Wellbeing for the aspiring dancer

'Performance Psychology for Dancers' by Erin Sanchez, Dave Collins and Áine MacNamara, published by The Crowood Press Ltd, reviewed by Gill Docherty.

Training to be a dancer is a long and arduous journey. From a young age, dance students spend many, many hours in a studio honing their skills before they can apply to a vocational dance school to complete their training. Dance training is very disciplined, and the pedagogy can be harsh. Teachers often employ the same critical methods that they experienced during their own training, often without question. These methods do not always nourish wellbeing and emotional health. These and other ‘environmental’ factors in a dance studio can lead to low self-esteem, low self-confidence, perfectionistic thinking, anxiety, depression, poor body image and eating disorders. They can also contribute to physical dance injuries, and ultimately burnout.

Performance Psychology for Dancers is for these young dancers in training – and their parents and teachers. It seeks to develop the psychological skills and resilience necessary to cope with the challenges of becoming a professional dancer. The book provides a toolbox of evidence-based strategies to support mental and physical wellbeing in those embarking on a journey to become a professional dancer or performer. Alongside these strategies are commentaries from experienced practitioners in the dance world.

The ‘Ideas’ section concentrates on what success looks like for the young dancer and what they would like ultimately to achieve through defining goals. In ‘Tools’, the focus is not only on the demands of physical training, but the recognition and nurturing of talent, supporting mental health through strategies that can adjusted to suit various stages of the journey. The ‘Realities’ section highlights the many challenges encountered throughout training and beyond, such as lifestyle and identity and the potential effects of those on mental health, injuries, auditions and so forth. The ‘Action’ section describes best practice in informed choice making, including asking questions and being critical.

I particularly liked the formulation of the Psychological Characteristics of Developing Excellence. These are a set of mental skills, attitudes, emotions and desires that can (and should, in my opinion) be taught at an early age and embedded in the learning experience or curriculum, to help the young dancer develop the necessary mindset to make the most of their potential. These can support the dancer through the dance training process and beyond. I also very much appreciated viewing the development of talent through a Bronfenbrenner Ecological Systems Theory (1979) lens.

Mental health for dancers is finally beginning to get the recognition it so desperately requires, with many professional dance companies now having a ‘team around the dancer’ multidisciplinary health care team, however early intervention for those aspiring dancers is key. Performance Psychology for Dancers will promote the self-regulation and wellbeing that dancers need from early on in their training, to carry them throughout their dance career.

- Reviewed by Gill Docherty, PhD student, University of Chichester

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