When Visions of Sugarplums are Taken Away: Teaching Dancers to Deal with Disappointment

            “The getting back up is so much more important than the getting knocked down.” – David Dorfman on A Chance to Dance

            The school year has started, dance classes are now in full swing, and dance schools have begun to hold auditions for annual Nutcracker productions.  Students crowd into studios vying for coveted roles, knowing that there are many more parts for corps dancers than there are for soloists.  The auditions end, and the dancers go home and wait to find out which role or roles they will be dancing in this year’s production.

            Some students will be lucky and be given the roles they have pined for while others will be disappointed, and in some cases devastated, to learn that they will be dancing a corps part or a part they may have danced previously.
            Dance teaches much more than simply technique.  Dance teaches lessons of discipline, dedication, and responsibility, and dance teaches that sometimes life is not fair.  It is difficult for students to imagine that sometimes roles are not cast on the basis of talent or skill level.  Casting is quite often determined by available costumes, the number of students auditioning, dancers’ heights, and the amount of time necessary for costume changes.  Selecting a cast for large productions is often more a matter of logistics than skill levels.

            When the cast list is posted, there are going to be students who are disappointed.  Disappointment exists in dance and in life.  As the students get older, there will be bigger disappointments in their lives.  They will apply for scholarships that they do not receive, they will apply to colleges that do not accept them, they will have friends that prove to be disloyal, and there will be interviews or auditions for jobs they do not get.

            American psychoanalyst, teacher, and scholar, Heinz Kohut, believed that disappointment promotes growth because it motivates people to work harder and fight back.  Those who always receive what they want and hope for will be satisfied with the status quo and may not push themselves to improve, while those who are disappointed tend to push themselves harder, reach beyond previous boundaries, and grow as people.

            As logical and promising as that theory sounds, disappointment is still a very difficult part of life for both dance students and their parents.  A parent’s first reaction is to protect his or her child and try to speak with the director in an effort to “fix” the problem.  Intervening will not help build the child’s coping skills and will make the child believe that every disappointment can be fixed.
            It is important for the student and his or her parents to acknowledge the disappointment and talk about it.  There will undoubtedly be feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration, which are all understandable.  Experiencing these feelings and working through them will help the students learn to cope with disappointments and setbacks in the future and make them stronger individuals.  After dealing with the initial feelings of disappointment, it is also important that the parent help the child focus upon his or her strengths and refocus the child’s energy on working toward future goals in dance.

            Not being cast in a coveted role is hard to accept, it is upsetting and frustrating, and it hurts.  However, standing back up, continuing to take pride in one’s dancing and working harder than before is how dancers grow and prepare themselves to be productive, mature adults who will persevere in spite of life’s obstacles.