Health & Body
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As a dancer working with your toes to the marley day in and day out, it is easy to feel like no one but your immediate colleagues understands your challenges.

Yet there are countless medical professionals working to improve the lives of dancers. Last week the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science gathered more than 500 professionals, all of whom have dedicated their careers to supporting dancers, at its 29th annual conference in Montreal.

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ALice Pasqual/Unsplash

We all know that dancers are typically perfectionistic, highly-motivated, driven and capable of enduring physical pain. These same qualities that lead to success can also drive stress that eventually leads to burnout.

But did you know that diet can play a role in taking care of your mental health?

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Health & Body
Gettty Images

It's a cycle familiar to many: First, a striking image of a lithe, impossibly fit dancer executing a gravity-defying développé catches your eye on Instagram. You pause your scrolling to marvel, over and over again, at her textbook physique.

Inevitably, you take a moment to consider your own body, in comparison. Doubt and negative self-talk first creep, and then flood, in. "I'll never look like that," the voice inside your head whispers. You continue scrolling, but the image has done its dirty work—a gnawing sensation has taken hold, continually reminding you that your own body is inferior, less-than, unworthy.

It's no stretch to say that social media has a huge effect on body image. For dancers—most of whom already have a laser-focus on their appearance—the images they see on Instagram can seem to exacerbate ever-present issues. "Social media is just another trigger," says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with the dancers of Atlanta Ballet. "And dancers don't need another trigger." In the age of Photoshop and filters, how can dancers keep body dysmorphia at bay?

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Rant & Rave
Hamid Hamido/Unsplash

As a young dancer, I was taught that falling out of a relevé, even during class, was not an option. I was told to never, ever give up on it. "Die for it," my ballet master used to say.

I used to love, even dream, of being immersed in dance every day. But after 10 years of pushing myself beyond my limits as a full-time dancer, something started happening to me internally. My vision would get blurry, my body felt like I was spinning, and my ears would ring.

I did what I always did—I ignored the warning signs and pushed through it. I never wanted to look weak or incapable as a dancer, even if I was in a lot of pain. Even if I felt like I was going to pass out.

I began feeling this way every day. From what I can remember, that was when I started blacking out while I was dancing.

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Health & Body
Chi De Marinis Photography, Courtesy Nicholls

I am a dancer in a successful West End show and 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.

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Health & Body
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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.

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Health & Body
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I'd been a professional dancer for five years when I realized the pain I'd been feeling in my hip and down my sciatic nerve was not going away. I had been treating it for two years as we dancers do—with regular visits to my masseuse, physical therapy, baths, ice and lots of Aleve—but I never stopped dancing. It finally dawned on me that if I kept going at the speed I was going (which was, well, speedy), the pain would only get more severe and unrelenting, and I might never dance again.

I told myself I'd take two months off, and all would be better.

That first morning when I woke up at 10 am, I had no idea what to do with myself. My life until that moment had been dictated by class and rehearsal, every hour accounted for. How should I fill the huge swath of time ahead of me?

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Health & Body
Unsplash

In my last years dancing, the tears came constantly. And I felt a deep shame and embarrassment every time it happened in the studio, which only exacerbated the situation. I felt my tears were giving me away—a manifestation of my weakness on display for all to see.

The truth is that science has proven that there are benefits to a good cry and that your tears serve a purpose in your overall wellbeing.

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Career Advice
Quinn Wharton

If everyone seems a bit obsessed with tidying up right now, blame the trendy Japanese organizing guru Marie Kondo. Her uber-popular book-turned-Netflix-show has so many people purging their closets that thrift stores can no longer keep up with the donations. The reason? Fans are falling in love with what Kondo calls "the life-changing magic of tidying up."

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Health & Body

Don't let her sizeable Instagram following or willingness to speak publicly about living with anxiety, depression and autism give you the wrong idea. "My speaking out about it does not mean it's easy or fun," says dancer Sydney Magruder Washington. "It means I'm not ashamed and you shouldn't be either."

And though (thankfully) open conversations about mental health are becoming more common in the dance world, there's still a long way to go. We picked Washington's brain about what it's like to live with mental illness as a dancer, the survival tips she's learned and what the dance world still doesn't seem to understand about mental health:

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Health & Body
A break can be an investment in the longevity of your career. Photo by Sage Friedman/Unsplash

In dance, pushing through pain is often glorified. Dancers can be reluctant to take time off when sick or injured for fear of missing out on opportunities. It can feel even harder to justify when the pain isn't physical. Though it's becoming more commonly acknowledged that mental health is just as important as physical health, a dance career doesn't leave much time to address mental or emotional issues.

But dancers need to take care of their mental well-being to be able to perform at their best, says Catherine Drury, a licensed clinical social worker for The Dancers' Resource at The Actors Fund. So what can you do if you need a mental health day?

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Health & Body
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.

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Health & Body
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.

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Rant & Rave
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.

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Just for Fun
Shelby Williams as her alter ego, Biscuit Ballerina. Photo by Nicha Rodbon, Courtesy Williams.

Last fall, Instagram's dance community blew up when an account titled Biscuit Ballerina started posting videos of an anonymous dancer doing laughably bad ballet. With a look of fierce determination, she would awkwardly make her way through well-known variations, stumbling over her pointe shoes. Comments ranged from hilarity to criticism to confusion: Who was this dancer?

The answer is Shelby Williams, a soloist with Royal Ballet of Flanders. Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Williams didn't become serious about ballet until age 11. At 15 she left home to train year-round at The Washington School of Ballet, and a year later transferred to the Houston Ballet Academy, where she quickly entered Houston Ballet II. As a student, Williams often felt crippled by self-criticism. "I was doing something I was passionate about every day, but I hated it," she says. Eventually she went to a sports psychologist who helped her learn how to enjoy the process and not take herself too seriously. After class, instead of feeling ashamed by the mistakes she'd made, Williams started to overexaggerate what she'd done, making herself and her classmates laugh.

Shelby Williams. Photo by Kensilav Kanev/De-Da Productions, Courtesy Williams.

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Just for Fun
Shelby Williams as her alter ego, Biscuit Ballerina. Photo by Nicha Rodbon, Courtesy Williams.

Last fall, Instagram's dance community blew up when an account titled Biscuit Ballerina started posting videos of an anonymous dancer doing laughably bad ballet. With a look of fierce determination, she would awkwardly make her way through well-known variations, stumbling over her pointe shoes. Comments ranged from hilarity to criticism to confusion: Who was this dancer?

The answer is Shelby Williams, a soloist with Royal Ballet of Flanders. Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Williams didn't become serious about ballet until age 11. At 15 she left home to train year-round at The Washington School of Ballet, and a year later transferred to the Houston Ballet Academy, where she quickly entered Houston Ballet II. As a student, Williams often felt crippled by self-criticism. "I was doing something I was passionate about every day, but I hated it," she says. Eventually she went to a sports psychologist who helped her learn how to enjoy the process and not take herself too seriously. After class, instead of feeling ashamed by the mistakes she'd made, Williams started to overexaggerate what she'd done, making herself and her classmates laugh.

Shelby Williams. Photo by Kensilav Kanev/De-Da Productions, Courtesy Williams.

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Health & Body
Recovery doesn't always follow your ideal timeline. Photo by Jairo Alzate/Unsplash

You've rested and rehabilitated. But what if an injury still bothers you? Health-care professionals share eight reasons dancers might heal more slowly than expected.

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Health & Body
Your mindset can make all the difference. Photo via Unsplash

You're standing backstage, and your mind won't stop racing.

What if, after weeks of rehearsal, you suddenly forget the choreography? What if that terrible critic gives you yet another embarrassing review? Did you remember to sew your pointe shoes correctly? Why won't your partner stop cracking his darn hip joint? Why can't you stop freaking out?

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Inside DM
Jayme Thornton

2017 has been quite a year here at Dance Magazine. From launching our new website to celebrating the magazine's 90th anniversary, it's been a thrilling 12 months. To wrap up the year, the Dance Magazine team took a moment to share each of our favorite highlights.

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Rant & Rave
Alana Grant, via Facebook

Earlier this week, I came across a daring post by London dancer Alana Grant, sharing her story of how she'd just gotten cut at an audition not because of her talent, but because the director decided she "wouldn't want to see her in hot pants on stage." How appalling, I thought as I jolted to share her post, feeling uneasy about the cruel, body-shaming reality of performing arts. As dancers, our canvas is our flesh and bones and we will always be judged on our appearance as well as our skills (whether we like it or not) because it's the mixture of those two qualities that make us who we are on stage.

But infinitely more appalling was a message I got from an acquaintance berating me for sharing Grant's story. He let me know that she had actually auditioned at his current company. Of course they wouldn't take her, he snickered in angry-red-face-emoji form, "because how could girls as fat as her ever expect to be lifted in the air by another dancer?" He wrote, "She should lose some weight before she even thinks about whining."

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Health & Body
StockSnap

When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:

"Dance isn't for everyone."

This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.

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