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End-of-Year Meltdowns Got You Down?

It’s spring, so that means meltdowns and performances. (Haha.) Seriously though, it’s definitely performance time: most dance schools are having their end-of-year shows to showcase all the good work their dancers have accomplished over the year. So it’s a time of excitement but also nerves, often for teachers as much as students. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward (no pun intended), but the anticipation can stir emotions into a real frenzy.

If you’re still in the countdown to an end-of-year show and are either experiencing meltdown-inducing levels of stress yourself or dealing with them from your peers or teachers, here are some fun tips to keep you sane.

  • Perfection will not be achieved between today and the performance, so let go of that as a goal. How you’re rehearsing today is the best indicator of how the show will go, so start turning on your face muscles to get ready to glow onstage because…
  • Performances are the reason you work as hard as you do every day. They should be exhilarating, as well as fun. If you keep the focus on dancing your best and having fun, you’ll be happier.
  • If your teacher(s) is overly stressed, don’t take it personally; end-of-year shows are an evaluation of them as well as you, so they’re entitled to jitters. Remind yourself of that if those jitters become meltdowns: everyone is doing their best and some people cope better than others.
  • Be in control of yourself and only yourself. There’s no point in trying to fix everyone else’s problems because it won’t work. Turn your focus inwards to yourself: how can you be best prepared to perform well? Keep your focus there to feel less stressed.
  • Finally, mark the end of your school year with a celebration after the performance, however small. It’s important to mark the occasion with a dinner out or some other way to celebrate your accomplishments.

Don’t fall into the trap of letting stress overshadow your performance(s); learning to cope with pre-show jitters is a big part of becoming a happy performer. If you have tried all of the above and still can’t deal, email me. I can definitely help.

 

Audition Prep: Familiarity and Routine

“Last time I auditioned, I was up till midnight printing out my resume. I had totally forgotten to do it earlier.”

* * *

“Last year, I didn’t wear my usual class skirt to one audition and it completely threw me off.”

 

I’ve already started talking about how auditions can be scary, unpredictable experiences – see here– which upset your normal schedule and mindset. Your brain likes routine; it enjoys being able to predict what’s coming up. When it gets jostled by sudden last-minute changes, your brain can either get pumped at the challenge or totally freak out. Hopefully you know yourself well enough to know which camp you fall into. Either way, you can reduce anxiety by making the audition process as familiar as possible, before the actual audition.

What does that mean?

Stress and anxiety are born from many things, but some last-minute, unexpected changes to routine can be anticipated and controlled by you. For example, take the second quote and imagine this is you. Every day, all year round, you wear a similar outfit for class: a leotard and a skirt. You are used to seeing your reflection in the mirror with a skirt on. While it might seem like a minor detail to a non-dancer, dancers know that altering your own reflection can be as disorienting as dancing without a mirror. For the dancer quoted above, it proved to be a major distraction for the duration of the audition.

Distraction = lack of focus = stress and anxiety. 

The solution is simple: start dressing now the way you will dress for your next audition. If you never wear pink tights, but know you’ll have to for auditions, then start as soon as possible; get used to the reflection of yourself you’re about to see in the audition. It’s one less distraction and one less source of possible stress.

Another upset to your routine is the extras that come with auditioning: maybe you’ll have an extra long commute to the audition, or need to pack extra food; you’ll definitely need things like resumes, cover letters, and pointe shoes that are ready to go. Leaving these details until the last minute and then not expecting them to stress you out is a little crazy. (See first quote, above.)

So start planning now. If you’ll need extra snacks, figure out what and plan to shop ahead of time. If you don’t have a printer (or even if you do), get those final drafts written and printed at least two days before the audition. The sooner it’s done, the calmer your brain will be, and the less it will weigh on you.

Familiarity + routine = calmer, happier brain = calmer, happier you. 

Good luck to everyone auditioning this weekend!

Grace Under Stress: Your Average Dancer

 

A diamond is just a piece of charcoal that handled stress exceptionally well. 

Among the many things dancers are gifted at, hiding stress is one of them. How many times have you been nervous or scared, and someone has said to you afterwards that you looked relaxed and nonplussed? This still happens to me now, years after my dance career ended, and I attribute it to my dance training.

Unlike athletes, dancers can’t show exertion or pain on their faces. Remember the Olympics last summer? The fierce determination, the anguish in the faces of the athletes- it really struck me that as an observer, I could almost read their minds because of how much showed on their faces.

Dance isn’t like that: dancers are trained to minimize natural expressions of pain or exertion so that they do not distract the audience from the art form. Keeping stress under the radar does not, however, mean that dancers handle it effectively. I have found that most dancers either ignore their stress, hoping it will go away on its own, or they are completely consumed by it.

Here are some tips for dealing with your stress so that you can respond like the diamond pictures above: clear-minded and beautiful!

  1. First, start paying attention to it: how does it manifest in your body? (i.e. no appetite, shaking, extremely tense muscles, dry mouth?) How does it manifest in your mind? (i.e. replaying mistakes in your head, self-criticism, obsessively checking things like your hair or your text messages?) Often, just noticing what is happening to us is a strong step towards managing the stress and preventing it in the future.
  2. Don’t wait until you’re stressed to practice self-care. Think of one thing that calms you down when you feel stressed, and add it to your daily routine to stop stress before it starts.
  3. Breathe. Deep, mindful breathing has been shown to lower the heart rate and slow down the release of stress hormones. Try counting your inhales and exhales, “inhale 1, exhale 2; inhale 3, exhale 4.” Count up to 10, and then start over. Doing this 2-3 times should help you feel calmer and more in control.

Understand that everyone experiences anxiety and those who come out the other end looking shiny and bright probably spent some time “in the wings” dealing with it. So, the real secret to handling stress is to not keep it a secret: acknowledge that you will have stress at some point, and make a plan to deal with it that involves prevention as well as treating the symptoms.

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.”