Experts Talk Mental Health: Four Therapists Sound Off
When Dance Magazine surveyed our readers last summer, 81 percent said the field wasn't doing enough to support mental health. We sat down with four mental health professionals, each with more than a decade of experience working with dancers, to find out their thoughts on how mental health is being addressed in the dance community today, and what makes it so challenging.
Who We Talked To:
Dr. Bonnie E. Robson, a retired performance psychiatrist in Toronto, began her work with dancers at the National Ballet of Canada in 1983.
Dr. Nadine J. Kaslow, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta, consults with dancers at Atlanta Ballet.
Dr. Brian Goonan, a sports psychologist in Houston, was a consultant to the Houston Ballet Academy from 2009 to 2017.
Dr. Toby Diamond, a general psychologist in Seattle, consults with Pacific Northwest Ballet School.
The opinions of each are their own and do not represent those of the dance institutions they work with.
What makes treating dancers unique?
Dr. Kaslow: They have to decide how seriously they want to pursue it much younger than other artists. The developmental pressures are different for things like socializing and dating. There's much more homeschooling. I also think that the level of perfectionism demanded is different, and if you can't handle the perfectionism pressures, I think that you can't stay.
Dr. Goonan: They are so young. They don't have a lot of good coping mechanisms yet to deal with that level of perfectionism on top of everything else a teenager goes through.
Dancers have to decide whether to pursue this field much younger than other artists, which can put outsized pressure on students. Photo by Ilona Virgin/Unsplash
Do you think dancers are more likely to experience a mental health challenge than the general population?
Dr. Diamond: Adolescents in general experience depression at a very high rate. I think the problem with ballerinas is that their career starts when they are still adolescents, so they don't have the long view. They haven't achieved peace of mind to know that over time things can change and get better and all the things that we learn from maturity.
Dr. Robson: An important issue is social isolation, which is one of the biggest factors leading to anxiety and depression.
Dr. Kaslow: Ballet dancers are three times more likely to have an eating disorder than the general adolescent population. But there is also data that shows that dance can improve depression and anxiety in adolescents.
Dr. Goonan: I have to wonder how much of the data relies on self-report. It is certainly more acceptable in high school to self-report depression than in the dance world, where you are supposed to present that everything is fine. Personally, I would argue there are more stresses and more pressure than the average student undergoes and without the same kind of outlets.
Have you experienced resistance from dancers?
Dr. Diamond: They go to doctors and PTs for help much more willingly than mental health professionals.
Dr. Goonan: But there is not resistance to seek support indirectly. So, often they will talk to the physical therapist or the Pilates instructor.
Dr. Robson: I know that at one prominent ballet company in Europe, the psychologist had an office in the building, and as soon as they moved the office off site, they got more referrals and more dancers used the services.
Dr. Kaslow: For me, it's changed over the years. Initially I had that experience and I don't anymore. I take class still every day and they see me there. There are also a couple dancers who have been very public about coming to therapy with me, and that seems to have shifted the culture.
Do you think the dance world does enough to address mental health?
Dr. Diamond: Some institutions are doing a pretty good job. Others are not. That could have something to do with the director or in-house services not being affordable.
Dr. Robson: I am part of Dance/USA's Task Force on Dancer Health, and the executive board of Dance/USA are leaders from all over the United States and Canada. Gradually over the last 10 years they have begun to talk much more on mental health issues, asking more in-depth questions. "Tell us about mindfulness." "Tell us about how we can get people to come forward earlier with problems." They are recognizing that this is a dollars-and-cents issue, and that is a significant change.
Dr. Goonan: We typically see dancers when the wheels have already fallen off the wagon, and now there is more interest in prevention.
In a Dance Magazine survey, 81 percent said the dance world is not doing enough.
Dr. Kaslow: I would agree.
Dr. Diamond: Perhaps the professionals are doing something about it, but the students aren't doing the front-loading, the preventive mental health exercises. They have very limited hours to sleep or do healthful things. Preventive care is the bottom of their list.
Dr. Goonan: There is verbal homage paid. It's kind of like equal wages: You can say that gender equality is important, but is it actually getting done? And that may be the difference between what you are hearing from an executive perspective saying "Yes, we need to do more about this" versus the survey that says "Yeah, but they are still not doing anything about it."
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
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.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
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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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."