Treating dancers is a unique challenge. Photo by Getty Images
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.
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.
Tsai-Wei Tien in Bausch's Rite of Spring. Photo by Alexandra Campeau, courtesy Tanztheater Wuppertal
In a sheer red slip—dirt-covered and exposed—the Chosen One frantically pleads with the community encircling her, wildly dancing until she at last succumbs to an inevitable death. Part of Pina Bausch's haunting Rite of Spring, this solo is one of the most vulnerable in dance.
"When I perform this role, there is no acting, my struggle is very real—it becomes very spiritual," says Tanztheater Wuppertal dancer Tsai-Wei Tien. "I squeeze everything I have into those final moments."
A truly unguarded performance electrifies the stage and connects deeply with the audience, in a way that surpasses even the most flawless technical prowess.
When I shared my story of leaving dance because of untreated depression a few weeks ago, I had no idea what the response would be. In truth, it took me several days just to hit "send" and give the words to my editor. I was overwhelmed by your response—the kind words, the calls for action and the sharing of your own stories. I read every comment and share that I could see.
But as much as the camaraderie of other dancers served to validate my experience, they also shook me to the bone. How tragic that this is common and so widely felt.
Your voices are undeniably being heard, and Dance Magazine wants to hear more. If you are a current dancer, please take three minutes to fill out this survey. Share it widely and encourage others to do the same. In order to make this a movement that elicits real change, we must demonstrate the need with as many participants as possible. You will see the outcome of your responses in a future article of Dance Magazine, where I will continue to join you in this conversation. We can change this together.
Dancers are masters of multi-tasking. Performing a series of steps on stage while portraying a character and making a split-second change from a single to a double pirouette is no problem, but no coincidence either. Dancers' brains appear to be programmed differently from non-dancers' brains.
Studies at the University of Maryland in partnership with the University of Houston during the past three years reveal that dancers use multiple areas of their brains simultaneously while dancing: one part controls movement without expressive intention, another part imagines movement qualities and these parts work to execute movement while also making higher-level decisions.
At some point in your dance career, friends might have used the word "obsessed" to describe you. Perhaps you smiled in response. Priding ourselves on how hard and tirelessly we work seems locked in our dancer DNA.
That's partly because dancers need a certain amount of laser focus to make it in the competitive professional world. But when you spend "one extra hour" in the studio too often, the scales can tip. Dancers can rehearse themselves into an injury, or try a combination so many times that the result is simply frustration.
"Sometimes your body and mind need a break—a day, afternoon or weekend," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet. "But dancers feel bad about these things. They don't feel entitled. It feels like you might lose all your training or your spot in a company in that little time off."
Not only did the piece quickly become one of our most-read, readers shared it hundreds of times, and many reached out to us directly with their own stories. On Facebook, Twitter and through email, several people offered up suggestions for how the dance field could improve. We wanted to share some of the top comments we got—because it's obviously a conversation we all need to have.