(The following essay continues seechicagodance's ongoing project, "WRITE ON DANCE: OUR READERS WRITE!")
I have seen dancers at their lowest points; when the spark and passion that once gleamed in their eyes, is replaced with sadness, fear, self-loathing, and abusive obsessive thoughts of inadequacy and fears of dispensability. I have seen individuals with promising careers succumb to addiction, perfectionism, and pressure; to trying to become someone or something they are not. The dance world is no stranger to mental health issues, and yet it is not sufficiently addressed, openly discussed, or prioritized.
Dance Magazine recently published an article entitled “Why Are We Still So Bad at Addressing Dancers’ Mental Health?” As a dance/movement therapist, a psychotherapist combining talk therapy and movement, I think about this frequently. Perhaps we do not address mental health in dance because society still operates on the assumption that body and mind are separate. We fear that addressing mental health concerns will stifle a dancer’s abilities or creativity. Or, perhaps the stigma of mental health is too great, and we do not even know how to begin the discussion. It is my hope and intent to start that conversation and highlight how addressing mental health in dance can actually make us better performers, more compassionate educators, and more self-aware dancers.
Imagine a young dancer born with the passion for dance, but not the body type. She is graceful, poised, and expressive with her body and moves effortlessly across the floor. She has always been at the top her class and a role model for other dancers. One day she is pulled aside by her teacher, who not only states that she is “big” for a dancer, but that she will not be considered for solos unless she “gets in shape.” She is humiliated in class when the teacher pinches parts of her body and points out how different she looks from the rest of her peers, calling her the “fat” one. Her teacher believes this is the best tactic for motivation. The young dancer starts to hate her body and herself. Concerned for her future as a dancer, she starts to constrict her eating. At 5’7” and 110 lbs, she is commended for losing weight and looking “so thin.” She is rewarded with a solo, except her thin frame and lack of nutrition cannot support the grueling routine and rehearsal schedule. She pushes herself harder to keep up with her competition; popping pain killers and consuming energy drinks. The feeling that at any moment she could be replaced weighs on her like a ton of bricks. She suffers from joint pain, muscle fatigue, and exhaustion, but she continues to push through it all until one day she collapses on the dance floor. She finds herself sitting in the process group of a residential treatment facility; she doesn’t even know how she got to this point. Dance, which used to bring her so much joy and freedom, now only brings pain, shame, and humiliation. She is a shell of her former self, lacking any self-awareness, confidence, or self-esteem. Her self-loathing is palpable as she barely makes eye contact and lacks core support as evidenced by her stooped posture and slumped shoulders.
This scenario is all too common. We see young dancers sacrificing and sometimes ignoring their physical health and well-being to attain an impossible ideal. As educators, instructors, and choreographers we can support our students by adapting healthy habits, modeling appropriate boundaries, and empowering them to make decisions based on personal abilities and realistic expectations. By managing demands and realistic expectations, dancers can not only proactively tend to their mental health, but they can learn to take responsibility for their own bodies and be their own advocates in the dance studio. Addressing mental health can aid in keeping a dancer’s body safe so as not to overwork or overload the system, leading to injuries that can affect his/her career. Taking charge of one’s health by giving the body time to heal can become a healthy strategy instead of performing through the pain or even injury. It is all the more important to give the body a rest in order to recharge and release tired fatigued muscles and minds. Being aware of conflict can free the body, allow imagination to flourish, and encourage creative risk taking.
The young dancer seeks counseling to address the unhealthy habits and negative thoughts and behaviors that have become as involuntary as breathing. The work begins with the intent to see the body as an ally, not the enemy. This is no easy task, but with compassion, empathy, and understanding, she can begin to feel and explore the mind body connection. She can explore what safety and trust feel like in the body and how to know when those are compromised. She learns that the body feels everything that the mind encounters and when it is not acknowledged it can have a devastating impact on psychological and physical well-being. She gets back to finding joy in her movement and finds the ability to detach her physical appearance from her self- worth and value. Most importantly, she learns to be responsible for her own mental and physical health, finding a voice for her insecurities and an outlet for her challenges.
This is not a mandate for dance educators, artistic directors, and choreographers to provide counseling or professional mental health services at their studios or in class. I am simply suggesting that we begin to give ourselves permission to recognize and open up a conversation regarding a student’s or company member’s behavior, mood, or emotions. We can treat the body and mind as one, and realize that we are all emotional beings that cannot always escape, manage, or control our thoughts and feelings. Recognizing the dancer, mind and body, validates and supports his/her existence allowing for better understanding, communication, and expression. Dance educators and artists can invest in their own body awareness and mental health in order to become not only more aware of issues that arise, but also to allow for engagement in this conversation in a productive and supportive manner.
Sam has wanted to be a professional ballet dancer since he can remember. He has made many sacrifices, including losing his father, with whom he was very close. His father who did not approve of this career disowned Sam. To Sam’s father, losing his son was better than the shame, humiliation, and ridicule he would receive from his culture and community. Sam spiraled into a deep depression after this loss. He had panic attacks every time he stepped on stage. With the support of his mother and close friends, he was able to get help from a licensed mental health provider and has worked hard to cope with the circumstances while continuing to pursue dance. He is ready to take his career to the next level and has decided to audition for a well known national ballet company. Sam knocks the first audition out of the park. The panelists are pleased with his skill, technique, aesthetic, and drive. During the contemporary audition, Sam takes his place on stage. As he prepares to begin the choreography a familiar song plays over the sound system; a song his father sang to him as a young boy. Sam collapses to his knees as if the very foundation underneath his feet has crumbled; tears streaming down his face. A voice yells out, “Next” from the panel of judges. Sam fears that his journey has come to an end and that his hard work to overcome this has been for nothing. Recognizing the pain, another panelist takes Sam aside, and rather than dismiss him, he asks Sam if he is alright. Sam has spent years being able to talk about his struggle and is able to explain the circumstance and how difficult this journey has been for him despite how much he wants this. The panelist, having gone through a similar ordeal supports Sam and asks if he will be able to continue, to which Sam replies “Yes.” Sam is given 5 minutes to compose himself. He is able to resource coping strategies that he learned through counseling and he continues his audition.
Our bodies carry our experiences and we do not always know when someone we meet, a piece of choreography, or music will trigger thoughts, feelings, emotions, or memories. While there is not ample time to process what emerges, a simple acknowledgment can make all the difference. Should the issue require professional attention, we should try our best to normalize not stigmatize. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a vital way to practice self-care and responsibility for our health. Find ways to incorporate mind and body in order to facilitate embodied compassion for all artists and educators. Let’s break the stigma that mind and body are separate and embrace all that we are, how we move, and how better to integrate mental health into our dance communities.
Erica Hornthal is a clinical counselor and board-certified dance/movement therapist. She is the CEO and founder of Chicago Dance Therapy, the premier dance therapy and counseling practice serving Chicago and its suburbs. Erica works with individuals of all ages, encouraging them to take charge of their mental health by embracing their own mind-body connection and by using movement as a means of natural expression, communication, and health.
For more information on where to receive professional support, consider the following resources:
Chicago Dance Therapy:
Center for Creative Arts Therapy:
Institute for Therapy through the Arts: