Dance is, without a doubt, an incredibly physical endeavor. Much of a dancer’s time both inside and outside of the studio is spent honing their bodily attributes with physical therapy exercises, cross training, and proper nutrition. Dancers spend hours staring at themselves in the mirror to perfect their technique, lines, angles, and quality of movement, and are taught to push the bounds of what is physically possible on a daily basis. The pressure to look, act, and be a certain way is incredibly high, but this constant drum beat of perfection has created an echoing silence for some in the dance community when it comes to another aspect of a dancer’s health. Mental health in the dance community is often pushed aside or outright ignored for a multitude of reasons, but the reality is that a dancer’s mental health is crucial for their success, not just as a dancer, but also as an individual human. Poor mental health can take a toll on all aspects of a person’s life, including their physical well-being. With October 10th being World Mental Health Day, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Doctors for Dancers and Dr. Chelsea Pierotti, a mental performance coach for dancers and founder of Passionate Coach, to discuss the state of mental health in the dance community.
Doctors for Dancers is an organization dedicated to connecting dancers with doctors who are Dance Specialists. They offer an online directory where all of their affiliated specialists are listed, ranging from doctors, to physical therapists, to psychologists. Additionally, Doctors for Dancers hosts informative webinars meant to educate the community on a variety of topics like “All About Masks,” “Covid 19: Going Back to Dance Safely,” and most recently “Let’s Bring Back the Warm-Up.” The beautiful thing about Doctors for Dancers’ specialists is that they all have a special connection to dance, and many of them used to be dancers. One of them is Dr. Pierotti, a sports psychology consultant and former dancer. She helps dancers become the best version of themselves by identifying and working through mental barriers that might be in their way. Dr. Pierotti’s organization, Passionate Coach, provides resources for dancers, dance coaches, and dance instructors on topics like mental toughness, leadership, reducing stress, and personal growth. When it comes to mental health, Doctors for Dancers states the goals for their organization plainly. “We want to bring more resources to our community. There is not enough.” The “show must go on” mindset within the dance world has made mental health a low priority for dancers, teachers, and choreographers who often feel that if your body is [physically] good to go, so are you. Doctors for Dancers is working to find more ways to grow their mental health network, noting that working with a mental health professional who specializes in dancers rather than a standard mental health professional would help a dancer to open up and trust more readily, just like a Physical Therapist specializing in dance has a more immediate connection and trust from the dancer than “regular” Sports Therapist. They have the inherent understanding of a dancer’s schedule, life, and overall passion for the art. “The biggest compliment we often get is, ‘I felt seen and heard for the first time,’” says Doctors for Dancers.
The psychology of dance is something that dance science is only recently beginning to tangle with. As an art form by itself, dance already demands an incredible amount of mental fortitude. “Dancers, by nature of how we train, are already mentally tough people,” says Dr. Pierotti. However, the constant daily criticisms in class, the incessant “no’s” after grueling auditions, the unavoidable peer-to-peer comparison, the feeling of being replaceable, and constantly striving for self-improvement can take an obvious toll. Dr. Pierotti especially highlights the internal battle for perfection, noting “there’s a perception in our industry that you have to be perfect to be hired, to be on the stage...being stuck in that desire for perfection can hold us back.” Yet these are just the things that can very easily take place inside of the individual dancer. When that is layered with verbally abusive teachers, manipulative choreographers, and/or rampant sexual abuse, the day-to-day experience of dance culture becomes taxing, toxic, and downright horrifying. “We are always wondering if we’re enough…you can be told ‘no’ so many times that you really think you are nothing,” laments Doctors for Dancers, “we don’t want anybody to feel that way.” It is incredible that such an obviously mentally draining experience has been swept away for so long. This lack of attention to mental health can rob some dancers of the full potential of their careers. Lives can be irrevocably changed or tragically cut short. Dance, an art that so often brings light and beauty to so many has been unfortunately, for some, used to do just the opposite. As Doctors for Dancers puts it, “Our community is really beautiful. It uplifts you, and takes you on a ride, and to hear that people are using that to demean our children and our dancers is really heartbreaking.”
So why is this not a focus in the dance community then? It should not take a calendar telling us that it is “World Mental Health Day” for us to do something about the harm that is actively happening in our community. The unfortunate truth comes down to three main factors. First is the oversimplification of dance as a physical activity. Because of the visual nature of dance, many people outside of the dance community see it as physical, and therefore the mental aspects of the art form often go unnoticed. Secondly, there is a deep cultural stigma associated with mental health. Many dancers are afraid that seeking out mental health care is an admission of weakness, or that they cannot handle the path they have chosen for themselves. They see it as something deeply wrong with them, rather than seeing it as a result of the brokenness in the world around them. On the other side, Dr. Pierotti points out that many instructors are often afraid to address their students’ mental health out of a fear of not being the right person to discuss it, or simply not having the resources at hand to handle it. Additionally, within the dance community, there is a dread of being told to stop. “There are other solutions before we get to ‘stop dancing’,” says Doctors for Dancers, “and that’s what I love about our dance specialists…they get you.” And the final issue? “Budgeting,” States Doctors for Dancers, “dancers, even on big tours, are having to pay for medical care themselves.” It is difficult enough to convince companies to put Physical Therapists on the payrolls, let alone adding a mental health professional. The lack of money in the arts is a plague to be sure, but if the community was made more aware of the deleterious effect poor mental health had on the art form as a whole, perhaps resources could be reallocated and the cultural stigma could be eventually lifted.
Although poor mental health does not affect every person in the dance community, It is clear that large, structural change needs to occur to support those who need assistance. Mental health should be openly discussed in dance science, and the community as a whole, and the psychology of dance should be looked into more deeply. Bottom line, the mental health of a dancer deserves as much care and attention as physical health. In the face of such a huge mountain to climb, it can be difficult to see small day-to-day practices that dancers and educators in the community can undertake to move in the right direction, but both Doctors for Dancers and Dr. Pierotti have some suggestions. For dancers, Doctors for Dancers encourages you to trust your gut and remember, “Nobody is good enough to not seek help.” They also suggest staying off of social media, especially first thing in the morning, and following accounts that uplift you, rather than ones that spark a negative reaction inside of you. Dr. Pierotti recommends treating your mental health like a part of your physical health; it should be incorporated into your daily practice. “It depends on the dancer, and it might take some time to find what works,” she says, and she suggests trying journaling, visualization, or intention setting. For studio owners, Doctors for Dancers suggests that mental health resources be available on the studio’s website, and that the studios look into being proactive, or seek out education, like the Youth Protection Advocates in Dance (YPAD)’s Sexual Abuse Awareness, Prevention & Response Seminar. Incorporating more mindfulness into the studio’s curriculum in the form of Yoga, breathing exercises, or guided meditation would also be helpful. For educators, both discussed an open-door policy, increased use of positive reinforcement, and one-on-one corrections, rather than tearing a student down in front of their peers. Educators should also be prepared to set their egos to the side. “Be open to doing better, be ready to listen. Even if you’ve been in the industry for thirty years, you should be prepared to take in new information as it becomes available,” says Doctors for Dancers, and Dr. Pierotti echoes the sentiment, noting “Just let them know that you are listening, and that you care. They may not open up that day, but they know that you are there.”
At the end of the day, even though dance is a safe haven and a beautiful place for so many of us, mental health needs to become a focus in our community. It is up to all of us to invest in a better future for those dancers behind us. Perhaps it is time to look into more certifications for dance educators and dance studio owners to help prevent toxic training grounds. New guidelines and new behaviors should accompany new information. Dr. Pierotti hopes that the community can begin to shed the long-held stigma against mental health. “I just hope that mental health becomes as much a part of our training as the physical. It goes hand in hand with it. It doesn’t have to be this big investment of time and energy that you don’t have. Bring the mental side into your physical practice, it will only enhance it.” Doctors for Dancers and Dr. Pierotti are doing a lot of work behind the scenes for the community, and it comes from a place of great love and care for the art of dance. Finally, Doctors for Dancers has a question for you, the community: “What do you need?” They are more than ready to hear your suggestions.