The Look-Back Trap: How Dancers Can Cope with Fears of Falling Behind

April 20, 2021

In February 2020, the Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker–choreographed production of West Side Story opened on Broadway. And in March, the world shut down. “The first email said we’d be back in two weeks. Then it was the end of the month. Then it was by the beginning of summer. Then it was the fall,” recalls Matthew Johnson, who had taken time off from The Juilliard School to make his Broadway debut in the role of Baby John. “It felt like little bits and pieces of hope kept being chipped away from me.” Amidst the devastation and uncertainty, he found that dance was no longer his “go-to happy place.” “Every time I danced in my room or took a class online, it had this undertone of sadness,” he says. He ended up not dancing for months.

Flash forward to spring 2021, and Johnson is feeling cautiously optimistic. He’s finishing his sophomore year at Juilliard and getting his body, heart and mind ready for whatever comes next. (West Side Story is supposed to return when Broadway does, but at the time of this interview, the cast hadn’t been given much new information.) As COVID-19 vaccines roll out, dancers around the world are in a similar boat—but not everyone shares Johnson’s optimism. Many dancers are struggling with feeling like they’ve fallen too far behind to ever catch up. If you’re stuck in this negative place, try these strategies to move forward.

Consider the Commonalities

The sheer scope of the pandemic means that whatever setbacks you’ve faced, you’re not alone. Because everybody was forced onto a slower track, “no one really has an advantage over you right now,” says performance psychologist Dr. Linda Hamilton, wellness consultant for New York City Ballet.

“You haven’t lost a year, because you’re on par with everyone else,” says Kathleen Mitchell, who teaches pre-professional, postgraduate, and the second company dancers at Boston Ballet School. “Directors know it. Choreographers know it. We’re all in it together now—and the ‘in it’ is to save the art form.”

Find the Bright Sides

When you’re on the cusp of college or a career, having to hit “pause” for any reason can feel catastrophic. But Mitchell says, “Students are actually at the most fortunate time in their lives for something like this to occur.” Unlike late-career performers, you probably have many more dancing years ahead of you.

Remembering that you’re young and resilient is only one piece of the mood-boosting puzzle. Another is looking for anything positive about the past year. Maybe you really polished your port de bras, or you fine-tuned your footwork. Perhaps you’re even more committed to following your dance dreams. You may also have fostered qualities, like discipline and adaptability, that will serve you well in professional life. “We all had to work smarter at home,” Mitchell says, “and motivation had to come from within.”

If, like Johnson, you took a break from dance, think about other activities that may have helped you grow as a whole person. Johnson took up journaling and studied Spanish on Duolingo. His first course back at Juilliard in summer 2020 was an academic one: African-American literature. Hamilton has spoken to dancers who’ve gotten into photography and visual art, as well as some pros who used the time away from the studio and stage to get college credits. Or maybe you cultivated family relationships. Whatever the case, your time in lockdown wasn’t wasted. “Don’t label this ‘the lost year,'” Hamilton says. “Pat yourself on the back for getting through it, and if you learned anything, hang onto it.”

Take It Slow and Steady

When you’re desperate to make up for lost time, it’s tempting to jump in at 100 percent right away. However, the last thing you want is to push so hard that you get injured. As you ease back in, “don’t compare yourself to how you danced pre-pandemic,” Hamilton cautions. Your body will be different. That doesn’t mean you can’t restore stamina, strength and flexibility.

It may not take as long as you think. For Mitchell’s Boston Ballet School students, progression back to a full class took about seven weeks. There was a gradual build both in terms of duration (length of combinations) and repetition (smaller groups for fewer reps). Jumps started two feet to two feet, then two to one, then one to one, with grand allégro last to phase back in. Mitchell also added more recovery time between exercises. “Studies have shown that training in a mask mimics high-altitude training,” she explains. (Another bright side: When we’re done with masks, your cardiovascular stamina will be fantastic!)

As Johnson found out when he returned to dance class, muscle memory is real. “You have to trust that you have the training and the tools to do what you need to do when things are normal again,” he says. At the same time, he stresses not to ignore your mental and emotional health as you work on getting your body back on track. “If you’re not there mentally,” he says, “there’s no way you’ll be able to be there physically.” Rather than keeping negative emotions bottled up, talk them out with friends, parents, teachers, or even a professional therapist.

Look to What’s Next

When you’re spiraling with worry and fear, “focusing on things you can control can get you ready to bounce back,” Johnson says.

Begin by setting realistic goals. “You can’t change what happened last year,” Hamilton says. “But there is a lot to look forward to now, like summer programs, or auditions for schools and companies.” She advises thinking carefully about what you want, researching how to make it happen, and strategizing with a teacher you trust. Working toward attainable performance goals can restore your confidence.

The aim isn’t to return to exactly who you were in early 2020. It’s OK if you’ve changed. In fact, Mitchell sees this evolution as a good thing. Today’s students will be “a different breed of dancer,” she says. “You’re going to have a deeper level of connection to the art, because of what you’ve been through. Wherever our art form is going next…you’re it.” In that framing, no one has fallen behind. Instead, you’re exactly where you’re meant to be.