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Tips for Developing a Growth Mindset, and Why It Can Help You Become a Happier Dancer

"I was told when I was a young teenager that I had the worst pirouette my teacher had ever seen," remembers New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette. The statement was made lightheartedly, and Lovette laughed at the time. "The whole class laughed, and I knew it was a bad pirouette," she says, "but it still hurt." These moments can quickly consume a dancer's inner monologue, and Lovette could have concluded that she just isn't a good turner, but she didn't. Instead she told herself, "It may be the worst pirouette that my teacher has ever seen, but it is my pirouette and I am working on it. It will get better."

Ballet dancers tend to see things in black and white. "I am good at jumping and bad at adagio," for instance, or "I will be successful when I get accepted by x, y or z program or company." This kind of rigid thinking is what mental health professionals often call a "fixed" mindset, and it could be hurting your development as a dancer and a person, as well as your mental well-being.

The good news is that a "growth" mindset—belief that your abilities will improve with time and effort—is a skill you can develop. By looking for opportunities for growth, rather than defining things as permanently good or bad, you will likely dance better and be happier doing it.

Wearing a blue leotard, tights, pointe shoes and floppy hat, Lauren Lovette does an arabesque on her right leg and holds onto a grand piano with her right hand and a blue folding chair with her left.

Lauren Lovette in Jerome Robbins' The Concert

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

What Is a Growth Mindset?

The concept of a "growth" versus a "fixed" mindset was popularized by the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University. According to Sara Hickmann, a clinical and performance psychologist who presented at the U.S. Prix de Ballet earlier this year, a growth mindset believes that success and improvement come from persistence and effort, while a fixed mindset is focused on the outcome or the reward. "When you can adopt a growth mindset, your ability to be resilient and successful over time is much greater," she says.

UK-based psychotherapist and former ballet dancer Terry Hyde notes that a fixed mindset is unconscious, and has a lot to do with what we learn as small children (for example, that we are good at ballet and bad at math). "Having a fixed mindset means creating anxiety when things don't go right," says Hyde. For example, a dancer with this mode of thinking may be completely derailed by an audition rejection and spiral into feelings that they are a terrible dancer. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset will reflect on what they learned or gained from the audition process, even if they aren't accepted.

Focus on Attitude and Effort

When Hyde does workshops and therapy sessions with pre-profession-al and professional dancers, he uses the acronym "FEAR" (false evidence appearing real) to give them perspective on the anxiety a fixed mindset creates. When a rehearsal director snaps at you, it is unlikely that they "hate" you, and more likely that they are having a bad day and misdirecting it. Likewise, the subjective opinion of a director at an audition does not qualify you as a "bad" dancer if you are not selected.

To foster a growth mindset, says Hickmann, focus on two things you can control: effort and attitude. "We can increase our effort and change our attitude, and even if the outcome isn't what we want, dancers are going to feel a deeper sense of meaning to what they are doing, and be more optimistic about what they are doing in general."

One of the most effective ways we can adjust our attitude is by practicing positive self-talk (see the graphic above for some examples). When confronted with setbacks, speak to yourself the way you would to a dear friend—you wouldn't tell her that she's a bad dancer because she didn't get cast, right? At its core, a growth mindset is dedicated to your belief in yourself and what you are capable of.

Lauren Lovette, wearing a white T-shirt, gray plaid pants and ballet slippers, does a pass\u00e9 with her right leg and bends sideways to the right. She lifts her right arm up and grabs her right elbow with her left hand, framing her head with her arms.

Lovette rehearsing her ballet The Shaded Line with members of NYCB.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Do Something New That Scares You

In 2008, while still a student at the School of American Ballet, Lovette signed herself up for a choreographic workshop for one reason: It scared her. "I was so afraid to put my name down because I didn't know if I would be able to put anything out there," she remembers. "That helped me discover something that I really love to do. But I didn't know that I loved it. I didn't have a vision of being a choreographer." Lovette has since choreographed three works for the NYCB repertoire.

Hickmann says that Lovette's leap of faith is exactly the kind of thing dancers should do to foster a growth mindset. "It shows that you are open to ways in which you are going to have to lean into fear, or incompetence, or frustration in learning something new," she says. Your goal should not be to strike gold on a new skill like Lovette did with choreography (she has also tried bread baking, drawing and, during the pandemic, remodeling a house), but to keep learning. "Expose yourself to other activities where you don't have those same expectations as in ballet," says Hickmann. "Often that mindset, the need to win, will travel with you," she adds. It takes practice to do something you are not prolific at and enjoy the learning process.

When Lovette speaks about her attitude, common themes emerge: growth, learning and gratitude. "I've held my career with a very open hand because you have to. It is not something that is ever sure," she says. But Lovette has come to this mindset through hard work, as a lover of therapy and self-help books. "It is always about doing the best that I can in the phase that I am in. And as long as I am learning and growing, it is worth it."

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1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

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"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

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