How to Survive Burn-Out

Every dancer has heard of it. Every dancer fears it. But few dancers actually have the tools to understand what it truly means to be burnt out. I've spent so many years of my life diving passionately into this career; perfecting my technique daily, reading and educating myself through dance periodicals, watching Youtube videos, and much more. I love dance more than most dancers that I know. For this very reason, how could it be possible that I ever would experience burnout within my passion. Well, it happened. And I am recovering from it. How did I get burnt out? What did I do to identify it? And what am I doing to make sure that my career as a dancer doesn't escape me?

It took me a long time to realize that I was burnt out. This wasn't a slow realization that occurred over time. It was more of a BAM! in your face type of moment. As many of my readers know, I was selected to choreograph for the National Choreographers Initiative this past July. After suffering an injury dancing in Oakland back in May, I took some time off to allow my body to recover. What I didn't realize was that my mind needed more recovery than my body did. I took an entire month off before starting to get back in shape. By the time that I had arrived at NCI, I was about 70% where I would hope to be if I was prepping for a performance. Since I was choreographing, I didn't need to be in performance shape. I figured that I would show up nearly there and spend the weeks that I was creating my piece working towards 100%. On the third day of company class, I noticed that my back wasn't quite as recovered as I had hoped it would be after taking the time off that I did. But instead of panicking like I may have in the past, I calmed myself with the knowledge that my choreography wouldn't be affected by my ability to physically perform. Keeping that in mind, I choreographed on
Leading my dancers in rehearsal at NCI
my dancers for the remainder of the day while in a bit of pain. I also noticed that I was starting to feel that something had changed mentally for me.

At the end of this gratifying workday, I called my partner as usual. But what came out of my mouth in our conversation was quite unusual. While I have had greatly gratifying experiences in my freelancing work over the past season, I realized that I hadn't enjoyed much of the time I had spent working in the studio or finding work in over a year, aside from performing onstage. Taking class and rehearsing without the pressure of surviving until the performance was a great relief. I spent that day conducting my dancers in joyful bliss. Feeling this way in the studio was something I hadn't experienced in over a year. How was this possible? I am in love with dance! But it was true. I instantaneously recognized that I was suffering from burnout.

You can see the emotional exhaustion - flying home from Oakland
The question at this point was, "What caused my burnout?" The roots of my affliction stemmed from one nasty seed. Fear. I spent my entire 2013 - 2014 season dancing in fear. The first day of my gig with Barak Ballet, my rental car broke down on PCH in rush hour traffic. I did a gig in West Virginia where I was told that I was going to stay with a host family, only to be left in a motel down the street from a handful of strip clubs (somebody even knocked on my door the first night). In San Francisco, I learned 2 ballets in a short period of time, only to find myself fighting to protect my body when being rushed through the rehearsal process. At yet another job, I learned an entire three act ballet in five 3-hour days to perform the role the following week. To cap out an exhausting season, I found myself living like a homeless person in Oakland and San Francisco, all while rehearsing in dangerous conditions. There was more, but I will leave it at that. Fear drove me deeply into burnout. Fear for my safety. Fear for my physical health. And fear that I was going to burn a bridge in many situations that unionized company dancers would likely walk out on. But one of the worst fears of all that kept me driving forth throughout this year of burnout was the fear that I couldn't pay my bills.

In my opinion, the main reason that dancers burnout is because they are forced to push forward when they are clearly afraid, tired, hurting, or more. If you are enjoying yourself and feeling rewarded by dance, it is almost impossible to burnout. But if you are pushing yourself to continue dancing because of pressure to perform, parents, promotion, pay, or pain, you are likely on the easy road to burning out. This past year while experiencing one of my most successful years working as a freelancer, I recognized something was wrong early on. Reading my blog back in October, it was clear that I was already pushing my limits with stress in my career. I hadn't spent more than 5 weeks at home in over 2 years. I missed financial stability. And I was exhausted by the constant need to stand up to employers and explain that, while I was hired short-term and there was no investment in me long-term, they needed to respect the limitations of the human body (proper rehearsal procedures, appropriate rehearsal time, etc). But back in October, it was the beginning of a new season and finding a full-time company position, at that time, was an impossibility. Beyond that, teaching jobs were mostly filled and I was limited in my options to find work. For these reasons, I continued to press forth and fight a battle not for my career, but survival.

Now that I recognized the reasons for my burnout, it was time for me to take action. Experiencing the trauma of overexerting and over-stressing your mind and body often woos you to play games with yourself. I was often depressed and considered ending my dance career altogether. I, even, found myself playing this dangerous game where I would ask myself, "Would I be upset if I just broke my ankle right now," or "What would I do if I never took a dance class again?" Once you start going down this road, it can be a slippery slope. My first task was to stop playing these games with myself. I also had to recognize that the pain from my injury, and a subsequent follow-up injury from compensating for my back, wasn't helping the situation. I stopped taking class and started taking care of myself.

My view while working to reclaim my Sunday guilt-free
Another major part of my burnout was the fact that I was working night and day. Class in the morning, gym afterwards, come home and look for work, update my website, teach class, come home and blog, look for more work, and worry about how this will all implode if I get hurt. This was a standard day for me. I, often, wouldn't even take a day off from this schedule unless I was working at a gig. I needed to stop looking for work and to let my information sit still for awhile. Beyond that, I needed to find ways to relax and smell the roses. For nearly 3 years, I couldn't just sit around all day on a Sunday watching TV, going for a walk, or sleeping in without feeling overwhelming, gut-punching guilt. I needed to take a break from the life that I had created to survive as a freelance dance artist.

I guess the big question here is, where am I today? I'm getting better. My body is feeling better. My mind is getting better. And I still love dance. I have been really lucky that an amazing job offer came my way right as I realized that I was burnt out. What I have found is that the best way to work through burnout is to lighten the load of that item that is burning you out. So many young dancers have felt the pain of burnout and fell completely out of a potentially beautiful career in dance. I feel that it is important to keep working on what you love while burnt out, just at a different capacity. I am currently working towards getting back in shape. Just at a much slower pace than I would typically do. I am focusing on keeping my body healthy, instead of beating it back into shape. I have also been lucky to have a renewed focus on dance through my choreography. Also, I am allowing myself to take more than a day off in between taking class if I feel it is necessary. If you keep your burnt out activity far enough away to allow for recovery, but close enough to allow that recovery to involve the work that has burnt you out, I truly believe that you will not become so overwhelmed that you push that activity out of your life permanently. I am also working with a new dance organization and exploring a new side of my dance career that is more stable and could lead to an eventually permanent transition after I am done with my dance career. I find that working on something that is gratifying, while working on something that is challenging helps to lessen the burden of this dangerous state.

At this point, I can't come out and say that I have survived burnout. But I can share my process and offer advice that has helped me throughout this process. While my current job doesn't have me dancing full-time, I am still keeping professional dance performance in my path. But instead of focusing on getting back onstage in an unhealthy way, I am focusing on healing my physical health and approaching the next stage of my performance career from a place of positive mental health. When I am back on top, in regards to my physical and emotional health, I am lucky to be in a place where I can continue to work in whatever capacity that I wish. Once again, I find myself hopeful to continue enjoying a professional performance career beyond the 12 years that I have already attained. But for now, I step back into my healing and continue to defend myself from that career-threatening injury called burnout.

Sitting on Flattop Mountain this weekend overlooking Anchorage, AK


  1. Interesting. Kudos for making it this far and for overcoming what could halt endeavors and ambitions for most people. Sad to hear about the car, though. Even if it was a rental, it shouldn't get dilapidated in that way at the most inopportune time. However, it's nice to hear that you've find your way around it.

    Marian Shaw @ GT Technical Consultants

  2. Thanks for the comment Marian. Life and passion is always a work in progress. We can easily get overwhelmed and overworked in any area of our life. As for the car, Fox-Rent-A-Car had the most horrible service. The company cancelled the 3-week rental and moved to Hertz.