Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence
by Jim Taylor & Elena Estanol

Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance ExcellenceDavid Mead

The dance bookshelf is filled with books about technique, all of which help dancers improve their performance, and there are a lot of dancers out there with fabulous technique, probably more than ever before. In a way that’s fair enough. Dancers love dancing, that’s why they do it, but “dance is about more than just steps,” as the saying goes. So, as a dancer, how do you stand out from that crowd? What else should you be thinking about? What lifts you to that final exceptional level?

What separates good dancers from the best dancers lies in how mentally prepared they are to perform their best, despite circumstances that dance and life throw at them, say Jim Taylor and Elena Estanol in their new book, Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence. Taylor, an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of performance in business and sport, and who has also worked with the likes of Miami City Ballet, and Estanol, a dancer, instructor, and sport and dance psychologist, bring their experience and knowledge to a volume designed to help dancers of all levels develop psychological strength to maximise their performance.

The core message of the authors is that believing and making your mind your most powerful tool, is essential. Equally, dancers need to stop it being the most harmful of weapons, which can happen all too easily, they say. In getting those messages across, they maintain a sense of balance. While there’s lots of advice about developing and maintaining excellence over time, they also recognise the importance of balancing that with the rest of your life.

The book offers no easy answers, no guaranteed solutions, but what it does do provide a host of ideas and suggestions, and often makes you think. Of particular interest are the Center Stage case studies, dotted throughout the text, that provide practical, real-life examples of putting the advice into practice.

That importance of psychological strength is stressed in the introduction to Chapter 2 (Knowing Yourself), when Natalie Desch of Doug Varone and Dancers is quoted as saying that dancing is 95% in the mind. I’m not sure I agree wholly with that, but she does have a point. The history of dance (and sport) is littered with individuals who had outstanding technique, but who couldn’t harness it in a way that led to consistently outstanding performance, and that includes connecting with the audience. I’ve been to more performances than I care to think about where the steps have been done marvellously, but where the impact has been negligible thanks to that being all there was.

Don’t let the word ‘psychology’ put you off. There’s a huge amount of valuable advice in the book, presented in a straightforward and easy to read way. The text is split up with sub-headings that act as great signposts, making it easy to find your way around. I also like the Encore, effective the main points in bullet point form that come at the end of each chapter. There’s also an excellent index and extensive references.

On any journey it’s essential that you know where you are staring from, and where you want to get to. To help dancers improve, Taylor and Estanol set out how to construct a personal psychological and physical profile using resources available on-line. The psychological assessment includes the usual self-knowledge, motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions, but also preparation, communication and social support. The physical profile constructed includes the likes of strength, stamina, co-ordination and agility as you might expect, plus pain tolerance, the ability to recover, health and those oft-forgotten areas of sleep and nutrition. Readers are then guided to analyse the profiles created.

The following thirteen chapters then deal with important topics in turn. Chapter 3 deals with motivation and asks “Why Do You Dance?” It’s not a silly a question as it sounds. What is your motivation? What are the obstacles to achieving your aims, and how can you overcome them? They are all in here.

It’s a truism that confidence breeds confidence, but it’s also true that a downward spiral (what the authors call a “vicious cycle”) can be a nightmare to escape from. Chapter 4 examines how preparation, mental skills and support can all be used to break out of such a phase. You need to “train your brain” as they say. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 go on to consider intensity, emotions and focus, each detailing practical strategies for managing them in a way that improves performance.

Chapters 8 to 12 look at what Taylor and Estanol call “Prime Dance Tools” that can be used to enhance metal preparation. When it comes to goal setting, they quite rightly note the importance of making those goals realistic and attainable, and that it’s often better to measure goals by degree rather than in absolute terms. Less impressive is the very short chapter on the importance of imagery for enhancing training and performance. Still, much has been written on this elsewhere. There’s also a chapter on routines, although surprisingly it’s written in an entirely positive tone. Routine can be negative too. Finally, and although it should go without saying it does need repeating, there a brief chapter emphasising that any programme looking at developing the psychological side of dance must be personal.

Some of the best parts of the book come in Part IV, Special Concerns for Dancers. It’s here that Taylor and Estanol consider those often difficult to talk about and thus too often put aside areas of stress and burnout, pain and injury and eating disorders. Stress is a feature of life generally, but the nature of dance performance gives it so many more ways to manifest itself. The authors consider the causes, warning signs (listing no fewer than 56) and how to relieve it. Again, that question of balance in life is to the fore. Surprisingly, the importance of a social support network, friends you can talk to, gets just one six-line paragraph. The chapter on pain and injury reminds readers that there are different sorts and sources of pain.

Eating disorders is perhaps one of the biggest risks dancers face, especially in those dance styles where body shape is, or is perceived to be, all-important. Although the authors note the pressures that families, especially so-called ‘stage parents,’ can bring, there is no comment about wider cultural pressure. There are still parts of the world where the ‘perfect body’ is all, to the extent that dancers are regularly weighed, and I have even seen weight charts for classes put on display. As the authors observe, eating disorders, crash dieting and so on, don’t just affect the body. They affect the mind to. There is lots of good advice in here on how to recognise and deal with situations that may arise.

It can certainly be argued with some justification that some topics covered by Taylor and Estanol are not given as much space as they deserve. But Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence does provide the basic information in an easy to read, practical and sometimes thought-provoking way. The subjects discussed are important if dancers are not only to reach the pinnacle of their profession, but also become empowered, in the dance-learning process, understanding themselves and in taking greater charge of their own dancing.

Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence
Authors: Jim Taylor & Elena Estanol
Paperback, 320 pages
Publisher: Human Kinetics
ISBN: 978-1450430210
Cover price: $34.95 (US), £25.49 (UK)