De-stigmatizing Mental Health in Ballet, Stories from Behind the Curtain
Imagine you’re looking in a mirror every day, correcting your bodily aesthetic, thinking if you were only a bit smaller your teachers would love you and you could make it. A feeling then re-enforced by your current teacher who can say things like “You look like mashed potatoes in tights,” a quote by Gabrielle Epifano referring to a comment made to her by a college professor.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident for students studying ballet who, as a result, struggle with their mental health.
Stephanie Clark, the director of Ta-Da Dance in Colorado, has struggled with her mental health for the majority of her life.
“I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was around 6 or 7 years old,” tells Clark. “So, for a long-time dance was my way to escape from that.”
Clark first started feeling that dance was taking a negative turn around the age of 13 when she started pursuing the form more seriously.
“I started having teachers that were much harder on me and thus I was much harder on myself,” says Clark.
She continues on to explain that her negative feelings intensified throughout college and her early adult life as she felt more and more pressure to adhere to an idealistic perfection, eventually developing an eating disorder.
“It just went rampant in my life. It was a severe spiral, but I never wanted to stop because I just loved it so much,” says Clark, “I was so happy. I was able to meet goals that I never thought possible but in turn, I was really not okay because of the same thing that I loved.”
Sydney Joy, a governmental administrative assistant in Salt Lake City, has similar feelings about how simultaneously wonderful and hurtful participating in ballet at a high level could be.
“I have always been just kind of naturally pre-disposed to anxiety,” tells Joy, “I definitely think it was heightened my last years of high school when I was at that studio, because everything just became so inflated and ya know, there was just so, so much more pressure.”
Joy explains that her intense feelings of anxiety continued until it drastically escalated her senior year of college.
“I was having panic attacks consistently. I couldn’t go to school for days on end. It just became a really vicious cycle that I got stuck in,” says Joy.
Joy tells that, that cycle consisted of her feeling ashamed for not going to class causing her to attempt to go to class, which is when she would have a panic attack, and then feeling judged and shamed for missing so many classes when she was participating in class, causing her to not go back the next day and the cycle starts over again.
Joy did have one professor who seemed to bridge this cycle by reaching out to Joy in and out of class.
“She made a point not to ignore me because I’d been gone every now and again,” says Joy, who also says that she would reach out when Joy hadn’t turned in an assignment and would allow Joy time to finish her assignment because she know how much she had been struggling.
Joy later determined that this time period was so difficult for her because she knew she didn’t have a future as a professional dancer and the art form she loved so much made her feel horrible about herself, but she didn’t know who she was without it resulting in an identity crisis and her eventual departure from dancing after completing her degree.
Along with loving ballet but struggling with their mental health, Clark and Joy have another commonality: the effect the form took on their body image.
“You’re consistently seeking outside approval and validation and not from yourself and never know exactly what is wrong but just that you are wrong,” explains Joy about the lasting effects of how important teacher validation is in ballet.
Joy then explains how very often she felt that her teachers didn’t know how to teach ballet for her body type and how her training became affected by uncontrollable factors such as joint structure and maturation of her body into adulthood.
“I’m still really struggling with it but at least I see that it doesn’t have to be perfect every single day. I don’t have to judge it visually every single day and it’s not like, something I’m viewing as holding me back. It’s just a body. It’s just here,” says joy
According to a section of the international journal, Social Behavior and Personality entitled The Effect of Ballet Dance Attire on Body and Self-Perceptions of Female Dancers, “adolescent ballet dancers view themselves as less desirable, less attractive, less confident, less loveable, and more sensitive than age-matched non-dancers.”
The article also reports that adults who were once ballet dancers reported “higher self-surveillance and disordered eating,” while adults who dance professionally experience “high levels of distorted body image.”
The article argues that using mirrors and wearing the tight-fitting leotard and tights could influence the negative self-image by self-objectification; A theory, the article cites, “posits that being female in a culture that sexually objectifies the female body causes females to internalize societal assessments of their physical selves. Acceptance of these societal body attitudes can increase body monitoring, which can increase shame, guilt, and anxiety, which can subsequently lead to negative feelings about the body and yield poor motivation and performance.”
The article continues on, reading that objectification theory could be particularly strong in dance environments because of how dancers are consistently monitored and critique for their aesthetic and physical ability.
Megan Payer, a Ph.D. student and California registered psychological assistant, has a similar idea about the focus on dancer bodies and how dance begins to affect even those who truly love the form.
“The dancer is conveying something to their audience, an emotion, a word, a story. It is the dancer’s goal to convey that message in a way that the audience can receive and understand. So, there’s a sense of responsibility in being able to speak with the body in the language of dance,” writes Payer.
“So now we have all this focus on the physical form of the dancer, which then turns into obsessive thinking about the form, leading to rigidity, control, and other behaviors that are sometimes unhealthy in order to make the form or the movements appear just right. There is no longer an interest in how it FEELS to dance but rather on how it LOOKS to dance,” Payer explains.
Clark and Joy’s experiences, however, weren’t completely negative.
“I started dancing because I was painfully shy as a child,” says Clark, “Literally after my first class, I was like changed as a person.”
Clark continues on explaining, “I was able to express myself and have been since I started to dance in a way that I never thought possible because I have never liked to verbally express myself.”
Similarly, Joy remembers saying to her mother one day as a child in response to her mother asking why she wanted to stick with ballet, “Mom, when I’m in class, when I’m dancing, I feel beautiful. That’s the only time I’ve ever felt beautiful.”
Payer agrees that there are quite a few positives that come with participating in the physical form that starts in our biology.
“Movement itself can be healing, in that it can regulate the nervous system and takes someone out of their own head and into their body for a while. Nervous system regulation is a huge component of mental health,” writes Payer.
She explains “We have a special nerve that travels from the base of our brainstem all the way down to our stomach, it’s called the Vagus nerve (“vagus” means wandering in Latin). This nerve is the literally brain-gut superhighway. When the vagus nerve doesn’t have enough “tone”, we feel dysregulated and tend to live in our sympathetic nervous system (fight-flight-freeze system). When the vagus nerve is activated and toned, our parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest) comes online and we feel calm, safe, and relaxed. Movement through dance, yoga, martial arts, etc. helps to tone the vagus nerve and engage our parasympathetic nervous system.”
How, then does the dance world move forward to capitalize on the positive mental health outcomes of dancing while being sure to address the severely negative effects?
“First thing is to accept that mental health/mental wellness is an issue,” says Payer, “People suffer, and there is no way around that fact. Denying our suffering or pretending it doesn’t exist makes it worse. When we can acknowledge that there is suffering, we can take steps to relieve it. I think another important action is to de-stigmatize mental health issues by simply talking about them. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen my patients feel relief simply after sharing a secret they’ve been keeping for years. Talking about the pain is the way through the pain. Talking about our anxieties, our fears, our traumas, and our deep wounds releases them from ourselves. We can’t be so strongly gripped by trauma when it is shared with one or a few people.”