Preventing Dance Burnout

Preventing Burnout in Dance with Julie Ferrell-Olson

Written by
Julie Ferrell
Tuesday 3, 2020

Preventing Burnout in Dance

by Julie Ferrell-Olson

The term “burnout” seems to be thrown around so easily (especially now with “zoom burnout”), but what is it really? After emerging as a condition within the workplace in the 1970s, burnout is now commonly recognized as a psychological syndrome centered around general exhaustion—mentally and physically—loss of motivation, and devaluation of an activity. While there are several theories around the causes and framework of burnout, the current widely accepted one comes from the Self-Determination Theory.

The Self-Determination Theory is based on the grounds that all humans have Basic Psychological Needs (BPN) that determine intrinsic motivation towards achievement: competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

Competence is a person’s feeling of accomplishment and ability to complete a task

Autonomy is the sense of individual self and being able to make independent choices

Relatedness is a person’s relationship to their peers and the support they gain from being in a positive environment

According to Grove and colleagues, any detriment or loss in BPN being met can increase a dancer’s risk of burnout. To support this, research found a strong correlation between loss of autonomy-support and an increase in burnout symptoms, especially as a dance training season progressed.

To help combat the risk of burnout, it is up to teachers and dancers to be cognizant of BPNs and other external stressors including performances, high increases in activity, or just too long of a period of activity with no prolonged breaks. There is a strong correlation between BPNs not being met and high levels of cortisol—the stress hormone!

So how can we check if BPNs are being met in the dance environment?

  • Make sure the movement you’re giving out as a teacher is appropriate for the level of the dancers. While it is important to throw “challenges” at them with a more complex combination, make sure it is still attainable for them to improve on. Also, support them by recommending protective dance socks. At the same time, if you work too far below their level there will be little or no sense of accomplishment. Find a happy medium between working with where they’re at and pushing them to achieve more.
  • Give students space to make their own choices in the studio. Let them be a part of the choreographic process or give them artistic choice in class. Not only is that individual freedom important for autonomy, but also for the next generation of artists.
  • Allow time off. All dancers need one to two days off from activity per week, and this is especially important for young dancers that may be involved in more than one sport. Time off is critical for mental and physical recovery (just like we talked about with Periodization!).
  • Find time to connect with peers. While this may look different during a pandemic-era, try to relate on something other than dance. Maybe it’s taking the competition team to the pumpkin patch for a socially-distanced fall outing, or maybe it’s having a night to connect with your fellow teachers.
  • Let time off from school and the studio be true time off. It is recommended that athletes have a couple weeks off every two the three months.

Keep in mind that some dancers are more prone to burnout than others, such as those that tend to be more perfectionistic. Ashley Mowrey recently dove into this topic, which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it already!

With the uncertainty of the pandemic and general state of the world, dance can be a healing and safe space. Supporting our own and each other’s Basic Psychological Needs can help us all stay motived to dance longer and stronger.


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