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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Milner

6 Ways to Guarantee Burnout

A dance career is hard. It’s not for the faint of heart: the physical cost in the early years is staggering (pointe shoes alone require a second mortgage), and your adolescent years are marked by a distinct lack of a social life. Then, if by some miracle you’re good enough to get attention at your school, you try out for some companies. At which point, if you surpass all odds, you get into a company. Then sweat having your contract renewed. Which is when you start jockeying for understudy roles. Then bigger roles. Then getting into first cast. Then fighting to stay in first cast as the next young Big Thing comes along.

Stop me if this sounds familiar.

The point? Is that dance is hard, you guys. Like, really hard. And it’s a constant struggle - against competitors, against injuries, against time breaking you down.

In spite of that, though, a surprising number of dancers make it through high school and into the professional dance world and continue to think it’s “worth it”. They actually enjoy their lives and say “they wouldn’t trade it for anything”.

If you don’t want to be one of those people - one of those dancers who push forward, finding joy in the everyday, recognizing obstacles but not letting those obstacles defeat them - then this is your lucky day. If you’re looking for a good case of Burnout, certified to make you want to throw your pointe shoes in the trash and sell all your Yumikos on eBay, then follow these tips that are guaranteed to put the listlessness in your step:

Dance all the time. Like, all the time. Who needs down time? Or sleep? Or an off-season break? I’m all for taking lower level classes to continue improving your technique, and for building strength as you get ready for a summer intensive or your first year in a company or some other big push. But being smart and keeping an eye on your long-term career means taking advantage of hiatuses and breaks, and letting your body rest. It means learning to understand what “constructive rest” looks like for you, whether that’s fifteen minutes during lunch with your legs up the wall, or one whole weekend without dancing or working out. So if you’re determined to burn yourself out, for heaven’s sake, please keep pushing your body to its limits every day, without ceasing. Avoid vacations and off-time like the plague, and refuse to settle for less than six hours a day in the studio. Your burnout will thank you for it.

Be careful not to cultivate an outside life. Ballet can be all-encompassing: it requires constant attention and time from you, whether it’s sewing a pair of pointe shoes on the morning train or paring your school work down to the bare minimum to get one more class in. Develop tunnel vision, and refuse to watch any videos that aren’t ballet-related: eschew any cute videos of kittens frolicking with a baby lamb, and instead torture yourself watching Dusty Buttons do 12 pirouettes. Again. Be sure not to encourage any interests in anything outside of dance. This means a love of a good book, or an interest in photography lessons on your hiatus (what hiatus? More classes!), or a cooking class you found online are all forbidden. Making sure your entire sense of self is completely tied up in dance is essential to burnout, and that means not allowing your soul to be fed or defined by anything other than dance.

Avoid meaningful relationships. Here’s a tricky one, because people are unavoidable. But try to sidestep offers of friendships outside of the studio. Remember that best friend who cheerfully gave up ballet her sophomore year, and now wants to hang with you? Definitely don’t call her back; she’d be a compassionate, understanding ear for you and who needs that? Ditto for cool people you might meet randomly, in, say, a book club (see previous rule if you’re even contemplating a book club). As for your friends at the studio or in the company - try to keep the conversations about cool new ways to tape your bunions, or speculation on upcoming casting. Try to stay away from learning more about your fellow dancers as actual humans if you want to stay on track for burnout. Developing a support system of people who like you whether you dance or not, and think you’re interesting no matter what, and can offer you an objective perspective on your life, is a sure-fire first step to kicking the Burnout Blues out the door.

Dance for someone else, not yourself. This one’s a no-brainer. Make sure you’re doing this for the wrong reasons - to fulfill your mom’s frustrated career-cut-short, or because your parents would really love to have a dancer in the family, or simply because it’s cost your family so darn much over the years. Perhaps it’s a studio owner who thinks you’re the next Alessandra Ferri and you don’t have the heart to tell him you don’t want to dance any more. The details aren’t important - just stay on the dance path to please someone rather than yourself. Burnout guarantee right there.

Forget why you’re doing it in the first place. We all start out with such a clear sense of joy in our dancing; remember those days of looking forward to ballet class? Of weeping when your mom said it was time to go home? Of never wanting a rehearsal to end because you felt so fulfilled right there in that moment? Well, you’d best forget them. When the days get hard, reviving that love of dance -finding that spark of pure joy within you - will give you strength to get through one more torturous Snow rehearsal. I know it sounds crazy, but one of my favorite times of the day was always plies in the morning class. Whatever craziness was going on in my day, whatever extra “stuff” was happening out in The Real World, it couldn’t follow me through the studio door. There was something almost sacred to me about feeling the smooth wooden barre under my hand for the first time each day, stepping slowly into first position, and hearing the piano music start to rise around me. For at least an hour, I couldn’t focus on balancing my checkbook or fixing a fight with a sibling or anything else. It was pure joy every single time, and no matter how many days I had to drag myself into class, I never regretted it 90 minutes later. That spark of the sacred, that something you have to say that no one else can say quite like you - that’s why you keep dancing.

My favorite place in the world is actually in the wings, not onstage. Being in the wings, in the dark, surrounded by velvet curtains and the smell of rosin, always made me feel like anything was possible. There’s so much potential there -so much that’s about to happen. When I was having a hard time in my life, I would head to the theatre and lie in the wings before rehearsal and fill up on that feeling - of on-tap potential about to come bursting out. The stage wing is a cocoon and something glorious is always getting ready to come bursting out of it. I never failed to feel grateful and joyous there and I’d pack those moments away in my heart, jewels to be treasured when I needed them. Perhaps for you it’s the ballet studio before the madness starts each morning, or riding the subway and listening to the music of a glorious ballet fill your head. You know what your happy place looks like.

So when times get stressful and you start to feel overwhelmed, try to avoid rehearsing those moments of joy in your heart like a mantra or a catechism. It’ll only make the Burnout go away.

Ignore the big picture. The dance world can make you feel like you’re stuck in a permanent time warp: audition, rehearse, perform, die of exhaustion; lather, rinse, repeat. Keep your head down, and for heaven’s sake don’t see that everything is seasonal! Putting things in perspective can give you the strength to keep going through some of the less glamorous times in a dance career. Are you doing a lot of standing around in character shoes and big dresses during your company’s run of Romeo and Juliet? You can either remind yourself that you’re grateful to be a trainee/PD/studio company member with such a prestigious company and that you’re lucky to have this on your resume when you start auditioning again next spring for other companies, or you can roll your eyes, mutter to yourself helpful phrases like “Ah, 18 years of ballet lessons well spent” as you barely listen in rehearsal and convince yourself you’ll be Third Courtier from the Left for the rest of your career.

Or maybe you’re facing your senior year in your local pre-professional company, and dreading having to do yet another Nutcracker, and can’t quite figure out why you should do one more year of dance. For heaven’s sake, don’t think about the friendships you’ve forged backstage, or imagine the bittersweet moment the curtain comes down the final time in the Land of the Sweets. Or how about this one: you’re injured and walking around in a stupid medical boot while all your friends are learning their roles in this amazing new ballet. Try to ignore what your therapist has told you, about how you’ll come out of this stronger and in better shape than you went into it. Avoid seeing that this injury is just a short season, and you’ll be back doing what you love soon, and in the meantime isn’t this break a great chance to see how much you really do love dance? Try a more defeatist attitude, and go to every therapy session positive it won’t do any good, and certain you’ll never dance again so why bother. Trust me - this is good stuff.

Bottom line? Burnout is real. It can take down even the most optimistic, talented, well-balanced dancers out there. But there are so many ways to take care of yourself - physically, mentally, spiritually - that it can be avoided and you can have a happy, healthy career.

Unless you follow my list. Then you’ve got yourself a recipe for early retirement.

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