Hang In There

February 21, 2008

In my psychotherapy practice, I work with dancers who are struggling with problems related to having a life in the arts. Dancers may not have much control over the field of competition, but by identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, they can make the best of a tough balancing act.


When it comes to navigating the uncertain terrain of finding work, the emotional pressures can be overwhelming. Many dancers are not prepared by their professional training—or their colleges or conservatories—for the challenges of finding and keeping work in the dance world. They may have negative perceptions that contribute to helpless or hopeless feelings. No matter where you are in your career, you can stay encouraged by learning how to respond differently to your circumstances. With a little benign curiosity, you can feel more empowered and energized in the face of inevitable disappointments.


Overpersonalizing rejection can rob you of the focus needed to pursue your goals. Emily (all names have been changed for purposes of confidentiality) is consulting with me after receiving a rejection letter from a dance presenter. She has managed to support herself as a dancer with a ballet company for 10 years. A talented choreographer, she decided to start her own company, so she now finds herself in the unfamiliar territory of writing grant proposals and applying to venues. While disappointment would be a normal response to rejection, this one letter has left her with a sense of utter worthlessness.


Emily, 28, was trained in an exclusive ballet conservatory where, even as a child, she was praised for following directions, getting things right, and thinking of herself as one of a special chosen few. Some of her ballet teachers, in a misguided effort to uphold high standards, devalued her abilities in class, forcing her to prove herself worthy of their attention.


Due to this childlike relationship to authority, the adult Emily now had an excessive need for approval. She also had unrealistic expectations of herself, and overvalued others’ opinions of her. The unquestioned belief that she must prove herself worthy of success became part of her adult thinking, resulting in a tendency towards perfectionism. A part of her thought: “If I’m special enough, I will be worthy of success and approval.” Together we recognized that this was an oversimplification of reality. Emily’s choice to be a choreographer had nothing to do with worthiness but more to do with her own artistic development. As long as she was allowing a faceless presenter to deem her worthy, she was prone to viewing any rejection as evidence of her failure as an artist. She couldn’t recognize the full complexity of the situation.


Michael, a 25-year-old musical theater dancer, came to me due to extreme anxiety when preparing to audition. He had performed in a string of successful shows but would fill himself with negative thoughts and fears when auditioning. We soon discovered that these self-doubts were not really his own. He loved dance and believed that what he was doing was valuable. Michael’s family had not supported his career choice; they put “product” over “process.” On some level Michael realized that succeeding in dance meant disappointing his loved ones.


The voices of self-doubt that a dancer may hear are often the result of the “outside getting inside.” These voices can be those of parents, teachers, and authority figures who were once relied upon for safety and approval. By developing awareness, dancers can learn to question some of those internalized voices. In order to gain confidence and free up the energy needed to pursue artistic goals, both Emily and Michael had to gain a broader perspective. They learned how to talk to themselves in a more self-supporting way and to respond more independently to the people and circumstances around them. Both Emily and Michael had to become more comfortable with uncertain conditions and outcomes, which of course are ever-present in the dance world.

Anne L. Wennerstrand, MS, DTR, LCSW, a former dancer, is on the faculty of The Women’s Therapy Centre Institute and practices psychotherapy in NYC and Katonah, NY.