From Ballet Barre to Academic Researcher: Every Criticism is a Helping Hand

This post comes from Julie Holder, a second year PhD student in History at the University of Glasgow in collaboration with National Museums Scotland (NMS), supported by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and funded by AHRC. She originally came from a Performing Arts and Education background, but after changing career path has gained experience in the heritage sector. She first established an interest in the history of NMS during research for her M.Litt. thesis. Her research looks at the relationship between collecting, representing and writing about the Scottish past in the period 1832-92 at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. You can find her on Twitter @Julieh80

People are always really interested when I tell them that in a previous life I was a dancer. I left school at the age of 16 to go to dance college and it wasn’t until I was 27 that I decided to start a part-time degree with the Open University. This eventually led me to doing my PhD in the history of collecting, representing and writing about the Scottish past, which I am studying at the University of Glasgow in collaboration with National Museums Scotland.

But this blog is not about my life history. It’s about how some of the skills I learnt as a dancer has given me a unique way of coping with the psychological challenges of PhD life. (The accompanying photos are from my last contract on GTS Summit for Celebrity Cruises as most of my career was before digital cameras – I feel old!)


St Lucia when I worked on cruise ships

People imagine that training to be a dancer is exciting, interesting and fun. However, anyone that has studied dance at a professional level will know that it is also gruelling, exhausting, mentally challenging and emotionally draining. Every day you are up and in class by 10am, you are surrounded by mirrors reflecting every angle of your body, picking up every part of your physique that you are not happy about and witnessing every movement that you haven’t quite mastered yet. Our teachers are constantly pushing us to achieve the physically impossible with grace and artistry.

However, we dancers are a pretty hardy bunch, otherwise we would never achieve anything and spend every day sat on the floor in a quivering, crying heap! Every high exam grade, every compliment from our teachers and every standing ovation at the end of a performance validated my worth and ability and made me realise the hard work had paid off.

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Boat from a snorkelling trip I went on when I worked on cruise ships

My dance training gave me the resilience and persistence to cope with every challenge that life has thrown at me. From coping with the audition circuit where you could get cut within 20 minutes of entering the studio, to the constant demands of parenting, to the world of research and academia. And I think this is due to the unique way that dancers learn to cope with stress and learning.

My teachers told me that it was not enough to practice until I got it right – but that I should practice until I never got it wrong. But this was never a one-time journey. Every exam, every performance, I had to make sure that I produced the best I was capable of achieving. My teacher was not unkind, but she only gave a compliment if it had been earned. Her constant corrections were her way of making me proficient enough to go out and follow my dream and get work as a professional dancer. If she criticised what I was doing it was to make me a better dancer, every criticism was a helping hand. Perfection is unachievable, but I knew that I had the ability to succeed if I just kept at it and kept believing that I could do this. And I did, and got to travel the world and meet the most amazing people at the same time.


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River dance number from the show I was in on GTS Summit © Katrina Scarlett

And dancers never stop learning. Every show has new choreography to be mastered and even when I moved into teaching, the syllabi that we taught to our students was being periodically updated. On top of that, I was creating my own choreography for exams and shows. Dance performers and teachers have to be independent learners, studying and rehearsing in their own time as well as at the studio.

So how have I used these skills for my studies? Firstly, I have tried to see every criticism of my work, every challenge to my ideas as a helping hand. Believe me, it’s not easy as we always feel under attack when we get feedback, especially because at PhD level we don’t get the sweetener of a good grade to help us swallow the bitter pill of criticism! But I remember my dancing days where I did not stop trying to improve, trying to learn and every correction aided me on that journey.

Secondly, I am embracing life-long learning. Do you know what? We are never going to know everything and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up trying to be experts of the universe. It’s never going to happen! The goal is not perfection, but the journey to knowledge is always interesting. We should celebrate that we choose to keep learning and that is our superpower.


Me and my fellow cast from GTS Summit from 2004


So next time you feel depressed after a supervisory meeting, or after you have what feels like negative feedback on a chapter or article you have written, try and turn that criticism away from feeling like a personal attack and into a helping hand. Appreciate that most of the time other academics want to help us be the best researchers we could possibly be.

This is how I intend to approach criticism of my work and it will be my mantra for the next few years to overcome imposter syndrome when it rears its ugly head.

Every criticism is a helping hand!

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Joanna via email at, or connect with the blog on Twitter

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