Written by Kate Mattingly_2009
The conflict between reality and illusion is ever-present in an artist’s career: dancers appear to be a committed, strong, capable movers on stages and in the studio, but often this calm exterior hides turmoil, doubt, and insecurity lurking inside. Research into dancers’ psychology and interviews with artists and therapists uncovered the ways in which interactions with teachers, directors and choreographers shape and influence the dancer’s identity.
Illusion and reality
In the myth of Narcissus, there is a detail often overlooked. When the beautiful young man looks into the water and sees a face, he falls in love with the image without knowing that it is his own reflection. The fatal consequences of such lack of self-awareness are well-known: when Narcissus tries to kiss the image in the water, he falls in and drowns.
Myths survive because their stories reflect ideas and situations mirrored in the human world. Narcissism is now well-known as a personality disorder characterized by self-preoccupation. Some psychologists believe that successful people, particularly artists, need a healthy dose of narcissism in order to survive the rejection
and doubt that are encountered in a creative career. But the overlooked detail of the story, the lack of recognition when Narcissus gazed in the water, could be the subject of another personality trait often found in artists: an inability to form one’s identity without external approval or recognition.
The dance world is highly subjective. Criterion for advancement and selection into projects and companies are dependent on the personal preferences of directors and choreographers. As a result, the dancer relies on the opinion of others in order to survive. Couple this reality with the fact that dance is a visual art-form and this makes for a mine-field of neurosis: how you look and how you move must meet someone else’s definition of “good” or “acceptable.” Where does a dancer build a sense of self-sufficiency and self-confidence?
Thoughts from a therapist
Denise Hyland*, a former dancer and therapist who works with Organismic Psychotherapy, says “dancers often get trapped in an identity that is outside of themselves. Even the mirrors in a studio become their source of identification. As a result their relationship to their body and their sense of self becomes jeopardized when everything about their person is determined by outside criteria.” Hyland goes on to explain that it may not be the dance world that creates this tenuous sense of identity: “the dance world does not create narcissists but rather capitalizes on them,” she says. “The insecurities which are inherent in narcissism are formed very early on in a person’s development. In the world of the arts in general, people who are ‘odd’ or eccentric find much more acceptance than in the typical working world.”
A dancer turned doctor
Cheryl Sladkin**, who performed with Karole Armitage and American Repertory Ballet before entering medical school, echoes Hyland’s idea that dance attracts a particular personality type, and adds that the normalizing behaviors of the dance world accentuate these traits. Sladkin uses the example of a principal dancers in New York City who she frequently sees in ballet class: “I observe the best dancers to be the most committed and work harder, practice harder even though they are already so much better than everyone else.” Such behavior could be seen as neurotic, but Sladkin believes this neurosis is important to have the impeccable technique demanded by the top companies today.
Sladkin adds “there is incredible insecurity in the dance world because people’s lives are dependent on others’ opinions. This makes dancers neurotic. I think they have to be neurotic in order to wake up every day and say I must go to class, I must do better. Being neurotic helps in their training. It is not only true for dancers, most successful people are neurotic. And I use the term neurotic not psychotic.”
Sladkin says that in medical school she observes similar commitment and obsession in the doctors who are determined to be prepared and perform well. “Being neurotic is not bad. Each artist, each person, makes his or her own decision about the intensity of their commitment.”
A dancer who chose law
Serena Orloff*** was a member of Miami City Ballet before stopping her dance career to finish college and attend law school. She acknowledges that the drive instilled in her during her years as a dancer is still a part of her work ethic today. She also sees parallels between the legal world and dance world in that assessment is arbitrary and based on one person’s opinion of another, which feeds a feeling of vulnerability and insecurity in law students. “It creates a feeling of powerlessness, and success for lawyers is incredibly important because of what people have sacrificed and given up in order to go to law school.”
She uses the story of a supreme court judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who recognized the existence of legal subjectivity and described law not as logic, but rather as a summation of experience, necessity, theories and prejudice. Orloff adds “the point for me is that all of what we do as a culture is in a constant state of moderating between status quo norms and change. I think this plays out BOTH in how dancers and other artists are assessed, and in how legal thinkers and law students are assessed. Because of this, I personally would define success as the degree to which one can package novelty or idiosyncrasy in a way that makes the public accept it as valid. This takes both ahigh commitment to whatever it is that one does (because if the individual doesn’t believe in it, who will?) and also a high degree ofself confidence and belief in one’s own potential. Maintaining perspective and internal strength while still moving through society in a way that makes one happy is so important, and so difficult.”
Ego, identity and obsession
Stories about the most famous dancers reinforce these observations: Toni Bentley describes Rudolf Nureyev, perhaps that most egoistic and self-confident dancer of the 20th century: “I remember watching him at the School of American Ballet… standing at the barre with such focused concentration that his tendus almost seared the floor, making him the center of the room.” Bentley traces this obsession with working hard
to Nureyev’s childhood, which was characterized by starvation and
poverty. She says that Nureyev’s “sense of inadequacy fed a fanaticism about class that never left him.”
Fanaticism, obsession, neurosis – these seem to be the ingredients of a dancer’s life. Whether or not the dancer possessed these traits before they entered their first studio, they are traits which are encouraged and normalized by the profession. As the only art form that takes the body as its source of inspiration and realization, dance stands apart from music and the visual arts where the “stuff” of the art form can be seen as separate from the performer’s identity. As a dancer shapes his or her technique, they must also respond to the wishes and preferences of the directors and critics who surround them.
Psychoanalysis and pathways to recovery
Barbara Kravitz****, a former member of Pennsylvania Ballet and practicing psychoanalyst, says that the term identity is used is many ways: “identifications are looked at as a wish or idea to be like, or actually become like another for a variety of reasons (admiration, envy, the attainment of ambitious ends, to gain approval or security, to avoid anxiety, guilt…). A related but somewhat different level of discourse (and more likely what you were hearing from dancers) is the concept of identity which can highlight a quality (or qualities) that link an individual to other individuals or groups and that has an inner aspect as well, for example self image, self definition, sense of self. In other words, whatever people experience or believe about themselves including whatever problems they might have defining or figuring out what that is.”
Clients who seek Kravitz’s counsel are people who have some difficulty in an area of their life, and through talking with the therapist, can uncover patterns in their thinking and in their behavior. She finds that dancers, in spite of the stress and insecurities of their profession, rarely seek therapy, or when a dancer talks about “going to therapy,” it is most often physical therapy to treat an injury. Kravitz speculates that this could be because the body is the dancer’s tool and it is more important to the dancer that the body, not the mind, functions well. Such a division between thinking and doing can also be observed in the studio when a teacher says “just do it!”
“There is something about the physical being of the dancer where
everything is so concentrated on how the body is performing that it is rare for an artist to consider their mental health,” says Kravitz.
“Dancers move from their own family into the dance family at a
relatively young age so that dependency on the parents, and possibly feelings of protection, is continued in relationships to teachers.” Such an insular existence makes it difficult for artists to recognize and challenge destructive patterns.
Kravitz has seen dancers who realize the caustic interactions between superiors and insubordinates and who say “if I am in that position I will never be that way.” But once they enter a place of authority, they repeat the hostile behavior. Kravitz traces this to a sense of identification with the aggressor. And in the dance world the acrimony between older and younger generations can be exacerbated by the fact that the performing career of an artist is brief. Envy of the younger generation is found not only in dance but in other professions as well.
Through therapy, Kravitz helps patients examine and recognize ways of thinking, how they became who they are, why they feel and act the way they do, paving the way to change damaging patterns of behavior. It is intense and time-consuming work since there is such a “subtle inter-play” of forces. “Individuals can unknowingly act in certain ways to bring out familiar behavior pattern in others or to try to repeat this pattern. There is one theory that says you repeat something because this time, you hope, it will end up differently.”
For Kravitz the world of psychoanalysis is “fascinating,” an enriching source of knowledge and exploration, but she wonders why there is so little written about the psychology of dancers. “I think it is a difficult topic to tease apart. What is particular to this field? And there is a mystique to dance as well. People want to believe in this mystery of the art-form. For the artists as well as the audience, there persists this idealized view of who a dancer is.”
*Denise Hyland is an artist and teacher who has devoted 30 years to exploring the phenomena of intuitive and spontaneous modes of movement, dance and creative process. She holds a certification in Gestalt Therapy and
leads workshops in Intrinsic Movement Explorations which allow individuals to awaken a sense of beauty, connection and the joy of living in a body.
**Cheryl Sladkin trained at the Princeton Ballet School, Maryland Youth Ballet, and Washington School of Ballet. She has been a member of the Suzanne Farrell project, The Washington Ballet, and the American Repertory Ballet. She completed an academic degree at Princeton University, then medical school. She is currently in her last year of pediatric residency.
***Serena Orloff trained at the Berkeley Ballet Theater school in California, and later danced with the American Ballet Theater Studio Company and Miami City Ballet. She completed her undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley in 2005 and was featured in a 2006 PBS documentary about the lives of women in Afghanistan. She will graduate from Columbia Law School in May of 2007.
****Dr. Barbara Kravitz has been a member of the Pennsylvania Ballet, Israeli Ballet Company, and Garden State Ballet. She obtained her doctorate in psychology at Ferkauf Graduate School, Yeshiva University and is a member of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. She currently is in private practice in New York City.
Kate Mattingly trained at the Washington School of Ballet, Chautauqua Dance Festival and the San Francisco Ballet School. Now based in Salzburg, she writes about dance and performance, and teaches throughout Europe.