Inside Point Park’s First-of-Its-Kind Dancer Mental-Health Program

January 3, 2021

Garfield Lemonius vividly remembers the night he watched an ambulance drive away with one of his York University classmates after she fainted at a dance performance.

He and several other dance students had taken the Toronto Transit Commission downtown to see a show, and that’s when his classmate—who he describes as a beautiful dancer struggling with an eating disorder—passed out, and ultimately dropped out of the program.

Lemonius had watched his classmate wither and wanted to help, but felt woefully inadequate.

“We were teenagers,” he recalls of that moment in the early 1990s. “What were we going to say, ‘You need to eat, so maybe you should get on that?'”

Now 47 and chair of the dance department at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Lemonius wants to make sure none of his students find themselves in similar situations— either that of the young woman who was struggling or the classmates who felt helpless. He also understands that eating disorders are an extreme manifestation of the stress and self-esteem minefields that dancers navigate every day. That’s why he and the dance department have partnered with the advocacy group Minding the Gap to offer Point Park teachers and students a three-year pilot program aimed at normalizing the mental-health needs of dancers, and providing students with specialized resources comparable to physical therapy.

“Let’s face it,” Lemonius says. “When we talk about a dance students’ health, our go-to is their physical well-being—What are we doing to take care of their bodies and make sure they are in proper physical condition? Which means, do they have the strength, flexibility and stamina to do the work we are asking for?—ignoring the fact that there is a larger issue there, and that is their mental health.”

Lemonius looks forward, pointing both fingers upward with elbows bent, as students copy him behind him
Garfield Lemonius. Photo by Kaylee Wong, courtesy Point Park

Assisting Lemonius in closing that gap is Kathleen McGuire Gaines, a dance writer and mental-health advocate who has emerged as one of the field’s strongest proponents for improving mental health.

In July of 2017, Dance Magazine published a reported essay by Gaines detailing how unaddressed depression had stymied her own career.

“I was never a confident dancer,” Gaines wrote. “I relied heavily on the praise of my teachers and casting to feel my self-worth. And over time, the micro-failures that dancers must overcome each day started to chip away at me.”

Her essay cites a theory by Dr. Brian Goonan, a Houston-based psychologist who works with dancers. “The same drive to succeed that makes so many ballet students great may also predispose them to depression,” Goonan says.

The piece went viral, and Lemonius was among many who read it and wondered anew at the headline: “Why are we still so bad at addressing dancers’ mental health?”

Lemonius was surprised to learn that Gaines lived only miles away, working as a freelance journalist and arts administrator. He invited her to Point Park, and months later, what began as an intimidating opportunity to speak directly to students evolved into Minding the Gap, an advocacy and consulting business that requires Gaines to do something she never expected to do as a dancer: talk.

“Being a dancer plus a writer does not necessarily make me a good speaker,” Gaines says. “I was quite nervous about it.”

For that first talk at Point Park, Gaines took along Dr. Leigh Skvarla, a certified counselor with extensive dance training who is now a Minding the Gap research partner. The prepared presentation went smoothly, she says, but Gaines found the Q&A shocking: For more than 45 minutes, the Point Park students peppered her and Skvarla with questions. Their eagerness seemed worlds away from her own extensive dance training at the San Francisco Ballet School and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, as well as summer programs at SAB and Chautauqua.

“If I’m sitting in that chair, I’m 18 years old, there’s no way I’m raising my hand and asking a question about mental health,” Gaines says.

Gaines, a young white woman in a blue dress, stands at a podium, holding a microphone and looking at her laptop
Kathleen McGuire Gaines. Photo courtesy Ascender

Today’s Gen-Z dancers are more comfortable confessing their own self-doubts, yet there’s a gap between what students may share on Instagram and what they’ll say in the studio to a professor. Likewise, teachers need to better understand how something as simple as giving a harsh correction or commenting on physical appearances can be internalized by a student who’s psychologically vulnerable.

“We’ve got to figure out, How do you correct a student with weak technique while still conveying to them ‘You have value and you are wanted here’?” says Ahmad Simmons, a 2010 graduate of Point Park. He stays in close touch with Lemonius, and was thrilled to hear about the partnership with Minding the Gap. “That’s amazing,” Simmons says. “I wish we would have had something like that when I was there.”

Plans for the Minding the Gap partnership are moving forward because Lemonius watched that initial Q&A session with Gaines and Skvarla and thought to himself, “This can’t be a one-time thing.”

Thanks to a $23,000 grant from Pittsburgh nonprofit the Staunton Farm Foundation, Point Park is halfway through the first of its three-year partnership with Minding the Gap. Although Point Park students did meet in person this semester, Minding the Gap initiatives—including a roundtable for around 10 full-time and 30 adjunct faculty members—were moved online.

“Working directly with the teachers is a key element of the program, since the teachers are effectively the keepers of the culture and are vital to destigmatizing mental health within their dance environment,” says Gaines. “Teachers, of course, have their own mental health as well.”

For students, the Minding the Gap program consists of one seminar each semester, and in the spring semester, students will participate in “breakout rooms” that delve more deeply into specific topics. Students are also participating in a research study that Gaines hopes will more clearly delineate the unique needs of dance students. Results so far are “really interesting,” she says, although it’s too early to share details.

While she’s working with the university, Gaines hopes to develop resources and a curriculum that Minding the Gap can take to other college dance programs, schools and companies. They are still seeking funding for years two and three at Point Park, however, which will allow the program to expand to include one-on-one clinical support for dancers. Gaines notes that finding money wasn’t easy, even for someone who, like her, has also worked in nonprofit development.

“Arts organizations would look at me and say, ‘But we fund art creation?’ They did not understand why I was asking for money to improve the mental health of dancers,” Gaines says.

A decade after graduating from Point Park, Simmons is hoping benefactors back a program that will prepare students for the mental rigors of a professional dance career. He’s found great success, playing Pippin star Ben Vereen on the hit series “Fosse/Verdon” and appearing in multiple Broadway shows, including Hadestown and West Side Story.

And yet he’s known many who have lost loved ones in the performing arts community to suicide because they’ve suffered from inadequately addressed mental illness. And even in professional New York theater, he’s encountered situations that resemble the scenes he reenacted in “Fosse/Verdon,” where a genius creator somehow has license to scream at performers for spurious reasons.

“There is still this idea that pain and suffering should be part of making art,” Simmons says. “The sooner we can address this, the better.”