Advice for Dancers

July 31, 2007
Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a lecturer, a psychologist in private practice, and the author of
Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass). She has been offering advice to Dance Magazine readers since 1992.
All I ever wanted was to get accepted into a major professional school that’s affiliated with a company. Now that it’s happened, I’m sure they’ve made a terrible mistake. Why did I pass the audition? My parents don’t take my dancing seriously. They just want me to dance for fun and concentrate on getting good grades so I can go to a good college. If I fail to do well in this dance school, my dream of getting into a dance company is over. — Jinxed Dancer Bronxville, NY
In case you’ve forgotten, you just received good news. Why not enjoy it? While it’s normal to get antsy before starting a demanding training program, most dancers settle down once they meet their new teachers and develop a routine. Still, self-doubt can linger without parental support, so it might help to let your family know that going to a professional school doesn’t prevent you from attending college. Also, remember: professional training programs have their pick of talented dancers. Practice stress management by telling yourself, “I can do this!” The trick, of course, is to believe it. You can break your negative thinking by asking yourself what you’d say to your best friend—then say it to yourself.
I guess I’m lucky because my artistic director isn’t a tyrant. My major complaint is that he tends to get caught up in the flavor of the month. I feel like I’ve been pushed aside for the upcoming season, with only a few good roles coming my way. How do I stay inspired if I can’t inspire him? — Forlorn Star, NY, NY
All performers not only need to be good at what they do, but also to please directors, dance critics, and choreographers in order to succeed. Yet putting your self-esteem in the hands of others leaves you vulnerable, especially if they are ignoring you. Rather than feeling down, discover inspiration within yourself, so that when you perform, you pay attention to what gives you satisfaction. Don’t let your boss—or your critics—come between you and your audience.
I’m a hard-core dance lover who experiences awe whenever a performer defies the laws of gravity. The best dancers perform amazing feats that look effortless. The production also seems to go smoothly watching from the audience, although who knows what happens behind the scenes. What is it like when there’s a real emergency? Does the show still go on? — Molly Philadelphia, PA
In almost every case, the answer is “yes.” According to choreographer David Parsons, “The show only stops when the lights go out.” (See “Is There a Doctor in the House?” October, 2004). An emergency on stage can run the gamut, from an earthquake during a tour in Japan, as American Ballet Theatre experienced recently, to a dancer who suddenly sprains an ankle or tears an Achilles tendon. The performance usually continues, whether it involves improvising or grabbing the nearest understudy (who may not be warmed up). Medical backup can also save the day; most large companies have a physical therapist and an orthopedist on call. The goal is to put on a beautiful performance, where only the dancers are aware of the drama backstage. 
Since I started my BFA program, my roommates and I have done some serious partying. I usually feel uptight until I’ve had a few beers followed by shots of tequila. What worries me is that the next morning I can’t remember what happened. It hasn’t hurt my dancing, but I guess it could down the road. How much alcohol should an 18-year-old guy be able to handle?
— Semi-loaded, Tampa, FL
Alcohol often serves as a rite of passage for incoming freshman. While most college students learn to balance this new social freedom with their academic responsibilities, dancers who perform hung over face greater risks to themselves as well as to their partners. Binge drinking within a two-hour period, which is defined as five or more drinks for men and at least four for women, can be particularly dangerous, resulting in short-term memory loss, and can affect your ability to learn new steps. It can also diminish coordination, among other problems. What can you do? Follow tips offered by Facts on Tap, a national alcohol and drug education program for college students. These include eating before and during alcohol use, taking a one-hour break between servings of alcohol (it helps to drink water because alcohol is dehydrating), and setting a limit on how much you will drink. If you still can’t control your drinking, contact Student Services at your university. Therapy sessions and abstinence programs like Alcoholics Anonymous can help too.