This is an excerpt from Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence w/WR by Jim Taylor & Elena Estanol.
Entering the Dark Side of Dance
People who enter the dark side of dance are driven by a variety of unhealthy motivations, including self-doubt, insecurity, and fear. At the center of these motivations is the need to feel better about themselves, safe, and free from anxiety. These individuals believe that by achieving dance success, they'll receive the respect and admiration they want from others, the love and value they crave from themselves, and, ultimately, inner peace. Unfortunately, their involvement in dance can exacerbate these needs rather than relieve them.
Three concerns lie at the heart of the turn to the dark side of dance. Foremost is low self-esteem, in which people view themselves as unworthy of love and respect and lacking in competence. They get involved in dance in an attempt to show how capable they are and how deserving they are of love and respect. Dance provides them with a modicum of security in an otherwise threatening world. These individuals approach dance from a position of weakness in which they need to be successful in order to feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, because their needs are so great and their expectations so extreme, their participation in dance rarely satisfies them.
People can also be drawn to the dark side by getting overly invested in dance. A person's self-identity can become excessively connected to his or her dance efforts. Ideally, dance should be part of your life, not life itself—just one slice of the pie that is your self-identity, which should also include school or work, family, friends, and other interests and activities. But dance can become the dominant slice of the pie, in which case you may draw most of your beliefs and feelings about yourself from your dance pursuits. The danger of this over-identification arises when things aren't going well in dance—whether due to overtraining, poor performance, failure to get coveted roles, or injury—and you feel bad about yourself, even as if a part of yourself has been removed.
Another group of people who are drawn to dance are perfectionists. Indeed, dance is the ideal art form for perfectionists. Because of its complexity, intensity, rigor, minute details, precise organization, and highly competitive environment, dance satisfies the punctilious needs of individuals whose standards are higher than high. Perfectionists are drawn to dance because it allows them to focus on the smallest details, gives them the sense of control that they crave, and enables them to create an artificial world characterized by the precise structure with which they feel most comfortable.
At the same time, however, dance can be a chamber of horrors for perfectionists. It may appear at first to be a perfect world made up of regimented training, precise movement, immaculately prepared costumes, clearly defined hierarchies, and no room for flaws or missteps. But the real world of dance is much messier. In reality, dance is filled with frustration, pain, mistakes, and failure—the very antithesis of the perfect art form. An opening night that is superbly planned, highly organized, and well structured can quickly devolve into a chaotic experience due to unforeseen events, unanticipated problems, and a constantly changing environment. Therefore, what starts as a dream day for perfectionists can turn into a nightmare of frustration, lost control, and inflexibility.
Perfectionists attach their self-esteem to their achievements, which, no matter how lofty, are never enough to meet the unrealistic standards these individuals set for themselves. Perfectionists aim their often misdirected efforts at achieving the impossible goal of perfection in pursuit of feelings of competence and a happiness and contentment that they so desperately crave.
Dancers who have gone to the dark side persist in their efforts despite their failure to find what they want. Often, these dancers tend to believe that they simply haven't done enough to achieve their goals rather than recognizing that their goals are misplaced. They are also loath to admit defeat in pursuit of their goals because such an admission would only confirm that they are a failure unworthy of love and respect.
Their intense and continuing efforts in dance act as an anesthetic against the painful sense of inadequacy they feel in their lives. When they're training hard and feeling physical pain, they're distracted from their emotional pain. In addition, when they achieve small successes in training and performance, they experience highs that, however brief, offer them a respite from their angst. The poignant truth, of course, is that they—and you, and all of us—are worthy of love, respect, and acceptance regardless of dance achievements.
The most unfortunate reality of the dark side of dance is that all of the efforts that perfection-driven dancers put into their art are ultimately self-defeating. They put so much time and energy into their dance in the belief that they will find what they seek, and they don't realize that they're looking for the wrong things in the wrong places. Not only do they not find what they want, but also they are kept from charting a new course that could lead them to what they're searching for. Furthermore, as they spend more and more time in their dance pursuits, their lives become increasingly unbalanced. They may flounder in school, lose valuable friendships, and have trouble with their families. When all of life becomes dance and it's no longer fun, you have gone too far.
Keys to the Light Side of Dance
To ensure that you don't enter the dark side of dance—or that you get out of it as soon as possible—take a healthy perspective on the role that dance plays in your life and maintain a healthy balance between your involvement in dance and the rest of your life. Dance should add to rather than detract from your life as a whole. It should also foster qualities and experiences that enhance other parts of your life, including relationships, school, work, and other activities. Dance should contribute to your growth as a person by helping you develop admirable qualities, such as confidence, passion, and perseverance. It should also discourage less desirable attributes, such as selfishness, perfectionism, and self-doubt. In short, dance should make you a better person.
Feeling the Love and Joy
Dance should be about love—love of yourself, love of others, love of music, love of movement, love of dance, and love of life. Yet because dance is a competitive art form, it can sometimes turn into a love of results, of a position in a company, of leading roles, and of rave reviews. If you fall in love with these results, you may lose your true love of dance. Without that passion for all things dance, your interest and motivation to train and perform may wane. But if you love the process of dance, the physicality, the artistry, the music, the emotional expressiveness, the exhilaration of performing on a stage in front of an audience, then dance will bring you both love and joy.
We have found that, more often than not, if you love the experience, you'll also get the results you want, even though you aren't focusing on them. If you love training, you put in the time and effort necessary to gain the benefits you need in order to achieve your goals. Because you're not overly invested in your results, you're more confident, relaxed, and focused; less anxious about how you'll dance; and better able to perform up to your ability in auditions, productions, and competitions. The end result is that you have a wonderful dance experience while often getting the results you want.
Joy can be found in the dance experience itself. Enjoy giving your best effort, improving your dance, reveling in the intensity of an audition, and getting to know like-minded people. Dance remains a joy when it serves as an antidote for stress and a healthy escape from the demands of your life. It continues to be joyful when you maintain a positive balance between physical exertion and rest and when your commitment of time to dance doesn't cause you to sacrifice other parts of your life.
Dance is a joy when you feel excited about and look forward to classes, rehearsals, and productions. Find joy by surrounding yourself with other dancers who also get joy from dance. Find joy in the changes you see in your body and mind and the quality of your dancing. Staying continually connected with those feelings is the surest way to gain the maximum joy out of dance.
Learn more about Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence.