Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton,
Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, the
author of Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass) and
co-author of The Dancer’s Way: The New York
City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body, and Nutrition (St.
Martin’s Griffin). Her website is drlindahamilton.com.
Dr. Linda Hamilton
2000 Broadway, PH2C, New York, NY 10023
I feel guilty complaining about a problem that most dancers would die to
have—too many leading roles! But the truth is, I’m exhausted after two
weeks of rehearsals. How do I heal my tired body so I can perform every
show during the season?
—Pooped Ballerina, Brooklyn, NY
Just because you’ve made it to the top doesn’t mean it’s easy. As a dancer,
rehearsing and performing tax your mind and body. While caring for your
instrument during this busy time will help to create a crucial balance between
exercise and recovery (think sleep, nutrition, relaxing with friends and
weekly massages), there are still limits to how much you can push yourself.
In fact, research shows that 69 percent of new injuries in professional ballet
dancers occur after dancing five or more hours per day, five days a week.
So what’s an overworked dancer to do? Believe it or not, I’ve known
ballerinas who actually spoke to their directors about cutting back on
their repertoire without hurting their careers. “No” may not be a popular
word in a dancer’s vocabulary, but it can garner respect when the goal is to
perform at your best. The only time this could undermine your credibility
is when you are moving up the ranks and nix a part in the corps in favor of
a lead. But since you’ve paid your dues, you should be able to focus on
keeping yourself healthy without worrying too much about future casting.
I’m 19 and was seriously injured during a dance apprenticeship. I feel
hopeless since I’m a year into rehab without a company position on the
horizon, even though my doctor and PT tell me I’m making progress. It’s
hard to deal with the uncertainty. What can I do?
—Laura, Orlando, FL
Ambiguity about your future can make you highly anxious because
your imagination can come up with any number of plausible and also
unlikely outcomes. To counteract your fears, focus on what you do
know. Keep a diary to track your progress in rehab and your cross-training, like Pilates and swimming. While it may seem as if you’re moving
at a glacial pace, noticing steady improvements will make you feel less
helpless. You can also get involved with other interesting people, hobbies
and extracurricular activities. Even though you’re not dancing right now, this
will help you gain a sense of satisfaction and control over your life, which
everyone needs. And please be aware that you are not alone. Most dancers
have their first injury in their teens, and that often helps them develop better
work habits and technique, preventing further injuries down the road.
I’m a gypsy who has been in really great shows on Broadway for most of
my career. My problem is that I know the clock is ticking, with less work and
success in my future. I should be working on a career transition if I want
to start a family with my husband, but the idea of preparing for my future
—Feeling Stuck, New York, NY
Please watch out for the “tyranny of the shoulds,” a term coined by
pioneering psychoanalyst Karen Horney. It’s impossible to live up to an
idealized image of one’s self. Few professional dancers find it easy to
leave this career after spending most of their lives devoted to dance.
But it helps to have a competing option. For some, the lure may be
switching gears from a career to having children and a “normal” life
after your years of sacrifice for dance. Other dancers focus on finding a
second meaningful job, using different talents and skills, with or without a
family. Your best bet is to begin to examine other areas without pressure,
while you still have the security of dance. Check out free career services
and grants offered by Career Transition For Dancers at actorsfund.org/
advicefordancers | BY LINDA HAMILTON
How to manage multiple leading
roles without wearing yourself
out, plus advice on injury recovery
and life after dancing