The Psychological Aspects of a Dancer's Life

December 24, 2010
We watch them in their beauty as they flawlessly glide and leap across the stage, we watch them as they finish their routine just as the orchestra hits their final note and the crowd roars, we watch them with tears streaming down our faces as they perform an emotional piece, we observe if only for a moment, the life of a dancer as they perform on stage. When thinking of a dancer we think of beauty, long legs, flexibility, perfection, and confidence. What we don’t think of is the psychological aspects of a dancer’s day-to-day life. It never seems to cross our minds that what they do is both physically and mentally demanding. In fact, some people believe that dancers are just a bunch of girls twirling around in tutu’s onstage, however, when we take a deeper look into their lives there is a whole new “world” that is uncovered for us to see. The life of a dancer is something special, something that can be taken for granted, something that can take a turn for the worse, and something that completes a person.

The New York Times talks about dance as a, “highly competitive, high-pressure and physically demanding profession.” A career in dance is just as hard, if not harder, than any other sports career in the world. A dancer must work hard and long hours in order to reach their maximum physical capabilities. The talent of dance is not something that simply “appears over night”. To pursue a career in dance a dancer must devote themselves to class, auditions, performances, and anything else that will land them jobs and improve their skills.

The hit show “So You Think You Can Dance” showcases some of the best dancers and choreographers in the country. The shows choreographers create dances each week that provide a story and are filled with emotion. The emotions that can be presented in a dance are endless. As a dancer you can take whatever is on your mind and turn those thoughts into a beautiful piece of art. Dance can show what our mouths don’t want to tell, and to be able to do that through dance is a wonderful feeling. However, being asked to produce an emotion at the drop of a dime is something that eventually takes a toll on a dancer’s mental life.

Pre-performance jitters are something that every dancer experiences, whether they want to admit it or not. The anxiety of performing is usually overtaken by the adrenaline rush that appears when the curtains open and the music begins. Adrenaline rush is defined as “A sudden burst of energy from an increase in the hormone and neurotransmitter adrenaline, especially increased heart rate and blood pressure, perspiration, blood sugar, and metabolism.” ( Performing multiple performances in one day and having constant ups and downs in adrenaline can be tiring and emotionally stressful. You can associate this tired feeling with that tired feeling you get after going to the dentist, even though you did nothing but lay there with your mouth open.

The “image” of a ballerina is always a slender form and long lines. If you look at any ballet company you won’t see sign of plump dancers for miles, that’s for sure. To achieve the “ballerina look” these dancers go on strict diets and do all that they can to lose enough weight. Some dancers may even become obsessed with their weight and lose more than what is needed to have the “ballerina look” resulting in eating disorders. Anorexia and Bulimia are the most common among the eating disorders in the dance world. Anorexia nervosa is “an eating disorder in which an already emaciated person continues to diet and exercise excessively to the point of potentially fatal weight loss.” (Kagan & Segal, pg. 418) Bulimia nervosa is “an eating disorder in which a person engages in eating binges and then purges or takes laxatives but does not experience significant weight loss.” (Kagan & Segal, pg. 418)

The physical stress put upon a dancers body is probably the most destructive in the physical aspect of a dancer. Dancers must use their bodies constantly to perfect their talent and they must constantly push their bodies to the most extreme levels. Dancer’s muscles and bones take a beating over the course of a dance career, not to mention the millions of bruises, abrasions, floor burns, swelling, etc. In the case of an injury, the dancer lands in the situation that no one in the dance world wants to be in. If a dancer suffers any type of injury the best thing to do is to cease dancing until the injury heals or to “take it easy” in class. However, in the life of a professional dancer this is not always possible. If a dancer chooses to keep dancing even though they have an injury they could essentially create a worse injury which will put them in a worse position than before. Damage to a dancer’s body can result in depression, “A feeling of severe and prolonged sadness that occurs as a reaction to stress and chemical imbalances in the brain.” (Kagan & Segal, pg. 507)

The depression that occurs from a dancer’s injury can be mild or severe. An example of a mild case would be a brief time of depression in which a dancer must be more careful in class or just observe a rehearsal. An example of a severe case would be if a dancer’s career ended because of the injury or they were no longer able to dance. The depression in the case of a dancer that could no longer dance would be so great that they could end up “withering-away” as some may say. When you base your life off of the love of one thing, and pour everything you have into that one thing, your world tends to appear as if it has stopped if that one thing is altered or taken away. This is a risk that all dancers are willing to face if their love for dance is that great.

Determination, confidence, and passion are all found in the heart of a dancer. It is easy to believe that the most determined and passionate people could be dancers. To be able to rehearse all day everyday for a performance or simply to gain technique takes passion. To perfect routines, learn new ones, or learn new difficult moves takes an unbelievable amount of determination. In the world of dance it is easy to get discouraged. People will constantly tell you that you are not good enough, especially in the professional world, and eventually that is going to get to you if you’re not careful. To think that you are not good enough just because someone told you so is almost a way of “giving up”. A dancer must make themselves believe that they can be good enough. A dancer must not worry about what other people think, but simply dance because it is a part of them and they love it. The passion of dance should be what dancers are dancing for. Audience members just happen to get the privilege to observe this passion when it is presented onstage.

The topic of the psychological aspects of a dancer’s life is relevant to psychological analysis because it affects a large group of dancers worldwide. Dancers are a group of people that can represent many different disorders found in the study of psychology. By no means do all dancers suffer from a disorder, but there are some that do, as with any other way of life. Where dance is so physically demanding a dancer needs to make sure that they take care of themselves and stay it tip-top shape both mentally and physically. Dance should not be thought of as a bunch of skinny, depressed, injured, crazy people twirling and leaping around in leotards. As with everything in life there is always a negative side to everything. However, the positive psychological aspects of a dancer’s life are far more abundant than the negative.

As a dancer you are able to bring a joy to people as you perform for them. People, especially young children, find a magical aspect in seeing dancers. What little girl doesn’t dream of being a ballerina at one point or another?! There are so many styles of dance (jazz, ballet, tap, modern, contemporary, lyrical, hip hop, ballroom, etc.) that you are sure to find a style that suites your liking! A dancer has this happiness about them as they perform for a crowd. After the performance is over and the final curtain closes there is a feeling of relief, joy, sadness that it is over, and excitement present. To be able to mentally touch someone with the story you are telling through your dance is a wonderful thought. As mentioned earlier, dancers portray many emotions in different pieces of choreography. A dancer is able to release their emotions through their dance and leave it all on the dance floor. Through therapies such as dance and movement therapy individuals are able to the same.

In dance/movement therapy the therapist helps the individual (or group) to release those “caught-up” emotions, whether those emotions are happy, sad, mad, etc. Dance/movement therapy is all about expressing yourself, in the same manner that dancers do on stage. In order to participate in dance/movement therapy there is no need to be the best dancer, you just simply must have a will to express your emotions. Anyone can participate in dance/movement therapy and that is the joy of this therapy! To dance is to feel free!

Another positive aspect of dance is the muscle tone and strength gained from working hard. A dancer has strength like no other, they are able to do jumps, turns, and participate in class activities that they average person would not be able to get through without pain. The saying “Pain is weakness leaving the body” is true in the mind of a dancer. In fact, some football players actually take ballet classes in order to help them build muscles that football cannot help them attain. Dancers also build muscles that the average exercise enthusiast cannot obtain. Dancers are not wimpy, but rather strong individuals with a purpose.

As a dancer you never reach a plateau of learning. There is ALWAYS something more to learn, and you can get something out of taking even the easiest of classes. You are not in class to dance for others but to dance for yourself only. As a dancer your goal is to perfect what you have, how hard you apply yourself is going to be the deciding factor on whether you get better or not. No dancer is a perfect dancer because there is always something more to learn!

In conclusion we see that the life of a dancer is full of hard work, dedication, determination, confidence, and technique. If a dancer is not careful that world can be turned into injury, eating disorders, depression, other mental disorders, etc. The idea of a super skinny ballerina body needs to escape ones mind. To dance is a right of passage. If you have the skills, who dare tell you that you don’t have the body? Dancing for oneself is the name of the game in the dance world. To take it one day at a time and do not let the emotional ups and downs of performing get the best of you. A dancer must only dance better than themselves, not the other ten dancers in class with them. The psychological aspect of a being a dancer is beautiful.

Kagan and Segal. “Psychology, An Introduction: Ninth Edition” Wadsworth/Thompson Learning. Belmont, CA 2004. November 7, 2010.

Jennifer Dunning. The New York Times. “Eating Disorders Haunt Ballerinas”. Web. July 16, 1997. Accessed on November 7, 2010. “adrenaline rush” Accessed on November 7, 2010.

Join the Discussion

This article has 5 comments. Post your own now!

Paige T. said...
Jun. 17, 2012 at 7:41 pm
I am a dancer, and I love that you wrote about this because people are so oblivious to the psychological torment that dancers have to put themselves through. Excellent writing!
SpringRayyn said...
Feb. 15, 2011 at 11:18 pm
Did my other comment post...?
EricaLeigh replied...
Feb. 16, 2011 at 6:33 am

Hi SpringRayyn,

No, your other comment did not post.

Thank you for reading my article! 

SpringRayyn replied...
Feb. 16, 2011 at 8:03 pm
Well it said something along the lines of "This is very long and I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it but I'm glad I did. I am a dancer and can relate to nearly everything in it. So true, and I can tell you put a lot of work into it." Something like that.
EricaLeigh replied...
Mar. 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

Well thank you very much!

It is a bit lengthy but I do believe that the topic deserves a lot of attention!

I'm glad to hear that you can relate to the information presented in the article.  I believe that too often dancers are "stereo-typed".  People need to learn about the good and bad sides of dance before they judge!

bRealTime banner ad on the left side
Site Feedback