DANCERVIVAL // INTRO
Welcome to Dancervival, the Black Swan Diaries’ guide to living well for dancers with mental illness.
This five-part series is dedicated to helping dancers living with mental illness and cognitive difference live their best lives and achieve their dance dreams while also taking care of their mental health. As the posts are published, the links will go live here.
Intro (you are here!)
Part II: Degage
Part III: Battement
Part IV: Pas de Deux
So you have a mental illness, you’re a dancer, and you feel like there’s nowhere to turn.
Maybe you’re living with depression but surrounded by people who are immersed in a culture of positivity that can feel toxic, stifling and invalidating. “Just think positive!” they say, as you try to find the words to tell them you’re drowning.
Maybe your friends go to new classes and go on auditions while you fight your anxiety to get out of bed in the morning. Behind your back, they call you “lazy” or “undedicated”, while you try to assuage the guilt you feel for not following your dreams.
Maybe your body dysmorphia has gotten so severe that you hide in the back when you do make it to class, because you can’t bear to see yourself in the mirror.
Maybe you struggle with the parameters of “professionalism” with contacting casting directors because you’re on the spectrum and have trouble reading social cues.
Maybe you stare at the combinations in class but see nothing, because your executive dysfunction will not allow you to Do The Thing.
I get it. I’ve been you. I’ve been there.
Like I shared in "The Studio Is Wide Enough", I hit rock bottom in 2015 - I stopped dancing. I didn’t leave my house for 9 months. I didn’t see my friends. I didn’t go to class. I refused to go to performances. 9 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, paralyzed 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 it took no time at all to discover that I was not unique: in private conversations and under promises of keeping confidence, fellow ballet dancers shared that they were hurting too; fearful, sick, and struggling, looking for help and resources.
Maybe you’re a principal in a regional ballet company, or an apprentice at New York City Ballet. You're a student at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, or you're a competition dancer from Texas. Maybe you dance 6 days a week for over 6-8 hours a day, or you can barely afford open class twice a week. Maybe you dance 8 shows a week on Broadway, or you wake up at 4:30 AM to line up to a non-eq national tour audition at Ripley Grier. Maybe you’ve been dancing since you were 3, or you started at 13. Maybe you’re a future Rockette, or a future Knicks City Dancer.
Whomever you are, whatever your dance life entails, this is for you.
As a child, I remember my passion for dance being rewarded and praised, but also my every errant emotion being policed and relegated to “later”, whenever that was, while in the studio. I never acted out in class, but if something was wrong, it was to be left at the door.
It subtly taught me that I could not bring my whole self into the studio, even though that’s precisely what we strive for in our dance lives. Mature artistry demands a kind of mental and emotional vulnerability that allows the dancer to go to deep personal places to give life to any given piece of choreography. Mature artistry necessitates that a dancer infuse his or her whole humanity into the work. But how can we bring that to the table if we’re not allowed to feel all of our feelings, even the difficult ones?
“Dancer” and “Person with Mental Illness” is a uniquely difficult identity intersection to find oneself on. Situated squarely on the corner of I Have Danced With Three Broken Toes Before, I Will Be Fine Boulevard and I Haven’t Left My Bed in Three Days and I Cannot Stop Crying Way, dancers with mental illnesses fight a constant, uphill battle with themselves.
We are the people who don’t take vacations in summer because we’re away at summer intensives, dancing 8 hours a day while our friends and enjoy the ritualized relaxation of an American adolescent summer. We are the people who can snatch off our own bloody toenails, throw a bandaid on it, tape it up and have our pointe shoes tied back up all in the 3 minute interlude between barre and adagio. We’re the ladies who dance in three inch heels and never complain about blisters. We’re the men who do hundreds of pushups a day in school, growing strong enough to lift the girls one-handed, who endure taunts and homophobic jokes. We’re the people who willfully (and sometimes detrimentally) ignore pain and injury, because we have this affliction of bliss called passion that prevents us from living any other way.
But sometimes we’re also the people with wonky brain chemistry. We’re the people who sometimes have to lie to our friends about why we weren’t in class. We’re the people who beat ourselves up after getting cut from an audition because our self-worth was already lacking at best. We’re the people who need safe spaces because trauma and flashbacks are neither logical nor convenient. We’re the people who wear a mask all day only to come home and break down crying, unsure how we can go on, or if we can go on at all. We’re the people who excuse ourselves from class to have a panic attack. We’re the people who go in the last small group and hide in the back, afraid to be seen but needing so badly to be seen at the same time.
We’re the people who live two lives.
It is exhausting. It is damaging. And my mission is to make it unnecessary.
There are good days and there are bad days. Days where I go to class and swear I’m the next Michaela DePrince, and days where I can’t leave the house and lay in bed crying, contemplating foregoing dance altogether. I can never predict how a day will turn out - I just try to take it a moment at a time, take my medicine, and do my best.
You’re looking for a map. You’re looking for a way to put yourself back on track to follow your dreams, trying to make yourself fall back in love with this art form you’re passionate about on days when you can’t get out of bed. You might be attempting this with no support, or you might have wonderful family and friends that you just don’t know how to talk to. You may feel guilty for even having a mental illness in the first place.
However you’re moving through it right now, I see you. I recognize you.
I want us to succeed together, so I’m putting together a series of posts that are dedicated to practical, tangible tools to enable you to live your best life with mental illness while you chase your dance dreams. Since we're all getting ready to go back to school and company life, which brings with it the quick onslaught of new classes or teachers, Nutcracker season, audition season and more, check back here every Tuesday in August for new tips and tricks from me (and some friends!) about how to live your best dance life while taking good care of your mental health issues.
We’re on this journey together. Let’s #BreakTheStigma and live our best lives.
only + always love,