How can I let go of the need for external validation and find my own agency in dance? - Northern School of Contemporary Dance

How can I let go of the need for external validation and find my own agency in dance?

27 April 2022
Roadmap to Agency by NSCD alumni, Rose Ellen Lewis

(Images © Elly Welford)

“I feel one of your challenges is to see all those wonderful qualities in yourself that others see and rely less on external validation.”

Matthew Robinson, Artistic Director of VERVE 2016-2021

This research explores how my craving for external validation clouded my sense of agency. It questions how this craving becomes intertwined with an inability to make informed decisions regarding the body by supporting the choice to act only in ways that result in praise.

‘External validation’ here refers to detrimental effects on becoming a confident artist as “when we do not experience validation we can feel disconnected from our feelings, leading to…questioning our self-worth” (Friedman, 2021). I recognise that, for a dancer, outside observation can be a helpful tool for progress and the success of a performer is typically deemed by audience satisfaction. This research does not completely disregard these factors, however, it suggests that fixating on external judgment alone can become harmful. Friedman (2021) writes that when one begins to “rely exclusively on external validation, we lose touch with ourselves as we hand our self-worth over to factors that are entirely beyond our control.”

We are also products of today’s western culture where we live in a world that often seems to revolve around external validation. Striving for external validation reinforces the capitalist ideology of a reluctance to rest, creating an unsustainable work ethic of overexertion to comply with the demands of the system. The result of this capitalist lifestyle creates a cultural disconnection which Drew Leder (1990) describes as a “disembodied style of life”. Furthermore, in an educational setting, complying with the dominant and submissive dynamic of a teacher-pupil relationship breeds the notion of relying exclusively on external validation, whereas being in a position of personal agency helps shift this hierarchical structure to that of a collaborative relationship.


  1. Reflect on past experiences to diagnose the source of unhealthy relationships with external validation.
  2. Consider personal experiences of pain and injury and the complications external validation posed on their management.
  3. Investigate strategies to increase levels of agency and aid collaborative skills.
  4. Implement and evaluate these strategies.

Chapter 1: Tracing it Back

When referring to the subject of ‘disco’ one may traditionally think of a 1970’s groove-based dance style. However, when talking about ‘disco freestyle’, I am instead describing an intensely athletic, rapid-paced and rather gymnastic dance style usually performed by young girls. Phil Vinter (2012) describes the training, which involves contorting the dancers’ bodies into “near- impossible positions and performing unbelievable feats of flexibility, stamina and strength for more than six hours a day” as well as being emotionally demanding. This breeds a relationship between the teacher and pupil which caused me to listen to their authority over my own body. Throughout my eight years of disco freestyle training and competing, a huge emphasis was placed on gaining popularity. Not only was everyone competing against one another on the dance floor but also for the affection of the teacher during rehearsals. Emilyn Claid (2006) describes how “the hierarchical teacher-pupil dynamic establishes a pattern of reward and punishment, praise and criticism to encourage the physical disciplining” (p.42). The following reflection illustrates this experience:

I felt a sharp pain in my knee as my Patellar ligament tore, the floor still vibrating under my feet as the surrounding dancers continued jumping. I feel my mum’s arms scoop under my tiny body and whisk me off the dance floor to safety. I was furious. Why would she sabotage me like that? She was overreacting, being overprotective, I was fine! I needed to continue or what would my teacher say? I felt an intense tightness creep into my chest and numbness in my fingers as I began to panic. I could foresee my teacher’s reaction and feel my position as the favourite slipping through my fingers as the sharp pain in my knee throbbed.

During this training, I developed an “addictive attachment” to this teacher-pupil dynamic, a relationship of “dominance and submission that coaxed the desire to work” (Claid, p.43). As the hours of rigorous training, the demands on my body and teacher’s expectations, increased, so did my injuries. I would continuously push through pain as dancers have been conditioned to believe that we will be rewarded by our teachers for the pain that we experience (Claid, p.42). I was taught that watching a class or modifying movement was never an option: you were either ‘in’ (dancing at your best) or ‘out’ (absent from the studio). Due to the fear of missing out and the lack of attention I would receive, I would force myself to be ‘in’ even when I was severely injured or too ill to dance.

Later during my training, these unhealthy traits became apparent when I observed my panicked attitude towards injury and fear of modifying movement. However, “this intelligence, or this form of listening to what your body can do… is a form of skill that you acquire with professional experience” (ibid), a skill that I was yet to gain. When attending my advanced dance training course in Newcastle, the teacher appeared to have their favourites, or in my case, least favourites. According to David Emerald’s (2016) therapeutic Model “The Drama Triangle” I viewed my role in this relationship as “victim” and the teacher as “persecutor”. The therapeutic model describes how labelling oneself as the “victim” acts as a coping mechanism, as one is creating “made-up strategies to manage its anxiety about what it doesn’t like or want” (ibid). I began to notice a pattern in the way I was affected by authoritative figures. This pattern continued throughout my Masters; I would refrain from vocalising my thoughts, which is something I have a reputation for, present a serious facade to avoid being perceived as immature and soften my northern accent so as not to be regarded as an uneducated Geordie. Christine Caldwell and Bennett Leighton (2018) describe how when interacting with someone of a higher social authority one may involuntarily change their eye contact, posture and voice. In my case, it was my own embodiment of the “victim” role in “The Drama Triangle” which perpetuated this feeling of oppression in me.

I’ve been overthinking about what is needed of me. I’m not sure I’m enough.

Referring back to my time on the advanced dance training course in Newcastle, I observed how the other dancers and myself collectively adopted a ‘one size fits all’ image for what we believed productivity to look like: standing up straight, nodding profusely when being talked to by the teacher, refraining from leaning on the ballet bars or performing impressive warm-up stretches. Experience Bryon (2014) describes this as a “performance persona” and is apparent when someone wishes to be perceived as a “good student” and is eager to “exhibit” their skills. After enough repetitions of such behaviour, one will be quite excellent at trying and pleasing, allowing one to become “disconnected” from their body and personal movement style.

Chapter 2: Pain and Injury

Whilst at Verve, I worked with a toe injury which caused me to unpack many of my learned behavioural traits regarding injury and movement modification. This injury, my response to it and to pain indicated I was lacking a sense of agency over my body.

I arrive at the theatre and hesitantly make my way to the back of the stage. In an attempt to go unnoticed, I avoid eye contact with others and nervously wait for the class material to be introduced. The teacher first demonstrates an elegant turn; I’m unable to turn with my toe injury. Frozen, I feel a surge of embarrassment as the remainder of the group beautifully executes the movement. It’s okay, I’ll be able to do the next move, I tell myself in an attempt to quell the rising sense of panic. The teacher continues by jumping to a low lunge, another movement I’m incapable of performing. My mind feels clouded with shame as I continue to remain motionless. The class proceeds to roll to the floor, tucking their toes for stability and stand effortlessly. I find myself thinking; please let the next movement be one my injury permits. Luckily, the teacher lowers into a slow, sweeping backbend and for the first time in that class, I can participate. However, this is short-lived as the backbend continues, spiralling to the ground, requiring a full flexion of the toe. I slowly begin to shift towards the safety of the wings, I don’t want to be seen.

Claid (2006) describes refining dance technique as an “intense activity repeatedly practiced by the body” where the language learned requires an “engagement with physical discipline at the level of painful somatic sensation” to achieve its full expression (p.38). Claid is suggesting that in order to become skilled and successful in dance, somatic pain is to be expected and even applauded. Why would the cultural norm be, that specific professions require the individual to endure physical discomfort in the process of preparation and execution of their role? It could be argued that capitalism has become internalised into the creative arts resulting in unrealistic expectations, unhealthy working hours and performers enduring unnecessary pain to avoid being seen as unproductive. Maintaining an individual’s status within a capitalist culture requires constant productivity, which often comes with a price. For example; a high-pressure working environment, time away from family, financial investment, etc. For a dancer, the price paid is pain. “Through pain, muscles and bones are moulded to create the system’s persuasion of ‘normal’” (Claid, 2006). In order to maintain one’s status, value and relevance, a dancer must continue to develop their art and learn continuously. This will inevitably result in new pain when they become tolerant of previous pain. “The pain diminishes when the body has learned its lesson, memorized its position, increased its capability and transformed its shape. It will return when there is a new lesson to learn” (ibid). Elaine Scarry (1988) states that “the closer something is experienced somatically, the closer it comes to pain.” This proved true whilst recovering from my injury as increased somatic awareness meant I was more in tune with the pain my body was experiencing. “This is typical of the inner body, often silent except at times of discomfort” (Leder, 1990). This shift of attention was involuntary and at times overwhelming as I felt a lack of awareness for the remainder of my body. Drew Leder (1990) describes how when an injured region of the body “speaks up” when in discomfort, the “healthy body largely disappears”, therefore contributing to a sense of absence.

Chapter 3: Strategies

‘Focus Vs. Awareness’

With my injury, I struggled with the unpredictability of morning technique sessions. Having both an unfamiliar class style and teacher each week became unmanageable, perpetuating the unhealthy habit of avoiding morning class and completing a personal warm-up in a separate space. Over time, I observed that this habit was formed due to my intense focus on the injury. Even though “many exacting physical practices have a tradition of using focus as a tool for discipline”, Experience Bryon (2014) describes how “focus” can become debilitating and “works directly against the process of integration”. I was certainly among the many who confused focus with awareness. I’ve been told by teachers to ‘focus’ many times in practical sessions in an attempt to increase the level of concentration on a given task, however, a more appropriate instruction for my progress would be: ‘increase your awareness’, and to do this, I discovered that I needed to ‘unfocus’. When in moments of intense focus, I recognised indicators such as tunnel vision and mild claustrophobia. When I experienced these symptoms, I would pause, slow and deepen my breathing and use mental imagery to ‘zoom out’ from the injured area to a ‘wide panoramic view’ of my entire body. I became a body that merely witnessed sensations of discomfort in my toe and was no longer completely overcome with fixation. This helped create a sense of fluidity within my awareness, and the pain in my toe felt diluted.


Bryon’s research has shown that a common reaction to focussing is to alter one’s breathing. I found that I reacted to ‘focus’ with rapid and shallow breathing, a change I was unaware of making and in turn, found when I slowed my breathing these sensations subsided. My connection and control of my breath proved vital when attempting to bring awareness to my body in the present moment. “We breathe automatically, but…we can consciously choose to alter our breathing to affect our feelings, thoughts, and patterns of moving” (Hackney, 2002).

Movement Modification

Movement modification provides the bridge between ploughing on regardless of the pain and stopping completely: neither of which is ideal. My reluctance to modify was not only unacceptable in a professional company environment but also unhelpful for my personal practice and dance technique. My unwillingness to make modifications meant rather than executing a pre-planned modified movement, I found myself having to adjust in the moment as a reaction to sudden and unexpected pain. I recognised that I needed to develop a strategy informed by Experience Bryon’s (2014) theory on the ‘doing of a task’ to support my ability as a professional dancer. When attempting to modify class, I immediately assumed the teacher would label me as lazy or non-compliant for doing so. What I failed to see was that my obsession with completing the task correctly was directly hindering my ability to do so. In simple terms, the task was to modify movement in response to what my injury permitted, rather, I was leaving this task due to embarrassment and the fear of judgement from others. Bryon, 2014, describes how “we leave the task for reasons of ego, fear, control, or habit, reasons that for the most part makes performing one of the bravest professions when engaged with integrity”(p.69). Experience Bryon’s (2014) view on the ‘doing of a task’ introduced me to the new idea that “the discipline is to continuously return to the task” (ibid) and not fixate on the end result. By using previously learned discipline, I utilised this to set myself the new goal of: ‘always return to the task’.

Today I managed to be involved in almost a whole class whilst modifying, I’m proud of myself. This gives me more confidence in my recovery.


During Verve, taking constant direction from external agencies and my own rebellious body left me feeling a lack of control over my thoughts. The prolonged physical demands, busy schedule and the detrimental strain of my injury were overwhelming, cluttering and distracting for the mind. It became important to investigate strategies to help reconnect me to my sense of self. “Meditation explicitly aims to help you develop a greater understanding of yourself and how you relate to those around you” (Thorpe, 2020). After self-observation, I was able to recognise patterns in the specific moments my mind was most vulnerable to invasive thoughts; before sleep and warming up for morning class. I implemented daily meditation sessions into my routine in an attempt to declutter my mind, diminish injury-related stress and refocus on myself. This proved challenging as meditation can be an opportunity to be still and alone with one’s thoughts, which ironically, is the reason for initially needing to implement it. The repetition of mantras and positive affirmations proved most effective as they provided my mind with something consistent and predictable to concentrate on, juxtaposing the unpredictable nature of my injury-related pain. Research suggests that “your perception of pain is connected to your state of mind, and it can be elevated in stressful conditions: incorporating meditation into your routine could be beneficial for controlling pain” (Thorpe, 2020). I cannot single-handedly change the situation I find myself in, whereas I can inform the way my mind, and body, reacts to such circumstances.

Chapter 4: Validation to Collaboration

In theory, if I can enter a new creative process with a different view on the hierarchical choreographer-dancer dynamic, the outcome should also be positively affected. For the first time I am no longer in education and the choreographer Gary Clarke is not my teacher. In noticing this shift, I feel able to leave some of my baggage at the studio door as “once you recognise and articulate your intentions, you can move forward” (Bogart, 2007). Given my history of comparing myself to other dancers, I knew that being a recent graduate in my first paid role surrounded by established industry professionals might provide a situation for unhealthy comparison. Anne Bogart (2007) describes how “we tend to compare ourselves to other people’s versions of success rather than our own, [which] is a false gauge and a waste of emotional energy.” One morning, the group and I were engaging in an improvisational score, when the instruction to “do what your body needs” was given. I was determined not to allow myself to slip into a comfortable state of performative improvisation purely for the validation of the choreographer and to feed my perceived standards of success.

I paused and shifted my awareness to the task: To “do what my body needs.” What did my body need at that moment? I closed my eyes, laid on my back and hugged my knees tightly to my chest. I began to slow and deepen my breath as I allowed my knees to gently sway from side to side. What did my body need at this moment? I repeated to myself as I rocked left to right.

My body had already answered. In pausing, deepening the connection with my breath and ‘returning to the task’, I was able to gain a sense of agency.

I revisited this idea of always ‘returning to the task’ and, in a new situation, it hindered my delivery. When asked to translate the words of The Lord’s Prayer to movement language, I converted each individual word rather than phrase by phrase. Being the only dancer who interpreted the task in this way, I created material in excess detail and was considerably slower than the group. Upon reflection, I see the importance of also broadening awareness to encapsulate the room and dancers within it. When discussing this moment with Gary Clarke (2021) he advised: “when I set you a task, start simple” as not to fall into the trap of overcomplicating matters in the hope to impress.

Karen Barbour (2008) comments that “such a sense of ownership” within collaborative dance making “may well outweigh the experience of the audience applause following the performance” (p.47). As a group, we discussed the importance of collective support and the encouraging effects this can have on the studio atmosphere, we agreed that if studio time is enjoyable this will be positively reflected in the final product; we would allow the process to speak for itself.

When referring back to David Emerald’s (2016) therapeutic Model, “The Drama Triangle”, I recognise that working collaboratively helped shift my role within this dynamic. Viewing Gary Clarke as a collaborator, rather than a dominant authoritative figure, reduced the likelihood of labelling Clarke as “persecutor” and myself as “victim”. Bogart (2007), suggests that “when considering ‘who are your colleagues?’ try to imagine that, in fact, there is no human who is a director, or an actor, or a playwright, or a dramaturg, or a designer. Rather, think of these functions as roles rather than specific people.”

Diminishing the hierarchical teacher-student/choreographer-dancer relationship through collaboration encouraged the feeling that my voice and opinion were valid. “The devising process [of collaboration] requires letting go of fear, admitting to mistakes and allowing performers to speak” (Claid, 2006). When no longer searching for the approval of others I am offered the potential to fully immerse myself into a creative process both physically and emotionally. By moving forward and continuing to work collaboratively I “can continue to develop relationships with others and understand [myself] as part of a community of artists” (Barbour, 2008). Barbour (2008) also explains that as a result of the “self-determination involved in the sharing and use of lived experiences” when working collaboratively, the process has the potential to be more “personally fulfilling”. Adopting this way of working will not only increase my sense of agency but also the richness of the process itself.


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