Optimizing Dancers’ Performance
Perfectionism in Dance – When Passion Becomes Obsession
Text: Brenton Surgenor
Photo: Worldwide Dancer Project
Striving for perfection is an inherent part of dancing, and dancers are often seen as passionate, hardworking, and highly disciplined as they work to achieve excellence.
However, sometimes this passion becomes an obsession, hard work becomes over work and discipline becomes perfectionism. The obsession with being perfect is a major contributor to mental health problems amongst dancers. The pursuit of the perfect body, the perfect technique, or the perfect performance leaves dancers exposed to the negative consequences of perfectionism.
What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism describes the relentless striving for very high standards and judging your self-worth on your ability to achieve these very high standards. Whilst perfectionism is generally considered a personality trait, the pressure to be perfect can come from the external environment (peers, teachers, parents) as well as the culture of dance itself.
Perfectionism can be broken down into two broad categories, perfectionistic striving and perfectionistic concern. Perfectionistic striving is the goal-directed aspect of perfectionism such as setting high goals, working very hard, and wanting to be perfect. Perfectionistic concern refers to the negative emotions associated with making mistakes, harsh self-criticism, and/or perceptions that others expect you to be perfect. Perfectionistic concern is generally regarded as having a more negative impact on dancers' health and wellbeing. However if left unchecked, both aspects of perfectionism should be considered harmful.
Why is it harmful?
Perfectionists tend to be very self-critical, especially if they are unable to meet their high standards. This can lead to unhelpful ways of thinking such as black and white thinking (things are only good or bad); putting unreasonable demands on themselves (“I must be the best in my class”); blowing things out of proportion (“I’m such a loser as I only got second place in the competition”), and pessimism about the future (“I will never be a professional dancer”). This kind of perfectionist thinking is cyclic, self-perpetuating, and if left undetected can have a significant negative impact on a dancer’s wellbeing. In milder cases, this perfectionist thinking can lead to self-doubt, mood swings, and a fear of failing. However, it can also lead to much more serious concerns such as depression and eating disorders.
Identifying and managing perfectionism
For dancers to thrive it is important to recognise when passion, hard work and discipline become obsession, over work and perfectionism. The good news is that perfectionistic thinking and behaviours are recognisable, manageable and changeable. Here are a few strategies to start with which can help you to change your perfectionist thinking and behaviours.
Awareness is an important starting point for managing perfectionism. Mindfulness can help you become aware of the thoughts you are having and how these may not be helpful. Mindfulness helps you focus on the present moment and recognise perfectionistic thinking as it occurs. And rather than reacting to any given situation, being mindful of these thoughts allows you to choose how you want to respond to your potentially harmful perfectionist thinking.
Choose self-kindness over self-criticism
Choose to respond to your negative thoughts with self-kindness rather than self-criticism. Start by thinking about what you might say to a good friend who is experiencing negative perfectionist thinking, and then treat yourself the same way. Try positive self-talk and try not to be too rigid with your goals. Try saying “You did well today; you performed with passion and commitment and you are one step closer to achieving your goal. Little by little and step by step you will get there.”
Become a flexible thinker
One way out of the negative thought trap is to develop flexible thinking. This can be achieved by keeping a thought diary. A thought diary can help you become aware of recurring negative thoughts and notice how these thoughts affect the way you feel and behave. Thought diaries can also help you investigate the accuracy of your negative thoughts and develop new, balanced ways of thinking.
Beware the should, ought, must and have-to trap
Beware of using words like “ought”, “should”, “must” and “have to” in relation to your goals. When you speak to yourself in these terms, you are setting up rigid, inflexible rules which can create stress and anxiety. It is important to remember language has the potential to impact negatively or positively on you. Even small shifts such as saying “may” instead of “must”, “could” instead of “should”, “might” instead of “have to”, creates the possibility to recognise your successes even if they fall short of your ultimate goals.
Laugh it off
Humour can also be a wonderful way of dealing with perfectionist thinking. If something is not working, rather than becoming frustrated, stressed, and anxious, try to find the humour in the situation instead. Try to exaggerate what you are doing, or go over the top in what you are doing, let yourself be silly, and laugh it off. Laughter is a wonderful medicine!
Discipline does not equal perfectionism
Sadly, many dancers, dance teachers, and choreographers confuse perfectionism with discipline. However, discipline is the joy of the process and perfectionism focuses on the outcome. If you have joy and passion in what you are doing you are disciplined, if you have stress and anxiety in what you are doing you are probably engaged in negative perfectionist thinking. While dancers need to be disciplined in their practice to be successful, perfectionism can impact negatively on performance as well as success.
Positive community support
Combat perfectionism by surrounding yourself with a strong positive support system. If you recognise negative perfectionist thinking and behaviours, it is important to catch this early. Talking to a friend, mentor or therapist can help you stay positive and passionate, and not become caught up in a cycle of negative perfectionist thoughts and behaviours.
The concept of perfectionism is ingrained in the dance community, with dancers expected to work hard to perfect their art form. The culture of dance often expects dancers to work hard with great discipline and with little or no complaint. However, it is important to recognise the difference between a healthy striving for excellence and a detrimental striving for unrealistic perfection. Dancers often believe that striving for perfection is the only way to become a better dancer. But this way of thinking can hinder a dancer from reaching their full potential because perfectionism and low self-esteem go hand in hand. Happy and successful dancers are the ones who can accept their imperfections and mistakes and turn them into learning opportunities. Passion, not obsession; hard work, not over work; and discipline, not perfectionism.
Nordin-Bates, S. M., Raedeke, T. D., & Madigan, D. J. (2017). Perfectionism, burnout, and motivation in dance: A replication and test of the 2 × 2 model of perfectionism. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 21(3), 115 – 122.
Nordin-Bates, S. M. (2020). Striving for Perfection or for Creativity? A Dancer’s Dilemma. Journal of dance education, 20(1), 23 – 34.
Nordin-Bates, S. (2016). Perfectionism, IADMS Resource Paper https://iadms.site-ym.com/page/RPperfectionism
St John’s Counselling Service https://www.sjcshk.com/
Hong Kong Eating Disorder Association http://heda-hk.org/
Senior Lecturer in Dance Science at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
Brenton is a teacher, qualified psychotherapist, and wellness coach. He integrates a variety of somatic, physical, and psychological practices into his work, and is an active member of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.
攝：Worldwide Dancer Project
This column is in collaboration with: School of Dance, The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts