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Dear Ballet Community, We Need to Start Talking Openly About Mental Illness

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There’s no artistic, poetic way to relay this thought: it is my experience that the ballet world has a pretty serious problem with the way they treat neurodiverse dancers and dancers with mental illnesses.

The ballet world often treats mental illness much like the rest of the world does — like laziness, like a character flaw, like a lack of will, like a deficiency of spirit. I’m expected to show up, put my body and mind through rigorous hoops day in and day out, do it all exceptionally well, not complain, and not let on that anything other than sunshine might be going on with my health or in my personal lives. That can mentality erase a person’s humanity.

A dancer is usually expected to “leave it all at the door” every single day. Let it all go, so to speak. But mental illness isn’t baggage you can check on your way out of the country for your company’s annual tour. Trauma doesn’t wait politely for you beyond the threshold of the studio while you focus on engaging your inner thighs in rond de jambe. Mental illness and trauma bulldoze their way into every crack of your life without your permission and make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for you to even do the things you love most in the world. But most teachers, artistic directors and choreographers don’t account for that. They, like most ballet dancers, are not-so-subtly taught from a very young age to bury, ignore, and hide whatever they’re going through outside the studio in the name of “sacrifice” for our art, under the guise of “leaving it at the door” — and they expect me to do the same.

There seems to be no room for a ballet dancer to be anything less than positive all the time. I write the possibility off entirely; even if I excel at portraying dark, brooding, tortured characters onstage, it’d be poor form if I were that way offstage, too. But we all have that one dancer in our company or community who is privately, and sometimes even publicly, sullen — the principal that never speaks to anyone, the corps girl who always seems to be tearful. But we always attribute it to a “prickly personality,” or an “incompatibility with company life” — “She’s just that way,” or “he’s just getting adjusted.” We never stop to think that there might be another reason entirely for their behavior or demeanor. That kind of emotional undermining continues for generations, and in doing that, we create a system where we reward people for their ability to ignore their own pain and praise them for their own unkindness to themselves. We make it worse by rewarding those dancers who ignore their own pain the best — we promote them, we uphold them as role models, we revere them for their “toughness” — but all too often, that toughness comes at the expense of wellness.

Of course, I can’t claim this experience to be completely universal, but I’ve talked to enough dancers from enough schools and companies around the world to know that we have a major problem. And I’m not saying we excuse poor behavior. Make no mistake, some people just suck — some people are, in fact, just lazy, whiny, mean, sulking people. But do you really think that anyone who naturally inhabits those personality traits would’ve made it this far in the world of classical ballet? I tend to think not.

So here we stand. With mental health issues on the rise among American adults, reporting that an estimated 1 in 5 Americans lives with a mental illness, statistics alone suggest that we are dancing next to someone (likely more than one person) with a mental illness every day. There’s a good chance that that person is suffering alone, ashamed of themselves — and we don’t know it. As dancers, we have the unique experience of being closely bonded to our company-mates. When you spend nearly your every waking hour together, that tends to happen. Wouldn’t it hurt you to know that someone you care about was hurting, and wouldn’t it hurt even more to know that they felt like they couldn’t tell you?

It’s been so long since the very first time someone told me to “suck it up” that I can’t remember when it was. But I know I was young enough for it to have made a serious impression on my malleable mind. After years of being told it was “all in my head,” being accused of “lacking work ethic,” being praised for my “toughness” when I buried all my feelings, and repeatedly being told to “just meditate and it will go away,” I shame spiraled myself into thinking that I was untalented, unemployable and hopeless. I shut down, just barely grasping at life for several years until I hit rock bottom in 2015 — I stopped dancing. I didn’t leave my house for nine months. I didn’t see my friends. I didn’t go to class. I refused to go to performances. Nine whole months — the time it takes to grow a life is the time it took me to almost lose my own. I drowned in my own head, overwhelmed by anxiety, unraveled by depression. When I came up for air in the late summer and felt my feet back on dry land, I started sharing what I went through with those around me. I had been convinced I was alone, but no sooner did I start sharing my experience did I discover two things: for one, I found out that I was not unique. In private conversations and under promises of keeping confidence, fellow ballet dancers shared that they were hurting too; fearful, struggling, looking for help and resources. The second, and easily more disturbing thing, was that these dancers, who want support and resources to combat what they’re going through, were being met with empty hands and deaf ears everywhere they turned. The treatment they received perpetuated the culture we’ve created in the ballet world — that we are not allowed to suffer, and on that off chance that we do suffer, we must continue on as though nothing hurts. In the long run, that doesn’t serve any of us.

So where do we go from here?

First of all, we need to actually have this conversation:

Dear artistic directors and company managers, tell your dancers you’re here for them. Have a therapist come and speak about signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to recognize them, how to support one another, and what kind of treatment options are available. Reiterate that there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a mental illness. Encourage a mentality of wholeness in your company.

Dear ballet dancers, you’re allowed to suffer without being told to “suck it up.” The truth of your suffering and pain does not negate your talent or drive as a dancer. It merely means that you are human, and that you still deserve to be treated with dignity, respect and kindness.

Follow this journey here.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Lead image via contributor. 

Originally published: July 26, 2017
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