It’s an understatement that dancers are hard workers. The profession demands drive, discipline, and perfectionism. But along with these qualities comes a tendency to burn out. Though it’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, burnout is a real syndrome with physical and psychological symptoms. Not only can it cause biological changes in your body, it can undermine your growth as a dancer.
“I would have class, rehearsal, and work more than 40 hours a week managing a coffee shop,” says Carmen Nicole Smith, who toured China and Germany this year with New York’s Battery Dance Company. “For four years I got up at 5 a.m. and I wouldn’t go to bed until midnight. Part and parcel of overwork syndrome is the insomnia,” says Smith. “I would do, do, do, scrub, clean, and then try to be perfect in class.” But after nearly a decade of this schedule, she hit a wall. “I just felt my body was giving out.”
Smith’s story is not unique. Dr. Marijeanne Liederbach of NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases’ Harkness Center for Dance Injuries says burnout is defined as an unexpected drop in performance that can’t be attributed to illness or injury. “It can happen when performances or training loads are not matched by adequate rest periods,” she says. Symptoms include increased resting heart rate, tension, tremors, sweating, palpitations, fatigue, injury, accidents, irritability, illness, and diminished levels of achievement and enthusiasm.
Every dancer has his or her own personal tipping point. “I was putting so much pressure on myself, beyond what was expected of me,” says Adam Barruch. His schedule included dancing upwards of 10 hours a day at a premier conservatory program. Barruch’s determination to achieve technical perfection, where “every pirouette had to end on the up,” made him ill. “My body just gave out,” he says. “Mentally and physically I was done.”
Burnout left Barruch unable to perform in his next show. Smith, on the other hand, believes her metabolism was no longer functioning properly. She discovered that she was continually producing cortisol, a steroid hormone secreted as part of the body’s response to stress that has been linked to increased fat storage. “Even if I didn’t eat much,” says Smith, “I would gain weight.”
Liederbach’s research reveals that catecholamines—a class of hormones that include adrenaline—show up in higher levels among dancers who chronically overexert. Catecholamines prepare the body for the “fight or flight” response, increasing both heart rate and blood pressure. In her research, which appears in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness and Medical Problems of Performing Artists, Liederbach monitored 12 professional ballet dancers during their five-week performing seasons. She found the dancers’ catecholamine levels peaked at the same time that their psychological state and energy were at their lowest. It is at these moments, usually just beyond the midpoint of a long season, says Liederbach, that dancers are at their greatest risk.
Educating dancers is key to preventing burnout. “There is a tacit understanding among dancers that every day has to be your personal best,” says Liederbach. “Not just every day, but every phrase of every hour.”
But every dancer’s regime should include time off from dancing. “Rest is absolutely as important as hard work,” says Liederbach. “Or else you are not going to reap the benefits of the work.”
Smith understands her punishing work habits were a form of self-martyrdom that may have hindered her dancing. She became a Feldenkrais practitioner to help develop healthier habits and is now performing frequently. Barruch chose to focus on choreography and teaching dance. Both dancers figured out ways to avoid burning out again.
Unfortunately, too many dancers faced with similar struggles leave the field. This is a shame, says Liederbach. There are clinics that offer free one-on-one physical and psychological counseling for dancers. She hopes that more dancers will seek scientifically tested methods (like individualized cross-training) to sustain and develop their careers. Barruch and Smith encourage dancers to cherish their bodies, and avoid the dark chasm of burnout.
Rachel Straus is a New York writer.