Earlier this year I found myself in a taxi, on my way to the BBC Broadcasting House at 6.30 am. Not a questionably clean, well used kind of taxi mind you- a cool, paid for, polite driver kind of taxi. And 6.30 am- that was a tough one… So what was it that had me acting out of the ordinary that particular morning? Not, as you might think, anything to do with fabulous breakfast plans.
I was due to be interviewed on the topic of mental health in the world of classical dance on BBC Radio 5Live Breakfast. Usually this sort of hoohaa (private taxi, up at, in my opinion, an ungodly hour) makes me uncomfortable. I’ve taken part in interviews before, all about myself, my ‘journey’, how I took that metaphorical leap from the North of England to Moscow…I tend to find it just that bit too awkward for my comfort; I always wonder if there isn’t something more important I should be discussing than me, myself and I. So, thankfully, along came an offer I couldn’t pass on; the opportunity to shine the light on the us- the vast community of friends and colleagues, past and present, that are collectively and generally referred to as ballet dancers.
Classical dance has most definitely defined my life in many a positive way: the highs of performing to my best on stage boost my personality off stage, the fearlessness in pushing for technical improvement helps me improve my spontaneity in life, discipline and self control allows me to make the most of setting and aiming towards my goals. I can’t be sure I’d be ‘my best self’ without ballet. Indeed, there is a lot of scientific evidence showing that dancing for fun is extremely beneficial both physically and mentally. And yet, from school to work as a professional classical dancer, I have been inundated with set backs and feelings of failure. I have, in this sense, been forced to develop an extreme level of determination to succeed and resilience- something that has made me both more equipped to deal with life as a professional classical dancer and able to reach my potential. Why, though, do I feel as if these positive attributes have been acquired at such costs to how I feel about myself and my life?
The initial premise for the interview focused on anorexia, however eating disorders are only the tip of the iceberg regarding mental health issues in the ballet world- a fact I insisted on making clear. I agreed to speak on 5Live’s radio program only if I would be given the opportunity to highlight the situations dancers face routinely, all too often leading to mental health complications, the majority of which, aren’t necessarily so widely discussed. There is a minefield of issues that I strongly feel need to be discussed regarding dancers’ mental wellbeing in an industry that doesn’t have it as a priority. The response to the interview and the FB post that BBC 5 Live created afterwards has only reinforced my belief that ballet dancers are struggling and are desperate for a voice. So here’s the full version of my thoughts and input into the 5 Live feature.
I’ve noticed trends across experiences of friends and colleagues I’ve met from all over the world through my training and work in the world of classical dance. Many of us are struggling; this, I believe, is down to oversupply of (particularly female) dancers, which in broad economic terms and the rules of supply and demand equals limited jobs, low salaries and poor work conditions. I don’t know any other profession that begins its training so seriously at the age of eleven, with such a low chance of employment at the end of it. Young people are trained to such a high standard at great cost, plus personal and family sacrifice, only to be left with nothing or, for those that do manage to find a job, left facing poor working conditions and challenges to their mental health caused by an autocratic, very hierarchical system where the power sits firmly in the hands of a few.
Dancers are easily exploited under these conditions- particularly female dancers (male dancers do experience mental health challenges too, largely due to the stigma attached to boys and ballet, but I feel that’s a specific subject for separate discussion). There are always other female dancers to do your job, either because you won’t (the pay is too low) or can’t (injury or perhaps you’re just not what the AD or choreographer is seeking that day for some, usually unspecified, reason). This creates an environment where abuse is prevalent.
The dance community that I have trained and worked with has many stories to tell on the verbal and passive abuse that we regularly experience. Verbal abuse ranges from management forgetting that criticism is not the same as constructive criticism, to raised voices directed at dancers in aggressive ways, all of which is considered outdated and disrespectful in other work environments. I’ve always been amazed by the disregard of logic from those verbally abusing dancers; how can an individual be expected to carry out their work to the best of their ability if they are being told they are terrible at what they do?
Passive abuse, on the other hand, is more insidious and, in my opinion, more common. Dancers are not involved in the decision making process on any level and there is a distinct lack of communication on decisions that have been made about us (any request for understanding is usually refused or responded to with a made up answer). This leaves dancers doubting not only their technique but generally questioning our self worth and capabilities in life outside of classical dance; sadly ironic for people who’s profession requires them to perform with confidence and flair on stage.
It is, of course, absolutely worth mentioning that I have worked with some incredibly forward thinking individuals in directorial roles. However, they are simply too few and far between.
I guess the natural response to all this is, ‘Why do I continue to do it?’ Simply put, I love the art form and believe it should survive. Classical dance is extremely effective in pushing boundaries; there are tons of new works making their ways onto the famous stages of the world that showcase how this artistic medium can delve into a range of concepts truly investigative into the human experience. I stick with it because I believe it can be just as progressive as its ideas and I want to be part of that change.
Another natural response is ‘How can it change?’ We, the dancers, need a strong representative voice that speaks for us, helping challenge management and address said issues. We also need companies to think more about how to increase engagement with staff (and by staff, I mean the dancers) to improve transparency in the decision making process so that we feel respected and valued as members of a team as opposed to pieces on a chessboard.
I hope this post resonates with dancers and non dancers alike. I believe it is time to raise awareness of mental health in classical dance and, jointly, we can. Let me know your thoughts- please don’t hesitate to contact me privately, either.