The discipline of ballet training; The possible effects on long term mental health: Guest Post by Terry Hyde

Here is a Guest Post for you today! Psychotherapist, Terry Hyde MA, MBACP (registered), who danced in the 1960’s and 1970’s with Royal Ballet, London’s Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), West End Musicals, Film and TV writes about MENTAL HEALTH. Putting both of those careers together, Terry has a fine understanding of what a dancer needs. 

Terry carries out therapy sessions via skype. To get in contact with Terry please write her at counsellingfordancers@mail.com (please note the English spelling of counselling).

The discipline of ballet training; The possible effects on long term mental health

In this article, I take a look at the potential links associated with the long-term mental health effects from traditional ballet training. How can you be affected  by ballet training from an early age?  Can this really have a positive or negative link to your mental health in later life?

Ballet is an extremely demanding discipline; it requires dedication, determination and talent. In the past, it was acceptable for the teachers to shout at, and even at times use physical force on students in classes.  They would roughly pull, push or twist their students bodies into the correct position during the classes. Thankfully this style of teaching is no-longer accepted, there are much better ways to motivate and inspire the student.

If you are reading this and are or were a dancer, it’s likely that you started to learn some form of dance from an early age. Perhaps it began as a hobby to burn off excess energy; your parents may have taken you to help with your posture. Some of you may have had a ‘stage-parent’ who sent you to classes to fulfill their own frustrated dreams.

If you fall into the latter category, you may already realise how debilitating this situation can be. As a child you may well have found yourself wanting to do the things that your friends were doing but because there was an underlying fear that you would lose the love and approval of your parents, you continued to dance. This can leave you feeling that you have missed out on parts of your childhood as a result.

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Photo Credit: Renee Scott

My personal history

I started training as a ballet dancer at the age of five in the mid 1950s and retired from dancing and performing in my early 30s. Although I loved my career as a dancer, I’ve seen that the effects of the training methods and the discipline required, can leave some individuals with long-term problems with their mental health.

When I started dancing, I knew instantly that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Many other children feel the same passion and continue taking classes throughout their childhood, teenage years and beyond.

Life beyond performing

From a practical perspective, the discipline I learned from ballet has carried me through my whole life.  Throughout my performing years and into businesses that I ran, and now into my psychotherapy practice. Now I’m  using my experience to help other performers deal with the stresses and strains of their profession,  whether they are still performing or have retired.

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Dancer: Former Principal dancer of Cincinnati Ballet. Photo by: Peter Mueller

I still have some obsessive traits from when I was told that “this is the only way to perform this step and that’s the way you are going to do it”.  This has made it easy for me to learn new things and always eager to “get it right”.  In some people this can result in the development of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as they strive to “get it right”, the knock-on effects of this are anxiety and low self-esteem due to not being able to “get it right” in the demand for perfection in their performance.

Mental health issues

A number of other mental health issues arise from the performer’s “need to be perfect”. In addition to anxiety, low self-esteem and OCD many performers suffer from eating disorders and struggle with loss and grief due to not being good enough to start a career, or having to end a promising career due to injury. As performers, there is always a level of  instability due to insecurity of lack of work.  The list goes on.

Good nutrition is now being recognised as an important aspect of maintaining good mental health.  Click here  to hear about some research into how nutrition can help some mental health issues.

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Finding your Healthy Dancer Self, led by Dr. Nancy Murdock

This week a team of health experts (or on the quest to be) led by Dr. Nancy Murdock; professor and Department head at University of Missouri – Kansas City. I was invited by Nancy join her team along with Rachel Coats; soon to receive her bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and Monica Oh; Ph.D psychology student at UMKC. Together the 4 of us are in the midst of teaching students attending Kansas City Ballet Summer Intensive, a series called Finding your Healthy Dancer Self. We learned a lot from this experience and we hope that the students learned something too! Here is one exercise we shared with the students, which I thought you might like too! The exercise was on positive visualization. Use it before an event that you are anxious or nervous about. Research shows that with practice, positive visualization can benefit you both viscerally and mentally. I hope you find it useful!!

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Benefits of Visualization:

  • Enhances learning and motivation
  • Enhances self-confidence, helps to visualize success
  • Create coping strategies in stressful situations
  • Enhance focus, concentration and self-discipline
  • Visualization practice empowers and centers you for performance, allowing you to enter deeply into the present moment and harness your true potential.

Here is a script for you to follow: Give it a go!

Relax and close your eyes. Take a couple of deep breaths. Take another breath and just let it go gently, but as you do shrug your shoulders and let your arms relax.

Now you are feeling calm and relaxed. Your whole body feels relaxed and heavy.

Now allow your mind to drift to the day of the final summer program showcase performance (or fill in your own event). Allow your mind to drift over the different movements until you get a feeling, a tension, some sort of emotional reaction.

Imagine yourself performing the combination to the best of your ability. See, feel, and experience yourself moving through the actions in your mind as you would like them to develop. Freeze frame any move that does not feel right, rerun in slow motion until it feels right.

Now, imagine the dancer you want to be, and see yourself moving with ease. Focus on how clean your lines are. Continue to visualize how much control you have with every combination you perform. You can see it in your mind, you can hear the music playing, and you can feel your body executing the sequences with detail.

Picture now, that you have finished the performance. See yourself feeling confident and gratified. You are feeling proud of yourself for your accomplishments. This feeling of success and accomplishment is so wonderful, you want to perform again just to experience it all again.

Enjoy the feelings of success.

Begin to wake up your mind and body…. returning your awareness to the present.

Wiggle your fingers, feeling your hands and arms reawakening.

Wake up your feet and legs by wiggling your toes.

Shrug your shoulders… turn your head from side to side…. feel your body waking up.

When you are feeling awake and alert, you can return to your usual activities, feeling energized, motivated, and confident.

The power of a stigma

Life is a telling tale.  One day leads to another and what exists within the boundary of time leads the way.  Current events tend to overpower, righteously so (most of the time), but quite frankly only a very few events hold on day – after day – after day – after day.  Like the one that took place on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary school.  Since then issues of gun control and mental health have come closer to the surface.  Advocation, protests, arguments and discussions have engulfed the media. Some good, some bad, some ridiculous, but nevertheless – something!

imgres-1Mental health is a topic, that even when studying overall health, is sometimes taboo.  The first sentence of a chapter in one of my college books states,”What exactly is  psychological health?”  That’s like asking, “What exactly is a cold?”  Some even claim that there is no such thing, that psychological health is just a myth.  Yikes!  By the way, this book was published in 2006.  Unfortunately not in 1950.  So unfortunately, in terms of acceptance, research, and claimed cases, our society needs to prioritize psychological health just as it does physical health. Often times, for much of society, the first word that comes to mind when hearing psychological health is “stigma.” If you argue with this statement, then ask yourself something.  Ask yourself, if you were or are struggling with a psychological issue, would you tell all of society?  Even your boss?  It can be a tough world out there.  Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world were you could say, and not be judged?  Like having a cold.

So, what is a stigma:  A stigma is the extreme disapproval of (or discontent with) a person on socially characteristic grounds that are perceived, and serve to distinguish them, from other members of a society. Stigma may then be affixed to such a person, by the greater society, who differs from their norms.  (Wikipedia. 2013) 

With stigma in mind, isn’t about time that ridding the power of stigmas’ comes to surface?