Using Your Summer Layoff as a Mental Health Reset

June 12, 2024

As a professional dancer, summer layoff is a very different experience from summers as a student, when you spent several weeks training at programs and intensives. Suddenly, you have much more time to fill on your own.

Knowing what exactly to do with that time can feel daunting, and many dancers feel a level of pressure around it—whether it’s to dance as much as possible to “stay in shape” or needing to work and save money for the upcoming season.

Whatever your approach, summer layoff can incite worry that you’re not doing enough. However, it is possible to have one that’s supportive and restorative—even as you navigate those pressures. In fact, your break can provide a much-needed opportunity for a mental health reset. By making positive shifts, you’ll be able to return to a new season of dancing with clear priorities, routines, and supportive habits in place.

Here’s how to achieve that.

Start With Reflection

The first step in building a balanced summer layoff is taking some time to look back on the previous season. Be sure to acknowledge how you fared from a mental health standpoint. If there were times you may have benefited from support that you didn’t seek, perhaps due to lack of time, give yourself that time now.

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Start by giving yourself some credit and celebrating what went well. Maybe you didn’t land your dream role, but perhaps you did a run of Swan Lake and thrived through the grueling corps work. In retrospect, you may be able to better identify the lessons you learned through disappointment or the strength it took to complete the season. Acknowledge how you forged through setbacks, like injury, and notice times when you may have come back stronger mentally or physically.

Consider what wasn’t so great, too. Reflect on the areas of your life that you may have neglected—for many dancers, that may be socialization outside of dance, nutritional needs, or routines that support mental well-being. The goal isn’t to make yourself feel badly about the things that weren’t ideal, but, instead, to identify the ways you can change your habits to help yourself feel and perform better.

After Reflection, Create a Plan

Once you have identified what went well and what could improve, create a plan for what you want to achieve during layoff. Here are some pointers:

1. Let yourself rest and recharge.

Depending on the vigor of your previous season, you may be coming off a very high level of activity. Take advantage of the opportunity to rest and let your body fully recover. You might benefit from a week or two (or more, depending on individual circumstances) where dance or organized exercise isn’t part of the equation at all.

Perhaps your movement plan during this period is to go for walks with friends or family, get out in nature, or enjoy other recreational movements, like gardening or swimming—activities that are easy on the body.

2. Support your physical and mental well-being.

Once you’ve allowed yourself to recover physically, create a plan for movement and mental habits for the remainder of your layoff. What frequency and intensity of movement will help you maintain a level of fitness that will serve you at the start of the season? If you need support in determining what this might look like, reach out to a personal trainer who specializes in dance. 

Start thinking about how you want to feel during your layoff, too. If, for example, you’d like to feel inspired, do some writing on what that means to you. Think about the hobbies, jobs, or activities that would help you achieve that desired feeling. Time off is a great opportunity to gain clarity around who you are outside of dance. You might do this by finding new, nondance friends through a book club, fitness studio, or social group.

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Also, consider your home environment. There are likely things that you might be able to organize to better serve you in the busy dancing season. Maybe your dancewear drawer is overflowing with items you rarely wear. Clean out the leotards you don’t love, and sell or donate them. Streamlining your environment will help you create ease and save yourself time during the busiest rehearsal or performance weeks to come.

3. Prioritize adequate fuel and meal planning.

The best way to ensure you’re adequately fueling and supporting your best dancing is to experiment. During your layoff, when you have more time, try out new recipes or foods to see how quickly you can make them and how they work for you.

Meal planning doesn’t have to be complex, and getting in the habit over layoff sets you up for success when the season begins. Create a reliable rotation of 5 to 10 recipes for each meal, and you’ll maintain variety and keep things easy. You might start using Sundays as your meal-prep day and make as much ahead of time as you can. Foods like grains, roasted veggies, sauces, and protein are really easy to make ahead and can help you to eat in ways that make you feel good.

4. Consider your mindset.

It’s easy to get sucked into negative thought patterns, especially if that’s what you’re encountering in your work environment. The competitive nature of dance, compounded by other realities of the art form, can lead dancers to feel negativity and career dissatisfaction.

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The first step to breaking out of a negative thought loop is building awareness around it. Journaling can help you process negative or challenging emotions that come up. And, if possible, you may need to distance yourself from the more negative people in your life. It may be worth using this time to consider whether working with a mental health professional is right for you.

You Can Have an Amazing Layoff and Next Season of Dance

Make sure you focus on what’s in your control during this time. Your decisions on how hard you work, how you care for yourself (sleep, nutrition, mental hygiene), and your approach to daily work can shift how you feel exponentially.

Consider how you’ll implement any positive shifts into the next season. In all likelihood, not everything you take on during layoff will translate to the busy months ahead. It may take some trial and error to determine what is sustainable, but give yourself grace and aim to be flexible. (This can be hard for dancers!) Some days your morning routine might have five steps, and other days just one. Being flexible can help you make choices about what will be most helpful to you on a given day.

Life as a professional dancer isn’t easy, but you can optimize joy and fulfillment with supportive habits. It’s not about pushing yourself past your limits but, rather, prioritizing your well-being so you can perform to your highest possible level.