As a dancer, our job is to perform in front of audiences with the hope to move, please, and inspire them through our craft. Companies earn their funding from donors who hold a great sense of respect and pleasure in regard to the work being produced by production, as well as the performers. However, to meet every individual’s standard is an impossible task- there will always be a select few that will oppose your choice, style, work, or even how you lace your pointe shoe ribbons. Aiming towards perfection, we must withstand our own values and aspirations rather than fixate ourselves on molding into the perfect dancer who can meet everyone’s expectations. In the end, only you will be the unhappy spectator, observing someone who is no longer you.
I was exposed to an array of training when I was younger, academic, pre-professional, professional, classical coaching, as well as participating in a few competitions. I received feedback in all areas in regard to technique, maturity, presence, and the whole dancer package. I was praised heavily at a young age as I had an exceptional amount of experience under my belt before the age of 16. I was told how “perfect” I was by my peers, “flawless” by teachers as well as ” a star” by parents. I even received a perfect score once at a dance competition. Many may wish for this life that I was given, however, this exposure only hurt my mental health as I spiraled into a frenzy of perfectionism.
I took these praisings and created standards for myself. I knew I had to improve in order to maintain the attention that I was given, I could not stay stagnant or else I would disappoint- a thought I could not stand. Not only was I training everyday, arriving early to class to practice, staying afterwards, asking my teachers to give me corrections to work on and continuing my stretching/conditioning when I would return home, but I was determined to be a perfect student and friend as well- if I was “perfect” I had to prove that in every aspect of myself in and outside of dance.
My dancing and academics did improve by putting in hard work, but the hard work soon turned into an addiction. I would get anxiety if I sat on the couch to watch a movie with my family- quickly retreating to the floor to stretch or do abs. I could not allow myself to rest, as I believed that I was being “lazy” while other dancers were training. I lived by the phrase “as you are sleeping there is someone working their butt off”, this ate me alive.
I became a machine, pumping out work and performance with no emotion or sense of humanism. I grew away from friends as I thought socializing was a waste of time (why go out when you could train? Dance was of utmost importance) isolating myself further, and further. Although I could not see it at the time, having a community of friends is extremely important especially in the career of dance. It is not healthy to suppress all of your emotions behind a smiling face pretending everything is fine in the attempt to be “perfect”.
Although I thought I was doing a great job of being the most “perfect” dancer and student, I began to receive negative feedback. Teachers told me that they wanted to get to know the “real” me. Real me? What does that mean? Here I am, me, Christiana! They wished for me to make mistakes and to be human. No, they did not want me to fail, rather, have a sense of humility and the ability to laugh at myself and move on. Spending my four years of high school behind a mask of perfectionism I began to realize that I wasted precious time that I would never get back. Was it worth it?
These pressures soon caught up to me as I left high school, my safety net. Now in the real world where dancers are vying for a single job, the standards I engrained into my brain were exploding. Not only were my expectations raised higher, I became my harshest critic, bully even. These thoughts were stripping my passion and love for dance that I once was known for exuding out of every pore. I could no longer look in the mirror during class without tearing up in response the voices in my head tearing me down every way possible. I did not want to get out of bed in the morning because I knew I could never live up to the dancer I aspired so greatly to be.
Living 16 hours away from home, no social life or friends on-campus to confide in, I fell into a depressive state- becoming very ill that I had to return home. Confessing to my parents of the struggles I was facing, we agreed that it would be best for me to take a break to re-spark the joy that was once in my life and explore different passions of mine. As a perfectionist, I felt like a failure. I believed I was disappointing all of those people who talked so highly of me and of my promising future. However, stepping away may have been the scariest thing I have done in my life, but it was also the best choice I have made.
Everyone’s path is different, there is no way of controlling where that may lead but the best thing we can do is to believe in the journey. We must be patient, even selfish. Social media is a burden to our mental state- it is an outlet where people post false realities of perfect lives, having us believe that everyday is seamless and their lives are picture-perfect. In reality, they are just like the next person and no more than you! The best thing to do is to log off from these platforms and to LIVE! Witness the beauty and fragility of life. Practicing gratitude will not only allow you to appreciate your path, but also accept challenges and setbacks with a better mindset.
Taking a break, I was able to clear my mind and reflect. I no longer wanted to live a life pleasing others, I wanted to live MY life following my passions and what truly makes me happy. Mental health is just as important as physical health in regard to dance- taking rest days for your body also applies to your mind. As dancers we stand in front of mirrors everyday in very limited, tight clothing which can conceive negative thoughts or comparison to other classmates judging what they may have that you do not.
Mental health can not be overlooked or viewed as belittling. Suppressing feelings behind a mask only builds emotion, boiling until they can no longer withstand. Take time to find joy in your life, even explore other passions as well! We are only granted with this one life, so make use of all of your gifts. Dance is not the only profession in the field (although it may seem like the only career path acceptable in your life at some moments) so why kill yourself over a fraction of your life? There is so much more out there, do not be afraid to explore and follow your heart.
Love yourself first, socialize with friends, laugh, and simply enjoy life.