Dancers Trending

Why Do Dancers—Usually So Conscientious About Their Bodies—Get Drawn to Drugs?

Thinkstock

Simone Messmer was 19 the first time she used cocaine. She was at another company's gala when someone pulled out a bag of the white powder. There, at the coat check counter, party guests took turns snorting the drug. "I was hesitant, but at the time I was willing to try anything once," she says. "Everyone around me was getting hyped up. But for me, it made me feel grounded."

She would later learn that her reaction—feeling grounded instead of hyped—probably had to do with undiagnosed ADHD. The sensation kept Messmer, then a corps member at American Ballet Theatre, returning to the drug multiple times a week for a year. And it nearly jeopardized her career.


Dancers like Messmer, now a principal at Miami City Ballet, spend their whole lives training, toning and perfecting their bodies. So it seems strange that some would turn to substances like alcohol and drugs to fit in, lose weight or relieve stress.

But Messmer says that behind the satin and tulle, the "work hard, play hard" mentality thrives and some dancers depend on good genes to cancel out bad behavior. "I don't know any group of people that treats their bodies worse than dancers," says Messmer. "They don't rehab from injuries, they drink too much, they eat a lot of sugar. The idea that all dancers are healthy is a big myth."

Now clean and drug-free, Simone Messmer is thriving at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy MCB.

Of course, this is only one dancer's observation. But dancers can be extreme with their health—some in their regimen of kale and vitamins, others with their after-rehearsal habits.

"There are definitely dancers who see themselves as invincible," says Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet. Though she says it's not uncommon for all young adults to feel that way until something negative happens.

Drugs and dance have had a well-known partnership since Gelsey Kirkland famously revealed the details of her cocaine addiction in her 1986 memoir Dancing on My Grave. The following year, ABT star Patrick Bissell died from an overdose. But addiction's presence reaches beyond the stereotype of the '80s. The Royal Danish Ballet was involved in widespread reports of cocaine abuse among its dancers. Sergei Polunin has been open about his relationship with drugs and alcohol and its effect on his career.

Still, drugs are something that many dancers only know as a stereotype. "I've had plenty of pre-professional patients go and trainee or apprentice at different places," says Kaslow. "Some don't have any scene. But at some of these places it's rampant." The trend is by no means uniform across the dance landscape, and Kaslow says there's no way of knowing exactly how common drug abuse is in the dance community because very little research has been done specifically about its connection with the form. She thinks it comes down to drug use being more a part of the culture in some companies than in others.

Throughout the general population, drug use typically begins around the time kids finish high school. At that stage, the part of the brain that balances risk and reward is not yet fully developed. In the dance world, many students leave home to train or work as early as 14, leaving them susceptible at an even younger age.

Dancers may use drugs for a number of reasons. Many may see it as a way to unwind after a long day or week of rehearsals. The job does, after all, put people under a great deal of stress to perform to the highest of expectations at all times. The fact that many dancers have type A personalities only adds more pressure.

"Drugs are a stress reliever, they relax you," explains Brian Goonan, a psychologist who works with Houston Ballet Academy. "At the same time, it puts a surge of dopamine in the system, and that just plain and simple feels good."

Sergei Polunin, here in a still from DANCER, told Attitude, "At first drugs made me feel good, but then literally your body starts to fail."

Goonan says that dancers might feel attracted to drugs like cocaine or other stimulants because the high is immediate, and, initially, it will dissipate within a reasonable amount of time depending on the dose. And because it is a stimulant, the dopamine rush can mimic what many dancers feel when they perform. He cautions, though, that the tolerance-building and addictive nature of cocaine make it likely that increasing amounts will be used and dependency will develop.

Other drug users—specifically those who favor hallucinogens—feel these substances help them access their art. One New York City–based commercial and concert dancer told us he takes LSD or other psychoactive substances every few months to once a year, usually during times of deep questioning or transition. He says that they help him open up his mind when he's in need of personal discovery, and that sometimes his new insights inform his creative work.

"I don't use drugs unless I have a very specific purpose," says the 22-year-old. "You can actually learn really pinpointed ideas from these hallucinations. And I will sit down and meditate after."

Still, he admits that he has seen the dangerous side of psychedelic drugs after taking extremely strong doses and using them with the wrong intentions. Messmer identifies her rock-bottom moment as the time, a year into her use, when she went on a binge that forced her to miss two days of rehearsals. By this time, ABT had more than a hunch about her problem, and gave her an ultimatum: Go to rehab or quit.

A better solution to the dance world's drug problem, though, would be to stop use before it starts. Most companies have physical therapists and a nutritionist, but few have dedicated mental health professionals on staff. And that can send dancers a message about what companies value.

"Dancers who are struggling are often seen as less favorable by their peers," says Goonan. "We don't spend much energy on mental health in the dance world. It's a way to weed out dancers—only the strong survive."

He says companies also need to better address the emotional aspects of injury—a time in a dancer's career when they can be more susceptible to drug use. Company culture hasn't properly accepted the idea that dancers truly need time off to heal.

And, to be fair, dancers haven't grasped this idea either. The thought is often, Every day spent on the sidelines is another day away from their goal of getting a part or a promotion.

Even Messmer looks back on her difficult months in rehab as time lost. Today, she's clean. But it came at a price. One month of rehab cost her $38,000 and a certain level of trust. The company required her to take part in a multi-year treatment plan that included weekly drug tests. Messmer thinks her drug habit made her fall three years behind in her climb up the ranks. But she's thankful that ABT supported her in getting better. "I had to start over and earn everything back," says Messmer. "I've seen a lot of people fail at this. I was a lucky one."

The Conversation
News

Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.

The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.

As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Lorenzo Di Cristina/Unsplash

When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.

The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."

Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Quinn Wharton

What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.

So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Still of Fonteyn from the 1972 film I Am a Dancer. Photo courtesy DM Archives

On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
Courtesy #Dance4OurLives

Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.

When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.

The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave

A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.

I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.

There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.

While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Getty Images

Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.

"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.

The key is choosing your loaf wisely.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending

It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.

We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Unity Phelan in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Photo by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy FRANK PR

"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.

News
Walsh's Moon Fate Sin at Danspace Project. Like Fame Notions, the title was derived from Yvonne Rainer's "No" manifesto. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace Project

The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Via YouTube

What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

The heart of his message: Be generous.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox