Overlooking Happiness in Dance

In broad terms; success is something you spend your lifetime looking for and happiness is something you spend your whole life overlooking. – Rasheed Ogunlara

To become a ‘real-life-ballerina’, was my childhood dream which very quickly snowballed into a passionate career path  which I am proud and grateful  to have achieved. I can’t imagine my life without dancing and I am well aware never to take it for granted. I was always warned about the difficulties and pain that comes alongside the profession and I genuinely understand as well as speak from first-hand experiences. Throughout my career, I’ve had my ups and downs; euphoric ups and miserable downs. However, the most difficult part was: knowing how to deal with the accompanying emotions.  The slightest feelings of unhappiness or discontentment, can be enough to trigger downward spirals into destructive psychological states. 

Dancing is supposed to be a beautiful, transcending and non-verbal medium to express our deepest emotions. It’s a fact that it is a superior trigger for the releases endorphins and  hormones such as  dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin – all known as  ‘feel-good’ hormones. 

So why are today’s dancers suffering with so many psychological issues and obstacles? 

The past years, I have become curious why it sometimes feels difficult to truly be happy and what really is the answer to finding an infinite state of happiness. I began asking myself more and more questions and I became confused as to why I felt a deeply rooted heaviness; despite pursuing a career that I have dreamed about since I was a little girl. I was led to question whether I was actually happy as a dancer yet my answers always came back with a bold and unwavering YES. Dancing or being a dancer, was not nor never the problem. It was something more deeply-rooted. 

After some honest reflection about my years at vocational ballet school, I realized how much emotion was masked and how negative experiences and thought-patterns found their way comfortably embedded into my subconscious mind. (The subconscious mind is that which primarily governs our automatic thought processes/patterns and feeling. Our emotional responses and reactions are directly affected by the way our subconscious has been wired by past experiences and beliefs.)  As any other young dancer, I was vulnerable and susceptible to criticism and the constant pressure to ‘be good enough’.  My level of happiness was directly correlating with my external environment and the feedback it provided to determine my ‘worth’ and potential. 

I didn’t know how to deal with moments of self-doubt, disappointment and anxiety and as a result, they very quickly became a burden and manifested as psychological states which I began to identify with.  I was young and completely oblivious to my need for ‘inner healing’ so instead, I tried to only treat or deal with the symptoms – eating disorder and anxiety.  

The teenage years are difficult enough to deal with and Ballet schools generally function in very abnormal circumstances and often carry the potential to create further psychological dispute. It’s already no secret that eating disorders, depression and anxiety are becoming increasingly common in the dance world (or perhaps we are more aware and outspoken regarding these issues).  These are the more severe reactions due to the lack of a strong support system in such ‘elitist’ schools, however it is inevitable that the development of young dancers’ self-esteem are being affected to some degree.

 Already from a young age, students adapt and conform to an unwritten set of acceptable behaviors and rules which often altered slightly depending on the ‘teacher’ or environment. Anyone who didn’t completely conform to the unwritten code of conduct, would have a difficult time. This in itself, does not allow the freedom for dancers to develop a strong sense of individuality.  

I don’t think that dancers should not receive criticism or never experience intense pressure. I also do believe in the advantages of  a somewhat stricter and disciplined school environment. However, dancers should also be provided with guidance and support on how to manage these vulnerable and stressful situations. Dance institutions should take responsibility in illustrating and communicating a greater appreciation for the psychological development of young dancers.

I believe that even integrating a small dose of such guidance within the hours spent in the studio, would already alter the training efficiency and progress; individually as well as collectively. Dance teachers/coaches have a tremendous amount of influence on their students;  the hours in the studio are where they are most susceptible to feedback/criticism/advice. Therefore, making the studio a safe place to be ‘vulnerable’ and expressive, is already a very simple yet effective measure that could be implemented (or even just encouraged and endorsed by teachers). If we want to continue producing artists, then we have to allow them to develop in a healthy (dare I say ‘normal’) manner. 

In schools, it’s very easy to follow the belief that ‘when I am a successful principal dancer, I will be happy’.  The need or search for happiness is often obstructed by the ‘promise’ that: ‘If you (blank), then you will be happy’.  There is a constant ‘award-system’ – whether that’s in the form of exams/assessments, feedback, reports, auditions etc. – which essentially means that there is a constant release of a generous amount of dopamine.  However, the ability to trigger this ‘feel-good’ hormone without an external stimulus, is a highly undervalued life-hack.

Finding inner happiness and contentment is a journey unique to every person and it’s not necessarily something that can be directly taught. What’s important, is to try and eradicate unnecessary stress and anxiety when it comes to succeeding as a dancer. Of course, the actual ‘work’, lies in the hands of every dancer.  Each and every one of us are responsible for our own well being and it’s up to us to make use of the tools and information we are given. Every dancer will explore their own journey and develop at their own pace. Therefore, it’s also important not to add pressure to this aspect of ‘education’. It’s important to be more conscious and aware of a healthier approach and to accept the fluidity of the journey.

Ultimately accepting that ‘infinite happiness’, is an  idealized term. To be happy is is also an emotional state that we flow through time and time again, but it’s not a permanent residence. If we are desperately searching for the externally triggered ‘dopamine-fix’ and ego-boost to make us feel happy; then we will forever live in a state of lack. 

Young dancers should train in an environment where this dogma is practiced and re-enforced.  Yes, encourage goal-setting and a strive for excellence but aim to detach from measuring self-worth by the levels of achievements. It should be communicated that happiness/contentment is cultivated from within and not always from an outer stimuli or the opinions of others. We have to find our individual equilibrium so that when life tips us over to either side, we always have a secure foundation for where we can find serenity again. 

Keep dancing and smiling Xx

“I feel that the essence of dance is the expression of man – the landscape of his soul. I hope that every dance I do reveals something of myself or some wonderful thing a human can be.” – Martha Graham

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