Coping with rejection

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Rejection is a common part of being an artist. How do you manage your mental well-being? Susan Bendall finds out.


being a performer, especially in dance, demands so much beyond technique and  artistry. It takes real guts to put yourself out there day after day. From dance exams to auditions, training assessments and reviews – not to mention the ubiquitous mirror – the feedback is all around in one form or another. How do dancers put all of this into perspective and come out the other side whole and healthy? And how do you avoid undermining your own success?

I spoke with mental health coach, Will Centurion, about some of the approaches he uses when working with performers to overcome a range of issues, including  performance anxiety, by helping them improve their mindset. Centurion is a former musical theatre performer with a tranche of shows to his credit, including West Side Story, Aladdin and In the Heights. He also made the top 20 in So You Think You Can Dance in 2010. He now provides coaching to entire casts of musicals, pre-professional students, and individual performers. Recently, he has worked with casts of Hairspray and Moulin Rouge and is currently delivering a five-week bespoke course at Brent Street, covering topics such as performance psychology and audition rejection.

These areas are really fraught for most aspiring performers as well as seasoned professionals. So, there is generally a lot to unpack when looking at how to deploy self-regulation strategies when managing rejection in the arts. A self-regulation strategy is one that allows you to overcome a perceived threat in that moment.

Fun? Since when?

The last word you might think of when you enter the audition studio or any other competitive scenario is "fun". Centurion insists that by viewing these potentially stressful encounters as an opportunity rather than a reckoning, dancers allow themselves to have the distance and perspective to evaluate their own performances in a way that promotes growth, not terror or shame. He claims that when a person signs up for a career as a performer, inherent in this is an acceptance of hurdles such as auditions and other selection processes. He believes that these situations can be alleviated by a sense of playfulness.

I am sure that this concept might seem very alien to a ballet dancer facing "trial by audition", but many dance forms actually do call for dancers to move outside of their usual performance style and bring play into the room – auditions for contemporary, and obviously commercial dance jobs are likely to demand improvisations and voicework. Centurion challenges all dancers to enter into the experience with a sense of openness and play, as a way of dealing with these potentially threatening situations. He says that auditions are about “playing, not proving”.

“All I ever needed was the music and the mirror” (A Chorus Line)

Well, not quite.

Dancers need to develop empathy – not just for others but for themselves. They need to practice some kindness and understanding for themselves and where they are on their journey. Centurion uses a five-pronged approach to dealing with issues such as performance anxiety, negative self-talk and fear of failure.

1. Be aware of limiting beliefs

Instead, focus on your strengths. These might be technical, artistic, creative or something very personal (Centurion cites occasions when his Spanish ethnicity strengthened his pitch for a role or a win – e.g. by creating a duo-lingual monologue for his NIDA audition, or bringing his Flamenco skills to SYTYCD).

Self-evaluate rather than self-criticise,” he says. Also, “bring a sense of curiosity and play rather than a sense of judgement”. Remember that many of these negative beliefs are entrenched and may be related to experiences long past. Try to identify when you first encountered them and whether they have any real validity. Also consider whether your current coping methods are useful or are blocking you from dispelling these limiting beliefs.

2. Know your triggers

Work to understand what emotionally and mentally disrupts you in threatening situations. Practise self-regulation in whatever way works for you. This might be a breathing practice or anything “that pulls you out of the red zone”. This might only be a momentary solution, but will give you the confidence to face the situation again. “Ride the wave,” says Centurion.

3. Know what self care is

Centurion is emphatic that self care isn’t about temporary "feel goods", it’s about sustainability. It isn’t about indulgence or pampering. A new haircut or a spending spree won’t cut it. Instead, self care gets to the core of your wellbeing and lets you recover and avoid burnout. He advises: “Be proactive; implement self care strategies before rather than after an injury or breakdown”. Everyone will have different ways of achieving and maintaining self care.

Photo courtesy the New Zealand School of Dance.
Photo courtesy the New Zealand School of Dance.

4. Create an ‘Effort/Reward’ balance

Celebrate the process. Centurion says that it’s important to appreciate any gains that are made, rather than having large goals that might not be possible for you to achieve now or that might be too far in the future. So, celebrate the fact that that you got that audition and performed to the best of your ability/got a call-back, rather than a disappointing outcome.

5. Learn to ‘de-role’

This is about delineating the performer and the person. For dancers this is particularly hard at times, especially when so many waking hours can be spent training and performing. “Keep open and multi-faceted," Centurion advises. "Have other hobbies that give you purpose."

Centurion has worked with musical theatre artists who are finishing in a role, helping them find their way through losing what might be a large part of their identity. Clearly attaching all your worth to a role, an audition or an assessment can’t be healthy. Resist myths such as “If you’re not all in, you don’t care enough”.

 Some general words of advice

It is a human tendency to hold on to negative feedback rather than attaching to positive feedback. Feelings of humiliation and embarrassment can really stick and follow you around. It might seem obvious, but on entering that audition room, keep a sense of yourself and resist comparing yourself with others. Remember that you have your own strengths and there is a reason that you are in that audition – and it’s never because you are a talentless wreck.

Treat these experiences as chances to learn about yourself. Use them to experience new environments and different ways of working. Auditions can give you a good sense of how various choreographers and teams work. They can be a means of honing your skills to suit a particular company, show or style.

Consider finding a peer or more experienced mentor with whom you can de-brief after an audition and make an action plan of some positive things that you can try next time. Remember also that an audition rejection may have nothing to do with you. And when you finally bury the resentment of the rejection for long enough to drag yourself out and see that show … with the ensemble of voluptuous blondes … you will realise that at 6’2” and with legs that go on forever, it just wasn’t the right fit for you.

Some questions that Will might ask those he coaches

What story is this rejection bringing up for you? e.g:  I’m not good enough

Where in your body do you feel it? e.g: Pit of the stomach

What emotion accompanies that feeling? Shame

How old is the part of you that feels that emotion? 16 years old

What does that younger part need from you right now? e.g: Reassurance, empathy, understanding, acceptance, etc.

How can you begin to do that?

For more on auditions, go here.

This article was first published in the April/May/June issue of 'Dance Australia'. Don't be late: stay up-to-date! Subscribe here.


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