Let's face it: The demands of a dancing life are extraordinary, and sometimes we would just rather not.
“We all know those days where you have to wrench yourself out of bed and you're shuffling to the shower because you're so tired and it's about all the effort that you can muster," admits Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Alexandra Kochis.
There are times when the rehearsal process just feels stagnant, when class becomes mind-numbingly repetitive, when you simply can't psych yourself up to take Pilates class after yet another six-hour day of dancing.
Motivation can be a challenge for every performer, no matter how passionate they are. But competition in the dance world is far too intense to succumb to a slump. In order to achieve your goals, simply showing up to class isn't enough: You've got to give it your all once you get there.
So how do you get yourself out of a funk?
Are You Pushing Too Hard—Or Not Enough?
Notice how much effort you're putting into class. Photo by Quinn Wharton
It can help to acknowledge that you are in control of your effort. Dr. Alan Goldberg, a sports consultant and author of many books on mental toughness and peak performance, asks dancers to visualize a “Y" shape. The stem is your daily path which leads you to a “daily choice point" at the fork in the road.
“Every day when you train, your road forks many, many times," says Goldberg. To the left you find the simpler path—don't go to class, lower your leg to 45 degrees, take off your pointe shoes. To the right is much harder—take an extra class, beat your jumps, hold that balance for two counts longer.
What Goldberg suggests is not that there is a right decision and a wrong one, but that we are often not aware we are making the decision at all. Your dedication in class isn't all or nothing—maybe you can't muster a six-o-clock penchée but you fully commit to the cleanest grand jeté you can hit later in class.
“After class, ask yourself what road you spent more time on," suggests Goldberg. “Was it 90/10, 30/70, 50/50? With that awareness you're more inclined to make the right decisions."
To reach your full potential as a dancer, you have to be willing to choose the more difficult path most of the time. But part of maintaining motivation is cutting yourself the slack to pull back so that you can channel your energy to where it's most useful.
“When you're full speed ahead 24/7 and you go down the right road all the time," says Goldberg, “that can be just as destructive as hanging out in la-la land." Remember that sometimes the “right" decision is to sit out and ice your ankle.
Identify What's Different
Your mind might be telling you that you need a break. Photo by William Stitt/Unsplash
Sometimes, the issue may be more complicated than not wanting to put your tights on. Ask yourself if your lack of motivation is really about dancing. Is there stress at home? Are you in the right company environment?
“If it's starting to become a pattern, stop and ask yourself what's really going on," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, psychologist for Atlanta Ballet. Often, there are multiple sources that contribute to a lack of interest in something you love as much as dance, and if you don't deal with those reasons, they'll just keep being there.
If you find yourself avoiding dancing full-out for weeks instead of days, your lack of motivation could be a warning sign of burnout. Trouble eating, difficulty sleeping or low self-esteem could even signal depression and the need to seek professional help.
“Sometimes your body and your mind are telling you that you need a little break," says Kaslow, “so give yourself permission to do that."
Don't Forget Your Goal
Remember what you're reaching toward. Photo by Rachel Papo for Pointe
Once you've ruled out more serious problems, the first step to reigniting your inner fire is tying your daily motivation to your larger career goals.
“You have to be asking yourself: How is what I'm doing right now going to help me get to my goal?" says Goldberg. “A lot of times when we're feeling unmotivated we're not thinking about that." He adds that the point of having goals isn't just about reaching them. “The purpose of a goal is to get you to make the right decision when you're getting pulled down the wrong road."
Get Inspired By Other Dancers
On the mornings that it's hardest to get into the studio, Kochis sometimes turns to YouTube. A video of Sylvie Guillem rehearsing Kitri helped motivate her during her own preparation for the role last season.
“I really love watching some of my favorite dancers in the morning and analyzing what makes them special and trying to incorporate that into my own dancing," she says.
Kochis will identify a specific quality in a dancer she's watching and then focus her attention to mimicking that in class that day. Create a playlist of your favorite dance videos, and seek out performances where you can discover new artists.
Try Something New
If class is feeling rote, do something different. Photo by Liza Voll
Kaslow suggests making simple tweaks to your habits in the studio. “Do something different in class," she advises. Stand in a different place, or splurge on a new leotard—research has shown that the clothes we wear can affect our attitude and performance.
Many dancers find taking a class in a different genre, or trying a new cross-training method helps them refresh. Or you can simply put on a favorite piece of music before rehearsal starts and move freely to it.
See the world beyond the studio from time to time. Photo by David Marcu/Unsplash
Don't forget to leave the studio. “Take a walk and feel the breeze," suggests Kochis. “Set aside time for yourself to experience something other than the studio." She likes to use her break to walk through the neighborhood to get a cup of coffee, and sometimes takes her day off to get out of the city for hiking, camping and kayaking.
“In Japan they have coined the term 'forest bathing,' " she says, “and that's exactly how I feel after getting away even for just one night—rested, cleansed and inspired."