The pursuit of developing dancers who can achieve high levels of proficiency and artistry is a great challenge. Dedicated and skillful guidance is required by teachers and choreographers to help develop future dancers with the capacity to make their mark in a demanding industry. In order to meet the artistic and technical demands of a highly competitive dance industry, dancers are working long hours and pushing their bodies in the studio and onstage, sometimes in addition to training outside of dance. But how much is too much and how do we know when a dancer has had enough?
The risk of doing too much is a condition known as burnout. Burnout is a state of consistent or unexplained tiredness, poor performance in spite of normal training, negative mood state and increased incident of illness or injury. Burnout is often seen in dancers where training, rehearsing and performing schedules do not give them sufficient time to rest and recover.
What causes burnout
Factors contributing to burnout are complex, interrelated and individually distinct. Some of the more common causes include; emotional and physical stress, poor nutrition, low levels of physical fitness, and inadequate rest and recovery. Busy class, rehearsal and performing schedules can also result in burnout, fatigue and injury, and although dancers are not generally in control of these schedules directly, it’s important for them to understand how scheduling can affect their performance, health and well-being.
Identifying the warning signs of burnout
When a dancer does too much and ignores early warning signs (see list below), they risk the serious and lasting effects of burnout. However, identifying burnout is difficult as there are no simple tests and the signs and symptoms are nonspecific, subjective and can vary from dancer to dancer. Warning signs may include;
• A constant feeling of fatigue
• Excessive sweating
• Inability to recover optimally following intensive dancing
• Loss of desire and enthusiasm for dance (feeling of helplessness)
• Breakdown of technique
• Poor concentration
• Loss of appetite and loss of body weight
• Disturbed sleep often with nightmares or vivid dreams
• Increased need to visit the toilet at night
• Increased susceptibility to injuries
• Increased susceptibility to illness such as colds and chest infections
• Increased anxiety and irritability
• Signs of depression
Prevention is more effective than treatment and education is an important prevention strategy. Teachers, choreographers and the dancers themselves need to be educated about the risks associated with burnout and the early signs to help them identify those who may be at risk.
Effective time management is an important way to help prevent burnout. For example, choreographers can utilize the dancers’ time more efficiently by releasing them from rehearsal when not needed or schedule a video feedback session instead of additional gruelling rehearsals. Periodization is another model that can be utilized to manage dancers’ workload and is a systematic approach to the entire training/rehearsal/performance preparation. Periodization develops skills, along with physical and psychological condition in a logical and sequential way to ensure dancers reach the highest levels of performance. Dancers working in periodized environments (where rest has been considered and structured) perform better and have fewer injuries (Wyon, 2010).
Rest, reduced training volumes and ‘active resting’ (or change of activity patterns e.g. cross training – pilates, yin yoga) are the most effective treatments. Other regeneration techniques may be useful such as stress reduction through counseling, sleep, saunas, massage, aromatherapy, hydrotherapy and good nutrition (Koutedakis and Sharp, 1999).
Rest is not only an important physiological process which aids recovery and reduces fatigue, it is also an important time for the brain to integrate and store movement patterns. This not only improves movement memory, it also improves how movement is performed (Batson, 2009). Scheduling time for structured rest like meditation or a Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation exercises) can help equip dancers with another skill to help them manage their own physical and mental stress. For example, following the same schedule for an end of day release/relaxation ritual creates a routine for the dancer to de-stress.
Tips for identifying and avoiding burnout
Due to the complex nature of burnout, there is no one best way to identify the signs and avoid the condition. It is important to remember that each dancer and situation is unique, so awareness is the most important tool of prevention. Here are some tips to help identify the risks and avoid burnout.
1. Rest, rest, rest! This is probably the most important way to optimize performance.
2. Eat well! Eating well does not have to mean eating boring food. Make sure dancers have lots of delicious, healthy and nutritious food in their diets. Also, ensure healthy food is easy to find – so they don’t spend their breaks times hunting down nutritious snacks. This may require dancers bringing their healthy food with them to class and rehearsal.
3. Don’t forget food should also be fun! Make eating social and encourage dancers to share a delicious meal with friends, this is not only good for their bodies; it’s also great for their mental wellbeing.
4. Manage high expectations and unnecessary pressure by setting appropriate and realistic goals.
5. Return to dancing when the dancer’s body is ready. This includes a gradual return to dancing after breaks or injuries.
6. The health and wellbeing of a dancer is the most important consideration, so keep everything in perspective and remember dancers are just people who have stress in their non-dance lives. Some may also need to talk to a counselor about the stress they are experiencing.
7. The old adage “no pain, no gain” and “more is better” needs to be understood and in most cases discouraged.
8. Focus on quality of training, not quantity.
9. Learn relaxation techniques! Learning how to rest is often a skill overlooked in the pursuit of excellence (Batson, 2007). Meditation or a Yoga Nidra can help equip dancers with another skill to help them manage their own physical and mental stress.
10. Mental practice is another great tool to not only beat the burnout, but also optimize performance. Reviewing choreography mentally as well as practicing physically has been found to be more effective than physical rehearsal alone (Batson, 2009).
11. Make sure there is a life beyond the dance studio. It’s important for dancers (and teachers/choreographers) to do something different (not more dancing or dance related training) and have FUN!!
12.Ensure dancers are getting sufficient quality sleep.
13. Be aware and monitor how dancers are feeling. The longer it takes to acknowledge or become aware of fatigue and burnout, the longer it will take to recover. If dancers report feeling tired, ill, or pain, give them a break and don’t just work through it!
It is important to remember that dancers respond individually to the stresses of training, rehearsal and performance. Whilst one may be experiencing burnout another may find the same workload easy. For this reason, it’s important to monitor individual dancers and make specific adjustments to workload as necessary to ensure optimal health and performance.
Batson, G. (2009) Somatic Studies and Dance, IADMS Resource Paper
Koutedakis, Y., (2000) “Burnout” in dance, the physiological viewpoint, Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 4(4).
Koutedakis, Y., & Sharp, N., (1999) The fit and healthy dancer, John Wiley, Chichester.
Wyon, M. (2010) Preparing to perform periodization and dance. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 14(2).
About the authors:
Brenton Surgenor (BPhEd, MA, MSc) has a broad knowledge of human movement, somatic practices and dance science and has presented workshops and seminars in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom – he is currently Senior Lecturer (Academic Studies in Dance) at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
Jaime Redfern (Dip, MFA, MEd) has worked in the performing arts sector for over 30 years as a performer, educator, choreographer and manager – he is currently Head of Contemporary Dance at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
Photographer Felix Chan
Dancers Selina Hack and Eric Kwong
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