They are the urban legends of the dance studio: glass in a dancer's pointe shoes, ribbons cut before she goes onstage. The film Black Swan took things a step further, depicting a dancer so wracked with obsessive jealousy that she turns into a monster.
While these caricatures of the jealous ballerina are far from reality, it is not surprising that most dancers will battle bouts of green envy at least a few times in their careers. “It happens to all of us," says American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Paulina Waski, who despite signing a contract with ABT at 16 admits she's felt envious of fellow dancers. “Especially when you are at the point of transitioning from a student to a professional dancer."
According to Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet, jealousy is completely normal. However, it creates both physical and mental tension. “It can get in the way of relationships," she says. When Waski was promoted into ABT, she sensed that some of her colleagues from the ABT Studio Company grew distant. Later, she experienced jealous behavior from older company members. “It felt lonely," she says.
If jealousy is allowed to fester, it can affect the entire class. "A class should always be pushing each other, but in a healthy way," says Arantxa Ochoa, director of faculty and curriculum at Miami City Ballet School. Healthy competition may sound like a contradiction, but Kaslow notes that "competition can also motivate people to do their best and try their hardest." It becomes unhealthy when winning becomes paramount, especially at the expense of others.
Don't be disheartened if you feel jealous of another dancer from time to time. Here are some tips to reframe your thinking so that it doesn't become a detriment to your dancing and friendships.
Stay Focused on Yourself
It takes a lot of energy to continually measure yourself against those around you. “One of the best things you can do is stay focused on yourself and your own progress," says Kaslow. She advises that instead of worrying about whether your leg is the highest in the room, focus on making it is as high as you, personally, can get it. “Otherwise you're going to end up in a competition and you're not really going to do what you need to do to get better," she adds.
Keep in mind, too, that some dancers simply bloom earlier. “Don't compare yourself to others, because our paths are very different," says Ochoa. She notes that she has seen the underdog make it many times, “because they don't get discouraged."
When you see a dancer who has something that you lack, remember that we all have unique attributes. “I think that often people end up feeling jealous because they are feeling badly about themselves," says Kaslow. She advises dancers to focus inward. Try not to become so distracted by what another dancer has that you miss all the wonderful qualities that belong only to you.
Arantxa Ochoa teaching at Miami City Ballet School. Photo by Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.
If someone is getting more attention in class, receiving better parts or leveling up, remember that the teachers or directors making those decisions have their own subjective preferences. “Ballet is all about perspective," says Ochoa. “Some people love a certain principal and others don't like her. But that is a beautiful thing about it," she says. “You cannot put a number on it; it is an art form." Another teacher or choreographer may see even more in you.
Learn from Your Competition
Let's face it—if a dancer has you turning green, they are probably doing something you wish you could do yourself. Instead of comparing yourself to her, see it as an opportunity to learn her secrets. “It is good to see that another dancer jumps higher," says Ochoa, “because then you will want to jump higher, too."
Waski isn't a born turner, so at times she would grow jealous of others who could do more rotations, especially when she was competing for an ABT corps contract. She learned to rechannel her feelings. “I want to learn from other dancers if they have a strength I don't have," she says. “Jealousy can take you back a few steps because you get insecure and you try to be like that person. Then you lose sight of who you are as a dancer."
Appreciate the Beauty in Others
When you started dancing some time ago, you likely did so because you saw a dancer or performance that inspired you. Hold on to the motivation that came from that sense of awe. “Oftentimes we feel jealous of something because we respect and admire it," says Kaslow. “Try to allow yourself to have more of those positive feelings." One of the best ways to do this is to get to know the dancer that you are jealous of. “The better you get to know someone and their strengths and challenges," she says, “the more of a complete picture you have. You start to see them as just another human being, not an unattainable idea."