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Once a taboo topic in ballet, dancers are pushing for more focus on mental health

Louisville Ballet company artists Lexa Daniels and David Senti rehearse the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier pas de deux from "The Nutcracker" at the ballet's downtown studios on Dec. 1, 2022.
Stephanie Wolf
/
LPM
Louisville Ballet company artists Lexa Daniels and David Senti rehearse the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier pas de deux from "The Nutcracker" at the ballet's downtown studios on Dec. 1, 2022.

Leigh Anne Albrechta remembers the first time she got a “fat talk,” or rather she remembers how it made her feel.

She was about 19 when leadership staff at her ballet company, and then employer, called her into an office.

“I was told that if I didn't lose weight, they would have to pull me from the show,” Albrechta said. “That's all I remember from the conversation because I'm pretty sure I just cried and blocked out [the rest]. And that definitely sent me into a spiral.”

Albrechta, now 33, said it took her many years to develop a healthier mindset.

“I imagine a lot of my trauma is built up from these past conversations,” she said.

The body is a dancer’s primary conduit for their art, and a number of professional ballet companies and schools provide resources and support, including physical therapy, for dancers’ physical health. Mental health care, and the understanding that mental wellbeing can and will impact one’s body, is not nearly as prevalent.

In fact, Albrechta can’t recall having any conversations about mental health early in her career or during her training.

“None at all, like truly none,” said Albrechta, who has been a company dancer with the Louisville Ballet for more than a decade. “It was always, talk about it with friends, talk about it with parents. I was lucky enough to have those outlets. But no, there was never any suggestion of mental health [support].”

A growing number of people in the industry would like to see that change.

Kathleen McGuire Gaines, whose struggles with depression during her ballet training ultimately led to her quit, believes mental wellbeing is foundational to a dancer’s success. Yet the industry hasn’t historically been set up to address those needs, often putting dancers in vulnerable situations.

“Dancers are human beings, and they're human beings who are asked to do extraordinary things at extraordinarily young ages when their brains are still developing,” she said.

Gaines founded the dancer mental health advocacy group Minding the Gap in 2019, inspired by her own experiences and the response to a piece she published in Dance Magazine with the headline, “Why are we still so bad at addressing dancers’ mental health?”

“I believe that dance institutions are failing their dancers with a lack of support for mental health,” she wrote in the 2017 essay.

“I love dance enough to want it to be a happier place,” Gaines told LPM News recently. “I think that dance can be hard without being harsh. I think that we have to create spaces where people want to be there and they want to stay involved, and mental health is just the root of so many things.”

Bringing in someone from the outside to change from within

Minding the Gap currently has contracts with Point Park University Department of Dance, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Last spring, Louisville Ballet and its dance school joined the client list.

Louisville Ballet artistic director Robert Curran said prior to beginning the work with Minding the Gap, the ballet company relied on “contract-based [mental health] resources and somewhat unreliable resources.”

“We were dealing with situations as they arose. There wasn't the capacity or the knowledge base to be proactive,” he said.

“The toll that the pandemic has taken on artists is something that we are yet to come to terms with,” Curran said of Louisville Ballet, which is why he had considered bringing in outside expert guidance at the start of the 2021-2022 season. Then, dancers were preparing for their first in-person live performances since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic shut downs in March of 2020.

“I feel like my responsibility, my duty of care to these artists, extended beyond my capabilities,” Curran told LPM News, "I do not feel qualified to take care of the mental health of these generous, young, vulnerable human beings. And so I wanted, really needed, support in that area.”

Louisville Ballet artistic director Robert Curran and senior ballet mistress Mikelle Bruzina watching company dancers Lexa Daniels and David Senti run through a section of the Grand Pas de Deux from "The Nutcracker" at the ballet's studios on Dec. 1, 2022.
Stephanie Wolf
/
LPM
Louisville Ballet artistic director Robert Curran and senior ballet mistress Mikelle Bruzina watching company dancers Lexa Daniels and David Senti run through a section of the Grand Pas de Deux from "The Nutcracker" at the ballet's studios on Dec. 1, 2022.

He also said he felt it was important for this support to come from someone outside of the organization.

Curran said he first made contact with Minding the Gap in fall of 2021, at the suggestion of Albrechta, who was feeling a lot of anxiety herself about getting back into “full swing” with rehearsals ahead of being onstage with live audiences.

Overall dancer health and contributing industry factors

Christy Corbitt-Krieger, who is principal of the Louisville Ballet School and co-associate artistic director of the ballet’s studio company, said all professions have mental health challenges. But there are some distinct aspects of ballet that put dancers particularly at risk.

“You start your day, in front of a mirror, being told, ‘Do this differently,’ … Sadly, body dysmorphia is just rampant, always has been,” she said.

Dancers’ physicality is under constant scrutiny, and according to some studies, ballet dancers have a higher risk of eating disorders and disordered eating than the general population.

“It’s subjective, and it’s your body,” Albrechta added. “I think a lot of dancers start with the body because, from a young age unfortunately, there’s a pretty harsh critique on what your body looks like.”

But the mental health picture of dancers is more complex than body image, and there’s long been a stigma around the topic of mental health, including depression and anxiety, in the profession.

Gaines of Minding the Gap said she had her first major depression after getting injured while a student at the competitive San Francisco Ballet School.

“I thought that I was just not strong enough, I just wasn’t as tough as the other dancers were,” she said, pointing to how dancers are expected to have a high threshold for physical and emotional challenges.

Former New York City Ballet principal dancer Abi Stafford expressed this in a 2020 essay for Dance Magazine about having generalized anxiety disorder. She said she had been “burned” in the past for openly talking about her mental health struggles and that she felt harmed by past teachers who had fostered “unhealthy levels of competitive feelings in class.” Basically, one has to tough it out to make it in this field is a sentiment that permeates the industry.

“I didn’t understand that there was a name for what it was, and that it could be treated,” Gaines continued. “I got on this kind of infinity cycle of injury and mental health, and injury and mental health, and I couldn’t get myself back to healthy.”

There’s also heightened pressure because dance careers are notoriously short: Many dancers end their performing careers in their 30s and early 40s due to the high level of physical stress placed on their bodies.

When tough love isn’t loving

Typically, Minding the Gap consultations involve gathering and analyzing data, creating workshops intended to give artists and staff “practical tools,” and connecting organizations with mental health professionals in the area who are experienced in working with individuals in high-pressure environments.

Gaines began the work at Louisville Ballet by inviting dancers to fill out an anonymous survey that includes general questions about their experiences with mental health and how they feel about the way the company and school approach the issue. The survey also included clinical measures. She used that information to inform the workshops and to create a report for the organization that includes recommendations for “potential changes that could be made within the institution or the way that things are managed or done that could better honor the mental health of their dancers.”

Minding the Gap’s work with organizations also entails workshops with staff and leadership. According to Gaines, this hits on a key factor to consider when looking at mental health in the industry: power dynamics in dance.

To better understand the prevalence of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem struggles among dancers, Minding the Gap conducted an online survey following Gaines’ 2017 Dance Magazine article, and received nearly 900 responses from dance artists. Of those respondents, 75% reported experiencing a mental health challenge in the last five years, and a majority said they would be “unlikely” or “not at all” willing to talk about that with a teacher or director.

“Dance companies are a dictatorship… I have to acknowledge where [dancers] have power and where they don’t,” she said.

Company leadership holds a lot of power and influence over the fate of artists under their charge. And that exists on the micro and macro level in ballet, Gaines said, as directors largely control casting and promotions within a company but also can have an impact on a dancer’s career after they move to other companies. Gaines said it’s important for ballet leaders to understand that, and a big part of the conversation in getting them to consider their power is talking about tough love.

“It's one of the most effective talks we do with leadership,” she said, stressing that she’s a mental health advocate and therefore does these trainings in consultation with certified mental health professionals.

Louisville Ballet Studio Company dancers Kelsey Corder and Sameer Rhodes rehearse the Spanish Dance from "The Nutcracker."
Stephanie Wolf
/
LPM
Louisville Ballet Studio Company dancers Kelsey Corder and Sameer Rhodes rehearse the Spanish Dance from "The Nutcracker."

Tough love, which is a controversial approach in many arenas, including parenting, is essentially saying, “I hold you to this high standard, I am tough because I care,” said Gaines.

“One of the psychologists I work with, Dr. Brian T. Goonan says it's the difference between tough and rough. And here’s the thing: The standards of dance are already pretty tough,” she said.

But tough love can tip into harmful behavior, said Dr. Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist who, after a dancing career with the New York City Ballet, has spent a significant part of her practice working with performance artists.

“It's a fine line because they often do it under the guise of, ‘I'm training you to be the best dancer you can be, and I have very high standards, and we're quite strict,’ which can all be very good,” Hamilton said.

Crossing that line can turn into bullying, which can be overt or subtle, like when a dance educator or leader is “ignoring you, or targeting you for corrections that feel like it undermines your perception of your own talent, your ability to progress, it doesn't feel constructive.”

“So if you walk out of a classroom feeling worse about yourself, you didn't learn anything,” Hamilton said.

She said people have different anatomy and develop at different rates, meaning that working harder and working more is not always the right solution. Hamilton would like to see people in positions of power in the ballet world take all of that into consideration as they interact with artists and students because feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy can follow a dancer throughout their career and into their personal lives.

“It undermines your career aspirations, but also affects you outside,” Hamilton said. “If [dance] is where your heart is and your love and your passion, and it strikes dancers at a very early age, and they commit to this in a very single-minded fashion, and then they walk out of there feeling like failures.”

She still believes that ballet is a beautiful art form with artists who have had rewarding careers, but she’d like to see companies across the industry implement trainings and safeguards to prevent bullying, emotional abuse or any form of harmful behavior. She also thinks it would be a good idea for dance organizations to have a human resources department for artists to report such instances when they occur – it’s not an industry standard for ballet and dance institutions to have HR.

“The whole profession can benefit from having guidelines for teachers, for directors, for anyone with power,” Hamilton said.

Why racial equity is essential for dancer mental health

American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland was the first Black woman to be promoted to the company’s top rank, principal dancer, in its more than 80-year history.

In a recent interview on the national talk show Fresh Air, Copeland told host Terry Gross that many in the ballet world have long prioritized aesthetics that embody whiteness, using coded language to shut out Black dancers and dancers of color, “telling us we are wrong for ballet.”

“Everyone wears pink tights, and that's representative of white skin. So it was something I was aware of when I was 19 and came into ABT, that I, you know, would have to wear pink tights in all the classical works. And then having to go on stage and attempt to make my skin look like the other dancers - you know, it chips away at you,” Copeland said.

That takes a toll on one’s mental health, said Courtney Henry, a ballet dancer, writer and educator who has performed with companies like Alonzo King LINES Ballet in San Francisco and Ballet of Difference in Germany.

“There’s always sort of having to please and be chosen, especially from the female perspective,” said Henry, who recently completed her master’s degree at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, during which she focused her research on finding and developing a dance pedagogy that is more inclusive and anti-racist.

“There's also, I think, something that just feels very specific [to the art form], is this sense of inadequacy and just like deep unworthiness, because it seems like ballet is on this pedestal of like perfection, like it is this sort of unattainable thing.”

Henry and LPM reporter Stephanie Wolf have previously collaborated on an audio project focused on mental health and resilience in dance.

The act of wearing her hair in an afro to teach at a dance conservatory is, for Henry, one way of pushing back against the narrative of who gets to do ballet.

“Ballet has this way of actually robbing or hijacking our imagination,” Henry said, adding that the language of ballet, French, can create a specific image in people’s minds of a bourgeois art featuring thin, white ballerinas. It’s also the language of a nation that has a long history of colonization.

But Henry does love the art form.

“I appreciate how ballet is able to sort of map the body. It's very clear directionally, like the idea of vertical through the spine, horizontal hips, north, east, south, west, like this sort of compass,” she said.

Henry believes ballet is something that is and should be malleable.

“The real thing is how [its information is] transmitted, how it's being shared. That's what makes or breaks it, and has broken it, honestly,” she said.

Henry sees younger generations vocalizing boundaries and their discontent with the hyper competitive and hierarchical systems that have loomed over ballet for centuries. She lays a fair amount of responsibility at the feet of “the people at the front of the room,” i.e. teachers, coaches, directors, challenging those individuals, including herself to “be clear about the language we use, lifting these things that [dancers] are doing right as opposed to just focusing on things that are wrong, giving them a voice.”

Survival of the art form is connected to mental health

Louisville Ballet has a one-year contract with Minding the Gap and is in conversations about extending it another two years, Gaines and a ballet spokesperson confirmed.

Some companies and organizations, like the Entertainment Community Fund’s Career Transitions for Dancers, have begun incorporating mental health support into their programs.

“Any dance leader who is willing to work with me, listen to me, take those meetings, is someone who is willing to have these difficult conversations,” she said. “But the absence of intent is not the absence of harm. So we can all do harm or cause harm without meaning to do that. But that does not absolve us of the responsibility of that harm.”

She thinks these changes need to be made for the sake of ballet’s survival, because if too many dancers feel broken by the profession, ballet will lose an important portion of its audience, advocates and future students.

“I truly believe that if dance doesn't adapt, it will die,” Gaines said. “I truly believe that the wellbeing of the art form is the wellbeing of the artists.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255. 

Here are other mental health resources:

  • Spalding University’s Collective Care Center – 502-792-7011 – Free therapy for those who have experienced race-based trauma.
  • Mental Health Lou – A database of mental wellness providers in Louisville, including a directory of Black mental health specialists.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness, Louisville – Support groups, local emergency resources and therapy options.
  • WAVE-3 “It’s Your Life” Youth Help Line – (866) 589-8727 – A link to specially trained peer counselors.
  • The LGBT National Help Center — Confidential peer-support and connection to community resources.
  • The Emily Program Eating Disorder Hotline: 1-866-730-8640
  • The Trevor Project (LGBTQIA): 1-866-488-7386
  • Crisis Text Line: Text the word HOME to 741741
  • The Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860
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Stephanie Wolf is a former LPM's Arts & Culture Reporter.

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