The coronavirus isn’t the only epidemic among us. Perfectionism is also a growing epidemic. Studies show that perfectionism has been linked to depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia and even suicide. Unfortunately, there is not enough help provided by the industry despite the fact that dancers often suffer from these illnesses. As an expert who works with dancers in the Houston Ballet, Dr. Brain Goonan says that the same drive to succeed may also make ballet dancers susceptible to depression.
Perfectionism is something that does not exist; it is something that is unattainable. Nevertheless, this is something that is much desired among dancers. To be able to be flawless in every movement, every breath, and making absolutely no mistakes is incredibly irresistible to dancers, an infatuation with being perfect. Despite this captivating notion, perfectionism is becoming a mental health crisis in the dance world.
So why are dancers perfectionists? There are several reasons why this may be. First of all, Dance is a relentless art: the pressure of always doing better and striving for perfection becomes an overwhelmingly natural instinct for a dancer. Needless to say, dancer’s bodies are their instruments and they are trained to look at their flaws first. From the hours of looking at the mirror to correcting their mistakes and improving on their flaws in addition to listening to the teachers highlighting their flaws leads dancers to focus the worst in themselves. In addition, dance training focuses on dancers to be tough: to “suck up” and dance through the pain and injuries. Otherwise, there is a fear of being left behind; the mental strength required for dancers is unmeasurable. The ridiculous competition doesn’t help either as dancers have been trained to be constantly competitive from a young age from competitions to auditions. Finally, the dance industry is failing dancers by continuing to create harmful practices by ignoring this epidemic.
It is possible that because a dancer is too concerned about what the audience thinks, they are not able to be themselves fully when they are dancing. Eveline Kleinjans, a contemporary dancer, felt like nothing she did was good enough as a teenager, “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. Her intense concentration on perfectionism had consequences and effects on the audience. She says, “I'd get negative feedback saying, 'We don't see you.'”
The study in Perfectionism, Shame, and Self-concept in Dancers: A Mediation Analysis by Professor Tomson and Professor Jaque, examined a model in which dancers' shame mediates the relationship between both the aspects of perfectionism and self-concept. There are definitely relationships between perfectionism, internalized shame, and sense of self-concept as shown from the study. It is evident that perfectionism is a paradox that exists in dance where the absolute perfection and acehidvent of exceptionally high standards is ideal. However, the striving for perfection can have devastating effects on dancers’s mental health. The conclusion that was brought up was that it would be beneficial for dancers to join something that would enhance self-esteem and reduce the negative effects of both internalized shame and self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism.
Now if a dancer was to choose between either perfection or creativity, which one would they choose? Especially in classical ballet, a dancer is seen as an individual who follows the rules without a space for them to be creative, at least within the movements they can do. Nowadays, creativity with both originality and usefulness by being able to improvise and choreograph in collaboration with choreographers are becoming increasingly important. It is imperative to not strive for perfection but rather to improve from the person that one was yesterday while balancing that out with creativity to be the best version of oneself.
Fortunately, there are ways to fight back the idea of perfectionism and develop productive coping skills. Shelby Williams, a Royal Ballet of Flanders soloist, found a creative way to cope with perfectionism in ballet. Her antidote to her anxiety was making an account, Biscuit Ballerina where she posted intentionally half-hearted dancing videos of herself that spread the message of embracing your biscuits (this is what she called her foot) and recognizing the hardships of ballet. The account naturally blew up with currently about 149,000 followers on instagram.
Here are some other ways to fight back the idea of perfectionism in dance. You have to distance yourself from your negative thoughts that degrade yourself. With the best friend test, ask yourself would I tell this to my best friend? Next, put your struggles in perspective and remind yourself of how far you have gotten when you can’t complete that double pirouette that day. Remind yourself that even the best professional dancers have trouble doing those turns sometimes. Avoid comparisons between yourself and other dancers. It is important to focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses, on what you can give to the audience. Finally, surround yourself with a support system. Talk to a teacher, friend, mentor, parent or therapist. Just remember, the only way to grow as an artist is to accept your flaws and mistakes and learn from them.
Photo by Quartz at Work