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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Research shows: A summary of a study on performance anxiety.

Here’s a question for you? Do you feel that there is currently enough dance research being done?

Dancehealthier advocates for further research, education and greater concentration of material.  There are way too many talented athletic aspiring and professional dancers that deserve the proper amount of research to provide for the best preventative, coping, and evaluative methods.  There is need for growth.  I’m hopeful!

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Dancer: Kristi Capps. Photo Credit: Peter Mueller

For now, dancehealthier feels that it is important to spread the word on the current research out there.  The National Institute of Health published an article titled, “Performance anxiety experiences of professional ballet dancers: The importance of control,” by Walker IJNordin-Bates SM.  

This study interviews 15 professional dancers representing all ranks of one company to evaluate qualitative data on ballet dancers’ experiences of performance anxiety in relation to: 

1. Symptom type, intensity, and directional interpretation.

2. Experience level (including company rank).

3. Self-confidence and psychological skills.  

Results showed:

  • Cognitive anxiety was more dominant than somatic anxiety.
  • Interestingly, a certain level/amount of somatic anxiety (butterflies in the stomach) were interpreted as facilitative or beneficial to performance.  
  • The highest amount of anxiety was felt and experienced by principal dancers vs. corps de ballet members.  
  • When asked what caused most of the inflicted anxiety, the idea of not being in control of the performance dominated (speed of music, partner falter, plainly the idea of “anything can happen”, etc).   
  • As a result of the study, “Dancers may benefit from education about anxiety symptoms and their interpretation, in addition to psychological skills training incorporating cognitive restructuring strategies and problem-focussed coping to help increase their feelings of being in control.” (Walter lJ, 2010)

 

 

 

Performance anxiety

dancehealthier, on this fine Sunday, wants to present a question to you?  As dancers, students, teachers, fans – do you feel there is enough dance research being done?

If your answer to the question was No, than you are correct!  One strong indicator of this truth is that much of the limited dance research journals start with a sentence similar to this one.  “Performance anxiety research abounds in sport psychology, yet has been relatively sparse in dance” (Walter lJ, 2010).  dancehealthier advocates for further research, education and greater concentration of material.  Honestly, internationally there are way too many talented athletic aspiring and/or professional dancers that deserve the proper amount of research so we can further educate the best preventative, coping, and evaluative methods.  There is need for growth.  dancehealthier is hopeful!

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

For now, dancehealthier feels that it is important to spread the word on the current research out there.  The National Institute of Health published an article titled, “Performance anxiety experiences of professional ballet dancers: the importance of control” by Walker IJNordin-Bates SM.  The study interviews 15 elite dancers representing all ranks of one company to evaluate qualitative data on ballet dancers’ experiences of performance anxiety in relation to: 1. symptom type, intensity, and directional interpretation; 2. experience level (including company rank); and 3. self-confidence and psychological skills.  Results showed that cognitive anxiety was more dominant than somatic anxiety.  Interestingly, a certain level/amount of somatic anxiety (butterflies in the stomach) were interpreted as facilitative or beneficial to performance.  The highest amount of anxiety was felt and experienced by principal dancers vs. corps de ballet members.  When asked what caused most of the inflicted anxiety, the idea of not being in control of the performance dominated (speed of music, partner falter, plainly the idea of “anything can happen”, etc.)   As a result of the study, “dancers may benefit from education about anxiety symptoms and their interpretation, in addition to psychological skills training incorporating cognitive restructuring strategies and problem-focussed coping to help increase their feelings of being in control” (Walter lJ, 2010.)