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 cohesion—until 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.”
centeredstage.com (Creative Compass blog)