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Insights into the Mental Wellness of Dancers - Emma Hawley's Q and A session with Kristina Pfeffer - The Ballroom Coach

Dancing is a beautiful art form, but it's not without its obstacles.  In this insightful Q&A session with Kristina Pfeffer, The Ballroom Coach, we delve into these common struggles and discover practical strategies for overcoming them. From battling nerves before performances to maintaining healthy communication with partners, we uncover the realities of life on the dance floor.

What are some common challenges dancers face?

I think that the areas that I work with mainly are issues related to lack of confidence, anxiety when performing, body image and also many couples come to me together and want to work on the communication between them. These are just some of the most common challenges dancers face but there are many more separate cases of things that dancers deal with and there is no limit to what we can talk about but there might be cases where I will refer to someone with more expertise in that specific area.

Can you describe the techniques or strategies you use to help dancers manage performance anxiety?

It always depends on the unique case and there is no “one size fits all”, but I always start with clarifying what type of anxiety they have. Anxiety can be both somatic (physical- sweaty hands, elevated heart rate etc) or cognitive (thoughts), or it might be both, but we start there and talk about when it is worst, what they have already tried etc.

It Is important to work on how they think about their anxiety. Most of the time we try to run away from “difficult feelings” but it is also about learning how to sit with these feelings and deal with them when they come without pushing them away. Then I will give them specific techniques they can try out. Some techniques might be breathing techniques or specific mindset exercises, and then of course we evaluate it and make sure they have a few tools in their tool box to use in situations where they are struggling.

How do you approach preventing burnout and maintaining emotional wellbeing in dancers?

Balance is so important. And we are in an industry that puts a lot of pressure both physically and mentally on dancers. At the same time there is a culture of “the more you do the better”. So often it is a matter of listening to the dancers, hearing what they are experiencing and creating a safe space to share without judgement. I think learning to become aware of your own emotions or signals is a good start. Many dancers don’t even feel burnout because we have learnt to just get on with it. So getting to know yourself so that you can recognise when you need a break, and also which situations put extra demand on you. I think generally having a balanced life makes you a better athlete, which is also supported by research.

Are there any unique challenges or stressors that arise for dancers during certain stages of their careers, and how do you help them navigate these challenges?

Yes definitely. There are unique challenges at each stage and each individual might react to each stage differently as well. Starting out there might be challenges of confidence “do I have what it takes?” “ Will I ever make it?”, once you are at the top it might be “Will they overtake me?” “Can I keep my position?” or even imposter syndrome. A stage that is not being talked about enough is also the final career transition stage where we are going from being a dancer to something else. Preparing for that stage and having support is really important as it can be a loss of identity for many people.Through each stage it is important to talk about the unique challenges and have support that is unbiased and non judgemental and I always try to provide that support the best I can.

Can you share examples of successful collaborations between mental health professionals and dance instructors or choreographers to promote both physical and mental well-being in dancers?

I don’t know if I know of successful examples. Unfortunately I don’t think there is enough focus on this area. But I do get contacted by dance schools that want me to talk to their dancers or refer dancers to me and I think this is a great start. In general more awareness from dance instructors and dance schools about mental health is important.

What are some signs that a dancer might be struggling with their mental health, and how do you intervene or provide support in such cases?

It is really difficult to say except for the obvious signs. But you need to know someone fairly well and if you observe a change in behaviour that would always raise questions for me. Change in behaviour, withdrawing, losing/gaining weight, lack of motivation etc would be something that should at least start a conversation. There could be many other reasons for a change in behaviour but being able to ask questions and have conversations is really important I think. I have many dancers that come to me because they are struggling witih their mental health and just creating a space for them to share and feel validated is a good start and then depending on the case they might need specific support, tools or a change of environment, or it just might be that they need to talk about it and share how they feel.

How do you foster a supportive and open environment for dancers to discuss mental health concerns without stigma or judgment?

This is my main job I think. To create a space to share without judgement. I try to listen openly and understand where they are coming from. My opinion is not really important but what is important is to understand them and how they see the world. I think it starts with me being open and not being scared of talking about the difficult things. In sessions with me it is an open space to share and all feelings are allowed. When working with dancers you can’t be scared of vulnerability and sometimes you even have to model it by showing vulnerability yourself so I think that when helping others a good place to start is working on yourself and having self awareness and that will be visible to the people you are working with too. By nature I am quite straight forward so I am also going to ask the difficult questions and that sometimes allows people to open up.

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