You’ve got a huge exam and a 20-page research paper due this week, and your ballet teacher has added extra rehearsals for your upcoming performance. You can’t sleep, you snap at your parents whenever they talk to you, and you feel like crying when your teacher comments on your sickled foot in jazz class. To say you’re stressed would be an understatement.
People experience stress in a variety of ways. You may have tense muscles, difficulty sleeping and shortness of breath, or you might be irritable and unable to concentrate. You might even find yourself avoiding the things causing your stress—for instance, skipping class or rehearsals. You may also experience low self-esteem and irrational thoughts, such as thinking that one bad class means you’ll never be a professional dancer. These symptoms are bad enough in the short term, but over time, they can lead to injuries, illness and the desire to quit dancing entirely.
Luckily, you don’t have to let stress run your life. Here are five ways to manage your stress so that you can hit the studio and stage feeling calm and focused.
Focus on the Things You Control
“We all have a ‘circle of influence’ that contains things that we can control,” says Dr. Peter Lovatt, director of the Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. “There’s little point in being stressed about things outside your circle of influence.” Lovatt says that mastering a double pirouette is something you can accomplish by learning the proper technique and practicing. On the other hand, “you have no control over whether there will be a vacancy in a particular dance company for you,” he says. Worrying about things you can’t change is counterproductive because you decrease the time and energy available for things you can.
Break the Cycle
Stress symptoms are often interrelated. “When we’re stressed, we lose some of the awareness of and control over our muscles, which can make us question our competence and become upset,” Dr. Lovatt explains. This physical symptom and emotional response can make you feel even more stressed, creating a vicious cycle. When you catch yourself spiraling downward, slow down. Identify how your stress manifests (for example, muscle tension and irritability, followed by trouble breathing). When you notice those symptoms, make a conscious decision to relax before things get worse.
Dance for Yourself
“It’s great for dancers to be able to move for self expression with no audience,” says Sara T. Workeneh, MA, ADTR, NCC, a registered dance/movement therapist and counselor who also teaches at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. “Move alone in the dark. Do Qigong [a Chinese practice involving breath, movement and energy] or yoga.” Moving without the pressure of having to do it “right” can remind you of your love for dance and help you express emotions you might be unable to articulate in words.
Rest and Recover
“Apply yourself in activities that are different from dance that will allow your body to relax while it’s engaged, such as swimming or hiking,” Workeneh says. However, be wary of jumping headfirst into a new form of physical activity when you’re already stressed. Instead, practice your non-dance exercise of choice once a week to prevent stress. If you can, work outside. “Outside contact, feeling the earth under your feet and breathing fresh air, is important to feeling and being grounded,” she says. “It impacts one’s ability to have clarity of mind.”
Focus on the Present
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, give your full attention to a single task. For dancers, that means focusing on the specific dance class you’re in, one exercise at a time. “Don’t worry about what will happen in the performance next week, or how you did in class yesterday,” Lovatt says. “The more you can relax and focus, the more control you will have over your body and mind.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
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She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.