Perfectionism Is an Epidemic in the Dance World. Here's How to Keep It from Derailing Your Career

December 17, 2019

If you ask Luca Sbrizzi what he remembers about performing Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, he can provide you with a laundry list of his mistakes. “Although I remember feeling an incredible connection to my partner and hearing comments afterwards on how moving and beautiful our performance was, those are not the first things that pop into my head when I think of Swan Lake,” he says. “And I hate that.”

The obsession with being perfect was a major contributor in his decision to retire from his career as a principal dancer at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. “When I would have what I considered a bad performance, I would get so upset I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone and would shut the world out, thinking that in behaving this way I would be more likely to do better the next time,” he says. “It was a way for me to punish myself for not succeeding.”

Perfect is the horizon that vanishes as you approach it. And yet, dancers continue to chase unrealistic ideals—research has shown considerably high levels of perfectionism in dancers. While dancers need to be disciplined in their practice to be successful, perfectionism left unchecked can have serious consequences.

What Is Perfectionism?

“Perfectionism is generally considered a personality trait,” says Leigh Skvarla, a mental health counselor who works with dancers and athletes in Pittsburgh. “It may have some correlates with anxiety and OCD, but it is not the same thing. When we call someone a perfectionist, we are generally referring to a state of mind.”

According to Sanna Nordin-Bates, a researcher from The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences who has specialized in studying perfectionism in dancers, psychologists generally break perfectionism down into two categories: Perfectionistic striving is reaching for high goals and working very hard to meet them; perfectionistic concerns involve the rumination and harsh personal critique that Sbrizzi experienced. “Some might say perfectionistic striving is good and perfectionistic concerns are bad,” she says. “But even perfectionistic strivings can be problematic when they are more than moderate because the dancer becomes too rigid in their goals and expectations.”

It is hard to tell if dance is the cause of high rates of perfectionism, or if perfectionists are simply drawn to dance. Most likely, it’s a combination of both. “It’s really hard to go swimming and not get wet,” Skvarla says, adding that even a well-adjusted dancer can be negatively affected in a highly perfectionistic environment. “Perfectionism can permeate hallways, dressing rooms and rehearsal studios, and it takes up space,” she says. “It is the elephant in the room.”

Why It’s Harmful

Some of the outcomes of perfectionism are mild, like mood swings and a fear of failing. But there are larger concerns as well. “You would not have eating disorders without perfectionism,” says Nordin-Bates. “For all of the mood-related disorders—depression, anxiety and even suicide—risk increases.”

Nordin-Bates has found perfectionism also inhibits creativity. “People who are very perfectionistic are not very creative,” she says. “Because they fear criticism and what people think, they don’t want to look stupid.” She points out that today, dancers are expected to be more versatile than ever and to be prepared to improvise or co-create roles. “If a school truly wants to promote creative artists, then I don’t think we can continue to train in the way that it has been done historically,” she says.

Susan Jaffe teaching at UNCSA. Peter Mueller, courtesy UNCSA

Solution: Be Generous With Yourself

When Sylvie Guillem came to American Ballet Theatre to dance the role of Nikiya in La Bayadère, Susan Jaffe was delighted to be cast as her Gamzatti. She still remembers her first rehearsal with the French ballet star. “She came onstage and we were all excited waiting for her,” Jaffe remembers. “She was doing the second-act variation and she starts to do the arabesque turns, and she just can’t seem to do them.”

Guillem stopped the pianist and asked to start again, and again she couldn’t pull it off. “Finally, in this very French way, she kind of shrugs her shoulders and walks up to the front of the stage where some of us were sitting.” Jaffe remembers that Guillem plopped herself down in a chair beside the others and said sweetly, and confidently, “Tomorrow.”

Jaffe describes herself at that point in her career as a “miserable perfectionist” and says that observing Guillem treat herself so generously was life-changing. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to try that,’ ” she says. “If tomorrow I do a step two or three times and it doesn’t work, I’m not going to reprimand myself and tell myself that I am terrible. It is amazing how much my dancing changed.”

Skvarla says that Guillem’s reaction was that of an adaptive perfectionist. “She is recognizing that this is getting to a level of stress or frustration where it’s not doing any good.” An adaptive perfectionist has a lot of positive striving toward high standards, but is not rigid in their goals. “Maladaptive perfectionism is being determined to be in a company where everyone is tall and you’re 5′ 1″,” she explains. When something is uncontrollable, adaptive perfectionists are able to adjust their goals.

Solution: Develop Productive Coping Skills

When Royal Ballet of Flanders soloist Shelby Williams was 16, she lived away from home to train at the Houston Ballet Academy. “Like so many other dancers I was a really hard worker and I thrived off of the feeling of improving,” she says. “I felt that I had plateaued and it was really hard for me.” These feelings came to a head when Williams had an anxiety attack in the middle of class one day.

A psychologist the school referred her to helped her realize the anxiety came from perfectionism and constantly comparing herself. The psychologist encouraged her to fall in love with the process and worry less about the outcome. “Thinking about this helped me to recognize how fortunate I was to even be able to dance,” she says.

Williams also found a productive coping skill for her anxiety: humor.

“I realized that if I took exactly what was bothering me—say I’m not nailing my pirouettes that day, or my legs weren’t going up—and totally exaggerated it, I could make myself laugh and give myself a break,” she says. “And then I could go back to work. Because up until the moment that I could laugh I would feel like I was suffocating.” In 2017 Williams’ antidote to her anxiety, Biscuit Ballerina, made a splash on Instagram and now has more than 145,000 followers.

Shelby Williams as Myrtha in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Nicha Rodboon, courtesy Williams

Solution: Don’t Conflate Discipline With Perfectionism

For a long time, perfectionism in dance has seemed like a necessary evil to some, and a downright mandate to others, because the bar is so high to become a great dancer. But Jaffe, who is now the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, feels that this mind-set is conflating perfectionism with discipline.

“Discipline is joy for the process and perfectionism focuses on the outcome,” she says. “Part of teaching self-discipline is that it shouldn’t be punitive, it should be life-affirming. I talk to my faculty about this. It is important not only what you say, but with what intent you say it. We are not here to be the authority; we are here to facilitate students’ own discipline.”

Both Skvarla and Nordin-Bates emphasize that dancers and students should have choice and autonomy built into their training in order to combat problematic perfectionism. It needs to be okay to fail, encouraged, even. This is especially important for students because they are still in the process of developing their identity and their skills.

Sbrizzi is looking forward to the next phase of his life, which includes becoming a father for the first time. But he wants other dancers to avoid the perfectionism that plagued his career.

“I always thought that striving for perfection was the only way to push myself to become a better dancer. But it hindered my full potential, because perfectionism and low self-esteem go hand in hand,” he says. “When you beat yourself down for not doing something perfectly, instead of accepting your mistake and building from that, it becomes destructive behavior. I believe I could have become a better dancer with the proper support system in place.”