Dancer burnout is an extremely valid experience that even the most seasoned of dancers encounter in their careers and their training. A high-pressured environment that is unfortunately coupled with impossible food and body beliefs sets the stage for a complicated relationship with movement. What begins from a place of joy can sometimes turn overwhelmingly competitive with the added pressure of manipulating one’s body weight, shape, and size.
Joyful Movement for Dancers
Intuitive Eating for dancers focuses on ten specific principles that help you repair your relationship with food and body. But this non-diet approach, which you can learn more about here, can also be used as a tool to help dancers sustain their passion for the art.
The ninth principle of this approach encompasses joyful movement, which involves discovering how to move our bodies in ways that feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally. Similar to a non-diet approach to food, we identify how to incorporate movement (and exercise) in a less prescriptive way. For most dancers, the idea of joyful movement seems like a given. Movement is built into our art and more times than not, a dancer’s entry into this industry initiates with some bit of joy and passion. But how can dancers hold on to this joy without feeling overwhelmed by the technical (and naturally competitive) demands of the sport?
All dancers deserve to dance for reasons of joy, rather than for reasons set forth by diet culture. This article will provide five actionable tips for dancers who feel overwhelming pressures and impending burnout.
#1: Identify Your Relationship Status With Dance
If you’re reading this article, then chances are you’re feeling some degree of burnout. But how can we truly decipher between burnout and, well, simply having an “off day? Having struggled with my own burnout as a dancer, I vividly remember overwhelming feelings of anxiety and nerves looming around me. The thought of today’s class (let alone tomorrow’s) seemed like a huge mountain to climb. Unlike in the past, it was challenging to feel excited about the very activity I once enjoyed.
Recognize if your relationship with dance is becoming problematic. Consider the following question: When I dance, what comes to mind? Is it the beauty of telling a story through movement? Is there a degree of satisfaction that is felt once a difficult move is performed? Or, are you dancing for the purpose of manipulating your body? Oftentimes, disordered eating and/or obsessive exercise are reasons why a dancer might feel burnt out. Here are a few examples of problematic goals that can be a sign that your relationship with dance is shifting (and not for the better).
- I’m taking class to burn X amount of calories.
- I have permission to eat foods X, Y, and Z because I took X amount of dance today.
- The more classes I take, the more I will look like X (comparative thought relating to body weight, shape, or size).
#2: Evaluate Your Relationship With Food
Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport is a topic I’ve previously covered and one that can play an influential role in a dancer’s risk for burnout. Under-eating, especially in the setting of above-average activity levels, can leave dancers fatigued and injured… both physically and mentally. It is essential for dancers to build a healthy relationship with food; one that provides adequate amounts of fuel and alleviates the guilt around eating. Here are a few helpful resources to begin this work:
- How Can Dancers Rebuild Their Relationships With Food?
- How To Stop Feeling Guilt After Eating
- Gentle Nutrition for Dancers
#3: Assess Your Need for Joyful Rest
Time away from the studio is not just hard for a dancer, it can sometimes feel like a privilege. But if disordered thoughts and obsessive tendencies feel especially triggering when in the studio, then it’s a sign that time off is likely needed for your physical, mental, and emotional sustainability.
Even after you take time off, come back to this reflection in order to assess whether or not the time is right for you to return. Remember: taking time off, even if for several years, doesn’t mean that you’re hanging up your shoes for good. Your best time to return to the studio is when you can dance without obsessive thoughts around unsustainable food and body beliefs. Bottom line: you’re second-guessing your return to the studio for reasons of potentially feeling triggered, then consider this a sign that you’re likely, not ready.
If and when you’re ready to re-introduce dance (or another form of movement) into your day, remember that not all movement needs to be at the degree of intensity that you’re used to. In this regard, it may feel challenging to reduce your expectation. Make space for this discomfort. If physically feasible, consider activities and/or forms of movement that feel good and divert your thoughts from food and body, but rather to movement. For some dancers, this activity might not include movement at all, and this is okay. The movement also does not have to equate to prescriptive exercise. There are other forms of movement that can still offer you mood-enhancing endorphins. Examples include walking, guided meditation, a trip to the grocery store, and/or playing with your pet.
#5: Broaden Your Perspective
In its simplest form, joyful movement is anything that feels satisfying to you without the notion of “I have to do this because XYZ” Similar to a non-diet approach to food, the aim is to strip away the rules associated with movement. For dancers, this can be nearly impossible given the technical demands of the art.
If you’re not fully committed to shifting your movement goals just yet, then consider what it is about dance that brought you joy initially. Could it be the sense of community? Or, the intricate skillset and mental energy required? Perhaps there are other activities that you can consider to satisfy these pathways. For example, joining a book club or starting a crafts club with some friends might help to divert your attention in a way that enabled you to be more experience in the studio. Remember: there are no rules with joyful movement.
#5: Seek Professional Support
Regularly check-in and assess your relationship with movement and dance. Are you dancing to seek pleasure in the art or are you dancing to manipulate how your body looks? Does a gentler form of movement feel pointless to you? Is your schedule (dance schedule, cross-training schedule, etc.) taking up extreme amounts of time? These prompts can help you to identify potential reasons why you may be feeling burnt out.
I’ve created this platform to educate dancers about not only building sustainable practices to support their passion for dance but also to challenge the very industry standards that can drive some dancers to burnout. Dancers should not feel alone if struggling and can seek support from professional resources like a mental health therapist and psychiatrist. Because of the association between disordered eating habits, as a risk factor of Relative Energy Deficiency In Sport, and burnout, dancers are also encouraged to speak with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. This interdisciplinary approach can help in your journey of self-discovery as you navigate both the prevention and treatment of burnout.