Bruises and blood rushes:

Physical demands and the emotional roller coaster of a professional dancer

Stacey scored her job as                             (ten being the most enjoyable job you can imagine).

7.5/10  

by Florian Klonek

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Stacey has been dancing since the age of 5 years. Trained in ballet, jazz, and acrobatics, she was a professional dancer for many years. It is a job with gruelling levels of physical demands.” [1] Stacey reported, “You cannot do it your whole life. Dance is not sustainable”. Once when Stacey was working professionally, she was hospitalised for exhaustion after a very intense weekend of performing. Shortly after the gig, her heart rate was at a dangerously low level and she was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue”.“Obviously, your body can run out of adrenaline”, comments Stacey wryly.


    The job of a professional dancer is not just physically gruelling, but also emotionally demanding. Dancers often face extreme criticism from their managers, sometimes effectively constituting what researches refer to as ‘abusive supervision’ [2]. Stacey observed: “You do get put down a lot for the way you look, the way your body looks… Your getting constantly drilled and told how shit you are and how bad you are (…)”. Working as a dancer – because of the long hours, the need to work nights and weekends, and the income variability – can also create home and family pressures. As Stacey described:


 “You can’t really be in a relationship and when you are, it does affect your training - because you just want to sit on a couch with your boyfriend and watch a movie -  and it will also affect your boyfriend - because when he asks you to do something on the weekend, you have to work.” 


A lot of her friends who have been doing this job for several years are single, which Stacey attributed to the demands of the work: “They go hard. There are days when they are literally in “a dark place” but they do it for that rush when they are performing”.


So how does one survive such high levels of job demands? How and why does a person stick at such a tough job? For Stacey, a lot of it comes down to her sheer love of dance: “With dance - I could just go on. The feeling is indescribable - When I am on stage in front of an audience… It gives me so much adrenalin. And so much... I just love it to bits”.
Indeed, the tough times intermingled with performance highs to create an a “rollercoaster lifestyle.. During the week I’ll be like: ‘Oh I am such a bad dancer, this is so hard.’ And then during the weekend … I was thinking: ‘wow, I love the stage! This is so amazing!’ There was no day-to-day routine. It was more like ‘I am sad’, then ‘I am over-the-top happy’, then ‘sad again’. It is kind of bad for your mental health.“  In the end, Stacey’s passion for dance outweighed the demands, as shown by her rating of the job as a 7.5 out of 10. 


What also helped Stacey was her resilience (a person’s ability to bounce back from adverse events). In fact, the work characteristics of dancers rate #1 with respect to the extent to which this job requires resilience [2]. Stacey observed that over time, her ability to bounce-back increased:


"You become really thick skinned... over time you just become a little bit numb and you just become stronger…. if, now, someone said really mean things to me, I am not bothered by it." 


Not everyone, however, is able to develop the necessary resilience. “Some dancers …. will go off to teaching – the ones that can’t emotionally handle the pressure..” Such dropout effect is mirrored in the academic perspective on the work characteristics of dancers: 


the design of work can foster resilience by fostering positive connections between emotional, cognitive, and physical self. If one trigger (e.g. physical) gets out of whack (e.g. mandated starvation diet for models, injury for dancers, hand abrasions for artists), it is unlikely over the long run that the individual will perform well or experience well-being on and off the job.” [2] (p. 760)


In Stacey’s case, the trigger that got out of whack was a physical one. A serious leg injury forced her to stop work as a professional dancer. Fortunately though, Stacey had a contingency plan. She had always been aware that professional dancing is rarely a job for life: “I have always had other jobs on the side because you are relying on your body. And sometimes your body can’t take it anymore - it is good to have a backup plan.” 


Now Stacey works about half of the time as a dance teacher and the other half as a baker. Just occasionally, because the passion is still there, she revisits her past to take a booking as a performer. But, these days, she limits her professional dancing “to stay healthy”. 

 

[1] Physical demands refer to the “ level of physical activity or effort required in the job, the physical strength, endurance, effort, and activity aspects of the job“. See Humphrey, S. E., Nahrgang, J. D., & Morgeson, F. P. (2007). Integrating motivational, social, and contextual work design features: a meta-analytic summary and theoretical extension of the work design literature. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(5), 1332.

[2] Kossek, E. E., & Perrigino, M. B. (2016). Resilience: A review using a grounded integrated occupational approach. The Academy of Management Annals, 10(1), 729-797.