Dancers & Companies

Can Dance Training Cause Psychological Harm?

Photo by Rachel Papo for Pointe

Any dancer could tell you that spending hours in front of a mirror being corrected every day will affect you psychologically. Sure, it can create incredible discipline and inner strength. But dancers are also known to be susceptible to issues like perfectionism and eating disorders.

Now, a new study out of Portugal shows that dance training—particularly in ballet—might be associated with additional mental health problems.

Based on questionnaires filled out by 113 self-selected participants, researchers found that ballet students had higher psychological inflexibility than non-dancers.

What does that mean? Dance students can be excessively preoccupied with internal events like emotions, thoughts and memories. That can change the way you perceive experiences, increasing your fear of failure and making you want to avoid uncomfortable situations. Unfortunately, those traits are associated with anxiety and depression in adolescents.

The research, published in the journal Psychology of Music, compared the answers of 33 dance students with 39 music students and 41 who don't study either. All were between the ages of 9 and 16. It's admittedly a small sample size, yet the results are still intriguing.

Photo by Thinkstock

"Similar to many sports, ballet involves discipline and physical demands, competitiveness, highly critical and perfectionist attitudes of trainers, and acceptance of emotional and physical suffering," the researchers write. They also point out ballet's pressures to maintain a low body weight.

Put all those demands together, and it's not hard to see why dancers may become obsessed with what's going on inside their heads, and do whatever they can to avoid negative thoughts, or experiences that bring them up.

So what can dancers do to stay healthy?

Teachers need to be aware of the problem so they can use healthier "behavioral techniques" (although the researchers don't exactly explain what those are). Parents can also play a role by helping students cope with negative emotions and by encouraging them to accept challenges.

For dancers, what it comes down to is this: Rather than cut yourself off from your feelings—both the good and the bad—work on learning to embrace and express them. And what's a better way to do that than through dancing?

 

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Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

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In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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