Collegiate Dance Participants Push for Mental Health & Anti-Racism Reform
Updated: Mar 23
Special thanks to Asher Fulero and Youtube Free Audio Library for providing music entitled Web Weaver's Dance.
Listen to Part 2.
The year 2020 was a year like no other for the dance industry.
As the pandemic swept the nation funding availabilities were cut, performance opportunities were halted, and colleges were left grappling with how to keep students physically and mentally safe in touch-heavy environments during a difficult time in world history.
Simultaneously, the anti-racism social justice movement called on dance programs across the country to have deep discussions about racism and the anti-racism work that needs to be done within dance and dance departments.
Alana Isiguen, a long-term Artist in Residence at the University of Washington’s dance department, has had the experience of undergraduate student, master’s student, and professor within collegiate dance.
Her participation in multiple dance programs from a number of institutions in differing capacities over time gives her the relatively unique experience of seeing how the conversations surrounding diversity and health have shifted over time.
Two Floridian universities have also addressed the issues brought into the spotlight by the anti-racism movement and COVID-19 through starting to attempt to implement lasting change within their programs; The University of Florida’s dance program tackling anti-racism by reimagining and reinvigorating their curriculum and Florida State University taking steps to address the mental health of their dancers through a grad student work, along with an already present physical health program.
Exploring these two programs with Isiguens’ narrative may provide other institutions with the support, examples, and resources they need to reflect on their practices and programing as well as begin to create change.
Copeland is working to create an educational intervention program that would potentially enable the dance department to screen for mental health predispositions, educate dancers and teachers on mental and emotional self-awareness, and provide dancers and teachers the resources to assist dancers who are struggling in safe and healthy ways, as part of her graduate work.
According to a study called Mental Health in Dancers; an Intervention Study, dancers have an increased risk of developing anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as struggling with low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, weight dissatisfaction, and perfectionism.
“Some mental health concerns can be exacerbated with the dance system/culture (e.g. disordered eating as a product of aesthetic, substances use as a product of late-night performances and rehearsals), and also certain individuals and/or groups of people with similar backgrounds or genetic make-ups may be attracted to dance (e.g., perfectionism, self-confidence/self-esteem),” says Skvarla.
Copeland explains that she hopes to help FSU’s dance department faculty and students become more aware of these predispositions and give them the resources to be able to address these struggles when they may arise in a way that is most productive for the dancers, who have very specific requirements, needs, and influences as a community.
“Another part of the project is to ascertain how useful the counseling center is for dancers,” says Copeland, “If we could have a therapist interested in working with dancers, kind of like our PT’s, where they’re a little more easily accessible for them to just sign up for a time to meet with the therapist this week,” says Copeland
She also notes that she has seen a university-wide addressing of mental health as a result of the pandemic through staff mental health awareness training, not enforcing an attendance policy, and take breaks during Zoom classes that last over an hour.
Alana Isiguen also speaks about how a dancer’s relationship with their physical body and environment can lead to mental health difficulties, specifically during a physical injury.
“Like I’ve seen with a lot of other programs, when you get injured, you’re supposed to come to class and observe and that’s like it. There’s no real alternative assignments and you spiral into this kind of depression and really dark place because the only reason why you’re there is to do the thing you cannot,” says Isiguen about her undergraduate injury.
Kathleen McGuire Gaines, a staff writer for Dance Magazine and creator of Minding the Gap, who is known for her writings about dancers’ mental health such as Let’s Talk About Mental Illness and Experts Talk Mental Health: Four Therapists Sound Off, had a similar experience in her dance youth.
Right around Nutcracker, I had my first injury which was a stress fracture to my second metatarsal and, you know, it really derailed me,” tells Gaines.
“When you’re injured for eight weeks, that’s a lot of watching your peers when you can’t dance. I actually think, looking back, that that contributed in a huge way,” says Gaines speaking about her first major depression.
Florida State University currently has a program in place that may be a great example of a way to subvert this cycle, called the Cross-Training Program.
Copeland explains the program as a way for students to work with conditioning staff, who are faculty and graduate students of the dance sciences focus, while not getting penalized for being unable to participate in-studio classes.
An individual can work with the cross-training program for any level of seriousness associated with an injury, tells Copeland.
She explains that when an injury may require the student to modify a class activity, not participate in an exercise, or struggle to participate in the full class the student can then fill out an agreement between themselves and the dance professor detailing the ways the student will need to shift their participation determined by the conditioning staffs’ recommendations.
When students obtain a more serious injury that doesn’t allow for them to participate in class for an extended period of time, they can also drop out of their dance studio courses and re-enroll in cross-training course, which are held at the same time as the dance classes, allowing for an ease of transition back to classes, the ability for students to keep their grades up, as well as helping the student remain financially stable, tells Copeland.
“I would have had to drop below the threshold to be a full-time student if I just had to drop all of my technique classes and I’m on a full scholarship, so that would have been quite a problem,” shares Copeland about her experience utilizing the Cross-Training Program.
The intersection & connection of physical health and mental health in dancers seems clear, however, what can universities do to integrate productive mental health programming into their dance departments?
“It’s multidimensional for me- stay in your lane and do/say something,” suggests Skvarla.
She explains, “They (professors) can take a mental health first aid course to learn about making a referral with a student or asking if a student is struggling. They can also be OK with not knowing everything about a students’ physical/mental health and be intentional about setting healthy boundaries so that students and professors both have clarity and permission to come to class/rehearsal expecting to receive feedback, exchange ideas, and push through challenges without feeling over-exposed, fragilized, or unsure of the teacher-student relationship.
Some institutions and professors may find that they don’t know where to start when creating this type of balance.
Gaines’s, Minding the Gap, is a social good startup aimed at developing a program, which would assist institutions and professors in addressing mental health safely for all parties involved.
The programing works to connect dancers to dance-focused mental health resources by educating both professors and students about mental health, collecting and analyzing data, and working with the institutions to create broad change, a relatively similar hope for Casey Copeland in her graduate work at FSU.
Florida State University’s College of Fine Arts physical health and, hopefully, soon-to-be mental health programs may be just the type of resource dancers need to be provided by their institutions in order to succeed as people who are also dancers.
Anti-Racism, Representation, and Inclusion
Soledade, who worked as a collegiate dance professor for over 20 years, has recently had the opportunity to assist the dance department at UF in reimaging their current curriculum to reflect a worldly view of dance versus the Eurocentric programming that many American colleges and universities teach.
The change comes at a poignant time after a year of intense protesting as part of a movement to address America's systemic racial inequalities and structural racism that became known, collectively, as the anti-racism movement.
The movement gained traction after the murder of George Floyd by police officer, Derek Chauvin, was videoed and went viral during the first country-wide shut down in response to the spread of COVID-19, according to a Times article.
The piece explains the power of millions of people watching the horrific act take place with no distraction due to being quarantined at home, spurning the movement to resonate with many and spark a fire for a fight that has continued for over 150 years, according to a PBS timeline.
The anti-racism movement raises awareness surrounding the systemic racism built into many aspects of American society, including colleges and universities; Confronting these institutions to address their inherent racism and privilege.
This call for change seems to have also initiated a call by multiple dance communities to address these topics within multiple areas of dance, but specifically in the ballet sect, with the emergence of a number of articles addressing this topic, such as The New York Times article Push for Diversity in Ballet Turns to Training the Next Generation and the Pointe Magazine article Behind Ballet’s Diversity Problem.
Soledade and the dance department of UF have answered this call by, what Soledade specifically calls a “reimagining” of the schools’ curriculum in an attempt to even out the influence of dance genres in the curriculum of the courses, particularly in regard to West African dance; An area that the department is well known for, according to Soledade.
“What made UF’s program a little more unique was the fact that one of the faculty, one of the founding members of the program here, her name is Dr. Joan Frosch, she started the Center for World Arts and through that center, she made just incredible connection with the African continent, and so she was able to bring African artists, contemporary African dance artists, into the program,” tells Soledade.
He explains, “With that connection, then they started to have a very strong presence of West African dance in the program.”
This presence then led to curriculum programming that required students to take courses in World dance, something that made UF relatively unique already.
However, Soledade noticed that while the department had the content of world dance present it was not equitable to the amount of time required of students on their more Eurocentric forms, such as ballet and modern courses, details Soledade.
“For me it was really a mission, being a black artist, with my Afro-Brazilian background, I’ve always, you know, craved, I’ve always been eager to have this kind of presence, right, in any dance curriculum that, or dance program, that I’ve been a part of,” tells Soledade.
He explains that he was able to present the idea that the department should reimagine the curriculum to better reflect what the faculty dreamed of having in the program and could realistically build into the new educational programming to other new faculty members that came in around when he started working at UF in 2018.
“We started to think about the different contributions of dances that were not Eurocentric, right, and so, how can we just really change the framing of dance, you know, and especially the history of dance for these students. So, then we decided to have two courses that would complement one another but will have this approach of really presenting with a much more global scope than just kind of like a western perspective,” says Soledade.
Soledade explains that the faculty took this past year to intensively work towards this curriculum change, including curriculum retreats where they could learn and discuss important topics that affect this change, such as decolonizing the syllabi, in order to use the year to transition into the new programming which the department hopes to get approval for implementation for the fall 2021 semester.
Another aspect Soledade explains is how to address cultural influence on a particular dance style.
“For instance, teaching Afro-Brazilian dance for me, cause that’s my background, a lot of the things that have, I know come from that cultural experience but I’m here and I’m teaching it and these students don’t have that cultural experience, right, so I cannot assess their Brazilian-ness because it’s non-existent right? What I can do, is I can really assess, you know, how well they are articulate the spine, and the hips and this and that, so that’s what it became,” says Soledade.
Isiguen also discusses this concept, addressing an effort to give students educational resources, such as readings and papers in order to help students conceptualize these influences as important factors that shaped the movement.
Soledade says, “I was always having to tell the students that I was never expecting them to do the movement the way I did it. It was not about that, it was not about becoming me but it was about finding within themselves the possibility, the opportunity, to move whatever body part; Just differently from how, you know, they usually do.”
Soledade and the University of Florida’s School of Dance & Theatre’s work to reimagine and rebuild the departments' curriculum to better reflect the current and historical dance practices from across the globe could be an excellent example and resource for other collegiate dance programs to initiate a truly anti-racist programming, potentially influencing the future of dance culture to be a more inclusive form in the United States.
In a time of extreme fluctuation and change in the world, the time seems to be ripe for collegiate dance programs to grasp hold of contemporary needs and topics such as true diversity and wholistic health, in order to better meet the needs of their student body and assist in bringing dance into the future.