Today, she’s a confident Miami City Ballet soloist, but Emily Bromberg wasn’t always so self-assured. As a teenager, she withered under the weight of self-doubt. Even being cast as Kitri in her first professional production of Don Quixote, at Festival Ballet Providence, didn’t bolster her confidence—instead, she convinced herself she was too immature for the role and nearly melted in tears midway through her debut. “I was constantly double- and triple-checking myself, wondering what other people thought, wondering if I was good enough,” she recalls. “It’s the nature of the dance world, but there were moments when I was really at the edge of giving up.”
These kinds of self-confidence issues, fueled by endless criticism, high pressure to succeed and a flood of intimidating images on social media, can plague dancers for years. It’s easy to start questioning your worthiness in comparison to the latest Instagram star, but in the competitive and uncertain dance world, belief in yourself is crucial to reaching your goals—and your full potential.
A Healthy Sense of Self
The basis of innate self-confidence is recognizing that you’re a human being with imperfections like anyone else, while understanding that your shortcomings don’t define you as a person or as a dancer. “Self-confidence is having an accurate view of yourself and feeling good about it,” says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with Atlanta Ballet. But being pleased with yourself does not necessarily mean that you have an overblown ego. “It’s not arrogance or narcissism. You know you’re not perfect—but you feel good about yourself.”
Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal who now directs the Colburn Dance Academy in Los Angeles, notes that self-confidence has a major impact on artistry—something she learned from personal struggles throughout her career. “Being hypercritical makes a dancer her own worst enemy,” says Ringer. “Knowing that you’re not defined by any one performance frees you to be the artist you want to be, and people who are able to do that are the most effective performers.”
The Dancer’s Dilemma
Confidence comes from combining a realistic self-assessment with a strong drive to improve. One big challenge for dancers is developing a clear sense of themselves in the first place. It’s hard to gauge your own merits and progress in the traditional ballet school setting, however, where you’re taught to rely only on the signals you receive from the person in the front of the room. And in an art form so focused on aesthetics, where everything (your technique, your body, even your hairdo) is measured against a predetermined idea of perfection, self-esteem can take a big hit.
Dr. Brian Goonan, Houston Ballet’s psychologist, says students and young professionals are particularly vulnerable to confidence problems. “Early in their careers, dancers don’t have a fully developed sense of self yet,” he says. “They form their view of themselves based on the perception and feedback of others. And they can end up taking in a lot of negativity.”
As a result, ambitious dancers can develop counterproductive behaviors that inhibit progress, such as relentless self-deprecation. “We all talk to ourselves in the third person,” says Goonan, “as if there’s somebody outside of us saying, ‘Stop being so stupid.’ Part of it does provide some motivation for improvement, but if it’s too frequent it shames more than guides and doesn’t help you advance.”
Ballet’s competitive nature can exacerbate the problem, especially if you see dancers around you succeeding. Bromberg fell into the trap of obsessively comparing herself to her classmates as a student, even stressing over inconsequential details, like the length of her eyelashes. It became a major distraction. “I’d look at every other girl in my class and think about how they had it all and I didn’t,” she says. Unable to trust her own instincts, Bromberg would pester her mother endlessly with questions after performances, fishing for compliments about her appearance as well as her dancing. “Those affirmations made me feel good for a moment, but not for long,” she says.
Ultimately, unconfident dancers can develop defeatist attitudes and avoid taking risks out of a fear of failure. Ringer worries when she sees dancers giving up on themselves easily or resisting trying hard steps. “So much of dance is delayed gratification,” she says. “If you hold back, you’re shortchanging yourself. You’ve missed an opportunity to improve.”
Focus on Your Goal, One Step at a Time
Stopping the vicious cycle of self-doubt begins with the realization that your identity (and worth) is not pinned to how you dance in class or onstage. Learning to not take feedback personally is key, says Goonan. “Corrections are not an attack on who you are,” he says. “If you can think of them as being about what you’re doing, rather than about you, it creates better health.”
Ringer notes that the student/teacher relationship is not a passive one, and that you should both ultimately want the same thing: to make you a better dancer. “You don’t just come to class to receive corrections and be told what’s good or bad,” she says. “You go into it as a partnership, with your own goals as well as the teacher’s. It’s important to feel like you’re on the same path.”
Reining in perfectionism can help, too. Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, says that the trick is to balance reality against the ideal. “The ideal is something you use as your compass, but it’s not actually possible to attain,” Johnson says. She advises dancers to measure their goals with what they are equipped with to get there. “Polish your strengths so they’re the center of attention, and know what can and can’t be done to change your weaknesses.”
Summoning up the courage to risk failure is another step in building self-confidence, and it takes practice. But knowing that you’ve pushed yourself out of your comfort zone will give you a well-deserved boost, along with the resiliency to try again. “It’s about giving yourself value,” says Ringer. “You’re worth it to try, and even if it’s not perfection, you’ve accomplished something.”
Bromberg’s turning point came when she realized that acknowledging her weaknesses didn’t mean giving in to them. Setting her own goals, instead of worrying about how she measured up to others, helped her reignite her ambition and overcome her reliance on positive messages to feel good. Progress, she realized, comes in increments, so she set more realistic goals that she could build upon over time. “Trying your best doesn’t mean nailing every turn or jump, but doing and giving everything you can on any given day.”
In the topsy-turvy dance world, even the most self-assured principals are dealt disappointing blows. Ultimately, the key to regaining your confidence after the inevitable setbacks is remembering what’s driving you to dance in the first place. Without your own passion as your anchor, you become too dependent on other people’s approval to feel good. “The ballet world is so fickle,” says Ringer. “There are huge highs and huge lows, on an hourly basis. It’s important to have a solid sense of self that can ride out the ups and downs.” P
Gavin Larsen, a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, teaches and writes about dance from Portland, Oregon.
When the San Francisco Ballet School trainees flew to Texas for a week of classes and performances with Houston Ballet II last year, HBII dancer Mackenzie Richter felt the need to step up her game. “The SFB dancers were so talented,” says Richter. “I realized right away that I was representing my school, and that pushed me to do my best.”
There’s nothing quite like the jolt students receive from a change of surroundings. And as school collaborations become increasingly popular, it’s easy to see why. In addition to allowing dancers to experience new teachers, they provide opportunities for them to assess the competition, network and learn about other cultures both inside and outside the studio. “When you leave the nest and see the bigger world outside your studio walls,” says Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power, “you see how different dancers approach their work.”
Upping the Ante
Houston Ballet launched its inaugural exchange with the SFB School Trainee Program in 2014 for a whirlwind week of classes, rehearsals and outings, all of which culminated in two final performances. In addition to rehearsing their own repertoire, the dancers worked together on a joint piece, rehearsing separately with a video ahead of time so that they were both on equal footing once they came together. This November, HBII traveled to San Francisco for an equally jam-packed collaboration.
Richter experienced several “aha” moments during the 2014 exchange. “I watched how the SFB trainees incorporated corrections from our teachers that we have heard over and over,” she says. And taking class from SFB faculty opened her eyes to other ways of thinking about her technique.
“New teachers always breathe new life into corrections,” says Power, who noticed a definite bump in growth among the students. “Peer-to-peer competition is good because comparison always gives us a new benchmark to assess ourselves,” she says. “Maybe you need a little push, and seeing other students as good as you are puts you on that higher level.”
American Ballet Theatre Studio Company director Kate Lydon agrees. For more than a decade, the ABT Studio Company has joined forces with The Royal Ballet School for master classes and joint performances as a way to expand the dancers’ horizons. The schools take turns hosting each year, and the dancers have plenty of opportunities to sightsee. “Whenever we travel, it’s marvelous for the dancers to be exposed to such a high caliber of training,” says Lydon.
Some students thrive on the surprising similarities an exchange can offer. “It’s really inspiring to take class and talk with these students who are just as passionate as you are about what you do,” says former ABT Studio Company member Tyler Maloney, now an ABT apprentice. “Even though we all have this similar ultimate goal, it’s interesting to see how we all come from completely different upbringings.”
Building Cultural Awareness
At the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School in Sarasota, Florida, founders Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez, who both defected from Cuba in 1993, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School because they wanted to expose their students to the school director—and their former teacher—Dr. Ramona de Saa. In April 2014, Serrano and Hernandez brought a group of students to Cuba to participate in an international competition and a workshop at the school in Havana. Then in July, de Saa and a half-dozen dancers from the National Ballet School came to Sarasota. They repeated the exchange in 2015, and hope to make it an annual event.
“For the Cubans, it’s an opportunity to highlight their impressive legacy of dance training, which is, justly, a matter of great national pride,” says SCBS executive director Carol Hirschburg. “For SCBS, it’s a celebration of the Cuban method of dance training and an opportunity to promote it to students in the U.S.”
Because both schools are Cuban in lineage, there are few training differences, yet the classroom culture is slightly different. “Cuban students must adhere strictly to every rule or they are suspended immediately,” says Hirschburg. “They work so hard,” says SCBS student Lucy Hamilton. ”They inspired us to work even harder.”
For the American students, traveling to Havana opened their eyes to the Cuban dancers’ economic circumstances. Although the Cuban government provides the training, basic supplies (such as pointe shoes) are very expensive. “Even though they have so little, they have such a positive attitude,” says Hamilton. When the National Ballet School students came to Florida, SCBS arranged for local dancewear shops to donate much-needed supplies for them.
A week may not seem like enough time to make much of an impact on one’s training, but that isn’t really the whole point. Young dancers return inspired to be part of ballet’s global legacy. “It was arguably the best experience of my life,” says Hamilton. “We formed what I think will be lifelong friendships.”
“Collaborating brings the world closer together and gives students an experience that they will take into their future,” says Power. “Having teachers from around the world brings the past to the forefront and gives students a sense of the tradition of ballet training.”
Summer Scholarship Opportunity: Project Resilience
Project Resilience, a dance scholarship organization dedicated to helping students from underserved areas pursue professional ballet careers, is offering a $1,500 scholarship to “The Resilient Ballet Dancer of the Year,” to be used towards a summer intensive at American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem or Houston Ballet. Project coordinator Everett Dyson says that the awardee will be a dancer from an underserved urban community who has an incredible story to tell, someone who has “stayed at it, kept going, because that’s their passion.” Dyson was inspired by the Project’s two high-profile backers, Misty Copeland and Lauren Anderson, to help students achieve their dancing dreams.
Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 1, 2016. For detailed application instructions and more information, go to theresilientdancer.wordpress.com. —Hannah Foster
“A teacher once told me to imagine pulling up my jeans on a humid day to help me lengthen the front of my hips when standing. That feeling helped place me in the right posture, as well as give my dancing a more lengthened look.”
—Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal Jo-Ann Sundermeier