As we move towards a new post-pandemic normal, dancers are not just returning to in-person classes, they’re also considering opportunities for summer intensives. Summer intensives are known to be great for progressing technical abilities and for building career connections.
In order to fully reap the benefits of a program, however, dancers need to be in a good place both physically and mentally. Dancers commonly experience mental burnout and overuse injuries from the competitive nature of intensives. And in the wake of COVID-19, varying opinions about what is considered safe have parents questioning whether or not to let their dancers travel to distant programs.
But this stress is just the tip of the iceberg. According to a recent poll I shared on Instagram, 70% of dancers who are considering a summer intensive are most anxious about how to fuel while away. This is especially concerning since summer intensives are a common site where disordered eating habits emerge. And since quarantine, many dancers are stuck in a major food rut. There’s a certain level of comfort when eating at home. Virtual learning enables us to have full control over what we eat and when we eat. Uprooting these habits, which have settled in for over a year, is often a source of anxiety.
Between the unknowns of COVID, a year without normalcy, and the fear of losing control over our daily schedules, many dancers are struggling with the dichotomy of whether or not to attend a summer intensive. If you’re on the fence, then realize that another summer at home won’t make or break your future career. This is especially true if you’re utilizing the time to work through challenges relating to your mental health and physical health. And if you are leaning towards attending a program, then you’ll need to build a strong foundation first. To help, I spoke with Erica Hornthal, a dance/movement therapist and clinical counselor to break down the three most common struggles faced while away.
Competition drives motivation, but can also lead to perfectionism and feelings of inferiority. As Hornthal explains, “an intensive can easily exacerbate these feelings.” When we pair high levels of perfectionism with low levels of self-esteem and low levels of self-confidence, we get a conundrum of both cognitive and body image distortions.
Here’s What To Do: Create an action plan to challenge these distortions. Work on decreasing your mirror and/or body checking behaviors. Journal daily wins and utilize positive affirmations to build self-esteem. Hornthal suggests that dancers should “explore self-esteem, empowerment, resilience, and self-awareness.” If you’re turning to comparisons, then check out this article for more tips.
Negative Body Image
The temporary nature of a summer intensive breeds a pretty competitive environment, especially when placement auditions happen on Day 1. Becoming hyper-focused on body shape and body weight is a common result. Remember though, many factors impact our body shape and weight, including genetics and other physiological factors that are largely out of our control. Any efforts to change these qualities will lead to problems and distractions… two factors that are NOT helping your class placement!
Here’s What To Do: “A summer intensive is not the easiest place to “fix” poor body image… but we can uncover, identify, and raise awareness to the habits that perpetuate that image,” says Hornthal. For example, if you’re body-checking, can you catch yourself beforehand and divert your attention? Hornthal also suggests that dancers consider the intentions behind attending an intensive. And if a program isn’t accessible this summer, then seek virtual opportunities like Instagram Lives and virtual workshops.
Whether attending a program or dancing at home, keep a journal of body-positive reminders. You can also work on exercises to decrease negative body talk. Consider my 5 Days to Body Confidence Challenge as a starting point and check out the following articles to continue the work:
Loosening the reigns around your eating habits is essential. First and foremost, your needs are likely to increase during an intensive. If you’re not eating enough, then you’ll be at risk for Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (or “RED-S”), which is a syndrome resulting from low energy availability (LEA). LEA happens when too few calories are available to support both your body’s physical needs (AKA your dance schedule) and your body’s metabolic needs.
Here’s What To Do: Eating enough throughout the day is critical. Since dance schedules are packed during intensives, you’ll benefit from several calorie-dense snacks between meals. I talk more about snacks here. If you’re already struggling with RED-S, then a dance intensive could put you in danger of injury and burnout. Here’s an article to help identify whether or not you fall into this category. If so, it’s highly encouraged that you work with professionals, such as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, a mental health professional, and in some cases, a medical doctor to construct a plan that supports your health and performance goals.