How to Be More Mentally Prepared for Challenges in the Studio

October 14, 2022

Most dancers have a routine for preparing their bodies for class and performance. Maybe you pull out a TheraBand for foot and ankle strengthening, do some crunches or stretch. And yet, ballet is not all physical. The most successful dancers are those who know how to mentally prepare themselves for challenges, as well.

Pointe spoke to Dr. Elizabeth Hutter, principal of the New Ballet School in San Jose, California, and the president of the American Psychological Association in Performance Psychology, about how dancers can be sure that they are walking into the studio each day with their minds as ready as their bodies.

Dr. Elizabeth Hutter wears a darkblue wrap dress and white high heels and stands facing the camera, smiling. Behind her, three dance students practice tendu devant croisé with their right foot and their left arm raised..
Dr. Elizabeth Hutter, Photo by Chris Conroy, courtesy New Ballet School.

Manage Your Schedule 

Take the time to work out the details of your daily schedule ahead of time, whether that’s by writing it down or by using the calendar on your phone. “When your schedule is prepared, you are more organized and you are removing obstacles, so you are freer to focus on your work,” says Hutter. For instance, how are you getting to the studio and how long will the commute take at that time of day? Be sure to schedule in time to do homework. “Also, plan your meals and snacks,” Hutter says. “Make sure you have consistent fuel, and you are not running on empty at any time.”

Establish good communication habits with your school about scheduling conflicts. “You are establishing reliability by addressing necessary tardiness or absences in advance,” Hutter adds.

Take Care of Yourself

Demanding schedules can mean not fueling or resting properly. “Drink before you are thirsty,” advises Hutter, “and sleep before you are tired.” The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends 8 to 10 hours of sleep per day for teens. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not getting enough sleep increases the likelihood of injury and poor mental health.

Prep Your Dance Bag

Chances are you’ve experienced arriving at the studio to find you are missing something crucial from your dance bag, like clean tights or bobby pins. Hutter suggests getting into the habit of packing your bag before you go to bed. “That way you set your day up to focus on where you are in the moment,” she says. “At breakfast, you get to focus on breakfast.” Hutter also recommends keeping a journal in your dance bag. “You can note corrections, choreography, and reactions and feelings that you have to things throughout your day,” she says. 

Set Goals

Hutter notes that setting goals is a great way to improve your technique, but it also promotes the kind of self-confidence you only get when you are focused on yourself instead of on others. “Recall your corrections from your summer training and then write out one long-term goal for the semester and two short-term goals for the next week,” she advises. They canbe technical and artistic, but also concern lifestyle and boosting mental health. For instance, a lifestyle goal could include going to bed every night at a specific time.

“If you aren’t sure what to write for goals, ask a teacher—‘What would be a good thing for me to keep my mind focused on to do a little better this week?’” says Hutter. They can also help you see if your goals are reasonable or, conversely, challenging enough. The key is that they be focused solely on you, and that they respect what you are capable of.

Check Your Mindset

“Walk into your studio and your space at barre with gratitude for being able to dance,” says Hutter. Think back to when the pandemic closed our dance spaces. Despite the challenges and setbacks of that time, you chose to keep dancing. We are well-equipped to feel gratitude for even the smallest things in our daily lives, and your opportunity to dance is one of them. However, Hutter cautions against avoiding negative feelings or difficult situations that need your attention. “Don’t brush those issues aside,” she says. “Figure out how to address it so that you can be free to progress in your training.”

Getting into a positive mindset starts the night before. “I feel strongly that everyone should do an evening reflection,” says Hutter. “I break that down into two things: one thing that you are proud of and one thing that felt good.” These don’t need to be huge accomplishments. Perhaps you were proud that you spoke up for a friend or that you pushed through a tiring petit allégro, and maybe it felt good to eat lunch outside in the sunshine or to hit that triple turn (even though no one saw it).

Remember Your Spark

“Dancers work so hard,” says Hutter, “and the harder you work, the higher your level, the harder it gets.” It makes sense that as you progress in ballet and analyze every tiny imperfection, you can become disconnected from the joy that led you to the studio in the first place. “When you’re in a rut, remember that everyone has a spark,” she says. “There will be bad days, but you will get through them, and good days will come.”