Banish Burnout
October 6, 2007

Being able to recognize the first signs of burnout and then act swiftly can prevent a small-scale concern from developing into a full-blown disaster. “I’ve treated people who’ve quit dancing because they’re exhausted, they’ve lost all joy in it, they’re injured and they just don’t want to do it anymore,” says Linda Hamilton, a psychologist who treats many performing artists.

Burnout is both a psychological and a physiological phenomenon, and it’s much more serious than a case of overtraining. While its precise causes remain unknown, the affliction can have devastating effects and treating it can be complicated. Recovery involves therapy, rest and lots of time, with the possibility of never getting back on track. “There’s still a big gap between dance medicine and the dance community,” Hamilton says, adding that too many teachers are pushing their students to work through exhaustion, frustration and depression, which only makes the symptoms of burnout more acute. “We put a lot of responsibility on dancers to fix this problem, but it’s a two-way street,” she says.

Answer the following six questions to see if you know how to spot the signs of burnout—and how to react to them properly.  

1. The technique of one of your top students is looking sloppy. She expresses frustration because she’s not improving as fast as she’d like. You:

A) Suggest she add an extra ballet class to her regimen.

B) Tell her to take the weekend off—no exercise at all.

C) Ask her to stand in the back of the class so she can concentrate better.

Answer: B

The best thing students can do at the first signs of burnout, which include fatigue and frustration, is to take one or two days of complete rest. Every time you work out you’re actually making tiny tears in your muscle fibers, and it’s only after they heal that they become stronger. It can be a tough concept to grasp for perfectionists (type-A personalities are more prone to burnout), but taking more classes when they feel like they aren’t improving fast enough can have the opposite effect because muscles aren’t given time to recover.

Reprimanding a student for showing signs of burnout (making them stand in the back, for example) can scare others into not opening up to you if they’re suffering from similar symptoms. Many top dancers fear that if they sit out of just one class they will lose their status, so you want to make sure your students know that nothing could be further from the truth.

Days of rest should be spent in nurturing ways, by getting a massage, reflexology or acupuncture treatment, sitting in a hot tub or sauna, and having fun. “Resting doesn’t mean staying up and dancing until six in the morning at a club,” says Hamilton. “Sit down and have dinner with friends.”

2. A student who used to live, eat and breathe dance starts coming to class late and looks like she’d rather be anywhere but in the studio. You:

A) Explain that she must refocus her energy if she wants to keep her solo in the upcoming recital.

B) Sign her up, with some of her fellow students, for a dance workshop taught by a guest artist who’s coming through your town on a tour.

C) Plan a studio field trip to a professional dance performance.

Answers: B and C

“Students who have burnout are exhausted and start to develop injuries, but what really clues me in is that they say they don’t enjoy dancing anymore,” says Hamilton. Taking these dancers to a professional performance or a dance workshop in an effort to excite them about their craft again will let you know if they are truly on the verge of burnout, or if they’re just a little bored.

“Sometimes, being next to people who love dance rekindles the spirit inside,” adds LeAnn Haggard, National Dance Association’s National Dance Educator of the Year for 2006, who teaches high school dance in Indianapolis, Indiana. “Other times, going to a dance workshop and thinking, ‘Wow, my technique is really good,’ is enough to perk you up again.” If these tactics do nothing for your student, it’s time to take more serious action.

3. Your most talented dancer is suddenly forgetting choreography and getting spatially confused. You:

A) Encourage her to eat a balanced and nutrient-rich diet.

B) Experiment with more visualization techniques in class.

C) Make her practice the routine until she gets it right.

Answers: A and B

Eating a balanced and nutrient-rich diet is essential for overall health, including memory, but when it comes to combating fatigue, those on the brink of burnout must also ease up on energy output. This doesn’t mean missing rehearsal entirely, but rather lessening the amount of physicality in each session. For example, instead of running a piece three times in a row, run it once, give notes, then play the music and ask students to lie on the floor and visualize themselves going through the piece, step by step. “Talk them through the moves you want done and make a DVD of you demonstrating it so that they can watch at home, instead of hundreds of repetitions that burn energy and cause trauma before they get it right,” says Dr. Aynsley Smith, PhD, of the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

4. A girl who had previously never missed a rehearsal due to illness or injury, and who has her sights set on a modern dance career, has come down with two colds and a sprained ankle in the last month. You:

A) Suggest she drop her tap class and focus on her professional goals.

B) Tell her she won’t be able to continue on the competition team if she misses another rehearsal.

C) Give her the names of all the medical specialists you know.

Answer: A

While sudden illness and injury can be cause for medical concern, don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions. Realize that your student could just be spreading herself too thin. Dropping a class and concentrating on one style of dance could be all she needs to feel rejuvenated. Haggard compares the concept to sports: “Like in the area of athletics, you get to a point where the coach says, ‘If you want a scholarship in basketball, you have to focus on that and not play volleyball,'” she says. Hamilton adds: “Just because they’re young doesn’t mean they can do everything. Their bones are still growing.”

5. A student who usually gets bored and feels out of whack if she doesn’t dance daily is lethargic and forgetful every Monday afternoon—even after taking the weekend off. You:

A) Suspect that she’s staying up all night talking on the phone with her best friend and recommend that she get more sleep.

B) Suggest that she sign up for a painting class so she can develop another artistic outlet and become more well-rounded.

C) Tell her that she should take the entire summer off to rejuvenate her body and mind.

Answers: B and C

“If you take the weekend off and by Monday at 4 pm you’re starting to feel like you have absolutely no energy, that’s a sign of burnout,” says Hamilton.

Taking an entire summer off to focus on other interests isn’t always as detrimental as it sounds. In fact, Hamilton had one client who took the summer off from dancing and was told by her teachers when she returned in the fall that she was dancing stronger than ever.

Finding and engaging in other activities besides dance can be healthy on many levels. “Having other interests can be really refreshing, especially if you’ve had a bad class and it takes your mind off of dancing,” says Hamilton. Experts also say that the most captivating dancers are well-rounded, with multiple interests outside of dance, because they’re able to bring something deeper to the art form.

6. After the first week back from summer vacation you notice one of your top students is tense, irritable and a little depressed. You:

A) Tell her that she should take just two classes per week through the month of September and then you’ll evaluate whether she should start increasing the number of classes she takes.

B) Suggest she drop one dance class and engage in some cardiovascular activity instead in order to get in shape.

C) Tell her that the dance studio is a safe haven and that she should try to leave her problems at the door.

Answers: A and B

Jumping into a full schedule of dance classes after a summer of low activity can bring on burnout. This phenomenon is also common at the beginning of summer intensives, when students go from one or two classes a week into a situation where they’re dancing all day, every day for an extended period.

If a student comes back to dancing after a time of rest and needs to condition, maintaining a workout regimen with lots of variety can help her stay mentally stimulated and increase the probability of success. This will allow her to focus on her needs instead of competing—with herself or others.  DT

Sara Jarrett is a writer in New York City.

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