• Zosia Jo

Beyond the body: Psychological tools for performance enhancement and well-being in dance

A days conference from Dance UK and the Royal Society of Medicine

I could write pages about this day. It was both informative and affirming of my experience. It was like hearing everything I’ve ranted about for years not only acknowledged, but proven through statistics and quantifiable research.

During my training I was terribly unhappy, convinced I was not good enough, constantly critical of myself and as a result I had no energy and my attitude held me back. I was stuck in a cycle, in order to improve I had to strive for the highest standard, but in holding these impossible expectations of myself I drained myself of energy and lost enjoyment for what I was doing. This resulted in depression, an unhealthy relationship to food, and a painfully self critical inner voice. None of these things helped me be a better dancer, in fact, they nearly meant I dropped out completely. Yet the complete lack of support and pastoral care meant that no one knew. In fact, I imagine there were people around me who thought I was really quite tough, arrogant even.

On Friday at Beyond The Body I learnt something. I learnt that I am a perfectionist (a title I previously thought myself unworthy of). Yes, it turns out perfectionism is not a prerequisite to high achievement, it is in fact a dangerous pattern of thinking that, when combined with obsessive passion as it was with me, can sap your energy and leave you depressed and the proud owner of your very own eating disorder. (Oh and these aren’t necessarily what we thought either, just because you don’t fit into a particular box doesn’t mean you don’t have one. 40-50% of us have a non-specific eating disorder. Great. Many people joked about this part of the conference being the dark side. For me it was coming into the light. Each speaker seemed to tell me more about myself and suddenly I realised. I had the right to feel the way I did. I struggled, and and I was not cared for.

We do tend to think of perfectionism as a good thing. Yet it has now been proven that it is possible to achieve high standards in healthier ways. I have been thinking for a while that a happier dancer is a better dancer. One speaker- Elsa Urmston discussed Flow. Flow is the process of being utterly absorbed in an activity. If you ask me that is what I want to see from a dancer, and I imagine it makes for effective training too.

The conference seemed to me to be the beginning of a vital conversation. One in which we admit that training of dancers has to move forward with our knowledge. We are finally admitting we cannot separate the body and the brain. If we seek to train the body, we must support the brain. The whole self cannot be reduced to the sum of its turnout, elevation and core. The whole self must be respected. Stanley Keleman talks about ‘insults to form’ and their impact on the developing person. The true self must be considered, because everyone expresses love and receives love differently. Love and communication are different breeds of the same animal. Therefore in teaching, we must respect the individual. The most prominent message I took from the conference was that autonomy must be integral to our teaching environments. We must see our individual students, and respect them and ultimately balance our praise and positivity with our challenge and feedback. In a way that suits the individual!

It seems simple but what we are actually talking about is a revolution.

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