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The Sophomore Slump Can Hit Dancers Hard—Here's How to Beat It

You did it: You landed the job, a spot at the pre-professional school of your dreams or at the best-of-the-best university dance program. And that first year was hard, and exhilarating. But since then, the shiny new has worn off, and the patina of the everyday has left you in a rut.

The sophomore slump hits hard. Whether it is literally your sophomore year or you have just become a mainstay within your company or school, the funk can be difficult to shake. "The 'sophomore year' is really the test of your passion for dance," says Brian T. Goonan, a psychologist who works with dancers in Houston. But with the right mind-set, you can find your groove again.

Why It Happens

If you find yourself constantly focusing on the things you don't have, while overlooking your accomplishments, you may be slipping into a rut. Goonan compares the journey to a road trip: "At first you're really excited," he says. "You're 100 miles down, then you're 200 miles down. And then at some point you lose momentum and start looking at what is left rather than what you have accomplished." He points out that it can be frustrating to find yourself right where you want to be—in a company or program you have sought—but feeling stagnant. "It is a motivational hole," he says.

Adam Sklute, artistic director at Ballet West, says he sees clear stages in company members. Initially dancers are just grateful to be there, but over time the excitement wears off. "After a certain point the mind-set changes," he says, "and I'm talking about the most committed artists. They are working hard and doing the best they can, but they may not be seeing the growth in terms of promotions or roles that they feel they deserve."

Adam Sklute teaching class. The dancers are at the barre performing a degage to the back, and Sklute is gesturing forward with one arm.

Adam Sklute

Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

Garfield Lemonius, chair of the dance department at Point Park University Conservatory of Performing Arts, points out that this phase is a natural part of the developmental process. "We want to give dancers all the tools to succeed, but we also have to allow them to develop their own strength and the wherewithal to transcend all of these challenges that they face," he says. "It gets lonelier as you get older. You have to be more independent to be successful. It is part of the education."

You may feel invisible, but it doesn't mean you are doing something wrong. "Sophomores are in a situation where they are no longer the main topic of conversation," says Lemonius. "Teachers are focusing on freshmen because we want to see what they can do, but also because they need help adjusting. And then the focus is on the seniors because they are about to go out into the professional world, and we want them to look good as they embark."

Lemonius in a black cap and gown at graduation. He stands in front of the graduates holding a microphone.

Garfield Lemonius

John Altdorfer, Courtesy Lemonius

Overcoming the Funk

With a proactive attitude, you can get out of the slump and back on track:

1. Set productive goals.

Focus on what you put in, not what you get out. "You have to fall in love with the quest for perfect knowing that you will never really get there," Goonan says. Your goals should be centered on things you can control: committing to Pilates once a week to strengthen your core, or applying a correction you receive frequently.

2. Ask to sit in on rehearsals.

The sophomore slump can arise simply because you aren't feeling inspired by the work you are doing. If there are dances you want to learn, Sklute suggests asking to come to rehearsals. "I would never be upset with a dancer for doing that," he says. "That kind of gumption is actually inspiring to me." Look for additional motivation by watching performances of another genre of dance, or taking class in a style that you aren't as familiar with.

3. Expand your horizons.

You may need to get a hobby. Goonan points out that for many, dancing begins as a joyful escape. "But now that dance is your work, you need to find a way to replace that outlet that you have lost," he says. Take a cooking class, keep a journal or join a club.

4. Don't forget your value.

Sklute says the final phase of emotional development he sees in company members is the realization that they are wanted in the roles they are in. "Dancers should know that if they are in a company for 4, 5, 6, 10 or more years, even if they are just in the corps de ballet, they are valued," he says.

A stock photo of a woman in a kitchen with lots of vegetables in front of her.

An activity like cooking could serve as an outlet.

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​What If It's Not Just a Slump?

It can be hard to tell if you're in a slump or just at the wrong company or school. Ask yourself why you're unhappy: Are you receiving constructive feedback from teachers and directors? Are you frustrated because you aren't seeing the outcomes that you want, or because you are being treated poorly?

Sklute encourages dancers not to throw in the towel simply because they aren't advancing the way they had imagined. "Be patient," he says. "Remember that seniority is often very important and there are likely others ahead of you who are also working to advance. But don't compare yourself to others. We all develop at different times."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021