Grit is more than a grain of sand, it’s a powerful mindset that can help propel your dancing career forward. In psychological terms, courage is “the combination of passion and perseverance toward long-term goals that have personal meaning,” says dance psychology researcher, coach, and speaker Dr. Imogen Aujla. Building your own source of courage will help you weather the inevitable ups and downs of the dance world and increase your chances of achieving your dreams.
In a study published in December 2021, Aujla and colleagues looked at the courage and psychological well-being of freelance dancers, choreographers and teachers in the UK. Despite common career challenges like financial insecurity and intense competition for jobs, “freelancers had relatively high levels of well-being,” says Aujla. For example, they enjoyed contributing to their art form and appreciated the daily variety that allowed them to grow artistically.
They also scored well on eight grit-related questions. “To keep getting back up — doing things over and over again — requires very high levels of courage,” says Aujla. In fact, the study showed that early career professionals tend to have more courage than established artists. Maybe it’s because later in your career, “you’re in a much more comfortable position,” Aujla says. “You can afford to relax a bit and not have so much persistence.”
Aujla suspects the answers would be similar for freelancers in the United States. Even for dancers with corporate contracts, internal competition for roles can be fierce and contract renewals are not guaranteed. “You probably still need a lot of that gritty stuff to stick with,” she says.
So how do you get “that grainy stuff”? You probably already have more than you think – you show up to the studio when you’d rather be in bed, you repeat this tricky combo until you find it – and you can capitalize on it with these suggestions. Aujla.
Pursue SMART goals
Turn big ambitions into SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. For example, if your goal is to do a big throw with your legs at 180 degrees by November 1, break it down into SMART goals, like improving your leg flexibility and strength. These small gains will help you recognize the progress you are making along the way.
Strengthen your mental toolbox
Learn how to deal with setbacks, manage anxiety and cultivate optimism. “As with physical skills, mental skills need to be practiced,” says Aujla. For example, if nose-down turns make you want to scream, visualize that you’re in a helicopter, looking at yourself and everyone else who may be struggling as well. A broader perspective reminds you that you are not alone, which helps reduce anxiety and boost determination. Try journaling, mantras, and affirmations, or try online resources like classes, coaching, and writing on Aujla’s site, danceinmind.org.
Dealing with burnout
If you feel your passion for dance slipping away, “it could well be due to stress and burnout, rather than falling out of love,” says Aujla. A therapist or online resources can help you spot and deal with burnout. Sometimes all it takes is a walk around the block, watching a funny video, or chatting with a friend to refresh your spirit.
Connect with others
Aujla emphasizes the importance of connecting with your peers as collaborators rather than competitors. Plus, “a mentor can offer guidance and support,” she says. If you admire a particular choreographer or dancer, consider asking them a specific question. Think about what you could learn from them and how.
Find your own solutions
Try to address small issues before seeking advice from others. For example, if you want to master triple pirouettes, start by looking for tricks and practicing on your own, then follow up with your teacher, dance captain, or artistic director. Ultimately, “problem solving can involve others very well,” says Aujla, but by taking on the challenges yourself, you’ll develop resilience and courage.