Dance and mental health part 2

The role of the self in the creative process

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

A few months ago I wrote a blog post called “Reflections on dance and mental health”. I wanted to explore the connection between our minds and our creative process as dancers (or artists). It wasn’t per se connected to mental health, except that I really believe the two are very closely linked, impacting our ability to feel “free”. Whether that’s free in our personal or professional lives or in other roles we play… That was the connection I was seeking to understand. 

If you’re suffering from a moment of self-doubt, or feeling anxious and depressed, how does it affect your creative process? In my case: how is my mind controlling me when I dance? I decided to explore this topic further, looking more closely at “freestyle dance” (you could also call it improvisation) because I struggled with it for a long time, and only recently started feeling comfortable. I decided to go beyond my own experience, sending out a survey to other dancers and here we are. 

You better grab a drink and some snacks because it’s going to be a long read. 

Why explore the connection between freestyle and the mind?

Picture by Headspace

I realized what had mostly been holding me back when I was trying to freestyle were my own thoughts. My fears, my self-judgement, my self-criticism, perfectionism etc. and this started a thought process and questioning: could it be the same for others? Why do we feel this way? 

I also saw that my first blog post resonated with others, and I’ve since had many conversations on the topic that have confirmed my thoughts. Some people are still too much in their own heads about how they think they “should” be and what they “should” achieve. Others are further along in their journey and have reached a place where they feel much more free from pressure and those types of thoughts. 

Among these conversations a common thread seemed to occur: people were feeling frustrated in the beginning. They weren’t making enough progress, weren’t at the level they wanted to be, weren’t practicing enough (all thoughts I’ve had) or in some cases were told they weren’t good enough… And the very frustrations they were experiencing were perhaps what were preventing them from progressing.

But for people who were starting to free themselves of those thoughts, they seemed to feel so much better. More free of limitations and beliefs that weren’t serving them any purpose. Freed perhaps of their own self-judgment? Feeling more able to create. And it was liberating! You can see or hear it when you talk to people about their experience, the feeling that a weight has lifted.

It’s quite similar to a journey of personal growth/development. If you’ve ever experienced it you know that once you’ve changed or let go of something that wasn’t serving you it feels great. That feeling of having discovered a new way of seeing or doing things is exciting: revealing loads of new possibilities you hadn’t imagined before!

This is why I decided to look into the topic and dig a bit deeper and I went pretty far: back to my philosophy studies in high school, psychology and Buddhism to name a few. 

The connection between our mental state and our artistic abilities

Like I said I went deep and it revealed a lot of interesting information, but I want to try and keep it as simple as possible.

Our construct of ourselves

Basically our self or “ego” and how we perceive it is a totally constructed image. It’s a story we tell ourselves about who we are that starts when we’re young and is built around things like gender, ethnicity, nationality etc. It’s also very much influenced by culture and the environment we live in. It’s an “external concept” to our inner being which is just us the human, the bodies we live in.

This ego is busy with all sorts of stories: who we are, our place in society, who we want to become, how we can better ourselves etc… It’s there to help us survive and adapt to the circumstances of our life. 

Coupled with that is the idea that in our Western society we are primed to constantly be seeking self-improvement. This concept of being a better version of ourselves can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece, so it’s totally hard wired into our beings and our culture. (For more information you can read this fascinating book “Selfie: how the West became self-obsessed”).

The relationship between ego and creativity

When you understand the above, the struggle we’re experiencing as dancers (artists) suddenly starts to make sense, or at least to me it did. Why? To start with, we’re constantly trying to be better. 

Second, our mind or ego is telling us all sorts of stories about who we are, who we want to be, who we should be. When it comes to being an artist, which is often a very strong part of our identity, our ego is telling us that we need to perfect our art, become “the best” at it, “master” the style and so on. It’s got such a permanent conversation going on it’s hard to cut through the noise. 

And that’s exactly how we end back at square one: how do we manage to shut down the noise and just “be”? (Incidentally this is what Buddhists preach and why meditation is such a key pillar of their religion).

What were my assumptions about how our mind influences our dance (creative expression)?

Through my survey I wanted to get a better understanding of how other dancers manage to just be in a state of flow whilst they were freestyling so that they were fully enjoying themselves. And ultimately, understand what impact this had on their mind (or vice versa). 

As I developed the survey, I had several assumptions I wanted to test:

  • That freestyling allowed dancers to break free of conventions and feel “limitless”
  • That people felt inhibited by
    • Fear of judgment of others
    • Self-judgement
    • Over-thinking
  • That once people were able to connect when freestyling, they felt more “in-touch” with themselves through free expression, rather than something prescribed
  • That the ability to “let go” when freestyling is very closely tied to personal development and the rest of your life
  • That if you’re not in a good state of mind, you struggle to create

I’m really glad I developed the survey and also grateful to those who answered, because not all of my assumptions were right. In total I received 13 responses in French and English, all anonymous so I have no idea whether men or women, experienced dancers, or what their predominant style is.

The general trends 

Interestingly enough, people’s primary goals with freestyling were:

  • To go with the flow and be in the moment” – 76%
  • Followed by “to express myself freely without thinking” – 69%. 

The primary fear or inhibitor was 

  • Judgment of others” –  70%
  • Judgment of myself” – 61%

When freestyling, people predominantly felt

  • Feeling of freedom – 77%
  • Being fully present in the moment – 77%

The surprising replies

I was really glad to see that there were still 30% and 29% of people who didn’t experience those fears or inhibitors, which was a positive surprise to me. Another positive surprise was that 77% of people felt free and fully present in the moment when freestyling. I’m of course glad this was the outcome, but I had expected more people to be experiencing a struggle and therefore not able to give that answer.

Lastly, some people said they didn’t experience any struggles with freestyle, which completely disproved my theory that this was hard for everyone. And that’s great news by the way! 🙂  Some people are already confident in themselves, in a good place mentally, don’t overthink these things, go with the flow… And I’m super happy about that. 

Things you can do to feel more “free”

If you’ve read this far then you’re an absolute hero! Or maybe you’ve just scrolled down to the interesting part, that’s ok too. 😉

All of the above (as well as my own experience) has given me lots of food for thought, and of course it seemed only normal to share some tips on what you can try if you’re feeling a bit stuck and want to move beyond it.

  • Remember that you control your mind, and not the other way around. Our images of ourselves are completely constructed, and while that may seem a bit weird and hard to grasp, use it to remind yourself that when you’re doubting yourself, or worrying that you can’t get a move etc. – none of it really matters. You can control the narrative you tell yourself so try turning it around. Think about how much you’ve accomplished so far as a dancer (artist). What have you learned? What are you good at?
  • Be kind to yourself. We all struggle with our inner critic, the voice that tell us “we should be better”, “we should practice more” and all that. According to Marshall Rosenberg, “should” is actually one of the most violent words we use towards ourselves. Replace the “should” with “I want to” and see how that changes your perspective. Allow yourself to be shit and to struggle, to be a beginner at certain things, and practice self-compassion.
  • Find or create a safe space to practice. That could be dancing by yourself in the comfort of your own home to start with, and slowly progressing to a studio with mirrors. Or it could be with a small circle of friends you trust and whose judgment you aren’t afraid of. Or it could be in the dark corner of a nightclub where no one can really see you. Whatever it is, try and find that place that will allow you to grow.
  • Connect with what inspires you. Why do you dance? Is it the music you love, the way you can move your body, the self-expression, the release? Whatever brought you to it in the first place, don’t forget that. Connect to it before you start trying to improvise and tap into that. Don’t come from a place of “I have to be good at freestyling” but rather “I want to fully enjoy the music”.
  • Put things into perspective. Remember that all great dancers had to start somewhere. None of them were born being amazing at what they do, winning battles and performing in exciting venues. Just like you, it took them time and work to get to where they are today. And most likely, they also go through the same struggles and don’t always like what they see. So rather than compare yourself to them, remember that they too have been through struggles.
  • Enjoy the process. Yes it’s going to be difficult sometimes, but don’t forget that you’re learning, and learning is exciting. You’re acquiring new skills, creating new connections in your brain, exploring movement and new ways of expressing yourself. When you find yourself frustrated, take the time to step back and realize you’re learning and growing. This is also a great way to build more mental resilience.
  • Don’t let perfect get in the way of good. For those of us that are perfectionists that can also be part of the struggle: we’re constantly striving to be better than before, the best, outdo ourselves… But this can become exhausting. To break free of this try asking yourself questions like: “what is good enough?” and “how will I know when it’s good enough”? This might bring things into perspective a little bit more and allow you to let go.
  • Talk to people. Don’t forget you’re not alone in this. Ask questions, share your experience with others, find out what others have done to overcome it or what their process is… Anything can help.

On that note, I’m going to end this hugely long blog post. I hope that it’s helped you in some way and that you found it interesting. And remember, keep on dancing and being you.

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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