Performance Psychology in Dance

How awesome is this? We got an anonymous submission by a fellow member in the community. This is such an important topic in our current dance world, and we love that people are starting the conversation on the matter. Becoming a professional isn’t only about the technique, talent, and tricks. It’s also very much so, if not equally, dependent on your mindset. Olympic athletes have psychologists to help them get to and stay at the top, so why don’t professional dancers? Our anonymous writer goes into details below. We hope you enjoy and that it opens your mind to something you might need to make your dreams happen.

It’s about time. .  . Performance Psychology in Dance

If you are pursuing a career in dance, then you have heard it time and time again, “You’ve got to have high-quality training, impeccable technique and artistry, and a strong, fit body.  But that’s not all you have to have. Success as a professional dancer is a mental game. (Don’t believe me? Listen to this podcast where City Ballet dancers talk about it) Anyone, and I mean anyone, who has made it into a paid contract and beyond has developed a set of mental skills that sustain them. From a distance, it might seem like the cool, calm girl at the audition, the flawless dancer at the competition, or the principal dancer have natural abilities to handle pressure. Like turnout, or flexibility, or hyperextended legs—it seems like either have it or you don’t.  

Right? Well, not exactly. Most people must build and develop the mental resilience and psychological skills needed to deal with all the ups and downs of launching and maintaining a professional career–periods of burnout, casting disappointments, injury, on-stage mistakes, contracts that are not renewed, negative reviews. How do they do it? How do they become mentally tough and move forward in their careers? This is where performance psychology comes in.

 

Contemporary Ballet photograph of dancer Megan Prout in skirt and pointe by Rachel Neville Photography
Megan Prout

What is performance psychology? (or performance science).

Perhaps you’ve heard of “sport psychologists,” professionals who work with elite professional athletes to improve their performance in high-pressure competitions or games. Well, this subfield has expanded and is now called “performance psychology.” It addresses the psychological needs of anyone, not just athletes, who must perform at a high level of mental and physical skill (e.g., athletes, actors, dancers, musicians, surgeons). According to the American Association of Psychologists (APA) performance psychology “focuses on identifying and applying psychological principles that facilitate peak sport performance, enhance physical ability and achieve optimal human performance.” APA

Performance psychologists work with individuals and teams to help them conquer problems that impede optimal performance. They might provide strategies to increase performance quality or help individuals overcome anxiety after a bad game or performance. Importantly, performance psychologists help people to learn that not all is lost when something goes wrong — people can return from mistakes or trauma to be successful in high pressure, performance careers.

Why do dancers need it?

There are four reasons that professional and pre-professional dancers need performance psychology. First, dancers begin their careers at a young age. They are often thrust very quickly into very high-pressure situations. Without the ability to master their own thoughts and emotions, focus, control their intensity, summon self-confidence, find motivation, they are at risk of leaving the career or never being able to launch.

Second, performance psychology is a proactive approach to help dancers positively handle the demands of the career so that they do not turn to more reactive, unhealthy, and often career-ending responses (anxiety, depression, disordered eating, burnout, substance abuse).

And think about it. The message that the dance world and the media give us of dancers working with psychologists is deeply pathological. It happens when there is a serious problem. But what if, dancers regularly worked with performance psychologists to improve themselves as do with physical therapists, strength coaches, or a Pilates teacher?  There is no shame in working with a Pilates teachers to strengthen your core why would there be shame in seeing a counselor regularly to build confidence, control negative thoughts, or use imagery?

Third, learning about performance psychology helps young dancers know that they are not alone when they encounter common scenarios in high-performance careers. For example, do you know that some dancers will become fearful of becoming injured when they get a big role or have an upcoming audition? Do you know that when a dancer falls and then continues to worry about falling he is often actually visualizing falling and more likely to fall in performance? And performance psychology provides answers about what to do when you are facing these dilemmas– answers that are not always obvious.  

The fourth reason that dancers need performance psychology is because there is a strong mind-body connection in dance (and in life). Your thoughts and emotions will permeate your physical movements when you dance. If your mind is scared, you dance “scared.” If your mind is positive and enthusiastic, you dance with passion and freedom.  If you are too intense, you can lose control of difficult movements and if you are not intense enough your dancing will be apathetic and boring. Performance psychology helps you pay attention to your mental state during dancing.

 

Ballet photo of young ballet dancer Elisabeth Beyer in tutu and high a la second leg on pointe by Rachel Neville Photography
Elisabeth Beyer

What you can do to build your mental skills?

Many accomplished dancers figured how to handle the pressures of the dance career through trial and error but just as many have not, imploding dangerously or opting out too early. You can actually learn strategies that can help you when pressure is high or something goes wrong.  There is an entire science dedicated to optimizing performance and it’s not just available to the most elite.

The most obvious way to build your skills is to work directly with a psychologist who specializes in performance psychology. Optimally, a strong clinician would be experienced in working with professional dancers and would understand the scenarios and demands of a dance career. A good time to work with a performance psychologist is when you are beginning to audition, apprenticing, and waiting for your first contract.

If you are not able to afford counseling you can still understand and practice the principles of performance psychology by educating yourself. Below are a series of podcasts, books, and articles to read. You can learn to meditate, visualize, or understand your thoughts and emotions. You can add journaling to your dance corrections notebook or consider the level of intensity that best suits your individual needs.

Above all else, know that “cross training” in dance means more than just going to the gym, doing yoga, or working with a strength coach. It means strengthening your mind to cope with the intense roller coaster that is a dance career without becoming unhealthy or devoured by the rigors of the job.

 

Backside movement shot of dancer Charlotte Landreau with blonde hair blowing in wind by Rachel Neville Photography
Charlotte Landreau

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Resources:

Books:

Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence By Jim Taylor, Elena Estanol

Podcasts:

Conversations on Dance: (117) Eric Trope of Miami City Ballet on a dancer’s mental health

The Dance Podcast: #006 Training your brain; becoming a better dancer, performer, a

Articles:

Why every company should have a performance psychologist on staff: https://www.dancemagazine.com/performance-psychologist-2619547020.html

 

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