Dancers & Companies

Why Do Dancers—Usually So Conscientious About Their Bodies—Get Drawn to Drugs?

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Simone Messmer was 19 the first time she used cocaine. She was at another company's gala when someone pulled out a bag of the white powder. There, at the coat check counter, party guests took turns snorting the drug. "I was hesitant, but at the time I was willing to try anything once," she says. "Everyone around me was getting hyped up. But for me, it made me feel grounded."

She would later learn that her reaction—feeling grounded instead of hyped—probably had to do with undiagnosed ADHD. The sensation kept Messmer, then a corps member at American Ballet Theatre, returning to the drug multiple times a week for a year. And it nearly jeopardized her career.


Dancers like Messmer, now a principal at Miami City Ballet, spend their whole lives training, toning and perfecting their bodies. So it seems strange that some would turn to substances like alcohol and drugs to fit in, lose weight or relieve stress.

But Messmer says that behind the satin and tulle, the "work hard, play hard" mentality thrives and some dancers depend on good genes to cancel out bad behavior. "I don't know any group of people that treats their bodies worse than dancers," says Messmer. "They don't rehab from injuries, they drink too much, they eat a lot of sugar. The idea that all dancers are healthy is a big myth."

Now clean and drug-free, Simone Messmer is thriving at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy MCB.

Of course, this is only one dancer's observation. But dancers can be extreme with their health—some in their regimen of kale and vitamins, others with their after-rehearsal habits.

"There are definitely dancers who see themselves as invincible," says Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet. Though she says it's not uncommon for all young adults to feel that way until something negative happens.

Drugs and dance have had a well-known partnership since Gelsey Kirkland famously revealed the details of her cocaine addiction in her 1986 memoir Dancing on My Grave. The following year, ABT star Patrick Bissell died from an overdose. But addiction's presence reaches beyond the stereotype of the '80s. The Royal Danish Ballet was involved in widespread reports of cocaine abuse among its dancers. Sergei Polunin has been open about his relationship with drugs and alcohol and its effect on his career.

Still, drugs are something that many dancers only know as a stereotype. "I've had plenty of pre-professional patients go and trainee or apprentice at different places," says Kaslow. "Some don't have any scene. But at some of these places it's rampant." The trend is by no means uniform across the dance landscape, and Kaslow says there's no way of knowing exactly how common drug abuse is in the dance community because very little research has been done specifically about its connection with the form. She thinks it comes down to drug use being more a part of the culture in some companies than in others.

Throughout the general population, drug use typically begins around the time kids finish high school. At that stage, the part of the brain that balances risk and reward is not yet fully developed. In the dance world, many students leave home to train or work as early as 14, leaving them susceptible at an even younger age.

Dancers may use drugs for a number of reasons. Many may see it as a way to unwind after a long day or week of rehearsals. The job does, after all, put people under a great deal of stress to perform to the highest of expectations at all times. The fact that many dancers have type A personalities only adds more pressure.

"Drugs are a stress reliever, they relax you," explains Brian Goonan, a psychologist who works with Houston Ballet Academy. "At the same time, it puts a surge of dopamine in the system, and that just plain and simple feels good."

Sergei Polunin, here in a still from DANCER, told Attitude, "At first drugs made me feel good, but then literally your body starts to fail."

Goonan says that dancers might feel attracted to drugs like cocaine or other stimulants because the high is immediate, and, initially, it will dissipate within a reasonable amount of time depending on the dose. And because it is a stimulant, the dopamine rush can mimic what many dancers feel when they perform. He cautions, though, that the tolerance-building and addictive nature of cocaine make it likely that increasing amounts will be used and dependency will develop.

Other drug users—specifically those who favor hallucinogens—feel these substances help them access their art. One New York City–based commercial and concert dancer told us he takes LSD or other psychoactive substances every few months to once a year, usually during times of deep questioning or transition. He says that they help him open up his mind when he's in need of personal discovery, and that sometimes his new insights inform his creative work.

"I don't use drugs unless I have a very specific purpose," says the 22-year-old. "You can actually learn really pinpointed ideas from these hallucinations. And I will sit down and meditate after."

Still, he admits that he has seen the dangerous side of psychedelic drugs after taking extremely strong doses and using them with the wrong intentions. Messmer identifies her rock-bottom moment as the time, a year into her use, when she went on a binge that forced her to miss two days of rehearsals. By this time, ABT had more than a hunch about her problem, and gave her an ultimatum: Go to rehab or quit.

A better solution to the dance world's drug problem, though, would be to stop use before it starts. Most companies have physical therapists and a nutritionist, but few have dedicated mental health professionals on staff. And that can send dancers a message about what companies value.

"Dancers who are struggling are often seen as less favorable by their peers," says Goonan. "We don't spend much energy on mental health in the dance world. It's a way to weed out dancers—only the strong survive."

He says companies also need to better address the emotional aspects of injury—a time in a dancer's career when they can be more susceptible to drug use. Company culture hasn't properly accepted the idea that dancers truly need time off to heal.

And, to be fair, dancers haven't grasped this idea either. The thought is often, Every day spent on the sidelines is another day away from their goal of getting a part or a promotion.

Even Messmer looks back on her difficult months in rehab as time lost. Today, she's clean. But it came at a price. One month of rehab cost her $38,000 and a certain level of trust. The company required her to take part in a multi-year treatment plan that included weekly drug tests. Messmer thinks her drug habit made her fall three years behind in her climb up the ranks. But she's thankful that ABT supported her in getting better. "I had to start over and earn everything back," says Messmer. "I've seen a lot of people fail at this. I was a lucky one."

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When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

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Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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