DR SANNA NORDIN-BATES
Tell me about yourself and your background.
I did a lot of dance growing up, and lots of sports as well, mostly aesthetic sports. Then I moved from Sweden to England to do psychology and sport science as a joint honours Bachelor’s degree at the University of Birmingham and had planned to do a Master’s degree but instead fell into doing a PhD because somebody else said turned it down! So I did that for 3 years with Jennifer Cumming. It was supposed to be imagery in sports and exercise, but when I started Jennifer explained that she had been doing some research in dance using sport psychology questionnaires but that they didn’t really work for dancers, and would I like to do my PhD on dance imagery instead. So, that was an easy thing to say yes to! And I’ve stuck to dance ever since, with the odd detour into aesthetic sports now and then.
After my PhD I moved because I knew it was a good idea to do post-doctoral study in a different place, so I did around two years at Middlesex University and the London Sport Institute, which was a very flexible position, so I could finish writing up projects and essentially pursue whatever I wanted. I also did some freelance academic teaching – dance science at the Royal Academy of Dance and Cambridge Contemporary Dance Studios and so on. Then, having helped Emma Redding to write the funding bid, I worked at Laban on the CAT project for three and a bit years and I also did psychology services for English National Ballet and Royal Ballet Upper School during that time.
And then I left; I’d always planned to return to Sweden. I took a lectureship at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, around 2011-2012, where I’ve been ever since. I’m also on the board for the Professional Dancer Education at the Ballet Academy and teach psychology for 16 year olds at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, and sometimes some audition preparation for the 12 year olds as well.
And I’ve started dancing again!
So you’ve come full circle! You’ve been working in dance psychology for over a decade. How did you first get interested in psychology?
I don’t really know! I remember occasional things that happened in the equestrian vaulting team I was in as a teenager, that have later come back to me and made me think, ‘ah, that’s what that’s called, that’s the psychological term’, or, ‘oh that's probably why she reacted like that’. Or I think about my coaches that I had, ‘oh that's what that leadership style is called and that's why we didn't feel so great when he did those things’, so I remember things like that but I also was adamant that I was going to do sports nutrition at university, so I honestly don’t really know. But in a way, everyone’s interested in people, right? Everyone loves understanding themselves and others and why they behave or feel the way they do so in that sense it feels quite fundamental.
Absolutely. What sort of topics do you tend to focus on in your research?
The topic has changed since doing my PhD. I do the odd bit of work on imagery but I mainly focus on perfectionism. I’ve done lots of projects in perfectionism – with disordered eating, with creativity, in relation to motivation. Also lately we’ve started getting into more discussions and planning to do with abuse and safeguarding in dance and aesthetic sports, so that's where it will be going next in relation to perfectionism – that feels like the next important frontier.
Before we talk about that in more detail, can you tell me about any training or CPD that you’ve done in relation to your applied work?
I rather fell into applied work. I was asked to do psychology services at English National Ballet, and at the Royal Ballet School as well, via physios and health departments, so that wasn’t something I actively pursued, and I look back now and think there are so many things I would do differently. So most of my training and CPD has been at conferences and then when I was working towards being recognised as a chartered psychologist with the British Psychological Society, that process helps you with self-reflection and how to structure your work. I did three quarters of a professional development course in psychotherapy which is the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) stage 1 for elite sport when I moved back to Sweden, which I didn’t finish because I had a baby. I also did an instructor course in mindfulness.
But I don't work with individuals since I moved to Sweden and that was quite a deliberate decision. In academia you have to balance teaching, research and administrative work, and with applied work, I knew after I left the UK that I couldn’t do everything and do it properly so I needed to scale down. I still give talks to organisations or at dance conferences, and I do psychology at the Swedish Royal Ballet School, but that’s teaching, I do it as part of a course, so I don’t do individual consultation since I moved here.
Have you found that there are particular psychological issues that schools often ask you to talk about with their students?
Performance anxiety is a bit of a favourite, and also with individuals whom I’ve worked with in the past. But the thing is, people say they need help with performance anxiety, but whether it’s actually as simple as that is really varied. Often performance anxiety – or stress for that matter, it’s pretty much the same reaction in the body – occasionally you’d be able to work with it and deal with it in and of itself, so look at reasons for the performance anxiety and work on things like problem-focused coping styles and imagery skills.
But quite often performance anxiety is a symptom, because you get more anxious if you are, for example, quite ego-oriented, so then we would probably talk more about motivation and what are your sources of feeling successful and why is that. It's often a symptom of perfectionism and so then we might talk about perfectionism and again what are your goals, why is that important, do you want to reach those goals or do you feel like you have to reach them; what would happen if you let yourself ‘fail’. So anxiety is an important manifestation but very often the actual root is something more deep-seated that is therefore more important to work with, which often the dancer isn’t aware of until we start talking about it.
Have you noticed any trends in psychology over the years?
More recently, schools are more interested mental health, safeguarding and also quite a lot of people have got their eyes open to mindfulness. I teach it as one of many topics in psychological skills when I teach on academic courses. I also teach it if we do audition preparation, mindfulness as a foundation and in relation to that we discuss anxiety symptoms, we might discuss how to prepare for an audition, what to do when you’re in the room.
I’d say safeguarding is a key focus at the moment, and it should be, it’s long overdue, and people are getting their eyes open either by shock from seeing headlines in newspaper articles or through #MeToo and related ripples on the water. In a way safeguarding is nothing new, because we've been researching problems for a long time: dance psychology came out of quite a problem-focused space, mostly looking at injury and disordered eating at the beginning and then it became a little bit more neutral, more similar to sport psychology, and it could be motivation, and psychological skills, how to build self-confidence and things like that. Now I think there’s been a bit of a swing back to that problematic side. There’s been talk everywhere from changing rooms to academic articles since the dawn of time about poor leadership skills, about authoritarian behaviour, about what we might call controlling coaching, what's recently also been developed as perfectionistic climates, so to an extent it's different labels on partly the same thing. But I do think it's important to call it out for what it is. I don't think that we even five years ago would have called certain things abuse that we now would call abuse, because certainly for me, abuse was a word that conjures up images or associations with physical violence like hitting and sexual harassment and abuse, whereas now a lot of focus has been towards emotional abuse which is more or less like controlling coaching and the traditional authoritarian behaviour that we've known for a long time is problematic but we might have called it different things. But the academic arguments and understanding of it hasn’t really reached very far.
Do you think it is also partly just acceptance within the industry, this is just how it is and that's what you have to go through?
Yes, absolutely. For some people it can prompt a period of self-initiated reflection, because some people do actively change their behaviour from how they were taught or indeed pick the good behaviours that they were exposed to, they might read a lot by themselves, they might do lots of CPD, so I’m not saying a teaching degree is the be-all-and-end-all, but if we want it to be a mass movement and increase the demands on the industry, I think that's where we have to go. So teacher training I think is imperative and we have to really up the demands and also make parents savvy to that – they should understand that they should look for qualified teachers who also do ongoing CPD. But still, I think there's a lot of teaching the way you were taught because if you haven't had the time or the input in order to develop something different – and that can take a while sometimes, especially when we're under stress – we revert back to old habits and methods.
And there is also a mentality that is problematic. We all know that shouting at people is not very pleasant but people sometimes think that’s what it takes and especially at the higher levels, if you want to get somewhere then the assumption can be that you need strict instructors or you need to go through hell, or teachers are supposed to break dancers down before building them up, there’s that kind of mentality. There is now definitely a lot more understanding that that is not the way forward, but there’s still a long way to go.
What changes would you like to see in terms of teacher training specifically?
More well-rounded teacher training, so rather than just focus on pedagogy and how to structure a class and use the syllabus and so on, but updated with the latest in dance health and science, which should absolutely include psychology. People don’t always know what dance psychology contains, it may sound quite niche to people, but leadership for example is part of pedagogy but it’s also a psychology topic. Psychology is mental practice but it’s also safeguarding, it’s also understanding risk factors for disordered eating or excessive perfectionism or depression and other mental health issues. It’s also how to make yourself be at your best and be a self-regulating individual, so it’s actually a really diverse topic and I think that needs to be a bit more known.
Is there anything dancers themselves can do in relation to safeguarding to help support themselves?
There are things I can says, and I will say them because they’re important, but they’re also very hard. Because I think dancers do need to stand up for themselves and be brave enough to say “no” or to say, “I don’t accept that kind of language or that kind of comment doesn't help me, what is it you want me to focus on”, but it requires an enormous amount of strength and I don't honestly expect someone in, say, a pre-professional training programme who’s in that traditional hierarchical situation to speak up to a teacher like that, it is so hard, so I don't want to put undue pressure on the people who are not at fault.
But talking about it, more than in changing room conversations, for example in some schools they have a student council, or actually being brave enough to go to the counsellor or to the boss or via different routes, if that’s what it takes, and you can even go as a group. Be brave enough to tell your parents and remember – and this really applies at higher levels and in traditional environments, but there are many other dancers and contexts – dancers should see themselves almost as consumers. They’re not just at the receiving end, they should be choosing the school and not just a school choosing them, it's not like this great gift from above and therefore you must accept everything that now happens to you for 3 or more years. Actually, you have rights, so you could go elsewhere, this is your time and your energy and your life and your money, spend it wisely!
It’s really hard to express because really the onus here should be on the responsible adults, but I would say more broadly to make sure this journey is for you. There are always choices, it doesn’t always feel that way, but there are always choices: there might be another school, there might be another teacher within the school, there might be another style within your city, there might be another city, there will be in another audition if you don’t get through this time, so for dancers to really see themselves in the driving seat of their career rather than be passive recipients of whatever wisdom that teachers choose to impart or not. Seek it out, ask for feedback, ask another teacher if you didn't get it from the first one, so be a real active force, and you can do that in a polite and interested way, and often teachers really like it. Dancers don’t always realise that, they think they should be quiet and not ask, but actually to be enthusiastic and interested when talking to teachers, they will probably be pleasantly surprised by how the teacher responds. So put themselves in the driving seat of their development.