6 Tips for Overcoming Fears and Mental Blocks in Ballet

November 19, 2021

We all have that step—our ballet Bermuda triangle. Whether it’s a grand pirouette, petit allégro or double saut de basque, every dancer struggles with some things more than others. And we often make it even harder with self-sabotaging thoughts. So, how do dancers overcome this cycle and face their fears? 

Terry Hyde, MA, MBACP, is a former English National Ballet soloist who now practices as a dance counselor and psychotherapist in the UK. For him, approaching fear and challenges is all about mindset. When asked what causes that moment of panic before a challenging step, he says: “It’s a thought, two words: ‘What if?’” 

Many dancers operate with a base level of perfectionism or anxiety, especially if they’ve grown up in a particularly demanding or negative training environment. But while that pursuit for perfection can help us improve, it can also add mental barriers to our dancing. “Your mindset informs your reality,” says Hyde. “If you tell yourself that there will be a mistake, then invariably there will be.” 

If this conundrum sounds familiar, read on for some tips and practices for tackling self-sabotaging fear and anxiety. 

It’s Okay to Make Mistakes 

As a young student, Charlotte Ballet dancer Maurice Mouzon Jr. used to struggle with shyness. Now, he has built a reputation as one of the most fearless dancers in the company, thanks to a healthy “growth mindset.” (A growth mindset focuses on steady progress over time rather than believing you are simply “good” or “bad” at something.) “Bravery is about making mistakes,” he says, “but, honestly, I wouldn’t even call them mistakes. They’re more like lessons.”

A line of both male and female dancers create a singel file line onstage and pose in a wide stance, hands on thier knees, and look out towards the audience. The men wear black cuits with white shirts and black socks, and the women wear knee-length black dresses and pick ballet shoes. They wear intense facial expressions, without smiles.
Maurice Mouzon Jr. (foreground) with members of Charlotte Ballet in Medhi Walerski’s Petite Cèrèmonie. Jeff Cravotta, Courtesy Charlotte Ballet

Tina LeBlanc, a ballet master with San Francisco Ballet, echoes this thought. “A lot of dancers, myself included, have anxiety about being seen as less than competent or not perfect. But the studio is a safe space, and it’s the place to explore.” Practice and exploration, she explains, are key, and so is accepting that it’s okay for a step or phrase to be “not quite there” yet. In time, it will be. 

Build an Arsenal

With technique, what works one day might not work the next. Instead of getting frustrated, try changing up your approach. “When you do a tricky step,” says LeBlanc, “you need an entire arsenal of ways to approach it.” For example, try thinking about what various corrections instructors have given, or try switching your focus to different parts of the body—your supporting leg, closing side, arms, etc.—and think about different ways you can engage those muscles, too. Positive problem-solving and a willingness to try new things can help quell anxiety about harder steps. 

Tina LeBlanc wears a red shirt and black pants and moves her arms across her body in a large dance studio. Behind her, Sasha De Sola wears a white practice tutu and stands in sus-sous on pointe, brining her right hand in towards her left shoulder and her left arm across her waist.
Tina LeBlanc (left) and Sasha De Sola rehearsing Helgi Tomasson’s “Swan Lake.” Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Be Your Own Cheerleader

You can easily program fears and doubts into your thoughts when you consistently struggle with certain steps or choreography. But ruminating on the past prevents you from recognizing your present growth and progress. Hyde encourages dancers to make a habit of engaging in healthy self-talk. “Aim for excellence, not perfection, and tell yourself you can do it,” he says. “Say ‘That was then. This is now, and it’s totally different. I am good enough.’”

Healthy self-talk is not bragging or being self-centered; it helps you live in the present, build confidence and trust in yourself—critical skills for facing challenges inside and outside the studio. 

See It to Be It

Many dancers, including LeBlanc during her performance career, use visualization to help convert anxiety into productive energy. In his client sessions, Hyde gives this exercise: He asks dancers to close their eyes and picture themselves doing the step to the best of their ability, encouraging them to feel excited and proud at its completion. This practice, which can be repeated as often as needed, is about “rewriting the memory,” he says, replacing habitual anxious thoughts with new excitement and imagery you can use going forward.

For Mouzon Jr., visualization looks slightly different. Before attempting a difficult step, he says, “think of something that makes you excited, like a favorite food or activity.” (His favorite example? A cheeseburger.) This practice gives him a burst of positivity that helps override panic and overthinking. 

Maurice Mouzon, wearing a white button down shirt, black pants and black dance sneakers, performs a dramatic layout with his left leg extended high.
Maurice Mouzon Jr. Jeff Cravotta, Courtesy Charlotte Ballet

Temporarily Dance in Someone Else’s Shoes

When approaching uncomfortable steps or choreography, LeBlanc would sometimes pretend to execute it like someone she admired. (For instance, you could picture Sofiane Sylve’s fouettés or Patricia Wilde’s dazzling gargouillades.) Channeling other people’s strengths, she explains, can help dancers temporarily curb insecurities.

At the same time, however, Hyde says it’s important to cultivate your individuality. “If you work on your uniqueness,” he says, “you’ll build up the confidence to say ‘I know I’m okay.’”

Find the Joy

Finally, remind yourself why you love to dance, whether it’s getting lost in the music, the character or the choreography. “Don’t worry about politics or what other people have to say,” says Mouzon Jr. “Just remember that dance is supposed to be fun and that you should enjoy it. That’s why we do it!” 

LeBlanc remembers her farewell performance with San Francisco Ballet fondly, sharing how her decision to let go of expectations and have fun made all the difference. “I wish I had approached every performance like that,” she recalls, “because at the end of the day, when you enjoy something, it doesn’t matter if you miss a pirouette or fall. You were happy!”