Luca Sbrizzi. Courtesy Duane Rieder, Courtesy Luca Sbrizzi

Perfectionism Is an Epidemic in the Dance World. Here's How to Keep It from Derailing Your Career

If you ask Luca Sbrizzi what he remembers about performing Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, he can provide you with a laundry list of his mistakes. "Although I remember feeling an incredible connection to my partner and hearing comments afterwards on how moving and beautiful our performance was, those are not the first things that pop into my head when I think of Swan Lake," he says. "And I hate that."

The obsession with being perfect was a major contributor in his decision to retire from his career as a principal dancer at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. "When I would have what I considered a bad performance, I would get so upset I wouldn't want to talk to anyone and would shut the world out, thinking that in behaving this way I would be more likely to do better the next time," he says. "It was a way for me to punish myself for not succeeding."

Perfect is the horizon that vanishes as you approach it. And yet, dancers continue to chase unrealistic ideals—research has shown considerably high levels of perfectionism in dancers. While dancers need to be disciplined in their practice to be successful, perfectionism left unchecked can have serious consequences.

What Is Perfectionism?

"Perfectionism is generally considered a personality trait," says Leigh Skvarla, a mental health counselor who works with dancers and athletes in Pittsburgh. "It may have some correlates with anxiety and OCD, but it is not the same thing. When we call someone a perfectionist, we are generally referring to a state of mind."

According to Sanna Nordin-Bates, a researcher from The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences who has specialized in studying perfectionism in dancers, psychologists generally break perfectionism down into two categories: Perfectionistic striving is reaching for high goals and working very hard to meet them; perfectionistic concerns involve the rumination and harsh personal critique that Sbrizzi experienced. "Some might say perfectionistic striving is good and perfectionistic concerns are bad," she says. "But even perfectionistic strivings can be problematic when they are more than moderate because the dancer becomes too rigid in their goals and expectations."

It is hard to tell if dance is the cause of high rates of perfectionism, or if perfectionists are simply drawn to dance. Most likely, it's a combination of both. "It's really hard to go swimming and not get wet," Skvarla says, adding that even a well-adjusted dancer can be negatively affected in a highly perfectionistic environment. "Perfectionism can permeate hallways, dressing rooms and rehearsal studios, and it takes up space," she says. "It is the elephant in the room."

Why It's Harmful

Some of the outcomes of perfectionism are mild, like mood swings and a fear of failing. But there are larger concerns as well. "You would not have eating disorders without perfectionism," says Nordin-Bates. "For all of the mood-related disorders—depression, anxiety and even suicide—risk increases."

Nordin-Bates has found perfectionism also inhibits creativity. "People who are very perfectionistic are not very creative," she says. "Because they fear criticism and what people think, they don't want to look stupid." She points out that today, dancers are expected to be more versatile than ever and to be prepared to improvise or co-create roles. "If a school truly wants to promote creative artists, then I don't think we can continue to train in the way that it has been done historically," she says.

Susan Jaffe teaching at UNCSA

Peter Mueller, courtesy UNCSA

Solution: Be Generous With Yourself

When Sylvie Guillem came to American Ballet Theatre to dance the role of Nikiya in La Bayadère, Susan Jaffe was delighted to be cast as her Gamzatti. She still remembers her first rehearsal with the French ballet star. "She came onstage and we were all excited waiting for her," Jaffe remembers. "She was doing the second-act variation and she starts to do the arabesque turns, and she just can't seem to do them."

Guillem stopped the pianist and asked to start again, and again she couldn't pull it off. "Finally, in this very French way, she kind of shrugs her shoulders and walks up to the front of the stage where some of us were sitting." Jaffe remembers that Guillem plopped herself down in a chair beside the others and said sweetly, and confidently, "Tomorrow."

Jaffe describes herself at that point in her career as a "miserable perfectionist" and says that observing Guillem treat herself so generously was life-changing. "I said to myself, 'I'm going to try that,' " she says. "If tomorrow I do a step two or three times and it doesn't work, I'm not going to reprimand myself and tell myself that I am terrible. It is amazing how much my dancing changed."

Skvarla says that Guillem's reaction was that of an adaptive perfectionist. "She is recognizing that this is getting to a level of stress or frustration where it's not doing any good." An adaptive perfectionist has a lot of positive striving toward high standards, but is not rigid in their goals. "Maladaptive perfectionism is being determined to be in a company where everyone is tall and you're 5' 1"," she explains. When something is uncontrollable, adaptive perfectionists are able to adjust their goals.

Solution: Develop Productive Coping Skills

When Royal Ballet of Flanders soloist Shelby Williams was 16, she lived away from home to train at the Houston Ballet Academy. "Like so many other dancers I was a really hard worker and I thrived off of the feeling of improving," she says. "I felt that I had plateaued and it was really hard for me." These feelings came to a head when Williams had an anxiety attack in the middle of class one day.

A psychologist the school referred her to helped her realize the anxiety came from perfectionism and constantly comparing herself. The psychologist encouraged her to fall in love with the process and worry less about the outcome. "Thinking about this helped me to recognize how fortunate I was to even be able to dance," she says.

Williams also found a productive coping skill for her anxiety: humor.

"I realized that if I took exactly what was bothering me—say I'm not nailing my pirouettes that day, or my legs weren't going up—and totally exaggerated it, I could make myself laugh and give myself a break," she says. "And then I could go back to work. Because up until the moment that I could laugh I would feel like I was suffocating." In 2017 Williams' antidote to her anxiety, Biscuit Ballerina, made a splash on Instagram and now has more than 145,000 followers.

Shelby Williams as Myrtha in Akram Khan's Giselle

Nicha Rodboon, courtesy Williams

Solution: Don't Conflate Discipline With Perfectionism

For a long time, perfectionism in dance has seemed like a necessary evil to some, and a downright mandate to others, because the bar is so high to become a great dancer. But Jaffe, who is now the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, feels that this mind-set is conflating perfectionism with discipline.

"Discipline is joy for the process and perfectionism focuses on the outcome," she says. "Part of teaching self-discipline is that it shouldn't be punitive, it should be life-affirming. I talk to my faculty about this. It is important not only what you say, but with what intent you say it. We are not here to be the authority; we are here to facilitate students' own discipline."

Both Skvarla and Nordin-Bates emphasize that dancers and students should have choice and autonomy built into their training in order to combat problematic perfectionism. It needs to be okay to fail, encouraged, even. This is especially important for students because they are still in the process of developing their identity and their skills.

Sbrizzi is looking forward to the next phase of his life, which includes becoming a father for the first time. But he wants other dancers to avoid the perfectionism that plagued his career.

"I always thought that striving for perfection was the only way to push myself to become a better dancer. But it hindered my full potential, because perfectionism and low self-esteem go hand in hand," he says. "When you beat yourself down for not doing something perfectly, instead of accepting your mistake and building from that, it becomes destructive behavior. I believe I could have become a better dancer with the proper support system in place."

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What Is Your Definition of Success? 10 Dance Artists & Leaders Weigh in

Success is sharing.

Arun Kumar, courtesy Ramaswamy

"As a dancer and choreographer of a form that is not widely known, sharing it with communities all over the country feels like a major success. The fact that audiences are eager and receptive to hear and see what I feel are universal human messages, but through my point of view, is incredibly rewarding.

"I also feel success in the relationships I've maintained. I create with my mother and sister—the three of us perform together and have grown our partnership over the years. My mentor in India, Alarmél Valli, has been my teacher for over three decades. Every day that I am accepted as her student I feel humbled." —Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company

Success is staying passionate.

Courtesy Steffanina

"My first goal was to pay my bills using only dance. No side jobs. Once I got to that point, I felt like I'd 'made it.'

"When I was starting out, it was a big deal to me when record labels would repost a video of mine. It's easy to get caught up in the numbers. But I've realized the most important thing is maintaining your passion for what you're doing. If it starts to be about the views, you will fall out of love with dance. Keep the passion first and then figure out your marketing." —Matt Steffanina, Los Angeles–based dancer and choreographer

Success is serving others.

Courtesy Hibah

"It was more about self-fulfillment as a youngster, and I think as I've matured, I look to see who I can help, whether I'm inspiring someone who sees me onstage or teaching an up-and-coming dancer or sharing my knowledge with my 'Seasoned Saints'—a group of women probably about 60 and over whom I teach yoga to. Of course, I want to continue to be fulfilled artistically. Every artist feeds off of having opportunities to thrive. But now I realize that what I do—how I maintain my body, my craft, my integrity, my diligence—is in fact serving the younger dancer or serving an elder who is looking to find strength and move." —Bahiyah Hibah, Broadway performer

Success if finding balance.

Christian Savini, Courtesy Pam Tanowitz Dance

"It was my dream job once I finally got hired at Cunningham. The financial burden was eased greatly by having that security, and it also helped me improve as a dancer because I had more resources. I was able to consistently go to an Alexander teacher and swim at the Y. I could afford to go to more yoga classes.

"Now, as a freelancer, being successful is having a family, having a healthy relationship and being able to also have a career. I'm at a place where I still love performing, but I also split my time with rehearsal directing and coaching. I feel successful when I can find balance in all of those things, and also financially sustain a life in New York with a child." —Melissa Toogood, freelance modern dancer and coach

Success is feeling proud—and passing it along.

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Anderson

"To me, success has nothing to do with how the public feels. It has nothing to do with applause. It has nothing to do with how much I got paid. It has to do with being proud of the work. As a dancer, every time I got to do a new role and I made it through, it was a little success.

"Now my success has nothing to do with how I feel. I work at Houston Ballet in education and community engagement, so my success is in how students understand what I'm teaching them, and seeing them grow." —Lauren Anderson, former principal dancer with Houston Ballet

Success is dedication and openness.

Stephanie Diani, Courtesy Gibney

"If there was a moment of success, it's probably in the future because I see my career as one of evolution. Certainly, along the way there were milestones—a piece of choreography that really resonated or a space that opened that was particularly functional or unique in its aesthetics. But I think our field is about moving forward one step at a time in increments—constant improvement, iterative growth.

"I think that success is having a deeply rooted, relentless dedication to what you believe in—dedication that can weather difficulties, indecision, rejection. That, coupled with a kind of agility and openness to change at any moment, to redefine and even reinvent yourself. I think those things combined, whatever the outcome, to me defines success." —Gina Gibney, founder, CEO and artistic director of Gibney

Success is continuing to learn.

John Deane, Courtesy Capucilli

"Whether it's delving into the archetypes of a Graham role, a day of teaching or the months required for staging a work, I think that delving voraciously into colorful expression in a truthful way that touches people is what fills me. These experiences can't really be measured by words of success, at least not in my book, but they become a reservoir of knowledge. To say 'I made it!' is too definitive. If you've 'made it,' your journey is over. It should constantly be evolving. I take great pride in knowing that I am continuing to learn." —Terese Capucilli, artistic director laureate with Martha Graham Dance Company

Success is making the most of opportunities.

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

"When I got promoted to principal, after 10 years of being a soloist, I really felt that I had accomplished something. And then, all of a sudden, I was thrown into premieres of some of the hardest full-length ballets, with no stage rehearsals, sometimes no company rehearsals, and I realized that actually it doesn't matter what rank you are. It matters what you do with what you've been given. For me, it was going onstage and being able to have enough confidence that I could forget about myself when I was performing, that I could actually get into the character and make the role my own no matter what." —Sarah Lane, American Ballet Theatre principal

Success is investing in others.

Noah Stern Weber, Courtesy Alexander

"I've found that as soon as you get to one peak, you look around and there are other peaks to climb. It's not dissatisfaction, but the creative impulse to continue.

"One of the measures of success I think about as an advocate and producer is that Chicago Human Rhythm Project has managed to invest millions in artist fees and marketing for American tap dancers who weren't being paid by mainstream dance presenters until recently. We've helped to build capacity for our field. That will last beyond me." —Lane Alexander, co-founder and director of Chicago Human Rhythm Project

Success is less important than desire.

Peter Graham, Courtesy Noche Flamenca

"Sometimes I don't even know what I'm looking for. It's like success has kind of been thrown out the window and it's more the feeling of, as if, I was thirsty and I needed to drink. During my career, or during my life, I've found different roads to try to calm that thirst, satisfy that thirst. But the thirst always exists. An artist is always searching. You can't look for success as an artist. For me, the only thing is a capacity to quench my thirst." —Soledad Barrio, star of Noche Flamenca

(Translated from Spanish by her husband and artistic director, Martín Santangelo)