Competitive Dancers at Risk for Neurotic Perfectionism
When striving for artistic perfection becomes a mental health concern.
Posted Jan 07, 2021
Imagine dancing for 30 hours a week at the cost of school and a social life. You are told you are not good enough if you make a mistake on or off stage. Being sick isn’t an option, having a rest day isn’t an option, and the way you look, dance, and act is continually critiqued. This is the harsh reality I endured for years as a competitive dancer—a constant, overbearing pressure to be perfect.
Jordyn (name changed for anonymity), a professional dancer who grew up in this intense competitive dance environment, described what a typical day looks like for someone who dances full time: “We would typically train from about 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., with classes of all styles, plus conditioning, technique, and stretching, with little-to-no breaks. We would be busy all year long, but from January to June was when you really had no life outside of the studio. We would choreograph and rehearse, and almost every weekend from April to June, we had a competition.”
Dance as a sport is not always so fierce in nature. However, for dancers who train at a highly competitive level, the sport can take a toll on their mental health. More specifically, these athletes are often affected by neurotic perfectionism. Although the root cause of perfectionism is not clear, factors include a constant comparison with others and seeing the world as black and white, both of which are common in dance as there are often no excuses for failing other than “lack of effort.”
According to Ashley Daychak, owner of Performing Dance Arts, one of the top studios in North America, this issue begins early in a dancer’s life: “Kids become perfectionists at a very young age, and it’s very difficult to manage that as they get older. Dancers come from a place of saying yes to everything, which can become physically and mentally exhausting.”
Neurotic perfectionists usually have unattainable goals and are very demanding on themselves in terms of the level of performance expected. One aspect of neurotic perfectionism is having a high concern about making mistakes. Athletes who base their success on the number of mistakes they make report higher anxiety, lower self-confidence, and higher rates of negative thinking 24 hours prior to competition.
In my experience, dancers are often forced to see their flaws first because their flaws may cost them a win, approval from the coach, or even a job. I remember my coach telling me that I should feel like I am the hardest working person in the room; and if I feel that someone is better, I should dance right beside them and learn everything I can from them to improve myself. This not only makes dancers push themselves beyond their limits but also fosters an extremely competitive environment. Unsurprisingly, studies have found links between neurotic perfectionism and anxiety, exercise addiction, and burnout in athletes.
Jordyn recounts her experiences and how perfectionism took a toll on her: “Personally, I dealt with an overbearing need to be absolutely perfect, and a lot of young dancers feel this way because it’s the environment we grow up in. There were times I suffered from insomnia, especially if I knew that I had a big day at dance the next day. There came a time in my teenage years where I really did not want to be dancing because I was overly exhausted and upset that I always had to miss school events.”
Additionally, many people describe the dance world as toxic. Ashley went on to explain: “No one is posting their failures. Trying to be perfect is severely damaging to someone’s psyche. Parents also come into this and create even more toxicity simply by not being educated enough. They all get caught up in instant gratification, and dance does not have that."
Some in the dance community are suggesting changes. Over the 11 years that Ashley ran her dance studio, she adapted her mindset regarding mental health: “I took the time to understand mental health more and understand that some people can’t handle the excessive hours of training and constant pressure. Personally, I never look at the number of hours it takes to master the craft as an issue, and today I have no judgment towards the people who do have an issue with extensive training. But if you asked me 5 years ago, I would have judgment regarding that."
It is suggested that dance schools that support making mistakes as part of the learning process and which focus on progression will promote lower levels of neurotic perfectionism. Jordyn agrees, explaining: “I feel like if I’d have had more freedom and choice I wouldn’t have felt this immense pressure because I would be able to take breathers. I would choose to be at dance instead of feeling like it was my job to be perfect. I would advise others to not take everything to heart like I did.”
–Llewellyn Boggs, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report
–Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report
Copyright Robert T. Muller