Psychological support in dance

Stacey Evans responds to an article on applied psychology in dance by Dr Lucie Clements.

‘Joining the dance’ by Dr Lucie Clements (March issue) struck a chord with me. I too had dreams of becoming a ballerina before turning to psychology, and I too have seen the lack of psychological support in the dance industry first hand. 

After dancing as a hobby my whole life, I gave it up to follow a more academic route in psychology. My undergraduate BSc dissertation at the University of Salford was titled ‘Perfectionism and Body Self-esteem in the Prediction of Symptomology Related to Disordered eating Behaviours, in Theatre Arts Students’. As Dr Clements identifies, musical theatre is entirely under-researched. I found close to no research focused on this population and so drew on research from dance, mostly ballet, as the closest available population. 

My dissertation found that body self-esteem was a significant predictor of disordered eating behaviour symptomology whereas perfectionism was not. This is contradictory to much research focusing on ballerinas that find high levels of perfectionism in professional ballet dancers (Nordin-Bates et al., 2019). In addition, my study provided support for the accepted notion that there is a high prevalence of eating disorders in professional dancers (Arcelus et al., 2014) finding a higher risk of eating disorder symptomology. 

There is a significant need for applied psychologists in dance in both performance and teaching. As Dr Clements highlights, there are many parallels to draw between professional dancers and athletes such as risk of injury, job instability, and intense training regimes. So why, when they face similar demands, is there so little support available to dancers to help them psychologically prepare for the demands of training and performing? Access to support from psychologists, and organisations drawing on psychology in their teaching would enable dancers to reframe their thoughts, minimise perfectionism, manage stresses and anxieties, and incorporate self-care into schedules. 

From my own experiences, I believe that a shift in dance training to minimise the emphasis of perfectionism will greatly benefit dancers throughout their careers. It could also lead to a reduction in the prevalence of eating disorders in this population, as research suggests there is a strong relationship between perfectionism and eating disorders (Wade, O’Shea, & Shafran, 2016). 

I have friends who have trained or are currently completing training during the Covid-19 pandemic, many of whom are experiencing great uncertainty around how their chosen industry will look once we begin to come out of the pandemic. As Dr Clements rightfully points out, these recently graduating dancers often have little identity outside of dance as a result of dedicating their adolescence to their dance training. My friends have expressed concern over whether or not they will be returning to contracts cut short by the pandemic, or whether the new graduates will be able to secure jobs in the already competitive and stressor filled industry. There is little support available to these dancers to help them gain control over their situations and help them to focus on their goals, as well as enabling them to develop coping strategies to support them in this industry. 

Stacey Evans
[email protected]

References

Arcelus, J., Witcomb, G.L. & Mitchell, A. (2014). Prevalence of eating disorders amongst dancers: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Eating Disorders Review, 22(2), 92-101. 

Nordin-Bates, S.M. (2019). Striving for perfection or for creativity? A dancer’s dilemma. Journal of Dance Education, 20(1), 23-24.

Wade, T.D., O'Shea, A. & Shafran, R. (2016). Perfectionism and eating disorders. In F.M. Sirois & D.S. Molnar (Eds.). Perfectionism, health, and well-being (pp. 205-222). Springer International Publishing. 

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