Science is now proving what generations of dance teachers have known instinctively: When the pressure hits, if you dance too much and aren’t able to let your body recover, trouble will ensue. Even in active individuals, overexertion can overload the mechanisms of adaptation, leading to feelings of constant fatigue and muscular weakness, increasingly frequent injuries and, inevitably, a negative impact on the ability to perform. In this condition, known as “burnout,” there is diminished physical performance for no apparent medical or other obvious reason.

Although anyone can suffer from burnout, athletes and dancers are particularly vulnerable. In preparing for a performance, for instance, there is usually a marked increase in physical activity. Given sufficient time, the body adapts very well. But sometimes, either with unusual choreography, a new director or teacher, or an increase in the sheer amount of rehearsal time needed, the body simply cannot cope with the new demands. Burnout can also be brought on as a result of a few days or weeks of fatigue or by long-term exhaustion, and is often triggered by psychological stress. It has been defined as a “physical, emotional and mental overload.”

You may know someone who has been “burnt out,” but what does that mean and how do you recognize the symptoms? For dance teachers in particular, it’s important to be aware of the warning signs and take appropriate action, for yourself and your students.

Factors Contributing to Burnout
Burnout is a complex condition with a range of symptoms and signs that vary from person to person. It often occurs in dancers during periods of increased commitments, either in class or onstage, and in individuals whose daily regimens produce an imbalance between physical activity and rest. Dancers most likely to reach the stage of burnout are highly motivated overachievers who set high standards for themselves. They often forget that taking the time to let their bodies recover can actually lead to improvement in their dancing.

Although no studies on the effect of burnout in children have been published yet, anecdotal evidence supports the notion that both health and physical performance may be affected if exercise is excessive during the tender pre-adolescent years. This isn’t a new idea; it was observed roughly 2,500 years ago by Aristotle, who wrote: “The disadvantages of excessive training in the early years are amply proved by the list of Olympic victors; only two or three of them won a prize both as boys and as men. The discipline to which they were subjected in childhood undermined their powers of endurance.” As adolescence is a period of rapid physical change, it’s particularly important that young students don’t overdo it.

External stressors such as family and personal relationships, issues at school or work and financial difficulties may further contribute to the development of this condition. Burnout can frequently be traced to a seemingly innocent personal event that becomes a trigger for more serious symptoms. Young professional dancers in their first year with a company are vulnerable, as they are often required to learn many roles as understudies, and are unable or unwilling to say no.

Fundamentally, the root of burnout in dance is that these artists are trained to cope with a workload without complaining, aware that there are others who would happily take their places. The rigorous self-discipline that trains the mind to ignore pain signals can add to the problem. Also, because many dancers do not complete an academic education beyond the age of 18, they lack access to sound nutritional and health advice.

Symptoms and Signs
The signs of burnout are often evident, but too often ignored. If your dancers report disrupted sleep patterns, with vivid or stressful dreams and night sweats, take notice. When the body does not feel rested and the mind is disturbed, trivial events become major stressors and the sense of humor suffers. Small things, such as a missing personal item, can cause great irritation and dramatic outbursts. You may observe that someone approaching burnout may appear very negative, and lose appetite as well as interest in normal daily events.

The physical manifestation of symptoms affects daily class; there is a loss of technical ability, combined with occasional loss of stamina. Other physical symptoms might include elevated blood pressure and heart rate, excessive sweating and an inability to recover optimally following intensive dancing. Injuries become increasingly likely. It is often at this stage that dancers seek outside help. Sometimes an overuse injury can be a symptom of burnout, so teachers and medical teams should remain vigilant.

Acute and Chronic Burnout
Burnout can be acute or chronic in nature. Acute burnout, which lasts less than one month, often occurs at the commencement of a new season, as dancers have been expected to learn and perfect several different types of choreography to prepare for performance. At this point, there is a lot of contrasting repertory to master in a short span of time. This type of burnout often results in muscle damage (and, therefore, muscle pain and stiffness), a common indicator that the work volume has exceeded a dancer’s capabilities. However, the effects of acute burnout quickly disappear when its causes are no longer present.

Chronic burnout is the result of accumulated imbalances between exercise and recovery over a period of weeks or months. When the condition is fully developed, additional signs (to those mentioned already) may appear, including menstrual irregularities or cessation of menstruation; increased allergies; longer healing time for even minor scratches; and susceptibility to infections, especially of the upper respiratory system.

There is no universal agreement as to why increased physical exercise seems to be linked to the reported incidence of infections in athletes. Some researchers suggest that the susceptibility to infections following periods of intensive exercise training may be due to lower plasma glutamine levels. Glutamine is responsible for the biosynthesis of the rapidly dividing cells of the immune system and for the provision of a substantial part of the energy required by this system. Commercially available glutamine supplements (sold at most pharmacies) may help combat chronic burnout.

Prevention and Treatment of Burnout
Can burnout be avoided? In simple terms, yes—with a change of culture and attitudes. Rehearsals should be scheduled so that dancers can recover between sessions and have time to absorb new movement into their bodies; tours should include rest days; choreographers need to plan the best use of the dancers’ time and try to use video feedback instead of more rehearsals; companies and schools must provide access to counselors; and dancers need to reexamine their lifestyles.

Dancers who supplement their training with a well-rounded fitness regimen can fortify the immune system and provide release for mental stress. Proper nutrition and good hydration are vital in maintaining good fuel for the body. Sufficient rest and sleep are also important and can be achieved with relaxation tapes or a massage before bed. It’s also necessary to have a support system outside the intense world of dance. Finally, the concept “no pain, no gain” should be played down, as there is little gain to be made by working through fatigue, illness or injury.

Once a case of burnout has been diagnosed and dealt with, there is danger of relapse at around three months. To avoid this, it is advisable that a reduced or controlled amount of dance-related stresses (classes, rehearsals, etc.) be maintained for up to four months. Dancers should never attempt to suddenly increase physical loads more than five percent per week.

Burnout is a debilitating syndrome in which performance and well-being can be affected for months. It can be exacerbated by feelings of helplessness in a work situation or by a teacher or director who is less than sympathetic. The dance community must recognize that burnout happens and that anyone can be vulnerable, including teachers and choreographers, who face the daily challenge of maintaining a heavy workload. Providing advice and guidelines on exercise loads, recovery times, nutrition or pharmacological intervention can help prevent the development of burnout in dance professionals of all levels. DT

Rachel Rist, MA, is president of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. Yiannis Koutedakis, MA, PhD, is a professor in Applied Physiology at the Department of Sports and Exercise Science at Thessaly University in Greece.

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox