The Dancer’s Dilemma: When is Taking a Break Beneficial?

27 November 2019 Published in News and Announcements

“Did anyone take class over break?,” asks the ballet teacher on the first day back in the studio. A few dancers raise their hands while the others shrink slightly from the weight of the guilt on their shoulders. “Alright then...we’ll take it slow today.” But, rarely do they ever “take it slow.” Thus, the dancer’s negative relationship with taking breaks is perpetuated, overshadowing the benefits that may be reaped from those respites.

Dancers’ success depends upon hard work, dedication and sacrifice, but often overlooked is the importance of rest and recovery. In a career where the majority of one’s time is spent in the studio or on stage, taking breaks is commonly seen as counterproductive. Whether it’s for fear of deteriorating physical shape, judgement, or a lack of personal identity aside from dancing, many dancers find it hard to allow themselves rest.

Lucas Horns, a corps artist with Ballet West, is currently taking a semester-length-sabbatical to further his education at the University of Utah. He was inspired to enroll in classes when he witnessed a fellow company member struggle to find work after retirement. Horns feels that, “There is a culture of comparison in the dance world.” He adds that, “In giving yourself a break and doing stuff for you, you sort of have to drop that judgement from others...You have to get back to remembering that you have nothing to prove.” 

Horns admits that relinquishing such judgement is much easier said than done. He says, “I’ve always had this concept that I need a life out of ballet...but your conscience is so different than your gut. And my gut would still tell me that I’m not good enough.” 

Chelsea Keefer—a soloist with Ballet West and an enthusiast for finding balance as a dancer—can also relate to this sense of self-judgement. She acknowledges this pressure as an inescapable aspect of a dancer’s psyche. “The more you accept the space of self-pressure, the better you will be able to escape it,” says Keefer. She recognizes that dancers are often much too hard on themselves, and emphasizes that, “You have to change the way you’re speaking to yourself.” 

A balanced life can be an elusive idea for many dancers. For Keefer, balance “is finding other identities within myself that I enjoy outside of dance.” These activities or identities include yoga and meditation, other physical practices such as rock climbing, and allotting time for friends and hobbies. Keefer reflects that, “The more you can find those other things that you enjoy in life like reading, or cross-training, or going on vacation and literally doing nothing...I think the more you can learn not to focus on that inner voice in your mind that’s always telling you to do more...the more you can find that balance and identity outside of ballet. It’s such as hard place to get to and it’s an evolving process.” 

According to Ballet West athletic trainer Kevin Semans, “The hard part about growing up in the dance world is that dancers are taught that for every day they take off, their bodies forget, so they’re going backwards. They get this mental belief that any time off is actually deteriorating or taking away from their dance, and that’s just not the case.” Semans believes that taking time off from dancing is not only beneficial, but necessary. At the end of a company’s performance season, Semans recommends that dancers “take at least a couple weeks off of impact activity.” This allows their bodies to recover, and ultimately results in a more sustainable career. Keefer says that, “I try to make myself take at least 3 weeks or maybe even a month off, but I’m always doing something physical in some other way.”

Taking breaks is not only restorative for the mind, but also for the body. Semans says, “When you’re dancing, you use very specific muscles the same way all the time, and so by giving them a break you’re able to focus not only on the body as a whole, but also making sure that you’re working the balancing muscles equally.” He encourages dancers to take time away from the studio and engage in activities that work different muscles, in order to attain a more balanced physique, and prevent injury. 

While making time for rest is necessary, there is no avoiding the inevitable return to the studio. As dancers, we often dread this day, not because we don’t love dancing, but because of the worry that we’ll be “out of shape.” Semans asserts that as a dancer, you won’t forget how to do things in your time off, but you’ll need to focus on the mechanics of the movement when you return. He adds, “When you start back in, you start back in very rudimentary, or very baseline. You’re focusing on: what is my position? What is my alignment? You’re not worried about how high your leg is. You’re not worried about how much you’re extending through your back. You’re not worried about how far you’re pointing your feet. You’re concentrating more on your alignment, and then you progress back into higher legs, higher kicks, deeper plies, and just kind of work your way back in.” 

Keefer wisely advises, “Not having expectations when you step back in the studio after that lay-off is key to letting yourself get back into it.” Just like Semans, she says that you have to focus on taking it one step at a time, and incrementally going back to the basics. 

Horns told me that during his time off, he has been reminded of why he fell in love with dance in the first place. He has reconnected with his inner artist and escaped the pervasive technician that tends to overpower a dancer’s psyche. When I asked about his expectations for returning to professional life, he replied, “I’m looking ahead at going back, and I’m thinking maybe I’ll lose a little bit of ground on my technique, but I’m going to enjoy the career much more.” Horns has gained a more holistic approach to his career and has been reminded that in order to be the best artist he can be, he must feel like a fulfilled human being first.

During our conversation, Horns revealed a seeming paradox: as artists, dancers are extraordinary, but also, “we are just humans at the end of the day.” Sometimes taking distance from the studio enables dancers to reconnect with their humanity, and as a result, to become better artists. Allowing time for yourself is not selfish, but quite the contrary: a balanced life enriches a dancer’s art. 

By Ballet Major Lauren Wattenburg