Lying awake in her hotel bed in Washington, DC, the night before her audition, Richmond Ballet dancer Valerie Tellmann-Henning was tormented with anxiety. At 31 years old, she was comfortable in her career. So comfortable that she decided to seek new artistic challenges. With the support of her director, she decided to audition for The Suzanne Farrell Ballet with the hope of juggling two contracts. The only thing that stood between her and her goal was a bout of anxiety. “I felt like I was 19 again trying to get my first job," she remembers. “It made me second-guess a lot of things about myself: Is Suzanne going to like my body type? Will my legs be high enough?" The anxious feeling made Tellmann-Henning irritable, and she even found herself holding her breath during the audition class, as a stream of insecurities cycled through her mind.

Anxiety is an irrational sense of fear that pairs perfectly with perfectionism. Most, if not all, ballet dancers will feel anxious from time to time. In fact, the psychologists we spoke to said it is one of the most common reasons dancers come to them for treatment. While a dash of nerves before you go onstage can add electricity to your performance, anxiety can kill your confidence and even limit your ability to live your life normally if it goes unchecked. In a field that's filled with stressful situations—like casting, audition jitters, contract renewals, mounting bills and stage fright—it's important to learn how to identify anxiety, evaluate the seriousness and take steps to cope with it before it holds you back.


Anxiety 101

“Dancers are kind of a self-selected pre-anxious population," says Dr. Brian Goonan, a psychologist who works with dancers at Houston Ballet. “Wanting to go out there and please and perform is part of what creates the anxiety in the first place." But anxiety has many mental and physical symptoms, meaning that each dancer will show it in a slightly different way. According to Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet, physical symptoms include a fast heartbeat, sweating, shaking, diarrhea, stomach pains, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, shortness of breath or headaches. Mentally, you may feel a sense of dread or panic, or worry that things are going to go wrong. Most often, Kaslow says, anxiety manifests itself in some combination of both kinds of symptoms.

As the manager of Kansas City Ballet II, Anthony Krutzkamp sees this firsthand, since he works with dancers at one of the most stressful and uncertain periods of their careers—the space between student and professional. “Mostly, I see that they are worried about the future," he says. “So much so that I don't think they are enjoying the present." Krutzkamp says that his dancers become most anxious over things they can't actually control, like casting, how many company positions will open up or how the director or other dancers perceive them. “It all comes from that underlying feeling that they haven't made it yet," he says. While your perfectionism and desire to succeed help you maintain the focus required to become a great dancer, those same qualities can leave your head spinning with uncertainty.


Creating Balance

Fortunately, since your mental and physical wellness are interconnected, there are concrete, tangible solutions to help manage anxiety. Because being a dancer is inherently stressful, Goonan says, it's important to keep your mental and physical “resource pool" high. This means getting proper sleep, eating well to fuel your body and having “good emotional hygiene," such as maintaining hobbies outside of dance and making time to unwind with friends.

In fact, if you are depleted physically, your mind will allocate more of its effort to sustaining your body. As a result, you will be less psychologically able to deal with things that make you anxious. “You can't pull from a resource pool that's drained," advises Goonan, who says that dancers are more likely to experience anxiety when they are feeling run-down.

Creative and athletic hobbies actually have therapeutic effects and can be instrumental in managing anxiety. But since dance falls into both categories, it can't serve as your sole emotional outlet and your job. Goonan encourages dancers to find creative or athletic outlets—like cooking, art or yoga—where the pressure of evaluation is off. “Draw, write in a journal or go bowling on Saturday nights with your friends," he says. “Can you figure out the subtle nuance as to which cheeses to add to homemade mac and cheese?" Maybe you like swimming, sewing or want to learn to play the guitar.


Coping in the Moment—and Afterwards

When you feel anxiety coming on, say while you're backstage before a big performance, breathing and visualization techniques can help calm you down. “Imagine the situation making you anxious, and picture yourself handling it well," says Kaslow. Deep breaths will also slow your heart rate.

If your anxiety is persistent over a long period of time, it may be worthwhile to evaluate if you are in the right company or training program for yourself and your health. “You are always the best dancer at the place that likes you the most," says Krutzkamp. Sometimes the grass is actually greener somewhere else. Don't be afraid of being open to moving to a place where you can handle the pressure and still push yourself to improve. “You're not just changing grass, you're changing directors," he says. “Every company is very different."


When to Seek Help

Kaslow assures that a certain amount of anxiety is normal. “Some people tend to be more anxious than others and that's okay," she says. For example, if you are feeling anxious before opening night, Goonan says that's reasonable. But if you are throwing up before the performance, the anxiety doesn't lessen over subsequent shows or you experience debilitating panic attacks, he warns that you may have a disorder that needs to be treated.

Ask yourself: How often do symptoms show up? How long do they stay? And how intense are moments of anxiety when they happen? More specifically, are you able to perform, attend auditions and take class regularly, or do you find yourself passing up opportunities due to bouts of panic or an overwhelming sense of worry? Unfortunately, there are no universal benchmarks to tell you what frequency, length or intensity of anxiety is “normal." But if it's getting in the way of your life or your dancing, you need to be evaluated by a professional.

If you do go into treatment, Kaslow says that your first meetings will revolve around the psychologist getting to know you and your situation before they teach you specific coping mechanisms. “The only time you would think about medication with anxiety is if it is really quite significant," she says. Traditional medications are highly addictive, so they are avoided if at all possible.

In Tellmann-Henning's case, she sensed that her anxiety was rooted in her perceived shortcomings. So she worked to mentally refocus her thoughts on her strengths before‚—and during—the audition. It worked: She landed the job with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, where she now dances when she's not performing with Richmond Ballet.

“So much of being a dancer is being confident in what you can bring," she says, but that's not always easy, especially when anxiety comes into play. In hindsight, Tellmann-Henning says her bout of anxiety actually reinvigorated her love for what she does. “I think if you don't have moments like that," she says, “then maybe your heart's not fully in your career anymore."

Show Comments ()
popular
via Instagram, Thaler Photography

Having danced with New York City Ballet, Béjart Ballet and the Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Aesha Ash undoubtedly inspired more than a few future ballerinas during her 13-year professional career. But now that she's retired, she's found a way to reach even more young girls, particularly those who live in inner-city neighborhoods, after founding The Swan Dreams Project.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo via @isabellaboylston on Instagram.

From baking to leotard design, we love seeing dancers' passions outside of the studio. This week, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston revealed herself to be an avid reader. She posted a photo on Instagram from her dressing room on the company's tour stop in Lincoln, NE, posing in her black swan tutu with a book in hand and the following caption:

"Hey guys!🚨🚨 Who wants to join my book club? The first book will be THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K Le Guin. I've always been a huge bookworm, and would love to connect with you guys over some great books! I was thinking we can do an Instagram live in a couple weeks and people can comment in to discuss.😃 📚 🐛 any suggestions on what the next book should be?"

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Debra Austin in "Giselle."

Whenever Debra Austin jumped, she soared—and not only onstage. Invited by George Balanchine to join New York City Ballet at age 16, she was the first African-American woman to enter the company (where she eventually rose to soloist). She later joined Zurich Ballet, returning to the U.S. to accept a principal contract with Pennsylvania Ballet in 1982—a groundbreaking milestone for a black dancer outside of Dance Theatre of Harlem at the time. In this clip from a 1987 production of Giselle, her beautifully pliant feet and effortless ballon shine through the fuzzy video quality. In her Act I variation, the classical, understated purity of her port de bras belie the sheer technical strength of her attitude pirouettes and hops on pointe. Then watch, at 4:00, how she appears to fly through the air as a spectral wili, only to rise ever so delicately for a series of fluttering ronds de jambe en l'air.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
All photos by Jayme Thornton, modeled by Kailei Sin of The School at Steps.

During class, you're tuned in to every aspect of your dancing. But when the day is over, you may be tempted to head home and skip out on a proper cooldown. Don't: Going from grand allégro to a full stop is hard on your muscles. Bené Barrera, an athletic trainer who works with Houston Ballet, says, "If you're doing an end-of-day cooldown, you're going to need at least 20 minutes. That allows the muscles to calm down." And your body should notice the difference: "You'll have less trigger-point pain later, and your soreness might reduce a bit." A proper cooldown may even help you sleep better.

But post-class stretching isn't about sitting in a straddle. "As a dancer, you're never truly isolating one area," says Barrera. Your cooldown should mimic that. "You want to cover the whole body altogether. You don't want to just stretch one muscle group."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Garrett Anderson. Photo Courtesy Ballet Idaho.

Big news in Boise: Ballet Idaho has announced that Garrett Anderson will succeed Peter Anastos as the company's next artistic director, starting in July. Anderson, who had an extensive dance career as a soloist with San Francisco Ballet and Royal Ballet of Flanders, and later danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, has a special connection with Ballet Idaho's home city. He performed with the Trey McIntyre Project in 2011 and later as a guest artist with Boise-based LED, a music, film and dance collaborative. Anderson has also served as the chair of the Dance Department at New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe.


Members of Ballet Idaho in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Photo by Mike Reid, Courtesy ballet Idaho.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Kyle Froman

"I'm all about comfort and easy clothing because I'm always on the go," Jasmine Perry says. But that doesn't keep the Los Angeles Ballet company dancer from looking stylish. Favoring dresses and athleisure wear, Perry also prefers classic lines and neutral colors like white, black, navy and gray, which are easy to mix and match. The finishing touch: a pair of sneakers from her extensive collection. "I had ankle surgery four or five years ago, so I need a good walking shoe," she explains. "I have a ton of Nikes and running sneakers from Brooks for when I've had a long day at work and need something that feels like clouds on my feet."

But in the studio, you won't find any of the yoga pants or loose-fitting T-shirts she loves so much. "I don't actually have that much attire for layering," Perry says of her strictly leotards-and-tights class style. "It doesn't get that cold here," she explains. "I have a few legwarmers and things for when I'm rehabbing an injury, but they're not part of my daily attire."

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!