A year ago, I was about to compete for the first time. I also had a 6 mo’s old baby, two careers, three dogs and a husband. Overworked doesn’t begin to cover it! I was always tired, and I don’t mean just tired, I mean weary and aching to your bones, your eyes feel like sandpaper, you’re almost always about to vomit tired. The tired you can probably only feel if you have an infant or a chronic illness. But I kept pushing and pushing. I was terrified that having my baby would mean I would lose my belly dance career. Sure, Sadie does it, but she’s Sadie! I’m just your average beginner professional in a small town with more dancers than work, juggling full-time motherhood with part-time dance work. I put a ton of pressure on myself to get right back into dancing, to teaching, and to compete so I could have video (ideally a title) to help secure jobs. And not just for fun, I was trying to feed my family. That is when I experienced bellydance burnout.
Well, a year later, I look back on that competition with sadness and frustration, and I almost quit dancing entirely. My own lessons went on hold, I stopped looking for or accepting gigs, and I cut back teaching from 6 classes a week to 2. Why? It wasn’t the competition, or how I did in it, but the constant stress I put myself under to succeed. I got to the point where dancing made me feel miserable. It was all about getting better, fighting to be relevant and hire-able, and the more I tried, the worse I felt like I got. I’ve always struggled with stage fright, which throws off the timing and flow of my dance (the adrenaline time warp phenomenon plus muscle tension), and the extra pressure and insecurity of post-baby tummy (even under a mesh cover my stretch marks were still visible for the first year) made it almost intolerable. The negativity in the local scene, the loss of my main weekly gig because a new owner had found other dancers to replace me while I was on maternity leave and didn’t feel like messing with the schedule to give me my job back… so many factors went into it, but the end result? Total bellydance burnout. Burnout is defined by Psychology Today as a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. I was a textbook case.
Now, I’m finding balance and how to dance for me again. Here’s what I’ve learned, in case any of you ever find yourself in a similar boat. Evaluate why you dance in the first place. I focused on what was making me feel good about dancing, and for me, that was sharing empowerment and confidence to women around me. I started studying more for fitness than for performing, and teaching more dance for fitness than technique classes, only accepting private students as I liked for that. I instantly had more energy and looked forward to my classes when I shifted my focus to the niche that suits me. I also went back to my roots and have been working on projects about representations of belly dance in art through the ages (stay tuned). There are so many reasons to dance, and whatever reason you have is the right reason. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked into ambitions that aren’t truly fulfilling to you just because you think they should be.
Evaluate the energy around you. There are amazing, supportive, loving professionals around you, and there are toxic, catty dancers that want to see you fail, and every level of personality in between. Put your time and energy into the former and walk away from the latter. It is instant relief when you feel comfortable and safe in your dance community. I cut out the negative people I’d let in and only spend time and energy one those I know care about my well being. I spent time with other moms through a baby wearing class I put together and found comfort in seeing how universal parenting issues are, especially for fellow moms trying to balance being the primary caregiver with a career.
Stop trying so damn hard! At the peak of my bellydance burnout, I danced a small, charity event with local dancers. I wanted to back out, but I honor my commitments, so I did it anyway. But because I was so deep in bellydance burnout, I couldn’t manage to care if I danced perfect or just good enough to not disgrace the art form. To date, it is the best performance I think I’ve ever given. I was so relaxed, that all my usual “issues” were absent and my strengths were able to shine through. I highly recommend finding friends and just dancing with/for them, and see what a difference it makes to your technique. Only practice as much as is healthy for YOUR life. That’s a huge one. As a teacher, of course, I will agree practice makes perfect. But practice with too much pressure can kill your dance. It is pressure to practice when you don’t honestly have the time or energy, and only you can truly know how much is too much, too little or just right. It took me over a year to see how ridiculous my expectations were and to set boundaries for myself. The day I told myself I’d rather have the energy to play with my son when he got up from his nap then too spend the hour practicing (vs getting a break myself) was the day I started enjoying dancing again. I just had to cut back how often I did it to balance my life. Now I feel like my practices are not only more enjoyable, they are more effective. If you’ve ever burnt out, I hope this helps you find your way around that wall. (And for goodness sake, if you’re an about to be or new mama, find a teacher that knows about pre and post-natal care! Not every dancer does and it’s so important for your physical well-being to have the instruction that takes your physiology into account!) What are your favorite practices to prevent bellydance burnout? What have you found helps to keep your balance?
Yavanna is a dancer, teacher, fitness enthusiast, and a professional artist. She teaches belly dance and belly dance fitness in Savannah, GA where she resides with her husband, their 18 most old son, 3 dogs, and a cat. You can find her dance work at www.facebook.com/yavanna and her artwork (including a line of belly dance graphic tanks) at http://kittncaboodle.wix.com/