Personality Clashes at Your Summer Program? Here’s How to Handle Them

July 5, 2024

Summer programs offer lots of exciting new experiences, including the chance to meet other students as passionate about ballet as you are. However, when so many enthusiastic, ambitious young dancers come together for a weekslong intensive, there can be less-happy feelings, too. Loneliness, competition, insecurity, and even outright conflict between peers can be magnified by the short, highly focused nature of a summer course.

Social friction is uncomfortable and sometimes even hurtful, but learning how to handle sticky situations with maturity and grace is as important as improving your technique—and a skill you’ll need in professional life.

Social Stress Heats Up in the Summer

Most students come to summer intensives wanting to accomplish a lot in a few weeks. That shared mission can be bonding, but it can also bring out heightened competitiveness says Pacific Northwest Ballet School mental health consultant Josh Spell, MSW, LICSW, a former dancer who knows firsthand what intensives are like. “In the summer, everyone feels they’ve got to maximize. It magnifies the ‘dancer identity,’ which just puts more pressure on the individual. And with that pressure, there probably will be tension,” he says. “As humans, we are sizing each other up all the time. Competition becomes more reactionary than healthy.”

Focusing on your own strengths and goals can minimize self-doubt, enabling you to move through the summer more confidently, get more out of your classes, and relax enough to make friends, too, says Kansas City Ballet School principal Lauren Fadeley Veyette. “I remember my first day at the School of American Ballet summer course, when everyone was on guard, looking around at everyone else stretching in the hallway,” she says. “My advice is to remember who you are and that you’re doing your best, and try not to let other people get to you. Trust in yourself and what you do every day, and stay true to that.”

Lauren Fadeley Vayette, wearing an oversized mauve shirt, black leggings and sneakers, demonstrates a low first arabesque on demi-pointe. She looks sideways into the mirror. A large group of teenage female ballet students wearing black leotards, black ballet skirts, pink tights and pink pointe shoes, stand behind her, watching and smiling.
Lauren Fadeley Vayette teaching students at Kansas City Ballet School. Photo courtesy Kansas City Ballet.

Without the buffer zone and support system of home, forging tight connections can feel even more necessary than during the school year—and yet friend groups are often tested by things like differing level placements, class schedules, or dorm assignments. And being on your own at a new school, without a built-in buddy system from your home studio, can be extra isolating.

Fadeley Veyette says breaking the ice with classmates is easier than you might think. “Find some small way to connect in the studio. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing,” she advises. “It can be as simple as ‘Where’d you get your legwarmers? Those are really cute’ or ‘Wow, that was awesome! Can you tell me how you did that?’ when someone does a good pirouette. You’re in the studio together, working on the same things, so it’s a level playing field in that sense. A lot of times people coming into a new place perceive that they’re different, but it’s not necessarily so.”

Setting Boundaries

Going into your summer program knowing what kind of experience you want to have, and being prepared for potential challenges, can significantly help counteract any negativity you encounter. Whether it’s deciding to join in on nondance group activities or negotiating sleep schedules with your roommate, think about your wants and needs, be comfortable asserting them, and recognize what you can and can’t control, says Spell.

Josh Spell, a man approximately in his thirties, sits in a chair and looks straight at the camera, resting his forearms on his thighs and crossing his hands. He wears a gray button-down shirt and dark pants. He sits in front of a window and a small indoor tree.
Josh Spell. Photo by Natasha Komoda, courtesy Spell.

“It’s important to know your own boundaries,” Spell continues. “Are you getting pulled into something just because you want to be included? What time do you like to go to bed? Just because your roommate or friend is having a different experience than you doesn’t mean your choice is wrong. Be proactive instead of reactive: What activities do you like to do on your own? Having that in place, there’s not so much weight on ‘I have to meet everyone on day one and find my clique.’ ”

If you’re having trouble feeling settled, Spell suggests turning to dorm counselors, teachers, or a therapist if one’s available. “I recommend just letting the first week happen, knowing that it’s a transition period, instead of leaning into ‘Everyone else is out having a good time; I’m never going to have that.’ Being able to turn to a dorm counselor to help facilitate an outing or answer questions can help while you’re forming your own relationships.”

Take the High Road

Personality differences can cause friction at any age, but for teenagers going through the adolescent process of self-discovery, feeling shunned by peers or socially isolated can be a big blow to self-esteem. Julia Rowe, a San Francisco Ballet soloist, says the strategies she used as a summer program student to boost herself in a tense atmosphere are the same ones she uses today. “For me, it’s remembering why I’m there,” she says. “Sometimes you have to physically remove yourself from a situation, take a quiet moment, and go, ‘Why did I start dancing and why do I continue?’ And that’s the same mentality you have to have in a company, when you have to work as a team even if you don’t agree with everyone.”

Focusing on your own path doesn’t have to mean separating yourself from social life, of course. A support network of fellow dancers (whether in your class or not) is a significant ingredient in making progress both emotionally and dance-wise. The key is to seek and find colleagues who positively influence you, says Rowe, and to avoid being exclusionary towards others. “It was easy to get caught up in the insecurity of weird social dynamics,” she remembers. “But when someone else exhibits bad behavior, that’s not your fault. When I found a good friend group who encouraged me, who shared my outlook and passion for dance, we all got better together. We lifted each other up instead of tearing each other down. And that’s a really useful skill when you get into a company—to be able to encourage the people you’re working with, to foster a good environment where we can all grow together.”