Advice for Dancers

July 19, 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.

Do you have any advice for overcoming a negative body image? My artistic director has told me more than once that my body is “perfect just the way it is,” but I still have a lot of difficulty accepting myself. What can I do?—Cassandra, Stroudsburg, PA
If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone. I often see professional dancers who feel badly about how they look even though they have beautiful bodies. The media bombards us with images of physical perfection; hence the popular appeal of television shows like The Swan, which promotes transforming yourself through cosmetic surgery. On top of that, in professional dance, weight concerns create a host of problems. Fortunately, more artistic directors are letting go of the ultra-thin look as they discover the benefits of having physically fit dancers who can perform demanding choreography free of injuries. Now it’s up to you to take the pressure off yourself.
Like many gifted people, dancers tend to be perfectionists. This isn’t bad, as long as you remain objective. For instance, performers with high standards tend to work harder than their less-driven colleagues, so they earn more solo roles. The danger is when you go overboard. To increase your confidence, set a performance goal such as working on a particular aspect of your technique, rather than constantly checking for minor flaws in the mirror. Remember, dancing is not a static image of perfection–it’s about your body in motion!

I made a big mistake. My parents pushed me into a BFA program in dance. Now that I’m here, it feels all wrong. Sure, it’s great to get a college education. But taking dance classes in ballet, Graham, and Horton won’t get me into musical theater. Also, I can’t keep up with my voice and tap lessons. I want to perform shows on Broadway, not waste my time studying the wrong dance techniques. I’ve tried to explain this to my mother and father but they refuse to listen. Help!—Desperately Unhappy, New York City
I understand your frustration, but there’s no need to panic. Modern dance and ballet (including pointe work) won’t hurt your chances in musical theater. In fact, they’ll prepare you for choreography in popular shows like Movin’ Out, The Lion King, and Phantom of the Opera. At the same time, I agree that it’s important to fine-tune your other skills if your goal is to land a job in musical theater. Enroll now in a summer study program that has a musical theater focus, or check out classes in your college’s theater department. You can also take separate dance and voice classes during the semester. So don’t decide your college doesn’t offer the right opportunities until you’ve been there a few more months and explored all the campus activities. Some of the most exciting options may be extracurricular projects. Keep in mind there’s a real advantage to getting a college degree. According to a study published in the American Psychologist, a college graduate stands to earn $812,000 more over a lifetime than a high school dropout, and a person with a graduate degree will earn almost $1,600,000 more than someone with only a college education. Your parents may be more supportive of your musical theater aspirations if they believe you feel your education is also a priority.

I am very concerned about a young student whose kneecap popped out during one of my ballet classes. Her doctor diagnosed it as a mild subluxation and said it would be fine in a week. However, I am unsure how to work with her to prevent the problem from happening again. Do you have any suggestions?—Dance Teacher, Toronto, Ontario
We need more teachers like you! Many injuries are warning signs of a potentially serious problem. It pays to take a proactive approach in the case of subluxations, which occur in vulnerable dancers (hyper-mobile with poorly-anchored kneecaps) who force their turnout below the knee. In a mild subluxation, the knee slips out and then back into the groove, rarely causing long-term damage. Still, dancers who ignore this condition risk incurring a complete dislocation with torn knee ligaments. That injury requires surgery and a nine-month recovery. In some cases, it may even end a promising career.
What can you do? Be aware that it’s potentially dangerous to ask dancers to force their turnout. About ninety percent of turnout comes from natural anatomy. The other 10 percent is due to training that occurs before the age of 14. Teachers can help by instructing dancers to maintain strong thigh muscles, while practicing good technique. To determine the extent of their external rotation, dancers should stand in first position with straight knees and no rolling over. Their turnout will be where the feet rest on the floor. Because it’s easy to force turnout with bent knees, dancers with vulnerable kneecaps need to perform each movement within their natural range of motion to avoid injury.