Passion for dance is important: as teachers we want our students to be passionate, love what they do, and get involved at every opportunity. But is it really good for dancers to eat, sleep and breathe dance? What happens when passion turns into an obsession?
Research in mainstream psychology suggests that we are passionate about an activity when we love it, value it highly, and spend a lot of time on it. However, we can be more harmoniously or more obsessively passionate about an activity that we love. Harmonious passion (HP) means that we choose to engage in dance freely because we love it, but we don’t have any contingencies attached to it, and we can stop dancing at any time if we no longer enjoy it. Obsessive passion (OP) is a more rigid type of persistence, where dance takes up a large proportion of our identities and we find it difficult to stop. Often, people high in OP attach certain contingencies like self-esteem or social acceptance to the activity, so if they stop dancing they may feel that they have lost their identity and their sense of self-worth. Importantly, we have levels of both HP and OP about dance, but the two types of passion can have quite different outcomes. Research has shown that higher levels of HP result in greater enjoyment, satisfaction, well-being, and long-term involvement in dance. In contrast, higher levels of OP are associated with more negative feelings, anxiety, burnout and injury. So it’s easy to see which type of passion would be preferable among student dancers, but is there anything we can do as teachers to affect this? We may not be able to influence whether or not our students are passionate about dance in general, but we may be able to help prevent passion from becoming an obsession.
A growing body of research in dance and music suggests teachers can help to facilitate the development of HP by adopting autonomy-supportive behaviours. Autonomy essentially means that students feel they have a choice and a voice in class. You can help your students to feel more autonomous by giving them choices in class, such as the focus of an exercise, groups to work with, musical accompaniment or incorporating improvisation into technique exercises. You can also explain the rationale behind exercises. Helping students understand what an exercise is for or about will encourage them to set their own goals based on this insight which they can monitor and update. As a result, when students’ autonomy is supported, they are more likely to feel that they are engaging in dance for autonomous and harmonious reasons. On the other hand, very controlling behaviours from teachers may facilitate the development of OP by reducing students’ feelings of autonomy, choice and control. It’s also worth encouraging dancers who seem somewhat obsessive to pursue other interests and friendships outside of dance so that their identities are formed from many activities and relationships. Dance may be their favourite activity, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all!
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Dr Imogen Aujla completed her PhD at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and is now based at the University of Bedfordshire as Course Coordinator of the MSc Dance Science programme.