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Stacey - the Professional Dancer

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Bruises and blood rushes: Physical demands and the emotional roller coaster of a professional dancer


Stacey scored her job as 7.5/10 (ten being the most enjoyable job you can imagine).



by Florian Klonek

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”. 


“Get the hell off the stage!!” A bit of ‘harmless’ pushing to get the job done or abusive supervision?

    

An important negative aspect that Stacey identified in her job as a professional dancer is the way in which some artistic directors treat dancers. Artistic directors can be highly confrontational, ruthless and “straight-out mean”. Stacey described an event in which she had to jump into a routine as an understudy. Because she was struggling with the routine, the artistic directors started yelling at her - ‘Get the hell off stage! What are you doing? We have a gig in one hour. That (dancing) is shocking!’. Injury is no protection from the abuse: “You get criticized when you are injured and literally cannot use your leg because you are so much in pain”. 


Stacey’s descriptions of artistic directors relates to the concept of abusive supervision, defined as the extent to which followers perceive that their supervisor engages in ‘sustained display of hostile verbal and/ or nonverbal behaviours’ [3] . Sometimes, supervisors might actually be trying “to elicit high performance or to send the message that mistakes will not be tolerated” (p. 265). But irrespective of the supervisor’s motive or intent, if the behavior causes harm and is repeated, then the supervisor’s behavior is likely to classify as abusive. 

    

Abusive supervision has severe negative consequences for those on the receiving end. These include decreased job satisfaction, emotional exhaustion, workplace deviance, job strain, and even aggression directed towards the supervisor )[4]. These negative consequences are reflected in how Stacey dealt with these situations. The comments of her artistic director affected her psychological well-being: “Sometimes, I didn’t cope with it, I crumble, go home and just… hide.”.  The abusive behaviour also impaired her job performance:


“You start second-guessing yourself because you think: Ok – I need to think about this better. But then your musicality is off because you are not actually listening to the music. (…) To me a good director – is someone who does not completely kill someone’s confidence. ... Is this making the dancers dance better? I don’t think so. … It is counterproductive”. 


One job resource that helped Stacey to deal with the supervisor criticism was the support of her dance team members. Her colleagues helped her to cope with the situation and sympathized with her by saying “He is an idiot. He just talked to me like this yesterday”. Several research studies confirm that co-worker support can attenuate the negative effect of abusive supervision on employee well-being [5] , although there is one study suggesting caution. This latter study showed that – when the support serves to remind the victim of the unpleasant experience - support from co-worker can actually make abusive supervision worse [6].

    

Research on abusive supervision also indicates that some industries (i.e., healthcare and military) might be particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon – probably because these are industries that require extreme levels of commitment. For example, in the military, workers can experience behaviors like hazing or exposure to humiliating language. “The logic associated with these practices is that the process of humbling and stripping away the self-confidence of newcomers sets the stage for strong identification with the organization”. [3] 


While this phenomenon has been described in the military, we can only speculate if abusive supervision is especially prevalent in the performing arts arena, such as dancing. Stacey’s experience suggests it might well be. And if it is, rather than building strong commitment to the job, such cruel behavior is actually more likely to cause talented dancers to leave the profession prematurely. As Stacey recalled some dancers “just walk away as its simply too tough”.

 

References


[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.

[3] Tepper, B. J. (2000). Consequences of abusive supervision. Academy of Management Journal, 43: 178-190. 

[4] Tepper, B. J. (2007). Abusive supervision in work organizations: Review, synthesis, and research agenda. Journal of Management, 33(3), 261-289. 

[5] For example, see: Hobman, E. V., Restubog, S. L. D., Bordia, P., & Tang, R. L. (2009). Abusive supervision in advising relationships: Investigating the role of social support. Applied Psychology, 58(2), 233-256. 

[6] Wu, T., & Hu, C. (2009). Abusive supervision and employee emotional exhaustion: Dispositional antecedents and boundaries. Group Organization Management, 34, 143–169

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