After spending the summer learning new choreography, cleaning every eight-count and listening to your songs on repeat, it's time to put your effort to work onstage. But as the season progresses—and you keep drilling down those same eight-counts—it's normal for your choreography to start to feel stale. Read on for insight from top teachers and dancers on how to prevent and overcome mid-season burnout.
You love dance. You live dance. You are dance. So what happens when going to class becomes a burden and performing loses all appeal?
First of all, understand that you aren’t alone. Whether you’re burned out or just curious about what life would be like if you weren’t at the studio 20 hours a week, many dancers go through ups and downs.
Even superstars question their dance lives. When American Ballet Theatre principal Angel Corella was a 19-year-old dancer in Spain, he wanted nothing more than to join a classical company—but his only options were modern troupes. He was about to give up ballet entirely, but decided to do a ballet competition in Paris first. The result? A contract with ABT.
Feeling down on your dance life doesn’t have to mean a crisis of identity. Accept how you feel, then have the confidence to make a change. Take a cue from these dancers!
When Carly Goldstein arrived at Skidmore College as a freshman dance and psychology major, she bit off more than she could chew. She joined every club, crammed as many dance classes into her schedule as possible, and didn’t turn down any performance opportunity. By the end of her second semester, the idea of putting on a pair of tights was about as appealing as bunion surgery.
The breaking point came on her birthday, opening night for an excerpt from Swan Lake with guests from ABT. She should have been ecstatic, but instead, she wanted to crawl into a hole. “I had just turned 19, but felt like I was 70,” she recalls. “Everything ached, I couldn’t keep my eyes open and I didn’t want to go to classes or meetings.”
How did she cope? To get some perspective, she took the entire summer off from dance. She focused on being at peace with herself and practiced a lot of yoga. By the time she returned to school, she was ready to dance again, but her perspective had changed. “I used to determine whether or not to do something by asking myself, ‘Can this produce dramatic results that will get me what I want as soon as possible?’ Now I ask, ‘Does this make me happy, is this good for me and can I do this in moderation?’” she says. “I’m exploring other interests. I’ve found that my dance knowledge and passion for the art is easy to incorporate into interdisciplinary endeavors. I still dance nearly every day, but I’m happier now that I’m approaching it all differently. Knowing how healthy I am makes me happy.”
Resenting Studio Time
If you spend every evening and weekend in class or rehearsal, you may begin to wonder if you’re missing out on extracurricular activities at school. That’s what happened to Becky Albini, who attends Studio 1 Dance Center in Wolcott, CT. “Now that I’m a teenager, it’s really hard to want to go to class because there are other school events and friend things that I want to do,” she says.
How did she cope? She made the tough choice to take fewer dance classes. Now, she does pageants, has a social life and has joined the dance team. The result? She enjoys dance again. “I love going to dance now more than ever, because I’m not completely stressed about going or completely bored,” she says. “It feels like a fresh start. You really can enjoy all the things you love to do—you just need to manage your time well.”
Ariel Tucker* of Chesapeake, VA, experienced a similar situation. She and her two younger sisters spent 17 hours a week at the studio. “I was so tired of not being able to do anything else besides dance,” she says.
How did she cope? She took time off to do all-star cheerleading, but quit a year later because it didn’t make her feel as good as dancing did. “I’m so happy dancing now, and when I get tired of it, I just take a few days off,” she says. “I’m in the studio now more than I was before, but it really doesn’t seem like it because I’m enjoying myself.”
Feeling Out of Place
Alden LaPaglia, a graduate of Goucher College’s dance program, now lives in NYC—one of the most exciting and toughest places to dance. But after a few years of class, auditions and supplementing her income as a Pilates and dance teacher, she started to get discouraged.
“I was tired of auditioning and not fitting into the right mold—frustrated by the fact that it isn’t always the strongest dancer who gets the job,” she says. “Also, I just wasn’t inspired by the choreography I was seeing around town.”
How did she cope? She made her own opportunities. She choreographed on her fellow dancers, started her own company and is now applying to present her work at showcases around NYC.
Though it’s their bread and butter, even the pros can get the blues for a variety of reasons. Maybe they aren’t getting promoted or cast in interesting roles; perhaps they’ve hit a plateau. Maybe the monotony of yet another 40-performance Nutcracker season is unbearable.
How do they cope? “When I’m not enjoying dancing as much as I would like to, I think about all the other things I like to do,” says Geoffrey Kropp of Kansas City Ballet. He supplements his dance life with academic classes that pique his interest—he just completed a course on the history of rock and roll. “I like to craft, read and watch movies,” he says. “Being a dancer doesn’t mean that dancing is the only thing you do.”
How bad would an ulcer have to get before you stayed home from class? If you’re like former Ailey School student Miriam Akhavan-Tafti—who, at the height of her burnout sipped from a bottle of Maalox between barre exercises—you’d have to be on your deathbed. Not only did Akhavan-Tafti drag herself to class with a severe ulcer, but no matter how much sleep she got, she woke up exhausted. “I started stress eating, because I was so tired,” she says. “I was starting to gain weight and I got a lot more negative. Sometimes I would be so miserable right before class that I’d have to force myself to go.”
Type A personalities (high achievers who tend to overcommit themselves) are at especially high risk for burnout, a condition characterized by pushing yourself through exhaustion, physical pain and feeling emotionally crummy, which can make you negative, catty and depressed. This kind of self-mutilation could result in injury and—possibly even worse—a complete disdain for dance.
Recovery from burnout involves therapy, rest and lots of time, which is why prevention is much easier on your psyche. “Treating burnout is a nightmare,” says Dr. Aynsley Smith, PhD, of the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. After all, burnout is more than just over-training; it’s both a physical and psychological condition.
Full-blown burnout robs you of motivation, energy and happiness. Your heart rate goes through the roof and your muscles lose glycogen. Early signs of burnout include not enjoying dancing, tension, depression, frustration at not improving, anger, fatigue, a general out-of-whack feeling, an inability to bounce back like you used to and forgetfulness or confusion. If you start to feel this way, take one or two days away from dancing and the studio—a tough concept to grasp, especially if you’re used to pushing yourself or taking more classes when you feel like you aren’t improving fast enough.
Linda Hamilton, a psychologist who treats many performing artists, had one client who took an entire summer off from dancing. When she returned in the fall, her teachers said her dancing was stronger than ever. Not only did she feel newly inspired from spending time at the beach with her friends, but her body actually became healthier. This is partly because every time you work out you’re actually putting tiny tears in your muscle fibers, and it’s only after they heal that they become stronger.
With Hamilton’s help, 20-year-old Akhavan-Tafti has been able to overcome her burnout. She’s currently studying at various studios in NYC, and was invited to take open classes with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. “A lot of my treatment has been learning how to take a step back,” says Akhavan-Tafti. “As much as I want to get five PhDs and be part of the New York City Ballet, sometimes it’s healthier to do less.”
10 Ways To Beat Burnout:
- During days of rest, nurture yourself. Get a massage, sit in a hot tub or sauna, go for acupuncture and have some fun. “That doesn’t mean staying up and dancing until six in the morning at a club,” Hamilton advises. “Sit down and have dinner with your friends.”
- Avoid shocking your body by jumping from one or two classes a week into an intensive situation where you’re dancing all day, or where you’re trying to dance yourself into shape.
- Maintain a workout regimen with lots of variety to stay mentally stimulated and to increase the probability of success.
- Engage in other activities you enjoy. “Having other interests can be really refreshing,” Hamilton says, “especially if you’ve had a bad class and it takes your mind off of dancing. You’ll go back more refreshed.”
- Maximize the quality of your experience by visualizing moves instead of repeating them over and over again. This tactic reduces the amount of energy burned and reduces the chance of injury due to overuse and fatigue.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself and try to be less goal-oriented. “If there was such a thing as being perfect it would be a category in the Guinness Book of World Records,” says Hamilton. “It doesn’t exist.”
- See a professional dance performance. LeAnn Haggard, National Dance Association’s 2006 National Dance Educator of the Year, suggests that watching a company will re-inspire your love of dance.
- Take a dance workshop. “Sometimes burnout can be remedied by going to a dance workshop and thinking, ‘My technique is really good!’ That’s enough to perk you up again,” Haggard says. “Other times being next to people who love dance rekindles the spirit inside.”
- Switch studios. “This one is touchy, but we shop for everything else,” says Haggard. “You may be burned out because your studio is not meeting your needs anymore.”
- Evaluate your commitment to dance. “If you’re burning out, you might need a new venue for dance,” says Haggard. “Maybe you should audition for the dance team at your high school, which will allow you to continue dancing at a lesser intensity than at your studio.”