Wellness in dance is often framed with a hyper-focus on maintaining our bodies. We have normalized the conversation on how to keep our bodies optimal for performance with various tools and resources from physical therapy, injury prevention methods, and pushing for more access to medical care. In my experience as a professional dancer, choreographer, and educator, mental health often gets left out of the conversation. It's often a taboo topic and our society is just now getting to a place of more visibility and awareness. I have noticed that while most people acknowledge that mental health is important and many are living with mental health challenges, there is still a lack of diligence on how that applies to our everyday practice as dance artists. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, one in five adults and one in six youth (aged 6-17) experience mental illness each year in the U.S. Regardless of your role in this field, you have more than likely been engaging with students, colleagues, and families that are living with a mental illness/disorder. It is important for us as a dance community to not only normalize having brave conversations about mental health, but also to strategize and implement ways we can create spaces where dancers feel safe, supported, and able to thrive.
When I was diagnosed with depression as a teen, and later bipolar disorder as a young adult, I began to see the many ways my mental health played a role in my ability to be fully present in rehearsals, classes, and performances. Navigating how to function in the various dance spaces I was in while also navigating how to manage my mental health was a huge obstacle that I’m still learning to overcome. Over the years I have found what works for me personally, while also thinking about how the dance community can do better to aid people in their quest to maintain their mental and emotional wellness. I offer these tips through the lens of my experience dancing in a company and teaching as someone with a diagnosed psychiatric disorder. I encourage all to find ways to make these tips applicable to your specific situations.
1. Tackle Stigma
Experiencing stigma was always a hindrance for me in feeling comfortable enough to disclose when I needed more support and what that could look like. I believe education is the key to dismantling stigma. Education results in more honest conversations around asking for and offering support. I realized that without the knowledge and understanding of the various challenges people may face when living with a mental illness, it’s impossible to receive the level of care that is necessary to thrive in the dance space. Incorporating more education and de-stigmatizing mental health can look like:
• Dance companies, schools, and studios hiring mental health professionals to provide services to dancers, teachers, and directors.
• Partnering with mental health professionals to implement practices that are trauma informed and inclusive to those who need mental health accommodations.
• Doing individual research when someone discloses they are living with a mental illness or experiencing a more distressing time in their life that requires professional intervention.
• Requiring teachers, choreographers, and/or directors to take a mental health first aid course (resource can be found here: https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/).
• Prioritizing healthy conversation about mental health in our daily interactions within dance spaces.
• Being open to sharing experiences with others (when we feel safe) to help normalize mental health issues.
2. Advocate for Your needs
My ability to show up in class, rehearsal, or performances in a way that matches other people’s expectations or in the ways that I desire can be compromised when I experience distress, episodes, or emotional lows. Just as we would ask for and provide accommodations when experiencing physical illness or injury, I’ve learned it is crucial to do the same when experiencing bad mental health days. Accommodations can vary by person, but can include things like asking for extended breaks during or in between classes or rehearsals, being allowed to remove yourself from portions of class or rehearsal when feeling in distress, being able to modify choreography that may be triggering, and not being penalized for having to miss a rehearsal or class in order to prioritize caring for yourself.
3. develop a plan
I believe we can transform our dance spaces to be more affirming, safe, and inclusive when it comes to mental health if we are willing to not only recognize the problem but be diligent in implementing solutions. The solutions must center those who are most vulnerable to being stigmatized for mental health challenges. The solutions must also center everyone and recognize that maintaining and improving our mental wellness is not just reserved for those with a psychiatric diagnosis. Everyone can benefit from these conversations and actions, as we can all understand how our emotions, our view of ourselves, and our interactions with one another influence our ability to thrive in any dance environment. We must especially prioritize creating a culture of care to not only strengthen our awareness but to allow for each other to thrive in our mental wellness.
Even with my best efforts to manage my symptoms and stressors outside of the dance spaces I was in, I learned that sometimes experiencing manifestations of my mental illness were inevitable. It became vital for me to develop a plan for myself in order to stay safe and advocate for support. I realized, as a teacher, that my students also needed intentional strategy from me whenever they were experiencing challenges in class or rehearsal. I found that developing specific self-care plans for each setting I was in (self-care for dance company rehearsal, self-care for teaching at these dance studios, self-care for choreographing on others, etc.) was helpful for me. These plans laid out strategies to help de-stabilize distressing moments, prevent escalation of destructive and unhealthy behaviors, and optimize before and after care for more stressful days. I would also suggest discussing strategy with colleagues on how to de-escalate situations when dancers are in need of more support before, during, and after class, rehearsals, or performances.