by Michelle Peck ’25
(Content warning: Body image and eating disorders)
Many people think of ballet as an effortless art that is pleasing to watch. However, most of those people probably do not know the effect on the dancers’ mental health leading up to that performance. The goal of professional dancers is to make their art look effortless and easy, although that is very far from the case. A lot of people see dance as therapeutic, and as a way to relieve anxiety and stress. This can be true for recreational or non-technical dance, but when it comes to the professional level, many dancers are sacrificing their mental health. Although dance, in general, may have benefits on mental health, dancers in the professional industry are constantly battling their mental health due to negative training environments; exceedingly high standards lead to ideas of comparison, the need to be perfect, and harsh or abusive instructors which lead to anxiety and depression.
Many ballet dancers in the professional industry are training in a negative environment, which takes a huge toll on their mental health. Part of what makes the professional training environment so detrimental to one’s mental health is harsh and overly critical instructors. These instructors can even turn out to be emotionally and physically abusive. Holmes discusses the impact of abusive instuctors and how a neative environment can affect a dancer’s mental health. Holmes includes in her article the interview exchange between two dancers Laney and Kate (names have been changed) on their experience dancing in an unhealthy environment and how their mental health changed drastically when they took a break from dancing, and eventually joined a new studio. Their previous instructor was abusive to them and was constantly comparing them to other dancers in a negative manner. Some of their dances were threatened to be taken away; their instructor told them that “they didn’t deserve what they’d been given” and to “change who they saw in the mirror” ( Holmes, par 1). An instructor is there to “mold and guide you” (Holmes, par 4) not berate and comment on your self-worth. Laney and Kate were “punished for taking vacations and expressing interest in non-dance activities” (Holmes, par 2). Unhealthy, abusive instructors take a toll on dancers’ mental health, adding to what can be an already toxic environment for dancers, especially those in the professional industry. When Laney and Kate took a break from dance and joined a new studio, they expressed how their mental health improved when in a safe environment with supportive instructors. These girls were able to feel their growth at this new studio. As psychologist Linda Hamilton, who works with performing artists in New York City states, “…when you are being targeted or bullied you are less likely to excel” (Holmes, par 13) After Laney joined a more positive and encouraging dance environment Laney expressed how her mental health was affected by such a negative environment, “ I never knew how much your mental health can affect your dancing…” (Holmes, par 3). Laney says that she has “grown so much since the environment here is positive” (Holmes, par 3). Laney clarifies that at this new dance studio she is “not being put down” but is “being lifted up” (Holmes, par 3). It is important for instructors to keep this in mind because they believe that the stricter they are, the more it will benefit the dancer. As Laney’s experience shows and Hamilton’s claims, strict does not always mean it will help the dancer to improve; it may actually cause them to deteriorate, not only with their mental health but with their skills.
The idea of perfectionism has severe impacts on dancers’ mental health. Unrealistic high standards of professional ballet dancers feel they have to live up to this desire to be perfect. The pre-performance stress caused one particular dancer serious anxiety issues. A dancer can not perform at their best if they are also combatting anxiety, especially if that anxiety stems from dance. Most of the time dancers’ anxiety does stem from dance, the particular reason for this circumstance is that they feel they need to be the best to land that dream role and to have the perfect body. Dancers tend to over-train because of these perfectionist tendencies and can also lead to injury. The Perfectionism Paradox states, “Intense drive and attention to detail are vital to success in dance but if taken too far, these same perfectionistic tendencies can negatively affect a dancer’s well-being and career” (Henderson, 31). To combat the immense feelings of anxiety professional ballet dancers are facing, the magazine mentions shifting from the idea of perfectionism to excellence. Having this different mindset helps make progress towards goals. The Perfectionism Paradox implies that perfectionism is a recipe for failure. Dancers are pressured to “unrealistic body standards, told they should leave behind all other interests, and taught to crave correction and criticism” (Holmes, 32). The use of social media adds to this pressure, amplifying the set of high standards. One dancer said, “ I felt like a failure…if I can’t do this one simple turn, then I can’t call myself a professional” (Holmes, 31). Dancers should not be as self-degrading as they are, but because of this idea of dancers needing to be perfect, dancers hold themselves to unattainable standards. The idea of making a mistake in the professional industry is daunting since these dancers are held to such high expectations. A 2003 Duke University conducted a study that revealed dancers’ view of failure being seen as weak, “failure was unacceptable, but so was the appearance of trying to succeed” (Angyal, par 3). Without failure, dancers would not be able to grow; failure enables the dancer to learn from their mistakes and lets them know what to improve on. The fact that they are always being compared to the other dancers only amplifies the need of wanting to be perfect. This actively demonstrates that anxiety and depression are common in professional dancers because of the drive to live up to an exceedingly high standard.
Stemming from the idea of perfectionism comes body image issues that many professional dancers encounter-with these issues comes anxiety and depression. Many of these dancers are held to unrealistic body standards and as a result, create eating disorders. A 2009 systematic and meta-analysis study revealed that dancers have a” three times higher risk of developing eating disorders” (Arcelus, 1). The most common is anorexia nervosa. Individuals who suffer from anorexia nervosa constantly obsess about their weight and what they are eating. High levels of perfectionism and high levels of body dissatisfaction in the dance industry amplify this because of the “idealization of thinness” (Arcelus, 1). Dancers are constantly being compared to other dancers in the industry. As a result, it is easy for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa to be developed. Additionally, there is a stigma and stereotype in the dance industry that the thinner you are the better dancer you are because it claims to enhance the ballet line.
Since dance is not just a sport, but also an art, a majority of a dancer’s career is assessing how they look onstage and if their body will be fit for the role. Traditional athletes, such as basketball players can certainly face similar issues with body dissatsfication, but their whole career is not dependent on it. Most traditional sports players’ career depends on their skill level, not their physical appearance. Dancers’ roles being dependent on how well their body will appear onstage is part of what causes body image issues, eating disorders, and body dissatisfaction. It it not uncommon for the skinniest, dancer to have the main role, for curvier bodies to get rejected, and for companies to reject dancers because they do not see that dancer’s body looking good onstage. It has been ingrained in the ballet industry that the perfect ballet line comes from being tall and skinny, as those characteristics are thought to enhance the ballet line. The ballet industry and professional ballet companies should be more accepting of all body types to help minimize some of the drive that causes dancers to live up to these unhealthy standards.
Additional physical characteristics that ballet dancers feel they need to meet are high arches, shallow hip sockets, and hyperextended knees, which are all genetic/biological, “…achieving the perfect ballet line can damage the body as dancers try to make their hips and spines and feet and toes do things they were never designed to do” (May, par 5). The drive to create a false image in the mirror only amplifies the depression and anxiety that dancers are facing, as they are asking their bodies to do unrealistic things. Dance requires “its practitioners to spend hours in front of mirrors, comparing their fallible bodies to an unattainable ideal, and to each other” (May, par 2). Dancers are not only being compared by their instructors but are comparing themselves with each other too. This creates a negative mindset that forms dancers’ unhealthy relationships with food. Lauren Fadely Veyette, a dancer at Miami City Ballet was told to lose weight, and “she attempted through dieting—and then starvation—to turn her body into something that it could never be” (May, par 22). Dancers should be provided the resources to support a healthy training environment and should not be shamed for their bodies. Most of the time their bodies are being asked to do things that they were never intended to do. Veyette’s poor eating habits created the reinforcement of a “destructive perfectionism that resulted in depression and burnout” (May, par 23). According to The Perfectionism Paradox, healthy eating is encouraged by “using food as a tool to enhance performance and health” (Henderson, 34). Healthy dancers require balance, hold multiple roles, and have support. Dancers who are not living a balanced lifestyle will start to see these negative effects in their lives. Being a healthy dancer means understanding there is “more to life than your own needs and desires” (Henderson, 34). They also need to obtain a healthy relationship between their body, food, themselves, and others. There need to be more resources for dancers who are struggling with this, so they can be healthy. If they are not healthy, they are unable to perform and train to their highest potential.
In conclusion, there needs to be more awareness of the effects dance has on the mental health of professional dancers so that proper resources can become available to dancers who find themselves struggling. Dance companies should be more accepting of different body types an open to casting dancer’s of all body types. Once dancers realize all bodies are beautiful and are capable of being accepted a role, dancer’s will have less on their plate that they feel they need to meet. Dance definitely has benefits on mental health as it can relieve anxiety and stress, but for professional dancers that is not the case. Dancers, unlike traditional athletes are not only being assessed on their skill level, but also their appearance which is what leads dancers into an unhealthy mindset. Dancers in the professional industry deal with several factors that have negative effects on their mental health. Constantly comparing and being compared to other dancers, body image issues, eating disorders, and severe anxiety are extremely detrimental to a dancer’s mental health.
Holmes, Kathryn. “SETTING BOUNDARIES: What Should You Do When Your Relationship with a Dance Teacher Becomes Unhealthy, or Even Abusive?” Dance Spirit, vol. 24, no. 2, Summer 2020, pp. 51–53. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=asn&AN=143835785&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
HENDERSON, GARNET. “The Perfectionism Paradox: Managing the Double-Edged Sword of Drive.” Dance Magazine, vol. 95, no. 3, Mar. 2021, pp. 30–34. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=asn&AN=148522743&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Humphries, Ashlee, and Julia C. Basso. “Using Virtual Dance Technique To Improve Mental Health And Social Connection During The Covid-19 Crisis.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 53, Aug. 2021, pp. 343–344. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000763212.92957.3f.
Arcelus, Jon, et al. “Influence of Perfectionism on Variables Associated to Eating Disorders in Dance Students.” Revista de Psicología Del Deporte, vol. 24, no. 2, July 2015, pp. 297–303. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=asn&AN=109283444&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Elite Dance Studio. “How Dancing Affects Mental Health: Elite Dance Studio: Edmonton.” Elite Dance Studio, 18 Oct. 2019, https://www.elitedancestudio.net/blogs/how-dancing-benefits-mental-health/.
26, Chloe Angyal May. “The Toll of Perfectionism: On the Physical and Mental Health of Ballet Dancers.” Literary Hub, 22 May 2021, https://lithub.com/the-toll-of-perfectionism-on-the-physical-and-mental-health-of-ballet-dancers/.