When I was a young dancer I can remember getting my first subscription to Dance Magazine. In it was a column that I absolutely loved–one that answered some of the burning questions I had–but that I was afraid to ask. I always flipped to it first and eagerly read the advice…
That column was written by Dr. Linda Hamilton–who was kind enough to spend some time sharing her insights here with us on 4dancers today. I’m honored to share them with you now…
1. You have had a long, successful career helping dancers. What is one thing about them that stands out to you after working with them all these years?
There are many things that make dancers stand out from the crowd. However, if I have to narrow it down to one factor then I’d say it’s their extraordinary passion for dance. While most performers love what they do, serious dancers love it almost to excess. This can be a double-edged sword. It helps them to excel in dance because they are so eager to make progress. However, this same drive can also sabotage their best efforts if they ignore pain and fatigue.
2. What are the primary injuries and issues you have seen over the years in the dance world, and have they changed with time or do they remain largely the same?
Overall, the most common concerns in dance include overuse injuries, burnout, mental stress, and eating problems. The good news is that today’s dancers are better informed about a variety of health issues. The problem is that the training and choreography are much more intense. As a result, it takes more than dance class to survive. You also need to consider good work habits, cross-training, nutrition, weight control, and stress management. We’ve integrated these elements in our wellness program at New York City Ballet, and the weeks lost to disability have dropped almost in half.
3. You have done a good deal of research during the course of your career…what was the most surprising thing you found?
The biggest surprise was how similar dancers are around the world. We compared dancers from Western Europe, China, Russia and the United States and found that they were all experiencing the same mental and physical stresses. Isn’t that amazing? The main factor that separates dancers, regardless of the country, is how pro-active their schools and companies are in terms of preventing these problems. Fortunately, the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science is a wonderful resource that can help you get up to speed. I highly recommend becoming a member (www.iadms.org).
4. How did you begin writing for Dance Magazine?
Writing for Dance Magazine coincided with my becoming a licensed clinical psychologist. I wanted to focus on the entertainment industry after working with different performers at a clinic that specialized in the area. However, I knew that dancers can have a hard time discussing problems because the training rewards you for being stoic. So the idea of an advice column where dancers could write to me and ask for help without using their real names held great appeal. I proposed the column to Dance Magazine and it’s been running ever since. It’s been highly rewarding for me on a personal level. More important, I hope it’s shown dancers that reaching out when you have a problem can be empowering.
It’s like going home! I grew up at City Ballet and performed with them for almost two decades. Helping to develop and implement the wellness program is like a dream come true. It allows me to bring everything I know about dance medicine to the Company. Now every young dancer receives an annual orthopedic, fitness, and nutritional screening to identify potential problems before they become serious. We also offer seminars when time permits, where I may discuss ways to prevent burnout. I’m also available for dancers who need more personalized help, such as recovering from an injury. It’s an honor to give back to the dance community that has brought so much joy and meaning to my life. To do this at City Ballet is a gift.
6. In your mission statement it says, “you no longer have to suffer for your art form to excel”. Can you explain what you mean by that?
It means that a lot of the suffering that occurred in the performing arts was due to lack of knowledge and resources. Dancers need to be thin but they can lose weight safely by knowing what to eat and how to cross-train. The same is true for working with your unique body type without getting injured, using mental skills to reduce performance anxiety and increase self-confidence, and knowing when to seek medical help to take advantage of that one-month magic healing period.
7. Are there any psychological issues that dancers tend to be more prone to?
I’d have to say perfectionism! Obviously, you need a hefty dose in order to practice the same dance steps over and over again. This trait is inborn and common in gifted individuals. The healthy aspects include high standards and the organizational skills to meet your goals. The less adaptive parts that can trip you up are never accepting anything less than perfection (which is unattainable) and looking at mistakes as a sign of failure rather than an opportunity to learn something useful. Perfection is an ideal, not a reality.
8. You have recently written a book called The Dancer’s Way. Who should read this book and why?
I think everyone in the dance community can benefit from the book, including dancers, teachers, directors, and healthcare specialists. I wrote it to help reduce occupational stress and achieve peak performance in any dance technique, not just ballet. It shows you how to develop a wellness program tailored to meet your unique needs, and includes New York City Ballet’s screening protocol and the resources to duplicate it. I just heard that The Royal Ballet is considering adopting it after reading the book. I also know that Jerry Mitchell, who’s choreographed numerous Broadway hits, wants to make it mandatory reading for his gypsies. It’s also being used by a number of dance schools and BFA programs. Frankly, it’s the book I wish I’d had when I was a performer.
9. Can you share a particularly meaningful moment from your career?
Actually, that question is easy to answer because it just happened. I was invited to speak at the first dance medicine conference in Monte Carlo, which happens to be the first city where I performed on tour as a 16 year-old dancer with New York City Ballet. I felt like my life had come full-circle. As a young dancer I had the honor of being introduced to Princess Grace. This time her daughter, Princess Caroline, was in the audience. It was a very special moment that brought two careers together in a highly meaningful way.
10. What is next on the horizon for you?
Well, it seems like I always have another project on the table. This time it’s focusing on my new website for all types of performers. I have monthly wellness tips on topics like self-esteem and dieting, surveys that target constant concerns such as technique, photos on different sources of occupational stress, and a daily discussion forum. It’s meant to provide both information and support. I invite everyone to visit, check out the tips and resources, and join me in the forum at www.wellness4performers.com. This is for YOU!
Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton is a clinical psychologist specializing in the performing arts. In addition to her private practice in Manhattan, Dr. Hamilton is the wellness consultant for New York City Ballet and The Ailey School. She writes a monthly advice column in Dance Magazine, and has three books that deal with occupational stresses in the entertainment industry. Dr. Hamilton’s website provides the community with useful tips and resources, as well as daily support in her discussion forum (www.wellness4performers.com).