26 Lessons for life from the ballet studio

In this article I look at some of the skills a dancer can acquire, in addition to leaping, turning and pointing their toes, during a professional career. No doubt there are many more valuable qualities the profession can inspire than the ones I have listed below so if you can think of other competences a dancer can develop because of their occupation I would love to know.

To train a professional dancer takes about ten thousand hours over a period of eight to ten years, from the first lessons at the barre to the moment their training is complete, and they throw themselves on the increasingly competitive world that is ballet today.

It’s not just steps, jumps, deportment and the other essentials that dancers learn (or should learn) in the ballet studio. To forge a successful career dancers need to develop discipline and a strong work ethic. But there are other skills to be learned in the ballet studio both while training and as a professional dancer. These ‘soft’ skills do not automatically transfer to other areas of the dancer’s life, but consciously developed throughout their careers, they can help dancers on the brink of retiring from their days as a performer to face the future armed with at least some of the ammunition necessary to move on with confidence.

Most of these skills are not unique to the ballet world. Few dancers possess all of them: many dancers possess some of them: and a sad few who have ignored the chance to develop them possess none at all.

I talk about some of them – the skills not the dancers – below.

Taking Instruction – Dancing at any level of excellence demands the willingness to take instructions and to learn from them, no matter the manner in which they are given. Accepting this may be hard, especially if you don’t warm to your teacher, but not only is it essential in the dance class, it’s essential at all levels in the working world.

Routine – is another essential in the ballet class. It not only provides focus and structure to the dancer’s working day, but it also helps them to maintain the motivation necessary in maintaining technical competence and professional standards. A dancer’s ability to uphold the daily routine fostered by their training will give them a decided advantage in other areas of employment.

Habit – Closely linked with routine, habits can be good or bad. Good ones can encourage personal growth and success, both in the ballet world and beyond – cultivate them.  Bad habits hinder advancement within a ballet company and, it should go without saying, in other aspects of life ­too ­– avoid them! For most dancers the daily class becomes a habit. Intelligent dancers see this habit as a means of developing a mindset that helps them to think positively about other things in their lives. And as for the dancer who sees class as a daily grind – why are they even bothering?

Self-directed learning –This is an essential component in the ambitious dancer’s quest for continuous improvement and development. The daily dance class is an ongoing process: it’s a journey, not a destination. By regularly examining thoughts, actions, and experiences during training, rehearsal and performance, intelligent dancers gain valuable on-going insights that lead to growth and positive change: they become adept at revisiting and adjusting goals and strategies to marry their actions with ever-evolving circumstances.

Self-Critique – Although it may sound as if it’s part of self-directed learning, self-critique is a more precarious thing that many dancers must deal with throughout their working lives. A dancer with a robust mindset can use self-critique to take, or at least try to take, something positive from what looks like a negative situation and then to build on it. But for someone with a negative mindset and with less ability for balanced self-reflection self-critique can be devastating to confidence. They must do whatever they can to overcome any embarrassment about talking to friends and colleagues about the negative light in which they see themselves. No one need ever be afraid of asking for help whenever help is needed.

Feedback – Through their training, rehearsing and performing, dancers become used to receiving and hopefully understanding feedback, which is essential to self-directed learning and self-critique. However unwelcome or unfair it may seem, they know that feedback is necessary for personal and professional growth: they become practised at dealing with how teachers, colleagues and audiences view them in an out of class and in performance. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote:

‘O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.  **

Processing feedback discerningly and accurately is an important quality that can be brought to bear in the context of any kind of professional development. 

(** translation available on request.)

A keen eye for detail – Meticulous preparation for a performance is a process that goes beyond simply learning the steps. As dancers refine their work in class and rehearsal, they continually adapt and make minute adjustments. In essence, this meticulous approach to detail not only enhances technique and performance skills but also brings an awareness to how precision and detail contribute to the bigger picture; a valuable insight that can be applied to various aspects of life.

Emotional Resilience –Stress and mental health can be an issue for some dancers, because despite as the song in A Chorus Line has it, everything is not beautiful at the ballet. Constant correction, endless repetition and the occasional (hopefully occasional) bitchy comment make the ballet studio an unforgiving place. But most dancers realize very early on in their student days that they have somehow to develop the emotional resilience that will allow them to cope with life in the studio. That’s not to say that they never experience stress and negative emotions, they’re only human:  rather, they learn to develop and use the effective coping mechanisms that enable them to deal with the trials and tribulations of their profession – and that’s a talent useful in any environment.

“The show must go on” – Every dancer knows this maxim – it’s impressed on every performer since the day they started training. The idea of keeping going under all circumstances encourages a determined mindset that can usefully applied to many different things in life.

Performance Anxiety – That ‘the show must go on’ doesn’t stop pre-performance nerves, in fact it probably encourages them. This can be a good thing, bringing with them an ‘edge’ which used positively can sharpen a dancer’s performance.  Of course, some people cope with performance anxiety better than others, but most dancers come up with their own techniques and personal rituals that help them deliver a performance under pressure and find that through time the pressure eases. I have never come across a dancer whose pre-performance nerves has stopped them getting on stage on cue. And if they can do that, it’s not surprising that many dancers develop the ability to face challenging tasks in any high-pressure situation.

Thriving Under Pressure – The dance world, demanding as it does a high level of excellence, is a high-performance environment. Successful dancers develop the personal resilience that enables them to thrive under this pressure, learning how to turn challenging situations into opportunities for personal and professional growth – a hugely valuable skill that can lead to success in many other aspects of life in and out of the workplace.

Adaptability – Professional dancers might only discover what their working day involves when they arrive at the studio and read the rehearsal schedule on the notice board. They may be asked to showcase their skills in one style one day and strut their stuff in a different genre or format the next. They may be rehearsing with one group in the morning and another in the afternoon, having to cope with the different group dynamic this involves. This demand to handle various requirements requires the dancer to cultivate a mindset that can adjust and adapt to circumstances. In a fast-paced and ever-changing environment where things can shift and change at a moment’s notice this is not just a highly valuable skill, it’s a necessary one, enabling as it does ease of movement between different perspectives and cultures – a crucial ability, highly valuable in any workplace.

Creativity and Innovation – It is important to remember that dancing is an art in which everyone, regardless of the nature of their role, contributes to the creative process and the successful completion of a project. The creative faculties of dance people tend, not surprisingly, to be inclined towards the visual, perhaps making their imaginative inclinations differ somewhat from more ‘ordinary’ creative processes. Such a quality can be usefully explored in any professional setting where thinking outside the box and generating innovative solutions are highly valued.

Change – The artistic, creative process is fundamentally about change and having the courage to do something entirely new. So it stands to reason that throughout their on-stage careers dancers will encounter, perhaps even be responsible for, a great deal of creativity and innovation, some of it mildly clever, some of it mind-blowingly astonishing. Having a creative mind will help them more easily to embrace new ideas and changes in both their professional and their personal lives.

Project Management – To be successful, any new project requires detailed planning and smooth management. This is especially true for a new stage production, for the artistic creative process can be both messy and emotional: it’s a roller-coaster of challenges and uncertainties. But barring an act of God, and unlike many projects managed by corporate enterprise and government (especially government) the curtain will go up on the first night as scheduled. Project management is a skill that dance professionals should strive to develop throughout their active performance careers.

Problem Solving – A live performance rarely if ever works out precisely as planned. Inevitable moments of unforeseen challenges need the quick and decisive action that contribute to the excitement and beauty of live performance. Having to literally think on their feet when faced with an unexpected situation in performance sees to it that dancers are better than your average man in the street when it comes to making instant informed decisions.  They do it throughout their dancing lives and carry the skill with them when they hang up their shoes and move on to pastures new.

Body Language – Dancers are intensely aware of their physicality, of how they come across to whoever is looking at them – in class, in audition and in performance. And it’s as performers that they develop the keen sense of body language that contributes hugely to developing an eye-catching stage presence. Used well (and selflessly), it attracts attention, enhances impact and brings success. Displaying the right body language can be the deciding factor in auditioning for a place in a company. Effective non-verbal communication, awareness of one’s body language and the ability to interpret the non-verbal clues of others are valuable tools when it comes to making your presence felt effectively in and out of the dance world.

Teamwork – The collaborative nature of dancing fosters a range of the qualities and skills necessary for effective teamwork, something that requires the clear and effective communication between ensemble members that enables them to synchronize their movements and cues. It demands an appreciation that ensemble dynamics involve the collaboration of individuals to create a unified, harmonious whole. It needs everyone in the group to realize that that have a unique role to contribute to overall performance. This awareness of place, function and relationship is essential to successful performance be it in the world of dance or in other work environments, too, where individuals need to understand their roles and responsibilities and coordinate effectively with the team to achieve common goals.

Trust in others – Something that goes hand in hand with teamwork is trust in others, which is a crucial component of effective teamwork in any professional setting. In the ballet world, it’s especially essential in corps de ballet work, which if it is to function seamlessly relies on dancers having complete confidence in each other’s expertise, knowing that that they will perform their part precisely as demanded by the choreography and sharing a commitment to collective success.

Accountability – Personal accountability is crucial in any team-oriented work environment where individual contributions impact the team’s success. In the dance world, each dancer’s contribution is accountable in some way large or small to the overall success of the performance. Dancers are also continually accountable to teachers, ballet staff and their artistic director – and finally in performance to the audience, the ultimate moment of accountability.

Conflict Resolution – Working in close physical proximity with colleagues in the ballet studio, often under stressful conditions, will from time to time involve clashes of personalities. Tempers will occasionally flare, sometimes from creative differences, sometimes from personal issues. Learning how to navigate and resolve such conflicts positively in an ensemble setting can be directly applied to resolving conflicts in other contexts.

Empathy – Rehearsal work and sharing studio space with other dancers often involves understanding and empathizing with the perspectives and emotions of others. Not all dancers do this well but developing an empathy with colleagues when working closely together and under pressure, will contribute to creating awareness of how to manage the interpersonal relationships that are necessary for effective collaboration not just in the dance world, but in other professional settings, too, enhancing as empathy does emotional intelligence in general.

Leadership and Followership – In any ensemble, individuals often must switch between being a leader one day and being led the next. Developing the necessary adaptability, should foster an understanding of the relevant dynamics, encouraging individuals as it does to recognize when to take charge and when to support others – a valuable skill in any team-oriented work environment.

Handling Rejection – When looking for work, trudging from audition to audition, often at considerable expense, only to be told time and again, ‘Sorry you don’t fit with our current requirements’ or words to that effect can be soul-destroying. However, dancers who learn to handle such rejection positively see it not as a reflection on their abilities and self-worth but as part of their professional journey. Coping with rejection in this way helps to develop the emotional robustness that will serve them well beyond a dancing career.

Dealing With Failure – The goal of any professional is always to excel but in dancing, as with other skills practised at a high level of technical accomplishment, achieving excellence can be difficult. It’s a sad fact of the dancer’s life that the process of striving to improve technique sometimes, indeed often, ends in disappointment. Those with a strong mindset and mental resilience draw strength from this – as someone said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with failure, just make sure you fail better text time.’

Dealing with Success. Who would have thought this can be difficult, but dealing with success can be just as challenging as dealing with failure, albeit in different ways. The greater the success the greater will be the expectations on a person to perform at a higher level, which can be tough. It can sometimes strain relationships, especially if jealousy or resentment arises from others. However, a successful dancer who can gracefully shoulder the increased responsibility success entails, and who is able to maintain personal and professional standards whilst remaining generous towards colleagues, will always be a valued team-mate in any walk of life.

At the end of a performance career many dancers feel they don’t have much to ‘show for it’, in terms of skills and qualifications, when as it turns out there could have been more to be gained from their professional experiences than they might have realised – had they paid attention. But, if a dancer wants to use his or her dancing career as a springboard for a life beyond the stage, they need to pay attention to skills development whilst they are still dancing. The many valuable lessons the profession can in fact offer might otherwise go unnoticed and be lost.

No doubt there are many more valuable qualities the profession can inspire than the ones I have listed. So, if you can think of other competences a dancer can develop because of their occupation I would love to hear from you.

Matz Skoog – February 2024

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