How Can We Chip Away at the Shame Surrounding Mental Illness?
As a dancer going through a mental health challenge, loneliness can feel like your only companion. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Steven Loch has managed obsessive-compulsive disorder since middle school, and for nearly a decade felt too scared to speak up. "We feel like if we say something people will be horrified by some of the thoughts that we are having," he says.
But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the U.S. experiences a mental illness each year. Psychologists say that in competitive environments like the dance studio—where perfectionism can make you feel like you're never good enough, and an injury can suddenly strip you of your identity—this likelihood may increase.
Last summer I shared my own story of quitting dance due to untreated depression on the Dance Magazine website. It was met with an outpouring of support and camaraderie that I found both affirming and terrifying. A few weeks later, the magazine published an online survey to learn more about dancer attitudes around the need for mental health support. Readers submitted more than 1,000 comments, demonstrating that these struggles are very much a shared experience.
So why do so few in the dance world talk about this openly? And what can be done to provide dancers with the support they need? No one's arguing that the highly competitive, strenuous nature of dance is something that should change—that would compromise the excellence of the art form. But can we chip away at the shame surrounding mental health issues?
Let's Stop Confusing Mental Illness With Being "Lazy" Or "Weak"
Sharing our own struggles can help change the dance culture to be more open about mental illness. Photo by Joshua Rawson Harris/Unsplash
In the dance field, acknowledging any kind of vulnerability is typically frowned upon. Dancers worry that teachers and directors assume they're "lazy" when they're struggling, or that they will be considered "weak" if they come forward to talk about it.
This isn't surprising. Among the many symptoms of depression, the Mayo Clinic sites apathy, social isolation and fatigue. To the untrained eye, any of these can be confused with laziness—especially in a high-performance climate like a dance studio.
"There are still huge stigmas in dance culture, even to come in to do an open workshop on mindfulness meditation," says Dr. Sharon Chirban, a psychologist who works with dancers at Boston Ballet.
The power to change this culture lies with teachers, ballet masters and directors—those who are in positions of influence among dancers. Dr. Brian Goonan, a sports psychologist who worked with dancers at the Houston Ballet Academy for nine years, says that teachers willing to share their own struggles can have a big impact. "All you have to do is make statements about how successful people have gotten help, and therefore it is okay for young dancers to do it," he says.
From my personal experience, I've found that the majority of teachers do care, and wish they could help. But only 10 percent of dancers surveyed by Dance Magazine said that they would definitely feel comfortable reaching out to a teacher or director. Unfortunately, few artistic staff members have the resources to support their dancers' mental well-being the way that they do physical injuries, because most dance institutions haven't made it a priority.
We Need to Put More Into Preventative Medicine
Elmhurst Ballet School students use an app to rate their mental wellness. Photo by Andrew Ross, courtesy Elmhurst
Over the last two decades, some large dance institutions have initiated relationships with mental health professionals. Yet progress has been slow. "Even the institutions doing a good job are doing crisis management," says Chirban. Many psychologists lament that they only have limited access to the dancers, and are only brought in when there is already a problem.
There are models of preventive mental health measures that show cause for hope. At Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham, England, the school employs a mental health nurse and uses an app on the dancers' phones asking them to regularly rate their mental and physical wellness on a 10-point scale. While the program was in its first year, initially, more than 70 percent of the students voluntarily used the tool, according to Nico Kolokythas, who is a performance enhancement coach for the school and developed the app.
Thanks to the data collection, Elmhurst assistant principal Annelli Peavot has been able to bring compelling arguments to their governing body about the need for preventive mental health intervention. On an individual level, the data can show that a student may need to be connected to services. "When we see that a student is reporting a low mood over time, even just going to them and saying that we noticed seems to have an effect," says Peavot.
Realize That Investing in Mental Health Is Good for Business
Ignoring the problem could mean losing dancers, students and audience members. Photo by Andrei Lazarev/Unsplash
Everyone knows that in cash-strapped dance institutions it is a battle of priorities to stay afloat financially. Yet there's an argument to be made that investing in mental health services can impact the bottom line. "A student in our program puts about £26,000 per year into the school," says Peavot. "Can we really afford not to do it?" Those who quit take their £26,000 with them.
Likewise, companies rely on their dancers to present demanding repertoire and stay healthy in order to succeed. But symptoms like fatigue, lack of sleep and poor eating habits heighten a dancer's likelihood of injury and decrease their ability to perform to their full potential.
Ticket sales should also be considered. A 2010 WolfBrown study of dance audiences commissioned by Dance/USA found that more than 50 percent of audience members are current or former dancers. So who is missing? For more than four years following my time in dance, I struggled to walk into a theater. I have a daughter, who I am deeply resistant to enrolling in a dance school. These are dollars lost. And there must be so many more.
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When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.