I am a dancer in a successful West End showand a year ago I nearly quit.
My anxiety came suddenly and without warning. We were in the middle of a stressful cast change and tensions were high as everyone wanted to prove their value to the production.
I felt as though someone flipped a switch in my brain. I started to feel pressure about perfecting my performances and suddenly felt unworthy of being there. My mind became consumed with negative images about what I was doing wrong, or what could go wrong.
Along with the rewards of a dance career come numerous sources of stress, from the demands of a busy schedule to challenges in the studio.
"We want to be perfect," says Shuaib Elhassan, a dancer with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, "and we want to reach for the best we can do."
While occasional acute stress—like pre-audition anxiety—is a normal part of life, long-term problems like financial strain, an injury or an abusive work environment can contribute to chronic stress. "When demands exceed coping resources, stress results," says Dr. Jennifer Carter, a sports psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:
1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down. 2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.
Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.
Dancers often reach out to each other first when they're in a crisis. Photo by Velizar Ivanov/Unsplash
When it comes to mental health, dancers are the ones on the frontlines trying to support each other. Many find themselves routinely confronted with concerns for their friends. Maybe it's the dancer down the barre who you know is cutting, or the partner who only speaks about himself with disparagement and disgust.
According to Dr. Sharon Chirban, a sports psychologist who works with dancers at Boston Ballet, it is normal for peers to seek each other out when dealing with mental health issues. Yet many are unsure of what to do when a friend approaches them. Keep these six actions in mind the next time you need to help a fellow dancer.
Most dancers feel too scared to speak up about mental health issues. Photo by Gift Habeshaw/Unsplash
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.