Lealand Eve

When Perfectionism Becomes a Problem

As a teenager, contemporary dancer Eveline Kleinjans felt like nothing she did was good enough. Auditioning for university dance programs paralyzed her: “I was so focused on every move I made and what people would think that I wasn't able to be free, to be myself," she says. And her intense perfectionism had real repercussions. “I'd get negative feedback saying, 'We don't see you.' "

Perfectionism is extremely common in the dance world, because dancers hold themselves to terrifically high standards. It's easy to get a little discouraged when you aren't improving as quickly as you want. But there's a difference between healthy self-criticism and an unhealthy obsession with perfection. How can you tell when your drive to be better has crossed the line—and what can you do to get back on track?


Understand Your Tendencies

“Perfectionism is an inborn personality trait," says performance psychologist Dr. Linda Hamilton, “and it has a lot of positive aspects! Perfectionists have high standards. They tend to be organized and meet their goals." At what point does perfectionism go bad? “When you set unrealistically high goals and, when you can't reach them, become plagued with self-doubt," Hamilton says. If you're constantly questioning whether you're good enough, you could have a problem.

“Some people are perfectionists only in certain activities. For others, it permeates who they are," adds Carly Goldstein, a postdoctoral fellow at Alpert Medical School at Brown University and The Miriam Hospital. “Training to be a performer can be such an all-consuming process that feelings of inadequacy in one area can bleed outward: Having a bad dance class can make you feel bad at everything."

Watch for Symptoms

Not every perfectionist will experience the same issues. For Kleinjans, perfectionism was an emotional roller coaster. “Some days, I really wanted to work to be better. Other times I was like, Why even try? I'm never going to be good enough," she says. Many perfectionists, rather than experiencing up-and-down emotions, get stuck on one end of that spectrum—either pushing themselves so hard they become exhausted and injured, or trying to avoid the dance studio at all costs.

Is your perfectionism driving you to rehearse the same choreography over and over until it's exactly right? You might be at risk for burnout. Do you feel strong anxiety at the thought of making a mistake? You could develop stage fright, or avoid an important audition rather than risk failure. “I've known perfectionists who were so self-critical that they stopped dancing way before their prime," Hamilton says. Pay attention to how perfectionism makes you feel—and what behaviors it inspires.

Fight Back

Understanding your specific perfectionism problem is only half the battle. You also have to take steps to change your mind-set. Here are a few techniques. Try the best-friend test. When you start berating yourself, think, “Would I say this to my best friend?" “If your friend had an off day, would you tell her she had no talent and should quit dance?" Hamilton asks. “Of course not!" Recognizing how harsh you're being can help you stop harmful self-talk.

Distance yourself from your thoughts. Do you have a nasty inner voice that chimes in when things get hard? Goldstein suggests giving that voice a silly name. “Let's say you keep falling out of your turns," she says. “Your inner voice might tell you, 'You'll never get it right. You should just skip the rest of class.' But if you think, 'That's not me talking—it's the World's Worst Motivational Speaker,' you can see how those thoughts both aren't true and aren't helpful."

Put your struggles in perspective. It might feel like you'll never nail that triple pirouette—but is that really true? Instead of thinking in black-and-white terms, spend time in the gray. Remember how far you've progressed in your training to even be attempting such a difficult step. Consider that your favorite professional dancers once couldn't do triples either—and that they have moves that frustrate them now.

Avoid comparisons. “Put blinders on and work on you," recommends Nashville Ballet dancer Mollie Sansone, who struggled with perfectionism for years. In a ballet world seemingly filled with perfect bodies, she agonized over her less-than-perfect turnout and feet. But after getting so discouraged that she considered quitting, Sansone regained self-confidence by homing in on her strengths rather than her weaknesses. “Focus on what you have to give," she says. “I'm a good turner. I'm good at petit allégro. I connect with the audience. I took those qualities and ran with them."

In addition to reframing your negative thoughts, you can combat perfectionism by surrounding yourself with a strong support system. “When you're starting down a path that's destructive, it's important to catch it early," Hamilton says. Talking to a teacher, mentor, parent or therapist can ease your burden. “It's impossible to be perfect," says Ballet Spartanburg's Nichola Montt. “There's always something to work on! The most successful dancers are the ones who can accept their flaws and mistakes and learn from them. Then you can grow as an artist."

Latest Posts


Photo by Joe Toreno. Hair by Marina Migliaccio and makeup by Lisa Chamberlain, both for the Rex Agency.

Sienna Lalau: The Dynamite Dancer and Choreographer Helping BTS Make Magic

At just 20 years old, Sienna Lalau is the living definition of "dynamite dancer": bold, confident, almost addicting to watch, and, at her core, overflowing with pure passion. From her work with The Lab Studios to Video Music Award–winning choreography for BTS, there's no stopping this starlet from bringing her love of dance to the global stage.

"Dance is something that can truly connect people," Sienna tells Dance Spirit. "It's a universal language. We may not speak the same language physically, but when we dance, there's a connection where we understand each other on another level."

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Tanishq Joshi brings his star quality to stage in his hometown of Indore, India (courtesy Tanishq Joshi)

Tanishq Joshi is Stomping on South Asian Stereotypes by Fusing Hip-Hop Choreo With Bollywood Music

For Tanishq Joshi (aka Taneesky), becoming a dancer was as unexpected as your music cutting off mid-performance. An unfortunate injury in his hometown of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India, led to the more fortunate discovery of a new passion and a flourishing career.

Joshi's had the opportunity to choreograph and compete at "World of Dance" events, perform at the JaQuel Knight Showdown, and grace the stage at Pharrell Williams' "Something in the Water" concert. And that's all on top of work and training with dancers and choreographers like Devin Solomon, Denzel Chisolm, Josh Killacky, Samantha Caudle, and Jake Kodish.

Joshi shared his story with Dance Spirit, and broke down how his unique approach to choreography is helping him diminish stereotypes, open doors for South Asian dancers, and inspire the dance community at large.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Houston Ballet Demi Soloist Natalie Varnum shows off her signature style (Claire McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet)

Fashion Forward: 3 Pros Share What Goes into Their Dancewear Choices

When it comes to in-studio dancewear, the pros know that the right look, piece, or material can mean the difference between a day feeling confident and comfortable, or just plain out of sorts. With so much time spent honing their craft in dance clothes, choosing those items takes equal parts strategy, creativity and a healthy dose of fun.

Here, professional dancers Ian Eastwood, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, and Natlie Varnum share what goes into their fashion choices that enables them to look good, feel great, and turn heads in the studio.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search