CN D Magazine

#5 march 24

Defining Mental Health for Dancers

Florent Cheymol

Last October, on World Mental Health Day, a group of associations, social workers, and healthcare professionals sounded the alarm and called for mental health to be made a national priority for French public health policy by 2025. The professional dance world has also paid growing attention to this issue recently. Performers now discuss it openly, and dance institutions are following suit: in 2023, the CN D released its Dancers’ Health Guide, while some companies have taken to addressing the subject of physical and mental health head-on.

But the term “mental health” often overshadows the complexity and subtlety of the issues it encompasses, leaving artists with vague mantras. What exactly does it mean for dancers? Understanding the psychology of professional performers, and the specific challenges they face, is key to providing answers and managing dance careers with long-term psychological well-being in mind.

Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” Scientific research over the last decades has revealed significant mental and physical health benefits from recreational or amateur dancing, though much less is known about whether such effects extend to those who dance professionally.

One component of professional dancers’ psychology is an innate attraction to physical and sensory intensity, also known as overexcitability. The overexcitable dancer perceives environmental stimuli with heightened sensitivity. As a result, the emotions associated with movement enable them to inhabit their bodies more intensely and to find psychomotor release in the heightened attention to detail characteristic of technical physicality. Some dancers display characteristics similar to those of hyperactivity, which dance can sometimes help contain by offering a specific physical framework and outlet. In these situations, dance functionally regulates the dancer's body.

This need for motor activity, if met, combines with the discipline inherent in learning creative moment techniques, leading to another common mental process among dancers: hyperadaptation. This refers to a propensity to respond and conform to the explicit and implicit needs of institutions, educators and parents. Learning to dance at a professional level establishes relationships between a knowledgeable teacher and an apprentice, or a master and a disciple, confronting the dancer-in-training with the notion of otherness. The challenge for the professional dancer is to move forward with a balance that is rarely easy to achieve – reconciling his or her own psychological welfare and personal sense of accomplishment while dealing with external expectations, demands, and criticism.

As dancers, particularly young adults, learn their trade, a dilemma arises: reconciling the needs dictated by institutions (management, teachers, peers) to integrate into a group (whether crew, corps de ballet, or company) while, at the same time, developing their own artistic abilities as unique individuals. How do institutions help dancers resolve this complex issue? In this space of individuation, reminiscent of adolescent development, a major challenge arises: that of cultivating one’s own aspirations while navigating an environment that often encourages conformity and leaves little room for opposition. It’s a question of finding equilibrium between belonging to a collective and asserting one’s singularity, with the aim of realizing one’s full creative potential.

The challenge for the professional dancer is to move forward with a balance that is rarely easy to achieve – reconciling his or her own psychological welfare and personal sense of accomplishment while dealing with external expectations, demands, and criticism.

The WHO’s definition of mental health includes the ability to cope with the “normal stresses of life,” which is particularly important in the context of professional dance. The sacrifices required to achieve professional status imply considerable investment on the part of young dancers. Often described as passion, or even a  quasi-religious devotion, this commitment grows within an often rather closed system, where exploration of fields outside dance is not often encouraged. This can lead to a disconnection between the dancer and everyday reality, and is all the more true as the short timeframe of a dancer’s career induces a form of urgency in the present. Poor ranking in a competition, being eliminated in the last round of an audition, finding oneself in the second cast of a show, or no longer being able to execute certain steps: the difficulties encountered by dancers may sometimes seem secondary or trivial in the eyes of society, but we mustn’t forget that their professional activity is often a major source of identity. In other words, dancers are simultaneously the body shaped into an instrument, the technician perfecting their art, and the artist presenting their work to the public.

Another component of the WHO’s definition of mental health is that of “working well.” For a dancer, professional success cannot be reduced to a simple one-off achievement, such as a successful audition or being given a rewarding role. These are necessary landmarks but, once achieved, they are often replaced by new goals. A dancer’s work is an ongoing process, driven more by the desire to constantly outdo oneself (which has no end and is not limited) than by the simple satisfaction of past achievements. “Success” must be examined in the light of perfectionism, self-criticism, and the need for external validation which, according to research, are the building blocks of a dancer's personality.

In light of these challenges, there are significant tensions between the WHO’s definition of mental health and the requirements of a dance career. Making such a definition operative in the dance world would require the implementation of measures that reduce psychosocial hazards and occupational injuries, develop adequate psychological support, and increase institutional capacity for creating and maintaining positive work environments.

Florent Cheymol holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology and Psychopathology; he teaches in universities and also has his own practice as a psychologist-psychotherapist in Paris. He as trained in sports psychology and hypnosis. After training in the Paris Conservatory (Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris) and a 10-year career as a ballet dancer, he turned to clinical psychology. His PhD investigated the psychology of dancers through the perspective of altered states of consciousness.

Technical brief: The Psychological Specificities of Teenage Dancers
Florent Cheymol
Forthcoming on the professional resources tab on the CN D website