Let's Have an Honest Conversation About Dancers and Mental Health
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“So why did you quit?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked hundreds of times since I stopped dancing over a decade ago. My answer has changed over the years as my own understanding of what lead me to walk away from greatest love of my life has become clearer.
“I had some injures,” I would mutter nervously for the first few years. This seemed like the answer people understood most. Then it became, “I was just not very happy.” Finally, as I passed into my 30s, I began telling the uncomfortable truth: “I quit dancing because of untreated depression.”
It makes sense that people ask me “why?” I was a promising student. I left my family in upstate New York at 14 to train in the highest levels of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and then San Francisco Ballet School. I spent my summers at the School of American Ballet and the Chautauqua festival program. I can say now what I was incapable of seeing then—I was a good dancer.
But I was never a confident dancer. 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. In my last year at SFBS, I would routinely cry in the studio. A missed pirouette or a class where I felt invisible to the teacher would completely dismantle me. Concerned teachers would stop me in the hallway with words of support, but my grit was too far gone.
Matthew Murphy for Pointe
While dealing with back-to-back stress fractures, I was forced to sit in every single class that I missed for eight weeks and watch my peers surpass me. Sage dance therapist Dr. Bonnie Robson recently told me that despite the fact that injury is the most common reason for onset for depression in dancers, most injured dancers will see doctors, physical therapists and Pilates instructors while never seeing a mental health professional.
Three thousand miles from my parents and without a mentor, I learned my coping mechanisms from my peers. I thought being skinny would make me happy, so I tried all the ill-advised dieting techniques and then-still-legal ephedrine pills. I started self-medicating and at 18 I had developed a party resume that you would read about in a Rolling Stone profile. I remember sobbing to my mother on the phone, “I love dance, but it doesn’t love me.” On the worst days I considered that I would be less of a burden to the people that I loved if I were gone. It would be better than not dancing.
In the years since, I have had the privilege of conducting hundreds of interviews for articles I have written in Dance Magazine and other Dance Media publications. I have the handful of great dance therapists in the country piled up in my recent call list. My conversations with them and other dancers and dance-support professionals, combined with my own experience, has lead me to an unavoidable truth: I believe that dance institutions are failing their dancers with a lack of support for mental health.
In a recent interview, Dr. Brian Goonan, who works with dancers at Houston Ballet Academy, told me that the same drive to succeed that make so many ballet students great may also predispose them to depression. And yet, as a dance writer, when I call up so many of the great training institutions in this country to ask for an interview with the psychologist they refer their dancers to, they can’t produce one. Houston Ballet Academy is the only school that I know of that makes regular office hours with a mental health professional available to their students in the studio. I hope that there are others I simply haven’t found.
Jim Lafferty for Pointe
But I believe that small steps can move this industry in the right direction. Based upon the countless interviews I’ve done with professionals on the mental health of dancers, I have a few steps I’d like dancers, parents and directors to consider:
- Periods of darkness will come with this challenging pursuit, and that is normal. It does not make you weak to seek help for your mental well-being the same way that it does not make you weak to go to physical therapy or a nutritionist.
- If a friend or teacher tells you that they are worried about your mental state, listen. And know that this confrontation is hard for them. It is an act of love, not a criticism of your character.
- Ask for help when you need it. It is not normal to feel sad every day for two weeks or more.
- Understand that the most difficult time in your training is also the time that you are most statistically likely to experience depression. Dr. Robson told me that people are most likely to experience their first depression in their late teens and early twenties.
- If/when you leave dance, consider a career in mental health if it interests you. Reach out to local studios and companies and offer your services.
- Feeling like you want to quit is a common symptom of depression, according to Dr. Goonan. It does not necessarily mean that you will, or should stop dancing.