Claire Long was a biology and dance double major with a minor in chemistry and a 2022-23 health care ethics intern with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.
Dancers are artists and athletes. Dancers strive for dual goals, creating beautiful aesthetics while working tirelessly to achieve flawless technique.
Competitive dance in America fosters this duality through a sport-like competition scene based on subjective scoring. Hundreds of privately owned competition companies hold their own competition circuits around the nation. Young dancers train at studios and perform in front of judges in the hopes of receiving awards and recognition. Scores rely on technique, choreography, musicality, and performance quality. Though each corporation creates their own rules and regulations, dancers are always expected to perform to their full potential with stunning aesthetic imagery and intense athletic feats.
I grew up in a studio that cared deeply about my well-being. My teachers provided training that gave me space to grow and learn creatively. My teammates were supportive and I made great friends. I developed a passion for dance through my competition team experience. I learned how to be a teammate and leader, and developed as an artist and athlete. Even then, I did not escape the toxicity of competitive dance.
I was blind to this ugly side of the competitive dance world until I left it.
Now, I distinctly recall the anxiety of competition days. The fear of forgetting choreography on stage, the fixation of looking good in costumes. I remember the backhanded compliments, short tempers, and tearful disappointments. When I felt overwhelmed or uncomfortable, I ignored it. There was no time for confusing emotions. My life depended on training, improving, and performing.
Retired competitive dancers I know share similar experiences. We still have nightmares about forgetting a costume or missing rehearsal. We feel proud pushing through pain instead of taking time to rest. We appreciate a class where teachers demand the best, and we push our bodies to the limit. We struggle with body image, self esteem, and disordered eating. We scrutinize our bodies and expect perfection. Not everyone shares these exact struggles, but all competitive dancers carry lasting effects with them.
Competitive dance is celebrated for fostering a strong work ethic, teamwork, dedication, and self confidence, but not all outcomes are positive. Deep-rooted traditions and a lack of standard codes contribute to ethical concerns that leave young competitive dancers at risk of lasting harmful outcomes including mental health effects and preventable injury.
Mental Health Effects
Since the days of George Balanchine, the ideal ballet body has been defined by long legs, short torsos, and incredibly thin frames. The ideal competitive dance body looks similar. Adolescent competitive dancers going through puberty struggle with their bodily maturation while striving for this ideal dance body type. Though great strides have been made, the media and competitive dance scene still rewards the ideal body. The imagined perfect body haunts the adolescent dancer.
Classic dance studio layouts include open rooms with ballet barres and mirrors from floor to ceiling. Dancers are expected and encouraged to be self-critical, noticing all technical errors in order to improve. With training anywhere between 6-30 hours a week, competitive dancers constantly inspect their bodies and scrutinize over tiny details–knees not completely straight, feet not fully pointed, arms not perfectly rounded. Though the mirror is beneficial for technique, constant self-critiquing can negatively impact dancers. Students distort their body image without knowing, focusing on their physical image and imperfections.
Teachers continually survey the room in dance classes, adjusting placement and body lines of dancers as necessary. When done appropriately, this technical training helps dancers correct their posture and alignment. However, instructors must ensure that critiques remain positive. Even with good intentions, teachers are in a position of power and authority, and dancers take their words to heart. Traditional comments such as, “I can see your lunch,” develop harmful relationships for dancers with food. Though practices are shifting towards direct teaching tips that avoid body shaming, deeply-rooted traditions linger on.
Competitive dance culture can lead to the sexualization of minors. A 2009 first-placing competition dance to, “My Boyfriend’s Back,” sparked outrage due to costumes and choreography that emphasized young female dancers’ bodies. Within the dance community, mixed feelings emerged due to the sexualization of these dancers, but also their intricacy and skill level. They had incredible body control, flexibility, and speed for their age. Nowadays it is common to see 8-10 year olds in revealing costumes–sporting sparkly bra tops and booty shorts. A wide range of sexualization occurs at competitions, and only certain studios have policies requiring “age appropriate” themes, music, and costumes.
The aesthetic quality of dance, the training environment, and sexualization leave competition dancers more vulnerable to negative body imagery, low self esteem, and disordered eating. The American Psychological Association reported that sexualization of females affects their well-being through eating disorders and low self esteem. Applying this standard to competitive dance, young girls likely experience similar results through competitive sexualization. Anorexia and non-specified eating disorders are more prevalent in ballerinas. Dancers understand their body proportions better than the general population, but still want to be thinner. The mental health of dancers can deteriorate without careful structures in place to protect and support them.
Ranging from 3 to 18 years old, the youth competitive dance scene deals with a highly vulnerable population. Similar to gymnastics, competition dance aesthetics and training expectations create autonomy concerns for minors. Young children may not be physically or psychologically mature enough to realize when a competitive dance environment is harming them.
Students commonly begin dancing at age 5 or younger. These dancers depend on their parents for initial enrollment in dance classes. Unless parents have done extra research into the program and teachers, they usually know little about the studio’s culture.
Each studio varies drastically in policies and expectations because private dance studios are unregulated. With no overarching regulations, studio directors develop their own training guidelines and staff expectations. Individual studios are in charge of creating safe spaces for children. Without trained medical personnel on staff, the directors must keep dancer beneficence a priority by implementing safe practices in the classroom.
Once on a studio competition team, dancers are fully engulfed in the competitive dance world. Students are expected to always attend class, practice choreography, and dedicate themselves to their team. They forget what life looks like without constant dance. If young students are overworked or overwhelmed, they might not realize it because they are so accustomed to their busy dance schedule. If young students are uncomfortable, they might not speak up due to peer pressure or fear of removal from choreographed dances. Teachers have extreme influence, which creates questions of whether dancer autonomy is free of coercion. Once in the competitive dance world, it is very difficult to leave.
Within the search for dance aesthetics, a highly sought after quality in the competition scene is extreme flexibility. Safe practices on increasing flexibility are essential to extend the longevity of dancers’ careers. Due to a lack of standardized practices, training protocol is up to studio and teacher discretion. While some teachers educate dancers on what safe exercise looks like, others are unaware or choose to ignore these recommendations, chasing extreme flexibility instead of considering dancer safety. One practice, known as “over splitting” involves pushing the legs past a 180 degree split. Forcing flexibility in this manner can be dangerous. Improperly overstretching can lead to long term joint problems and lasting pain.
Overuse injuries are common because dancers repeat set movements and drill them over and over again. This repetition commits steps to memory, but can have detrimental effects on recovery. If the same muscles are constantly used, there is no time for rest and recovery. Especially in high action dances with large leaps and technical skills, dancers find themselves exhausted but continuing on even if their bodies might need a break.
Preventative medicine is left to the sidelines and dancers are unaware of essential measures such as proper warm-ups, cross training, and rest. Preventative care for the body is not always taught at studios. An expectation of “dancing through the pain” is prevalent. Dancers continue rehearsing with their injuries until they are physically incapable. Due to fear of repercussions, dancers may choose to delay care for injury. Covering up pain is expected, and a sense of necessity leads dancers to push through their pain. Sitting on the floor observing is a greater punishment than the pain itself.
Immediate change towards sustainable practices that avoid premature injury and emphasize mental health awareness are key to an enriching, positive competitive dance experience.
The American private dance industry must develop regulations and standardized expectations for private studios. Minimum requirements for mental health promotion and injury reduction need to be set. Students should feel encouraged to explain their mental and physical states without fear of harm or consequence. We must advocate for inclusive, safe dance spaces.
These tips can help:
- Develop studio guidelines and training procedures that emphasize dancer safety and wellbeing as top priority.
- Require precautionary hiring procedures, such as fingerprinting and background checks for instructors.
- Set aside time for staff training on care for the physical and mental health of dancers.
- Instruct students with care, noticing their mental, emotional, and physical needs.
- Refuse traditional training practices that negatively impact dancers and transition to positive teaching tips.
- Question studio policies that feel outdated and keep dancer interest in mind.
- Research studios and ask detailed questions before student enrollment.
- If concerns arise later, discuss these issues with studio directors. Though you may not have expertise in the subject of dance, you know your children best.
- Keep a watchful eye for concerning behavior and protect your children.
- Stay true to yourself. It is easy for young dancers to lose themselves in the competitive dance world.
- If something feels wrong, it likely is wrong.
- If your teachers are mean, if your teammates put each other down, or if you feel uncomfortable, trust that feeling.
- Dancers are artists and athletes, and dance is meant to be an artistic expression of self, not just an athletic feat of winning competitive prizes and awards.