Advice for Dancers

January 30, 2012

I’m preparing for several competitions to increase my chances of getting a position in a major dance company. I’ve competed before and performed both ballet and contemporary choreography that suited my strengths. But last time I was a nervous wreck. How can I control my nerves?


Los Angeles, CA

Nerves aren’t all bad—they can add excitement to your performance. The trick is to find the right balance of nervous energy. This is where experience helps. My research shows that corps dancers report more anxiety when performing onstage than soloists, who in turn have more performance jitters than principals. What can you do when you’re just starting out? Practice! The more you rehearse on your own and before a select group of friends, family or other dancers, the easier it will be to perform during a competition. Meanwhile, mental skills can be extremely useful. Try imagery, where you rehearse the choreography in your mind from start to finish (if you make a mistake, simply rewind the tape), and deep breathing to reduce stress—both during imagery and before dancing. Fine-tuning your technique and stamina will also help increase your confidence. If you feel you need professional help preparing for the big event, a performance-oriented psychologist can provide guidance. Check your state psychological association or The International Association of Dance Medicine and Science for referrals (

My hip has been hurting for over three months. When I saw your latest photo on Facebook about how doctors screen for a labral tear, I had my girlfriend move my knee up and toward the midline while I was lying down on my back, like the photo  showed. I felt a sharp, stabbing pain. Should I get it checked out?



Labral tears often occur from forcing turnout, which can damage the cartilage lip along the edge of the hip socket. The test that I showed on Facebook is a reliable sign for diagnosing labral tears. However, if you read through my comments, you’ll see that an accurate diagnosis requires an MRI with a special hip coil. The good news is that many labral tears respond well to physical therapy and do not require arthroscopic surgery to correct the problem. If left unaddressed, however, this injury may lead to arthritic hips and require joint replacements later in life. So please make an appointment with an orthopedic hip specialist ASAP.

All the dancers who recently joined the company with me are cast in the corps of a new piece except yours truly! It’s hard not to take it personally. Do you think this means my director doesn’t like me anymore? He had me perform a few solo roles last season. Now I’m worried that he’s lost interest.

Bummed Out

San Francisco, CA


It’s easy to think the worst when the casting sheet goes up without your name, because the artistic staff rarely explains their reasons for choosing dancers. But don’t jump to any negative conclusions unless you have concrete evidence. You’ll simply be playing a guessing game, known in psychology as a “cognitive distortion.” Try to remain objective and remember that there could be other reasons for leaving your name off the list. For example, given the fact that you’ve been cast in solo roles in the past, your director may have bigger parts for you in mind. In any case, the best way to cope with ambiguous situations is to concentrate on what you can do, such as working hard and staying focused on your dancing.

I have been miserable for some time about my inability to reach my goals in dance. My teachers tell me that I’m too perfectionistic and should be easier on myself. But it’s only by being perfect that I’ll achieve my dream of becoming a ballerina. I don’t know what to do. My mother says I should go into therapy but I’d rather be strong and do it my way. I did agree to ask you for advice. What do you think?


Chicago, IL

If it’s any consolation, most dancers are perfectionists. This trait is ideal for dance, since it drives you to work hard in the quest to excel. But in the end, perfection does not exist. You can only focus on specific goals to reach your full potential. Unfortunately, dancers who strive for success at any cost will often cling to unrealistic standards, even if these make them miserable. In the worse case scenario, perfectionism can lead to injuries, burnout, eating problems, or early retirement. The need to always “look perfect” in the eyes of others can also make it difficult to seek help, since it can feel like you’re admitting that you’ve failed and threaten your self-esteem. Your own expectations for a perfect therapist, the need to be a perfect patient, or an “all-or-nothing” view of the therapeutic process can threaten a psychologist’s ability to help you. My advice is to list the pros and cons of your perfectionism. This approach can help you get a better picture of the benefits of being less perfectionistic, such as being more accepting about making mistakes. Therapy can also help you learn to enjoy the small steps of progress along the way.



Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, the author of
Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass), and co-author of The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body and Nutrition (St. Martin’s Griffin). Her website is