Can Ballet Hurt Your Psyche?

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New research suggests it may encourage youngsters to suppress negative emotions.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

While research has revealed studying music yields a variety of cognitive and emotional benefits, the results are more mixed for dance training, and ballet in particular.

While the advantages — including physical conditioning and the instillment of such welcome habits as discipline and cooperation — are clear, so are the dangers. A 2014 meta-study concluded dancers’ risk of having an eating disorder is three times higher than that of the general population.

That suggests dance training may produce or exacerbate some less-than-healthy psychological pressures. New research from Portugal finds evidence of just such a dynamic among young ballet students.

It reports that, compared to both music students and peers who studied neither art form, dancers had higher levels of “psychological inflexibility” — a state of mind that has been linked to anxiety and depressive symptoms in adolescents.

Researchers Telmo Serrano and Helena Amaral Espirito-Santo define psychological inflexibility as “excessive involvement with the content of internal events,” such as emotions, thoughts, and memories. They note that this inward-pointing focus can “bias the way the present moment is experienced,” increasing fear of failure, and leading students to avoid stressful situations rather than accepting the challenge.

The study, published in the journal Psychology of Music, featured 113 Portuguese youngsters between the ages of nine and 16. Thirty-three of them were dance students, 39 were music students, and 41 did not study either subject.

All of them filled out a 17-item questionnaire in which they rated a series of statements on a scale of zero (not at all true) to four (very true). They included “Feeling scared or sad is bad”; “I push away thoughts and feelings I don’t like”; and “If I feel sad or afraid, something must be wrong with me.”

The researchers report the ballet students were significantly more likely to agree with such statements than those in the other two groups. That finding is consistent with previous research linking ballet training with perfectionism.

While it’s possible that kids who are predisposed to perfectionism are drawn to this exacting art form, “the levels of psychological inflexibility could be explained by some characteristics of ballet training,” the researchers write.

“Similar to many sports, ballet involves discipline and physical demands, competitiveness, highly critical and perfectionistic attitudes of trainers, and acceptance of emotional and physical suffering.” It’s easy to see how that could inspire students to cut themselves off from negative emotions in the moment — a process that can allow fears to accumulate, and ultimately build into serious anxiety.

The researchers conclude that dance teachers need to be aware of this issue, and consider “using different cognitive and behavioral techniques” that encourage young dancers to feel their feelings, be they frustration or fun.

Another implication of their work is that parents of ballet students need to stay aware and engaged, and encourage their children to express their emotions rather than tough things out. Dance training can instill good habits, but cutting yourself off from your feelings is not one of them.