an expectation-defying interpretation of the old classic. I, for one, cannot wait.

Ballet Saved by Fattening Up Ballerinas

I am definitely not a fan of the headline of this Huffington Post article, “How Fattening Up Will Save Ballet,” but the content is worth a read. It’s by author Deirdre Kelly, whose new book bears the equally controversial title: “Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection.”

Oy. Talk about stirring things up.

Big Takeaway

The basic takeaway of the article is that ballerinas are being “allowed” to be at healthier weights than they used to be, and that this will “save” ballet. She points out that medical experts have long stated the dangers of ballet’s required extreme thinness (true). She also notes that companies today place more emphasis on injury prevention and dancer health than they did in the past (also true). However, that emphasis does not rule out their desire for thin dancers, as displayed onstage.

Kelly writes, “Ballerinas today are again embracing the breasts and hips which first made them objects of desire way back in the day. They are turning their backs on the radical cosmetic surgeries and punitive dieting that stripped them of their identities as full-fledged women in the modern era.”

But is it True?

While I admire Kelly’s desire to highlight the female dancers today who break the hyper-thin mold of the classical ballerina, I am not sure I see the broad changes in the field that she sees. Thinness is still a requirement and a pressure that young students and professionals alike experience with shocking regularity.

And I’m not so sure our companies present such a wide variety of body types that aspiring dancers feel there is room for their diversity. When companies make that rare exception, dancers often get singled out for not fitting the mold. (Recall: NYCB principal Jenifer Ringer criticized in the New York Times just two years ago… see here.)

And Her Point?

Kelly goes on to say that she wrote the book to restore dignity to the ballerina- dignity that was lost in the years when dancers had to submit to extreme thinness. “[Ballet] is where the ballerina is in control of her body in determining her own destiny.”

I both agree and disagree with this statement and will share my personal thoughts later. First, what do you think?

An Apple a Day, the Tim Hortons Way

If this is your idea of “an apple a day,” Mr. Tim Hortons or my dear readers, I strongly urge you to reconsider.

For starters, the “apple” is in the bagel somewhere, which means it’s not really an apple. It might be more like apple puree or apple juice, or maybe even, an apple-flavored something. That’s not the same as an apple.

An apple is a fruit. It grows on a tree. It tastes delicious all by itself. It is full of vitamins and nutrients such as 5% of your recommended daily allowance of potassium and 14% of your daily vitamin C. It also gives you 17% of your daily fiber needs.

I’m not so sure we can say the same for your bagel, Mr. Horton. In fact, ‘et’s just take a look at what’s in there.

Tim Horton’s – Carmel Apple Bagel

Calories 340 Sodium 520 mg
Total Fat 4 g Potassium 0 mg
Saturated 1 g Total Carbs 68 g
Polyunsaturated 0 g Dietary Fiber 3 g
Monounsaturated 0 g Sugars 17 g
Trans 0 g Protein 9 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Vitamin A 0% Calcium 6%
Vitamin C 0% Iron 20%

I have bold-faced the two red flags.

  • There is over 20% of your recommended daily allowance of sodium, or salt, in this single bagel. That’s a problem.
  • There are 17 grams of sugar as well. The World Health Organization recommends that teenagers eat no more than 24 grams per day of added sugar. That’s 6 teaspoons. In this bagel, you’re already over halfway there.

The big takeaway here is that this is not a healthy breakfast choice. It’s not even a healthy snack. It’s just a hot mess. I would classify it as dessert, for sure.

It’s always worth remembering that companies are trying to sell you their products. End of discussion. They will make it sound “healthy” if that’s what it takes. They will make it sound “fun” if that’s what it takes. And they will make it “seasonal” to lure you in.

Needless to say, your daily fruits and veggies should be whole foods. They should grow on a tree or out of the earth. Don’t accept fake substitutes for the real thing!

Mindful Breathing Relieves Performance Anxiety

Those of you who have taken a yoga class or meditated know the positive effects of mindful breathing. An article in the Pacific Standard Magazine confirms those effects, reporting on a recent study out of the University of Sydney. The study shows that 30 minutes of mindful breath before performance steadies the heart rate and calms down the nervous system.

The Study

Psychologists Andrew Kemp and Ruth Wells lead a research team that experimented on a group of 46 musicians and singers. After being hooked up to a device that measured changes in their heart rates, the musicians were asked to perform a difficult piece and their heart rates and anxiety levels were measured.

Then, the musicians were divided into three groups.

  • The first group performed a slow, deliberate breathing exercise for 30 minutes
  • The second group did the same and stayed hooked up to the device to see the results of their breathing
  • The third group just relaxed on their own without special breathing instructions.

The musicians then performed a second, equally difficult piece of music.

The Results

The results showed that the musicians who felt anxious during the first performance experienced lower anxiety after doing the breathing exercises- much lower than those who simple relaxed.

The researchers suggest that slow, mindful breathing helped the musicians regulate their physiological stress levels. That is, it helped regulate their shaking hands, sweating palms, and butterflies in the stomach – all physical traits of anxiety.

It seems that emphasizing the exhale during slow breathing also helps. Our heart rate can increase with inhalation, and decrease with exhalation. So focusing on a long, slow exhale helps decrease the heart rate and thus lowers the amount of anxiety that we feel before a performance.

The Takeaway

So, remember those breathing exercises you learned in yoga or wellness class? Start using them! They are an easy, effective way to calm the mind and the body before class, rehearsal, auditions, and of course, performance. Remember that it takes a little time to master, so start practicing now to become a master by the time you really need it.

 

Whatever Happened to Sergei Polunin?

 

Photo by Rick Guest

Scandal and Loss

Sergei Polunin, the Royal Ballet principal who walked out of Covent Garden last January with the intention of quitting ballet created quite the stir. In follow-up tweets and interviews, Polunin seemed to be done with dancing, a possibility which shocked the dance world.

“The main impact though, was a sense of loss. A dancer like Polunin comes along every two or three decades; to see him demonstrate a movement is to see a blueprint of perfection…Polunin has it in him to be the heir of both stars (Nureyev and Baryshnikov), adding Nureyev’s feral impulse to Baryshnikov’s phenomenal virtuosity and clarity…” says Julia Kavanagh in a recent interview with Polunin.

Some Answers

The Economist’s Intelligent Life section just published a lengthy article about Polunin’s choice on that January day in London. It also discusses where he has landed some eight months later. While he may have given the impression that he had tired of the disciplined life of a ballet dancer, it turns out he needed something very specific. And he found it in Igor Zelensky, the new artistic director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre.

“(Zelensky) knew I was going to like him, as a father figure. And he was right. That’s what really convinced me. It’s him,” Polunin told Kavanagh. And so he took a contract with the Stanislavsky, where he will dance for the next four years. Kavanagh says that Polunin found in Zelensky a friend and a mentor. “Always what I needed was a person who believed in me. Like a teacher. I don’t need them to say anything. I just need their support,” said Polunin.

That quote seems to sum up what had been missing for him at the Royal and how finding it has brought him back to his passion for dance. I am particularly thrilled that he’s back onstage because watching him dance live is on my bucket list.

A Dancer’s Mind: Using Psychology to Dance Better

Dance Studio Life Magazine just published an article about the mind of the dancer, which I interviewed for over the summer. They also interviewed Gelsey Kirkland and some of the students from my wellness classes. For your convenience, I’ve pasted the entire article here.

You can also find it here or  go to http://www.dancestudiolife.com/ and search under issues by date. It’s from September 2012.

A Dancer’s Mind: Using psychology to improve physical performance

By James Careless

Dancers tend to think in physical terms when it comes to self-improvement, practicing more and eating less and trying to convert their bodies into ideal “dancing machines” through sheer will and perseverance. Often, the result is that dancer psychology gets very little attention; let alone respect. The expectation in the dance culture is that performers should “tough it out” not only physically but emotionally, despite pain, fear, and fatigue.

This macho approach to achieving dance excellence mirrors how things used to be done in sports. But no longer. Top-level professional and amateur athletes have long understood the importance of psychology’s role in attaining peak performance. And now many people in the dance community are adopting the sports-psychology model.

One is Elizabeth Sullivan, a former dancer with Boston Ballet and Cleveland/San Jose Ballet (now Ballet San Jose) and founder of Creative Compass, whose thesis for her MA in arts administration from Columbia University was on pre-professional dancer wellness programs. Sullivan, a certified health coach, now serves on Dance/USA’s Taskforce for Dancer Health. In 2010 she collaborated with psychologist Elisabeth Morray, PhD, who worked on the Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education’s Wellness Initiative, in designing a wellness curriculum.

In 2011 the two presented an overview of the Creative Compass program to Gelsey Kirkland, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. She embraced the idea, and a pilot program ran at Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City for 16 weeks from January through May 2012.

“The high standards set by the teachers, and indeed the art form itself, pale in comparison to the stress that most young dancers place on themselves to be perfect in form and technique.” —Elizabeth Sullivan

Meeting weekly with students from all three levels for one hour each week, Sullivan introduced the concepts of self-talk, positive visualization, centering, relaxation methods, food preparation, balanced eating, goal setting, and positive coping mechanisms. The discussion-based classes offer students the opportunity to “address the ‘mind side’ of traditional performing arts training, which includes mental and emotional health, as well as techniques for performance success,” as described on the academy’s website, with a focus on self-identity, self-confidence, and the development of the dancer as a whole person.

Asked whether personal experience contributed to her decision to implement the wellness program, Kirkland says, “My experience as a student and as a professional have gradually formed my [thinking] on what training is best for students, both the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’ I would like to think my decisions were formed not as a reaction to the past but more from the increasing clarity of vision that comes with time.”

Paying attention to the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of the Academy’s students is crucial, Kirkland adds, with good communication being key to the health of the students and the school as a whole. “We get to know more about the students and their needs,” she says. “The students get some idea that some of their problems are common to other dancers and in fact to many human beings and do not feel as isolated.”

Sullivan believes that addressing the psychological challenges of dancing is central to training emotionally robust, artistically confident dancers. And discussion-based classes are important, she says, giving dancers an “opportunity to express themselves verbally, something that traditional dance training has not offered.”

The emotional challenges associated with dancing—relentless practicing even when injured, competition against other highly motivated dancers, body image issues, and demanding teachers—are pervasive, from Moscow to Minnetonka.

“Most of us are well aware of the physical stresses of dance training, ranging from overuse injuries such as Achilles tendonitis to more debilitating ones like stress fractures,” Sullivan says. “Few of us, however, are as aware of the mental stresses that are just as prevalent in the lives of dancers.”

Self-doubt and self-criticism are among the most common mental stresses dance students face. “The high standards set by the teachers, and indeed the art form itself, pale in comparison to the stress that most young dancers place on themselves to be perfect in form and technique,” Sullivan says.

Based on the responses of Kirkland Academy students, the program is making a difference. “The class taught me the importance of positive self-talk,” says student Esmae Gold. “With this knowledge, I’ve been able to change some of my old habits and become a happier and healthier dancer and person.”

“My favorite part about the wellness class is how we all get to share our thoughts and questions,” says student Eden Orion. “It’s comforting to know that your peers are thinking the same things as you.”

Kirkland says, “We have realized the great pain some dancers carry and that the support and knowledge of a professional such as Elizabeth are essential to them. She has eased our burden enormously. We look forward to developing this program so that it is an integral part of [the school’s] daily life.”

Stress in dance

Geoff Greenwood, a UK-based performance psychology consultant, identifies five areas of stress associated with dance: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and technical. His performance psychology practice—which covers business, sports, performing artists, surgeons, and military commanders—focuses on overcoming these stresses to achieve success. The five elements listed below apply to all of these groups.

  • Physical: In addition to experiencing the all-too-common weight and body image problems that can lead to serious eating disorders or poor nutrition, dancers sometimes fail to pay attention to healthy sleep patterns. Add to that the combination of constant exercise and injury and the stage is set for an operatic set of problems.
  • Mental: Dancers, Greenwood points out, often ignore the mental components of dancing—things like attitude, goals, motivation, intensity, self-confidence, psychological preparation, concentration, emotional control, thought and visual control, mental toughness, and team dynamics and cohesionuntil they get out of hand and get in the way.
  • Emotional: Feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and disappointment are inherent in dance. “Many dancers struggle with understanding and overcoming emotional aspects of their lives and profession when they arise,” Greenwood says. “Again they are not aware of the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and how to deal with them when they are not supporting their dance. Self-awareness and training in this area can help the performance and even enjoyment of their art.”
  • Spiritual: “When we talk about spiritual aspects of dance we mean the whole reason for being,” says Greenwood, describing dance as “a life choice all leading to a desired outcome that makes life worth living for the person.” Acknowledging the meaning of dance in our lives can make many of its difficulties seem much less daunting.
  • Technical: Although technique is essential, honing it is stressful. “All of the above may be irrelevant if the dancer has no technical ability or the desire to improve in all the technical aspects of their profession,” Greenwood says. He links self-awareness strategies and imagery work in the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual areas into technique-related timeframes: practice, performance, and post-competition. “The concept of deliberate practice is instilled into the dancers [by their teachers],” he adds, “because focusing on the effective areas saves learning time [and decreases] physical demands and burnout.”

Constructive strategies for teachers

Most teachers know that psychological wellness is central to improving a dancer’s physical performance, and they want to help their students become the best dancers and people they can be. But, short of hiring a sports psychologist, how can they do it?

“I think where teachers sometimes struggle is in how to support their dancers emotionally,” says Chantale Lussier. “I believe most dance teachers care deeply about their students’ physical and mental wellness.” A retired professional dancer and former studio owner, Lussier founded Elysian Insight, an Ontario-based performance consulting company that has worked with Manitoba’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and The School of Dance and Allegro Danceworks in Ottawa, as well as with athletes and other performing artists.

To help the dancers she works with, Lussier uses a two-pronged approach she calls “Quality Mental Recovery.” These are “strategies that will help dancers take a mental break from being at the dance studio, and even thinking and perhaps worrying about dance,” she explains. “I wholeheartedly believe that those who practice mental recovery return to the studio the next day or next week reinspired to enjoy their dancing.”

The first component of Lussier’s Quality Mental Recovery strategy is Quality Solitude, a time for dancers to take much-needed time alone. “All techniques of self-care should be considered, from a bath to reading a good book or napping, to prayer or mediation,” says Lussier. “For example, mindfulness-based practices of meditation and breathing techniques help to facilitate an awareness of the present moment. In doing so, dancers learn to notice all the thoughts and feelings that are on their minds and in their hearts and learn to return to the spacious, peaceful place that is now.”

By contrast, Quality Support means relying on others for help. “Sometimes the best thing we can do to mitigate the negative impact of stress is to get quality support—share and debrief our experiences with a trusted family member, partner, or friend,” says Lussier. “Other times, the best way to recover from stress is by taking time off from thinking about it. In such cases, perhaps a group of dancers who decide to hang out would all agree to no ‘shop talk’ and just enjoy laughing, sharing, and doing a pleasant non-dancing activity together.”

Quality Mental Recovery and the focused self-awareness Greenwood advocates are two ways dance teachers and studio owners can use psychology to help their students to cope better, and improve their physical performance—by teaching them to “get out of their own way.”

Sullivan points to outside resources that can support young performers and relieve physical and emotional stress. “Teachers and schools don’t have to take on that responsibility themselves. They can develop supportive policies internally, and also encourage students to seek support from external resources.” She says initiatives like the wellness program require “a shift in the philosophy of dance education—an understanding that the traditional training model can benefit tremendously from supplemental teachings coming out of the fields of sport and performance psychology and holistic wellness.”

The bottom line: “Dancers tend to be perfectionists,” notes Dr. Kate Hays, performance psychologist and owner of The Performing Edge consultancy. “When they follow this tendency without considering their psychological needs, all sorts of things can and do go wrong for them. At the same time, dancers who tend to the entirety of their being—not just technique, but their state of mind and overall health—can actually move closer to achieving their goals.

“This is what dance teachers need to instruct their students in, and model through their own behaviors and attitudes,” Hays continues. “This may seem quite a stretch for those educated in the ‘tough it out’ tradition, but trust me: this approach is delivering results in sports, and it can do the same in dance at any and all levels.”