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RHS Academy: Mental Health In The Professional Dance Industry

Rye High School

Recently, students at The Academy at Rye High School, a project based learning program, looked at a variety of societal issues. MyRye.com is sharing some of this work.

Mental Health In The Professional Dance Industry

By: Maggie Kirkpatrick

Maggie Kirkpatrick is at The Academy at Rye High School. Outside of school she enjoys reading, hanging out with her friends and dancing. She is in her seventh year dancing at Brava Dance Center company team. She has been researching the professional dance industry and have found that there is a general lack of mental health support for professional dancers. 

(PHOTO: Maggie Kirkpatrick is a senior in the Academy at Rye High School.)
(PHOTO: Maggie Kirkpatrick is a senior in the Academy at Rye High School.)

Over the years, dance has evolved in numerous ways, some for the better, but some for the worse. Dance is important because it allows individuals to release stress in a positive way, while exercising at the same time. Through dance, individuals can release elements of stress and anxiety, as while you dance your body releases endorphins. It’s important for dancers to be in a positive environment for them to be able to fully enjoy the art of dance. Although dance is meant to be a physical way to release stress, the professional dance world has shifted the concept of dance from a celebration to a stressful environment for dancers, which has generally impacted dancers in negative ways. 

It’s clear that beauty is subjective— not everybody can agree on one characteristic that makes something, or someone, beautiful. There are, however, certain factors that contribute to the general concept of beauty. A determining factor of whether something is beautiful in dance is symmetry. Traditionally, it was important for ballerinas to be “proportional”. According to Human Kinetics, “When dancers move both sides of their bodies together to create symmetrical shapes, they balance each other in space and produce visual symmetry”(Sofras, NA). Although symmetry is a key component to the concept of beauty in ballet, as the industry changes the idea of symmetry does too. Recently, Ballet West US hired Olivia Book, a dancer who has won numerous awards for mastering difficult variations en pointe. Olivia Book also has a congenital limb deficiency which means her right arm is significantly smaller than her left. (Aloff, 2023). Book is an example of the dance world changing the norms to become more inclusive, as this deficiency means it’s not possible for Book’s arms to look symmetrical onstage, a traditional component to the concept of beauty. Beauty is subjective in the dance world and constantly changing to incorporate and include more individuals, which creates a sense of celebration for all.

Although the dance community is very inviting and we are seeing a shift to include more individuals, many factors make mental health issues and disorders prevalent in the professional world. According to an article written by Junge and Hauschild which studies the prevalence of symptoms of depression, anxiety and eating disorders in 147 dancers from opera houses and theatres, 1 in 5 professional dancers struggles with symptoms of either depression, generalized anxiety, or eating disorders. It’s concerning that so many dancers are struggling mentally, but what’s more shocking is the lack of support dancers receive. The study states that more than 60% of dancers say they “wanted or needed support from a psychotherapist/psychologist for personal mental health problems” (Hauschild, Junge, 2023). This reveals that dancers are clearly not getting the mental health help that they need from company’s and the prevalence of disorders makes it apparent that it’s necessary for them to be receiving this help.

 The concept of “perfectionism” is one that many dancers are familiar with. The overwhelming majority of dancers have perfectionistic tendencies, which often correlate with anxiety. According to research article, “Cluster analysis revealed three distinct cohorts: dancers with perfectionistic tendencies (40.59% of the sample), dancers with moderate perfectionistic tendencies (44.35%), and dancers with no perfectionistic tendencies (15.06%)” (Aways, Bates, Cumming, Sharp, 2011). This shows that more than 80% of dancers have perfectionistic tendencies, which often causes dancers to worry about not looking “perfect”. Anxiety is extremely common for dancers in the professional world and can lead to dancers needing to step back from dance to focus on their mental health. It’s important to make mental health help available for all dancers who struggle so they don’t have to feel anxious in a space they once felt happiest.

One of the most common disorders seen in the professional dance world are eating disorders. According to the study completed, “The average BMI of female dancers was 18.9 kg/ m2 , and in 42.9%, the BMI was below 18.5  kg/m2 (limit of for underweight), but still 47% of the female dancers thought that they should lose weight” (Hauschild, Junge, 2023). This shows that even dancers who are already underweight believe that they need to lose weight. According to 4dancers.org, Sally Radell, who was once a dancer herself, believes that mirrors in dance studios may contribute to the prevalence of negative body image in the dance world. (Radell 2014). Personally, I believe that although mirrors are helpful, they can be distracting as they force individuals to stare at themselves all day. Radell depicts how mirrors in a dance studio can also “cause a dancer to focus excessively on her visual image rather than the muscular sensations of a movement” (Radell 2014). The sensation of one’s body in movement, also called proprioception, is important for dancers, as it helps provide spatial awareness and correct body placement. This is important for all dancers to obtain, especially when performing onstage as it ensures no collisions in formations. Mirrors in studios cause dancers to focus on their body images, leaving many dancers with body issues and loss of proprioception. The study brings up the question of if mirrors in studios should be limited, or gotten rid of entirely. If mirrors are contributing to disordered eating and loss of proprioception, should they even be there?

After researching the professional dance industry for four months, I thought it was time to talk to somebody who experienced the professional industry firsthand. Jenny Hogan, studio owner of Brava Dance Center in Rye spent many years of her life in the professional dance industry. Jenny danced in musicals at the Regional Theatre, was dance captain for many of her shows and assisted famous Broadway directors including Hal Prince and Kathleen Marshall before opening Brava Dance Center in Rye, NY (where I have been dancing for 12 years). When I asked Jenny how important it is for dancers to have a positive headspace, she emphasized the importance. Jenny explained that individuals who choose to pursue dance as a profession are people who truly have a passion for their art, as it’s not an easy field to find work in. She explained that when dancers have a negative mindset or headspace, this passion that made them continue dance as a career is often lost. When I asked Jenny if she believes that professional companies should provide mental health support for their dancers, she said that absolutely companies should be providing support for dancers. Jenny also mentioned that Unions like Equity and SAG do a good job providing support for artists. As a studio owner, Jenny feels that providing her dancers with a safe, positive space to dance in is the most important part of her job. She feels that although everybody has a different perspective of what a “positive environment” really means, dancers need a supportive atmosphere in order to succeed. Finally, when I asked Jenny to speak to the level of stress that she and others she danced with experienced during her time in the professional dance industry, she explained that there is a certain level of stress because dancers are trying to achieve greatness due to high stakes, but that everyone is coming from a place where they love what they are doing. This interview provided me with a firsthand experience from someone in the professional dance industry and was generally in line with my research, especially regarding the importance of a positive environment. 

Dance has evolved in many different ways. The evolution has allowed different people to experience the art, both physically and visually. The evolution has many positive effects on dancers, as it has made the industry more inclusive, but still many struggle in the professional world. The expectations and pressure placed on dancers, along with the occupational instability have negative effects on a majority of dancers physical and mental well being. My next step is to take elements of my research to create a new mental health guide in an attempt to create a safer, more comfortable environment for professional dancers. This system, which will be a guide that companies are encouraged to consider will directly emphasize the mental well being of dancers. It will highlight and improve the gaps in pre-existing support for dancers and work towards making every professional environment safer and more comfortable. The new system will expect that every dancer receives a high level of support, ensuring that companies are creating a positive environment for dancers to thrive in, not one where dancers lose their passion for their craft. 

References

Aloff, M. (2017, November 9). Op-Ed: On Beauty: Mindy Aloff considers the role of beauty in dance. YouTube: Home. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=anon~3d935d98&id=GALE%7CA763554880&v=2.1&it=r&sid=sitemap&asid=7cd62849

Cumming, J., Nordin-Bates, S., Sharp, L., & Aways, D. (2015, March 6). (PDF) Imagining Yourself Dancing to Perfection? Correlates of Perfectionism Among Ballet and Contemporary Dancers. ResearchGate. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229070749_Imagining_Yourself_Dancing_to_Perfection_Correlates_of_Perfectionism_Among_Ballet_and_Contemporary_Dancers

Hauschild, A., & Junge, A. (2023, November 20). (PDF) Behind the Curtain: Prevalence of Symptoms of Depression, Generalised Anxiety and Eating Disorders in 147 Professional Dancers from Six Opera Houses or State Theatres. ResearchGate. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/374334644_Behind_the_Curtain_Prevalence_of_Symptoms_of_Depression_Generalised_Anxiety_and_Eating_Disorders_in_147_Professional_Dancers_from_Six_Opera_Houses_or_State_TheatresRadell, S. A. (2014, January 27). Mirror Use In The Dance Classroom: How Much Is Too Much? 4dancers. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://4dancers.org/2014/01/mirror-use-in-the-dance-classroom-how-much-is-too-much/

Sofras, P. (n.d.). Symmetry: Balancing Shapes – Human Kinetics. Human Kinetics. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://us.humankinetics.com/blogs/excerpt/symmetry-balancing-shapes

Stafford, A. (2020, September 24). I’m a Professional Dancer With Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Here’s Why Dance Companies Need to Start Prioritizing Mental Health. Dance Magazine. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://www.dancemagazine.com/abi-stafford-anxiety/

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