Mental Health in ballet dancers – let’s talk about it

World Mental Health Day was this week and there’s been lots of wonderful reminders floating around social media that help to drop the stigma around mental health and encourage us all to get talking, thinking, brainstorming, listening and communicating mental health. I’m pretty passionate about mental health, and I’m certainly not afraid to say it. It’s as everyday a part of my life as waking up in the morning.

The reality is we all have a reason to be aware of mental health – we all have our dark moments and we are surrounded by others who are just likely to be having their dark moments too. Or just coming out of a hard patch or just about to sink into one. To help ourselves and to help others we all can be more aware of mental health challenges and break the stigma around seeking help.

Having the right support and understanding goes a long way towards feeling like you’re not alone. The more we can normalise mental health as ‘the stuff inside our heads that EVERYONE is working through,” the more we can realise we are all in this together.

 

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I’ve had my battles, I’m currently in the midst of some same-old self-worth and ballet battles, and I will continue to have my battles going forwards, ballet or no ballet. But compared to 10 years ago when I felt like I was diving into the big dark ocean of mental health, I don’t feel so strange because of this (it’s not easier though) and I certainly feel more supported in keeping on keeping on with the work that gets me back to the surface.

I’ve come to accept with some kind of grace that mental health is something we all face everyday in some way. My own muddy mess is usually triggered by feeling any kind of not enough – not worthy enough, not good enough let alone great enough, not well rounded enough, not striving enough, not balanced enough, not strong enough, not stable enough. Always the same old thing, that I’m obviously fundamentally lacking in something that makes me this way. That if I wasn’t lacking, it would all be better. That I would be happier or more confident or a better dancer or more patient mother. That until I’m ‘fixed’ I will always be ‘broken.’

I’ve been banging my head against that same old wall for a good while now.

But the truth is, I’m not broken. I’m just a living, breathing and thinking human being. If you’re thinking sentient being then there’s always going to be some kind of mental health issues going on because it goes with having a brain and thoughts really. Let’s drop the stigma, if mental health was a person you could say that they don’t specify, they’re not selective, they’re not choosy, they’re not fussy but they are tenacious and they know how to keep a firm hold.

Part of taking the power out of these anxious, confused, insecure, depressive or destructive thoughts is acknowledging they are there in the first place. In ballet dancers, I believe they come with the territory of striving for unattainable perfection. It takes a lot of effort to stay afloat in all the striving and trying and struggling to constantly improve.

We strive for and can align ourselves with our physical health – we pound ourselves at the gym, we drink green smoothies, we are always looking for the next magic potion or liver cleanse or detox tea to make our skin glow. We invest in the physical as if it will transform your interior landscape.

But often enough, I dare say always, we come to a point that no amount of all that will ever make up for the fact that you’re treating yourself terribly inside your head. That you don’t value your mental health and wellbeing as much as your physical health and wellbeing. Or maybe that you haven’t had to until this point and you don’t quite know how to value your mental health and work on it? The confusion or feeling lost part of things is enough to make you feel like you’re not enough – again.

I know I’ve felt the shame of becoming “one of those people” instead of just being a natural and living on autopilot everyday. Until I realised that more people were living and growing daily with mental health issues than those but without.

 

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My whole career this balance between the physical and mental health side of things as a professional dancer has been a big struggle/eyeopener/learning curve. As dancers we are very physical beings, we need to be physical in a certain way for a certain amount of time every day to feel good. We are a bit addicted to that feeling, the sweat, the being puffed at the end of something, the satisfaction of sore muscles. There’s always another exercise or cardio workout you can do to make you feel good. Putting in more physical work will only improve your no right? And that’s all 100% valid at times.

But so much of our job is in the mind. It’s every day how you talk to yourself, how you accept how others correct you and deal with criticism, it’s how you deal with being really tired but still keeping yourself on game. It’s how to come to understand your own limitations and how you come to face injury or illness and missing out on opportunities.

It’s how you deal with a very competitive and sometime fickle industry, which ultimately is about aesthetic appeal and where no sit on someone’s scale of beautiful.

It’s even how you deal with knowing that this career is fairly short lived and the urgent but kind of panicking voice of ‘Make the most of it, make it count.’ I do believe this sense of urgency contributes a lot to dancers troubles with mental health, the fact that we don’t usually dance until we are 60 and we will be facing a career change fairly soon in our lives and be left to fill in the hole that was dancing.

It’s how capable you are of rehearsing to then let it all go and be in the moment on stage to allow the real magic to come into play. It’s good shows, bad show, mistakes, failures, successes, opportunities and missed opportunities.

It’s the battle of looking at yourself in the mirror like as long as you remember you have, and keep some sense of kindness towards your precious self instead of just thinking about your bent knees. It’s dealing with not getting cast in something and feeling like therefore you don’t count at all.

Some days for me, it’s a struggle just to turn up. Sometimes it’s because I know I don’t have the mental capacity to keep strong, keep on top of things, to stay positive or realistic with my thoughts.  I’m actually just tired and tired of battling. I would prefer to not face the battle that day. First class battle fatigue. Life isn’t meant to be this hard right? But facing your thoughts/demons everyday is hard, is relentless, is time consuming and is a 24/7 job. And we all let our guard down sometimes.

 

As you progress through the career you can learn your triggers, you can see these more difficult times coming. You can try to run away but most the time you have to buckle up, hold on and wait until the storm passes. Rehearsal periods are always tricky times for me. Even the schedule being very different each day can be unsettling, I feel like I don’t know what’s going on. Really quiet times or when you’re dancing in works that aren’t as satisfying for you, require a different mental health tool kit then the toolkit you need when you’re flying high. Working with different teachers and coaches can mean a whole different toolkit and often a different language to translate both outwardly and inwardly.

I guess I have learned that the more tools you have, the more situations you feel capable of pulling something out of your bag and giving it a go. Some people find it really hard to talk about if they are struggling while others burst into tears in the studio. I’m a pretty good mix of both, I often retreat into my shell and then unleash all the emotion at some one or in a studio. It doesn’t feel particularly pleasant or ideal, but it’s also part of being in a very high functioning job, where being ‘on’ all the time is the expectation. It’s a high pressure environment. I’ve come to realise that while it’s not pleasant to lose it in front of your colleagues, it can help someone else see that being vulnerable is valuable too. If the workplace can value vulnerability and courage in this way, then that’s not a bad thing. Your struggle can help someone else value their own. And show that this is normal. Generations inspire the next generation and I truly hope our generation is owing up for this.

 

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Of course it wasn’t always this way.

Most dancers start dancing because they love moving to music. They are also obviously a young talent so someone invests in them and pushes them further. The dancer may go on to full time training which is intense and can be the beginning of the dancer questioning just what makes them tick and what a mindset is and how they can make it work for them positively and negatively. It might be the beginning of feeling like you’re a bit out of your depth or a bit defeated.

But you’re a teenager, you’re talented, you’re growing up and you would do anything to get that full time contract. Your teachers look after you even in the way of tough love because you are after all still a student. You dance great repertoire and you often graduate quite confident in your abilities. You probably can’t imagine doing anything else in your life and your carerr stretches long ahead of you. With so much at stake, motivation is rarely an issue.

Company life can be a big shock in comparison, you really are on your own. It’s up to you to reach out to the people or invest in the resources to help you. It can be difficult to sort through all the advice you are asking for because you’re not sure just yet, what is the right fit for you. Some of the advice goes against everything you have learned before and that is confronting.

A lot of people get through this time without a worry, but for some this could be the first seeds of feeling a bit lost, alone and a bit unsure. They might begin to question for the first time how much they like dancing despite sacrificing so much along the way to get there. Everyone else seems to be coping just fine, you can feel quite alone in your ‘not coping’ ways.

Some girls are very private about everything and if you are a bit more of an open book but don’t have the right people around you to support you and listen, it can feel very lonely and like you’re a bit strange. You might miss your non ballet friends that you have moved away from and miss having those breaks from the ballet bubble and intensity you now feel.

It can happen slowly over some years or really hit you hard all of a sudden. These feelings can be brought on by injury or they come on when you’re flying high and doing all the best repertoire. Yep, they even come on in the best of times.

It can feel like you are missing a fundamental something, like in my case when there was/is a lingering shadow of not being enough. I’ve learned that this is a bit of a shadow for me, but not just in ballet. It keeps coming back to me because I have not fully learned the lesson just yet. Each time, I don’t think I can overcome it. That this time will be the last straw, that I will never get back to dancing in a way that I can feel confident and naturally just myself.

It can feel disappointing that this feeling of lacking worth or value in what I do, is such a presence in my career and surely it would be easier to just have a fix for this problem. I sometimes think that having these experiences somehow invalidates me from being in this career and that I’m obviously just not cut out for it. Life in a ballet company can feel a bit like survival of the fittest and in this way it’s easy to feel with your anxiety or troubling thoughts that you’re not up to it.

 

But it’s not going anywhere, it’s something I live with everyday. Sometimes I don’t even know how I got to be a dancer in The Australian Ballet when I feel so lacking. My line isn’t great, I’ve got really stiff feet that don’t make a nice line, slightly bent knees, muscular never quite stretched legs, my shoulders always look like they’re up, my neck is short and stiff, I’m not that flexible, I’ve got short arms and really little hands that don’t help my line and if we really want to get picky, I even don’t like my hairline for ballet when my hair is up. Yep, I just said that out loud. Even as ridiculous as that might sound, some days I feel like only the sum of these broken parts instead of the quote functional and versatile whole that I am too.

It’s easy for this summary to literally sum me up some days. I present myself in that way, I then dance in that way, I see myself in that way and then others are open to seeing me in that way. It’s a vicious cycle and I really do wish I could just get off that roundabout for good.

I get really despondent very quickly and I quickly and all too easily assume everyone from my boss, ballet staff to young ballet students watching at the window, is thinking what a terrible dancer I am. I struggle to see my strengths and even if I can, I don’t value them, I lose touch of what makes me ‘me’ and what unique natural qualities that I can bring to performing.

 

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But really, it’s another reminder (not often a friendly one) that I need to keep doing the work that keeps me somewhat afloat. The more at peace I can be with these mental health battles, the more I can somewhat safely ride the waves. It’s not easy and nor is this everyone’s experience but I think it’s important that people and especially younger ballet dancers understand that us professionals are real people too, with real mental health battles that colour our days and our careers. We face these things in the career, in the studio and on stage. It’s a constant work in progress with an audience.

It seems like we have made it when we are up on stage flying. Seemingly you can have everything or be a really high-functioning person (like all ballet dancers are) and still be struggling. In my experience and in the experience of my colleagues and friends, this is more normal than abnormal. Is it heightened by the profession? Perhaps. Are dancers susceptible to mental health concerns because of often perfectionist natures? I think so. Does the ingrained discipline from a young age not really help? Probably.

 

The glamorous sheen of this career can be misleading and one dimensional. Likewise, social media is incredibly misleading for dancers and non dancers alike. It’s not real, it’s a curated version of someone or their life. For some of us and I dare say most of us, what’s going on in our heads can feel quite at odds with someone’s Instagram post or a YouTube video. And we need to support and stand up for exactly that, for the battles we all face within ourselves, for the often untruthful but demoralising thoughts we believe in, for the judgment we take on that is unhelpful or overly critical to us. For feeling a little bit or a big bit broken, confused, overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, despondent, helpless. Or even just a bit thoughtful.

There needs to be some weight given to what’s going on behind the curtain. It’s not all pain and suffering, a ballet career is incredible and so special do like nothing else. We dance because we love it and even because we simply must do it. But it’s more than tutus and tiaras.

We can shine a light on mental health everyday in the way we go about our lives and show others by turning up with our battle fatigue that we are being vulnerable and courageous warriors. Which is what I’m aiming to do in this longwinded rambling post that I haven’t really proofread or paragraphed nicely with several of my favourite Brene Brown quotes.

We can have the courage to go up to that person who might be struggling or seems a bit lost or a bit down and listen and perhaps say to them:

 

“I’m here for you.”

“I see you.”

“You are not alone.”

“You are supported.”

“I’m listening and I want to help.”

“I’m going to help.”

“I see your battles but I also see your everyday triumphs like waking up each day and turning up. That is enough today.”

“I value you, you are valued and you are valuable.”

“You are loved, you are perfectly unique and we are all in this together.”

 

And this, really it’s all about this Theodore Roosevelt quote below. We are all face down in the arena so let’s help each other back up.

 

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