Through dance we learn a lot about ourselves and how to use our bodies. We learn to express ourselves physically where we’ve failed to do so with words and this helps us become stronger people, physically and mentally.
There is, however, a point of diminishing returns where dance ceases to help and starts to hurt us. Many of us who take dance seriously, pursuing it as a career, will experience this point.
When it becomes too stressful due to judgement, competition, and rejection.
Physically, we can hit technical plateaus, become over-trained, and injured.
Emotionally, we start to doubt ourselves, our chosen path, and our ability to be great dancers.
When we reach these points, the same training that helped us become stronger as people can drag us down.
I’ve experienced all of the above points- the injuries, and the doubt, and many dancers I’ve worked with have, too. What I’ve found is of utmost importance for dancers to continue to progress throughout their careers while avoiding these discouraging set-backs, is to adopt three distinct mindsets, which I will explain further down in this post.
In dance our set-backs are often self-imposed, whether we recognize it or not. A subtle change in how we perceive ourselves and our dance training can be enough to prevent catastrophe.
Dance allows our bodies and minds to work in wonderfully creative and complex ways. Dance can help individuals with mental illness like bipolar and depression, slow the brains aging process helping to prevent Alzheimers and dementia, and help improve quality of life for those affected by terminal illness like Parkinson’s.
But like the physical training necessary to become a great dancer, you must become a master of your mind, the training for which is often much more challenging and non-linear. And way less sexy.
The following three mindsets are ones that successful dancers (and successful people in any domain) perceive their world through, whether they are aware of it or not.
You can use the descriptions below to identify whether you approach dance and life with a healthy mindset, and to help you to change if your current paradigm (if necessary), or to affirm that you’re on the right path.
Adopting these three mindsets will change how you dance and extend your career:
1) Growth mindset. The understanding that to improve, you must work at a place that challenges you, where you make a lot of mistakes, and recognize that the fact that you’re struggling is precisely what is helping you to grow and improve. A growth mindset maintains the long-term goal of improvement, while focusing on the immediate, short-term goal of seeking challenge and screwing up as indicators of growth.
Trying to be perfect all the time is not how to improve at dance, or at anything because avoiding failure actually prevents you from improving. This is why dance teachers often ask you to take risks, and if they’re really awesome, will give you a high-five when you fall down because it shows you’re pushing outside your comfort zone.
I encourage all dancers to pick up the book The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, as mandatory reading (as featured in my top 13 resources list). In his book, Coyle explores the neuroscience of how people become good at things. It’s not genetics (although they do help), it’s how we practice. Those who Coyle observed to be at the top of their field were not there because of genetics or luck. They succeeded because they practiced deeply, they practiced at the very edge of their abilities, and they made a lot of mistakes.
Yep. When these athletes, musicians, etc. practiced, they didn’t appear to be very talented at all. They screwed up a lot, but were practicing deeply, often very slowly, and repeating where they made their mistakes until they ceased to occur.
This is also a concept that Trevor Ragan built his website Train Ugly upon. He claims that if your practice looks ugly, it’s probably helping you. I LOVE this idea of training ugly. From Trevor’s manifesto:
“ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT GETTING BETTER IS NOT PRETTY, THAT THERE ARE NO GIFTS, AND YOU GET BETTER WITH PRACTICE, PERIOD. SEEK OUT CHALLENGES. MAKE IT GAME-LIKE. DO THE HARD THINGS. ENJOY EVERY MINUTE OF IT.”
By staying in your comfort zone, looking pretty, and playing it safe with your dancing, you’re preventing yourself from improving. Please realize that a growth mindset
permitsrequires you to make mistakes and look a bit rough while you dance, because it means you’re challenging yourself enough to change how your brain creates movement, and stimulate it to improve.
Train a bit ugly, train at your edge, and know you’re growing from this.
2) Sufficiency mindset. The belief that who you are, what you have, and what you’re capable of is enough. Knowing to your core that you don’t need anything more than what you already have within you, and that you need not strive to be like anyone else but you.
How often do you find yourself feeling unsatisfied with yourself, and thinking that if only you had something MORE you’d be happy?
Maybe you’re perpetually bored and unhappy with an aspect of your life is and need to go shopping to soothe yourself and keep from dwelling on these negative feelings. Or maybe your think that if only you had that expensive Yumiko bodysuit your dancing would be 10x better.
Or maybe you find yourself watching another dancer who’s body, with it’s extreme joint laxity and -10% body fat, you wished you had, because to be exactly like her is what you need to be better and happier and solve all your problems.
These thoughts- that we are not enough, and that we need something more, something outside of us, are dangerous thoughts, because they change us. They can lead us to believe that we’re insufficient beings and we start to feel bad about ourselves, developing low self-esteem, forgetting how brilliant we really are.
The truth is that no fancy bodysuit or restrictive diet is going to make you a more successful dancer if you do not put in the hours (the debatable 10 000 hours to achieve mastery) of deep, focused practice. The “tools for success” that you can buy are just a band-aid solution.
And when you find yourself thinking that if only you had the perfect body, or a more flattering outfit, you begin to believe that your own body is not good enough, you develop a negative opinion of it and how you use it, which is reflected in how you dance.
You ARE enough. You were given everything in this world to become great from the day you were born. When you can see yourself as sufficient (you don’t need to be perfect), you can let go of material consumption as a way of feeling more worthy, and you can stop coveting the body of another dancer because you know that while you’re not “perfect”, you are good enough, and you can use what you have to the best of your abilities.
It is unfortunate that dance can easily become a superficial activity and career if we do not see ourselves as sufficient. This is how disordered eating and injuries can happen- When we don’t trust ourselves and our bodies, we tense up and can become hurt. Our negative feelings about ourselves can become physical blockages limiting the ways we can move our bodies.
You are sufficient. You don’t need anything to be successful and happy other than the tools you were born with. And perfection is impossible, no matter what your ballet teacher says.
3) Two-sided-coin mindset. The ability to see two sides of a situation, feeling, or thing. To see problems as interesting challenges, to see jealousy as admiration, guilt as gratitude, and rest as productivity.
As a dancer you will face many challenging situations: Difficult dance steps, choreography, and getting along with the inevitable egos that exist in every dance community. You may face rejection from auditions, injury, and difficult conversations with dance teachers.
In these situations it is important to be able to see the non-duality of the situation, meaning that you can see that the issue and the ideal are not separate, but are two sides of the same coin, dependent on the other side to exist as a coin.
Being rejected after an audition can be perceived as a learning experience and an opportunity to receive highly useful feedback on how to become better.
An injury can be seen in the present moment as a set-back causing us to fester into a nasty depression, or it can be seen as an opportunity to learn how to become stronger, better, and prevent the same injury from happening again. Injuries also teach you about yourself and reflect how you react in the face of adversity. Injuries are opportunities to become stronger than before, and to remove a glitch from your movement patterning that caused you to become injured in the first place.
Having this ability to see a situation in its entirety, and not as only good or only bad, but both at the same time, helps remove unnecessary suffering from our lives. This also helps us not to get too high on our wins, becoming arrogant and unkind, knowing that success can only exist because we can also fail.
You cannot remove one side from a coin, but you can flip it to see only one side, or spin it to see how both sides blend into a beautiful spiraling thing that doesn’t look like a coin at all.
Being able to see the world in these three ways will protect you from the negative aspects of the dance world. Having healthy perceptions will keep you sane, continuously progressing, and will allow dance to be an ever increasing source of happiness in your life, through the thick or thin.
How have you experienced these mindsets? I’d love to hear stories of how changing the way you perceived a situation helped improve who you are as a dancer, and as a human being (leave a story in the comments below).
If you want to hear my story, check out Dance Stronger. It’s a book, online training program, and supportive community for dancers who want to get strong and dance pain-free while preventing injuries.
In the first chapter I tell the story of how my dance career went downhill (because I did not perceive the world through the three lenses above) so that you know exactly where I’m coming from, why I created the DTP, and most importantly, so that YOU don’t have to make the same mistakes I did.
In fact, you can download the first two chapters for free by clicking the image below.