Dance has had my heart since I was three years old. I can vividly remember the excitement of being backstage before a performance. The thrill of my first pair of pointe shoes. The buzz in the studio as we learned new choreography for the season.
But I can also remember the heartbreak. The disappointment of not getting the convention scholarships. The sting of being criticized in rehearsals. The confusion and disapproval I felt when I caught a glimpse of my body in the mirrors. The ever-persistent desire to be perfect.
Dance is truly amazing and unique in that we are both artists and athletes. We can express things through movement that words just won’t do justice. But it can also wreak havoc on our mental health. We are expected to be free-thinking, creative, and expressive artists while also possessing the discipline, diligence, and grit of professional athletes. It can be a breeding ground for comparison, insecurities, and perfectionism.
The state of mental health in dancers was incredibly daunting in the recent online survey conducted by Kathleen McGuire Gaines and Dr. Brian T. Goonan at Minding the Gap. After collecting 899 responses from dancers on the Dance Magazine website, they found that “only 10% of dancers would definitely feel comfortable talking to a teacher if they were having a mental health issue. 80% didn’t feel that the dance community does enough to address mental health.”
That's why it’s so important to implement tools in the studio, every day, to foster a healthy mindset. Even if it feels like it’s eating up class time in the beginning, the benefits of mental wellbeing in dancers and teachers will have a lasting impact on creativity, longevity, and love for dance. In my work doing individual mindset coaching, I start by focusing on three areas: calming the mind, creating inner strength, and cultivating self-confidence. In my next several posts we will explore these subjects, why they’re needed in the lives of both dancers and teachers, along with tips and tools you can use daily.
First, let’s take a look at some of the things that get in the way of a dancer’s healthy mindset.
The word perfect is thrown around a lot in the dance industry. Practice perfect. Perfect performance. Hit those turns perfectly. Perfect body. But isn't that misleading to ourselves and our students? Perfection does not exist. And perfection is not the same thing as striving for excellence.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfections,my favorite researcher and author, Brené Brown says, "Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame."
She goes on to say, "Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused-How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused-What will they think?"
It’s so vital that we as dancers, educators, and parents learn and practice the difference between perfectionism and healthy striving. This can start by simply asking yourself, “is what I am doing right now about improving and growth or about perfection?”
According to The American Institute of Stress, there is not one clinical definition of stress. The most well-known and accepted definitions are:
-“physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension”
-“a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”
Not all stress is bad. In fact, eustress is a type of stress that can be beneficial to our growth and development. This is the state of stress when we are facing something new, out of our comfort zone. It is the stress we feel when faced with a challenge, but feel adequate and confident to handle it.
However, distress and chronic stress can run rampant in studios and at conventions and competitions when not managed with healthy coping skills. According to Healthline, symptoms of chronic stress include, “rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, feeling overwhelmed, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, poor problem-solving, fear that stressor won’t go away, and persistent thoughts about the stressor.” There may also be, “changes in behavior, including social withdrawal, feelings of sadness, frustration, loss of emotional control, inability to rest, and self-medication”. When you take a closer look, you can easily see how important it is that we all implement tools to reduce stress in order to work and perform at our best.
Fear can show up in several different areas for dancers and dance teachers. From the fear of making mistakes or failing, fear of disappointing, fear of being judged, to the fear of performing and auditioning. These fears can be so debilitating that it’s often one of the first areas I work through with clients.
Another way fear can show up is in the classroom. In a recent Instagram post, Francisco Gella said, “Anything we do that causes our dancers to have fear or to doubt themselves is not an effective teaching practice”. I’ll be the first to admit that when I was a young teacher, especially when pressure and stress were high, I would occasionally inadvertently resort to this type of teaching style. I’m not proud of it and it took a lot of reflection and inner work to grow and move past my own fears and evolve my teaching habits.
As I’m learning, Francisco is correct, fear is not an effective teaching method. When we feel fearful or perceive we are in danger, whether physically or mentally, it can activate our fight-or-flight response. Arlin Cuncic, who holds her MA in clinical psychology says, “In this way, the amygdala triggers a sudden and intense unconscious emotional response that shuts off the cortex, making it hard for you to think clearly about the situation. As your brain triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, you find it increasingly hard to problem solve and concentrate. This whole process takes a toll, and you may not recover to your original level of functioning for several hours.” This is why it is vital that dance educators not only take the fear out of our teaching style but also move through our own fears and stressors while helping our students learn tools to do the same.
I spent years in the chronic cycle of negative self-talk. “I’m not skinny enough for that costume”, “don’t go to the front, you’ll embarrass yourself”, “you’re not doing enough”, “wow that score is so embarrassing, everyone is judging you”. Sound familiar?
Negative self-talk, commonly referred to as your inner critic, is the harsh, critical voice we all have inside. It is our inner dialog that keeps us small and affects confidence. Wellness Coach, Elizabeth Scott, says, “studies have linked negative self-talk with higher levels of stress and lower levels of self-esteem. This can lead to decreased motivation as well as greater feelings of helplessness. This type of critical inner dialogue has even been linked to depression”.
The bad news? We all have an inner critic and we can’t get rid of it. It is actually a safety instinct used to keep us from harm. The problem is it doesn’t do a very good job of distinguishing between real harm (like being attacked by a wild animal) and perceived harm (like being embarrassed in the middle of a dance convention or being judged by your peers). The good news? There are tools to quiet it.
In my next post, we’ll dive into ways to quiet your inner critic. But for now, check out this list of Tara Mohr’s ways to recognize that voice. Over the next few weeks, see if you can notice when you hear your inner critic speak up and what it most commonly says. These tools have been transformative in my own inner dialog and I’m so excited to see the shifts they can make in your life, too.
If you’re interested in my work, head to my website to learn more and see how we can work together to build your healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.
Ashley Mowrey is a Performance Mindset Coach located in Fayetteville, AR. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas and is a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program for Women. Ashley trained as a competitive dancer out of Dallas, TX before teaching and eventually directing a company and dance studio in Fayetteville, AR. It was during those years that she felt drawn towards the dancer’s mindset and the need for training and tools in the dance community. Now, as a Performance Mindset Coach, she is also a dance specialist with Dancers for Doctors. Ashley has also recently been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and will be on an upcoming episode of Dance Boss Podcast.