Sports Psychology for Ballroom Dancers: 5 Ways to Improve Your Performance

February 24, 2020

Ballroom dancers face a unique set of challenges when pursuing their dreams. With a hyper-focus on professional competitions, and the added complexities of managing long-term dance partner relationships, it’s difficult to reach peak potential.

Dance psychologist Dr. Peter Lovatt knows all about these complex circumstances, and is here to share his expert opinion with five mental strategies that, if applied, can significantly elevate your performance.

Lovatt balances on one foot, the other in the air, his head arching back with a big smile on his face.
Dr. Peter Lovatt

Alicia Clarke, Courtesy Lovatt

1. Establish clear goals within the partnership.

At some point all dancers have to ask themselves what their motivation and goals are for dance. In ballroom, you have to take this discovery a step further, by communicating and aligning it with your partner.

“If one partner has a goal of becoming a world champion, but the other partner feels that becoming a national champion is good enough for them, they are mismatched in their goals,” Lovatt says. “Or perhaps it’s more subtle—perhaps one partner has a goal of technical brilliance while the other is more focused on performance. It’s okay to be different, as long as we are aware. The worst type of partnership is one in which they don’t know their partner’s motivations or goals, and can’t work toward harmony. ”

If you discover you’re too mismatched to succeed as a couple, it’s okay to find another partner. “There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic,” Lovatt says. “Intrinsic motivation is when you do something because you want to, while extrinsic is something you do because someone else wants you to. You are more likely to achieve intrinsic goals, and it’s more likely to be healthy. If you are striving to become a world champion because your partner told you to, it’s likely to be quite destructive.”

2. Manage perfectionism.

“Dancers tend to have higher perfectionistic tendencies than anyone else,” Lovatt says. “There is a healthy perfectionism which is the realistic aspiration for excellence, and there is unhealthy perfectionism in which people believe if they give 150 percent of themselves they will be perfect.”

According to Lovatt, when people strive for perfection, particularly early in life, it can be destructive to their emotional and physical well-being. “In ballroom, we have to communicate our standards with our partners,” Lovatt says. “Your goal should be to keep improving your performance. If the standard you’d like to reach is to get maximum scores from every judge at every competition—that’s unhealthy. We need to be more caring with ourselves and with each other.”

3. Understand your performance anxiety.

For a 2007 study on performance anxiety in competitive ballroom dancers, researchers discovered there was an increase in cortisol levels on performance days that didn’t occur on rehearsal days. “Bodies react differently in the rehearsal room than they do in the ballroom,” Lovatt says. “For example, we know our heart rates change. This is critical, because it affects our perception of rhythm and timing. As our heart rate goes up, we begin to move faster, putting us ahead of tempo. You may have rehearsed your timing 10,000 times in the studio, but if you get to the world championship, and one partner’s heart rate spikes, putting them ahead of tempo, it’s like dancing with someone you’ve never met before. That is why it’s crucial that you give yourselves plenty of high-stakes performance opportunities so you know what to expect from each other when the pressure is on, and can adjust accordingly.”

4. Focus on connection.

“In all dance settings we find the struggle between technique and performance,” Lovatt says. “To succeed, technique should be so practiced that it’s automatic, and you can layer the story of dance on top. In partnerships, it’s crucial that you develop a connection with each other, as well as with the audience. If you forget your partner, you may as well just be doing a solo. Coming together emotionally amplifies the experience in every way. The best couples are able to master this, and it’s like a bright light that comes off of them in the ballroom.”

5. Review your performance together.

Imagine you and your partner came in second place at a competition you’ve spent months preparing for. While second place is still very good, it wasn’t your goal. How do you deal with that?

Lovatt recommends having a joint discussion about what went well and what didn’t, then using those discoveries to constructively set your next set of goals.

“The problem with low self-esteem is that it’s highly irrational,” Lovatt says. “Think logically about why you didn’t reach the goal you set. Was it that you didn’t train enough? Was it just an off day? Were you up against someone who, realistically, is unbeatable (think Usain Bolt for runners)? Was one partner too short for your strides to flow naturally? If we evaluate ourselves rationally, we will come to discover that we really do have a high sense of self worth. There is no point worrying about things you can’t change, so focus on what you can, and set your next goals.”