Identity Matters

Author: Lynda Mainwaring, PhD, CPsych, Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto.



Who am I? Who am I now that I am injured? Who am I when I am no longer a dancer? Who am I, if I am not recognized in the way in which I perceive myself? Dancers may ask themselves these questions along their career paths. The questions relate to how we perceive ourselves, how we describe ourselves, how we value ourselves, how we perceive our identity, and how we are perceived by others and the way in which that influences us.

Most of us typically begin our self-description in terms of what we do or in relation to our work.1,2 But what about other identities such as gender identity, national identity, ethnic identity, cultural and racial identity? Are these important matters for dance medicine, science, education and psychology?

In terms of gender identity, should we include LGBTQQIA+ education in medical schools, for example? Emerging initiatives say there is a need to provide clinical education with the lesbian, gay bisexual, and transgender patient in mind.3 And what about dance training and practice? Le pas de deux, as a model, implies there are binary roles for men and women. How do we reconfigure partnering and dance training within broader perspectives? In the last few years the questions of identity, in particular those related to gender and related concerns of inclusivity, harassment and sexism, have emerged as matters of importance in studios, schools and in the media.

Identity refers to how one describes the self, and according to the Oxford Dictionary, it refers to the characteristics that determine who or what a person or thing is. For example, one could describe someone by any number of characteristics: age, race, gender, height, weight, percent body fat, employment, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, education level, birth order, years of training, dance genre, marital status, political persuasion, mental health, etcetera. One’s identity, however, is more than a list of variables. It is a personally and socially-constructed understanding of who we are. It varies overtime, and is thus dynamic. It is a complex and multi-faceted concept and process related to how we see and value ourselves: Identity, can be examined through both psychological (identity theory) and sociological (social identity theory) perspectives.

Identity development and consolidation is an evolving process that involves personal, interpersonal and community levels of interaction. Identity for dancers is acutely enmeshed in the body, performance, training, the aspirations, structures and messages of the dance culture and the environment with all its trimmings. How would you complete the sentence that begins, I am . . . ? For an example, and an informative piece on identity in dance, see Rowley’s “Discover the Rainbow.”4

Pickard (2012)5 suggests that evolution of identity as a ballet dancer is riddled with commitment, sacrifice, physical and emotional pain and suffering (p. 42). From her qualitative study of 12 young dancers, she concluded that ballet has a powerful dominant belief structure related to perfection and beauty that objectifies the body as separate and machine-like. She embraces the concept of habitus-- an acquired set of dispositions that have been incorporated into the body (p.86)6 -- introduced by Bourdieu, the French sociologist. She suggests a dancer’s body and habitus are produced and perpetuated through the embodiment of pain and suffering for ballet as an art. With that frame of reference, how do dancers develop an identity that transcends self-denial or destruction and incorporate a healthy relationship with physical and emotional pain? How do they overcome or manage mental and physical health problems that are a result of a culture that ignores them? How do we, in our professional community, support, care for, and encourage dancers across the identity spectrum? How do we overcome our own myopic view with its stereotypical underlying assumptions?

Dancers, dance educators, medical personnel and scientists, do not typically consider dancer identity. Certainly, dancers identify with particular genres such as contemporary, ballet, Flamenco, or ballroom, for example. This we understand. But, what is Dancer Identity as a psychological or sociological phenomenon, and why is it important? What role does it play in the dance community, dance itself, science, dance training, education, development, performance, transition, retirement, injury, self-respect, mental health, maltreatment, body image, dancer image, self-esteem, self-concept, personal and professional relationships, and in life satisfaction and general well-being? Despite, contributions from a few published studies and philosophical papers, I suggest that we do not have much literature, nor much understanding about dancer identity and how it relates to dancer health and well-being. It warrants more attention across research, teaching, education, clinical practice and personal care. Why might that be?

In sport psychology, athletic identity has been examined extensively. It is “the degree to which an individual identifies with the athletic role” (p. 237)7. In essence, a person with a strong athletic identity places a great amount of importance on athletic involvement and on the perception of the self in the sport domain.7 Transposing this definition to dance then, we can define dancer identity as the degree to which a dancer identifies with the dancer’s role within the dance environment and culture.

We know from sport psychology that some personality traits such as perfectionism and trait anxiety are associated with high risk for burnout8, that athletes with strong athletic identities have higher burnout levels9 and that high athletic identity predicts burnout.10-14 Also, athletes with strong athletic identities have a willingness to train more with an associated performance improvement.7,15

Murphy Petitpas, & Brewer16 found that athletic identity was positively associated with identity foreclosure. That is, if athletes identify strongly with, and commit to, their roles as athletes without exploring other roles in life, they risk limiting opportunities for themselves or may be vulnerable to mental health difficulties. Brewer7 found that athletes who “over identify” with their role in sport are prone to depression if they have career-ending injuries. In the modern world, over identification with particular roles may occur because of the great demands and expectations placed on elite performers. There is no question that in dance there are great expectations and demands that prescribe, dictate or encourage roles that are strongly tied to specific physical and aesthetic ideals.

For some, a limited, or foreclosed, identity may lead to career transition challenges. Difficulty with transition into retirement and post-sport life has been associated with the strength and exclusivity of athletic identity.17-22 A recent systematic review of the dance-related literature (1987-2017)23 concluded that more research on psychological and physical implications of career decisions in dance is needed, and that to date, there is no formal research on career transitions for young dancers.

Similarly, there is a dearth of research on dancer identity. The little research that we have suggests that dancer identity is similar to athletic identity and that more research is needed. Langdon and Petracca24 found that identity as a dancer was negatively associated with body appreciation and perceptions and cautioned those of us who work with dancers to be aware of the subjective aspects of identity and work toward enhancing dancers’ perspectives of their bodies.

In the upcoming annual meeting of the minds (and bodies) in Montreal, Canada, “identity” is on the table for discussion. I hope this article serves as a catalyst for discussion and formulation of questions about dancer identity, gender identity in dance, individual and collective identities, and their relationship with mental and physical health. We might also question our own collective professional identity. Who are we as a professional body? Are we unique with an authentic identity? Or, are we hovering on the shoulders of sport science and medicine and sport psychology? In my long standing experience with sport and dance science, medicine and psychology, I have come to highly respect and regard the scholarly and practical aspects of dance medicine, science, education and psychology and my esteemed colleagues in IADMS. Yes, there is a shared knowledge and similarities between sport and dance; however, dancers, dance educators, dance artists, scientists, and clinicians across the professions have unique knowledge, experience, environments, challenges, qualities and embodied behaviours and attitudes. Therefore, establishing our own empirical evidence, and standards of care for dance is critical. Moreover, in this 29th year of IADMS, perhaps it is time to examine or reexamine our collective identity, values, goals, influence, magnificence, shadows and highlights. As we move toward our meeting in Montreal--a place with a distinct cultural identity (one that you will sense when you visit old town Montreal)-- let us think about identity—what we know, what we do not know, and what warrants examining and questioning in 2020, our 30th year as an association.



  1. Riffkin, R. (2014, August). In U.S., 55% of Workers Get Sense of Identity from Their Job.
  2. European Commission. Directorate General for Research and Innovation. (2012). The Development of European Identity/Identities: Unfinished Business.
  3. Anderson, J., Stoner, A., Jackson, A…Myles, D. (2018). Standardized patient modules in medical school with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patient in mind. Osteopathic Family Physician, 10 (3), 16-20.
  4. Rowley, Michael. Discover the Rainbow: Unpacking the LGBTQQIA+ acronym with a discussion about the intersection of identity and biology. (
  5. Pickard, A. (2012). Schooling the dancer: the evolution of an identity as a ballet dancer. Research in Dance Education, 13:1, 25-46, DOI:10.1080/14647893.2011.65119.
  6. Bourdieu, P. (1993). Sociology in question. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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  24. Langdon, S. & Petracca, G. (2010). Tiny dancer: Body image and dancer identity in female modern dancers. Body Image, 7, 360.363.