The cost of perfection

The Dance World in 2017
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March 14, 2017
Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing. Harriet Braiker, clinical psychologist

Eleven-year-old Zoe Ridge can’t stop repeating herself.

“Sorry,” she says yet again, her voice strained and her eyebrows pulled together.

She has forgotten the same correction for the third run this class. The music stops and her teacher looks down.

“Go grab a drink and take a break,” her teacher says.

Instead, Zoe keeps moving, going over each correction in detail as her legs pull her around the room with dizzying speed. She won’t stop until it’s perfect. Today is Wednesday. By Saturday she will have finished the week with 36 hours of dancing.


As the world of professional dance becomes more competitive than ever, dancers in training and professional dancers alike obsess over unrealistic and unattainable goals. This push toward perfection can stunt dancers’ growth and cause serious emotional trauma. In order to find success rather than lose themselves, dancers must learn to translate their perfectionistic tendencies into a search for excellence.

"Perfectionism is the setting of excessively high standards of performance in conjunction with a tendency to make overly critical self-evaluations." International Association for Dance Medicine and Science

According to a study published by the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, perfectionism is the setting of excessively high standards of performance, in conjunction with a tendency to make overly critical self-evaluations.

“Since perfectionists never, or almost never, reach their goals, there is a constant discrepancy between where they currently see themselves as being and where they want (and typically feel like they ought) to be,” said the author, Sanna Nordin-Bates, Ph.D.

This discrepancy often results in negative thoughts and emotions that can often be paralyzing to the progress and achievement of dancers.

(Haley Hilton)

Nordin-Bates, who is a Fellow of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, told the Universe that parents can have a big impact on their children when it comes to perfectionistic tendencies.

“Many dancers are put into dance by their parents (often mothers with their own interest in dance) at a very early age. For some (though certainly not all), this may involve some parental pressures to be perfect: a sort of ‘rubbing-off-effect’ from parent to child, with dance as the arena where perfection is to be displayed,” Nordin-Bates said.

According to the American Psychological Association, socially prescribed perfectionism—believing that others (including parents) will value you only if you are perfect—has been associated with depression and other problems, including suicide. In cases of depression, dancers often experience a disinterest in dancing. They “fall out of love” with the activity and burnout at a young age.

Other negative consequences of perfectionism include disordered eating and social physique anxiety. In an earlier study, published in the Journal of Psychology of Sport and Exercise in May 2001, perfectionism accounts for 41 percent of social physique anxiety for female athletes. For dancers, this is particularly pertinent because so much emphasis is placed on physical appearance. This focus leads to severe self-restraint, compulsive exercise and an obsession with weight and shape, the study said.

"Perfectionism accounts for 41 percent of social physique anxiety for female athletes." Journal of Psychology of Sport and Exercise

Some negative consequences of eating disorders include heart failure, reduction of bone density, muscle loss and weakness, severe dehydration, fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Each of these things can be a detriment to the ultimate growth and success of dancers. Several also cause injuries, and some of the consequences can endure for life.

Veteran Demi-Soloist for the Houston Ballet, Jim Nowakowski says perfectionism is an occupational hazard for nearly all professional dancers.

“I think in general dancers and artists are perfectionists,” said Nowakowski, who was a top three finalist in season 12 of “So You Think You Can Dance.”  “It’s just who we are.”

 In research published by the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 85 percent of the dancers surveyed had moderate to extreme perfectionistic tendencies.

“Dancers with perfectionistic tendencies experienced more debilitative imagery, greater cognitive and somatic anxiety, and lower self-confidence than other dancers,” concluded the authors about the study that examined contemporary and ballet dancers in England, Canada and Australia. 

In order to find happiness and balance in life, dancers need to find a way to cope with perfectionism and channel it into something more constructive. Nowakoski and Justine Lutz, a seasoned commercial dancer in Los Angeles, offered their thoughts on how to cope with perfectionism in order to achieve success in their careers.

(Haley Hilton)


In his early years of training Nowakowski was extremely hard on himself, and as he grew his self-critical tendencies only intensified.

“I am still learning how to work on this now as a professional,” Nowakowski said. The 26-year-old dancer who performed as a company member of Travis Wall’s Shaping Sound, ‘Dance Reimagined,’ added, “We all have to learn how to adapt and how to cope with (perfectionism) . . . Because at the end of the day we love it and it has to be fun. We are not machines or robots and that is why artists are beautiful.”

Although Lutz has performed with artists such as Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Ed Sheeran, she has felt the burden of perfectionism during her own career. Though feelings of fear and inadequacies still creep up, she works to find balance in seeking excellence rather than perfection. 

“I have for sure not hit my peak, and I am for sure not totally where I want to be, but I am always appreciative and grateful for everything that I am doing and how far I have come,” said Lutz, who has performed on FOX’s “Glee,” American Music Awards, MTV Awards and other professional programming.

According to the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, striving for excellence is the pursuit of challenging, yet attainable goals. 

“Because goals are difficult to reach, high levels of dedication and hard work are necessary." International Association for Dance Medicine

“Because goals are difficult to reach, high levels of dedication and hard work are necessary. However, because they are possible to reach, a positive sense of challenge can nurture one’s motivation and the satisfaction of a job well done can be experienced,” the association said.

Lutz said she tries to readjust her natural tendency toward harmful perfectionism by reminding herself that while she will never be perfect, excellence is an attainable goal that will always move her forward.


Dance teachers can improve student mindsets by letting them know perfection is not expected, but progress toward attainable goals is. Kim Delgrosso, part-owner of Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, Dance Award’s 2012 national studio of the year, said finding balance within life can be helpful in dealing with perfectionism and avoiding burnout.

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“I worry that the dancers that live here lack life balance. If you skip seasons in your life, there is a detriment to you,” said Delgrosso. “You end up going back to that season later. I feel that it is wise for some dancers to take some time off and see what else they are good at, and not be completely defined by the six hours a day that they dance.”

Many dancers, like Zoe Ridge, dream of dancing professionally one day, but can be affected by the harsh realities of perfectionism. Delgrosso, who directed professional dancers’ Jenna Johnson, Chelsea Hightower and Julianne Hough, responds to student aspirations like this with positivity and caution. She wants her students to know that success at a young age is not necessary for a successful future.

“The dancers don’t need to peak until they are 18." Kim Delgrosso

“The dancers don’t need to peak until they are 18,” Delgrosso said. “I try to tell the parents that there is no reason for their dancers to peak at age 10. You have to understand that my job is to develop these dancers so that they have a career or a full scholarship to college by the time they are 18.”

Bates said that in order to balance between perfection and excellence, dancers need to find motivation in intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, parts of their lives.

“The key is to stay open-minded, flexible, have high but reachable goals, keep collaborating, and to find one’s motivation in intrinsic (joy, interest, togetherness) rather than extrinsic (being the best, avoiding mistakes, a sense of ‘ought to’) factors,” Nordin-Bates said.

Perfectionism, and its associated challenges like eating disorders, anxiety, burnout and injury, are all symptoms of dangerous and unattainable expectations. Delgrosso said if Zoe and other young dancers can learn to develop a balance between perfectionism and excellence, they have a good chance of reaching their dreams without losing balance.

Zoe Ridge, Brightyn Brems and Bryten Belka perform, "She Used to be Mine." Choreography by Alexa Moffett. (Ben Sontag & Haley Hilton)
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