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  • Kathleen McGuire Gaines

Giving thanks - to my dancing friends

Relationships forged in the dance studio are complex, and profoundly important. They are the people who “get it.” And while not every friendship is meant to last a lifetime (dancer or otherwise) each of the people we share love and marley with are part of who we are and what we become. As someone who left dance, and somehow has continued to return to it in my professional life, the dancers who have stuck with me are all the more meaningful. Few people understand the totality of who I am the way that they do. So, on this Thanksgiving I raise a glass to my dancing friends. The ones who knew me then and continue to support me now.

You were rooting for me even when it felt like rooting against yourself

The competition in dance is so accepted that it is cliché. To this day when I tell people about my experience as a pre-professional dance student, they will often remark, “It must have been so hard not to have friends since you were all in competition.” This is a logical thought from an outsider – I mean, how could we possibly manage friendships in such a cut-throat environment? But like comrades in battle, we fought beside each other, and not against each other.

Kathleen with dance friends Patricia Hachey, Eva Trapp and Julia Erickson

Sometimes it is relatively easy to be friends with a fellow dancer, they are tall, you are short. You excel in classical rep, and they shine with contemporary movement. But other times, the part is yours or it is theirs. One of my dearest friends to this day, who went on to have a very successful career, was my constant competition in the studio. One of us got the part, and the other was the understudy, over, and over, again. I won’t pretend that it didn’t sting when the role was hers. Sometimes it felt like death by a thousand cuts. But even in the hardest of those moments, I was in the wings cheering her on as I know she was for me.

The dance world is small, and the studio environment even smaller. I think that even as teenagers we knew that we needed each other. Because no one else would understand that pain like the person living it right beside us. Now that I am older, perhaps that greatest wisdom I could impart on young dancers is to cherish these friendships, and to realize they will mean more than any part or audition outcome.

When you say “you can do this” I believe you, because you have seen what I am capable of

You were there the day I smashed a six-rotation pirouette, giving me snaps and cheering. You were there the day I got into my first-choice summer intensive, jumping up and down with me. You were there the day I found out that I was injured, and understood everything I felt, without me saying a word through the tears. You clapped the first day I walked into the studio to take barre after being out. You watched me get blindsided with rejection only to get back up and “prove them wrong.”

As dancers we have a front row seat to witness fortitude. It happens every day in the studio and on stage, and our friendships only punctuate how remarkable those moments are, because we know the whole story. I recently knew that a friend was being belittled by her artistic director. He was minimizing her talent and trying to make her doubt her value. A few short weeks after she shared this with me, I watched her receive a standing ovation.

You held me up when I couldn’t stand on my own

My own struggle with my mental health as a dancer is well documented by now. Some of the most challenging experiences of our dancing lives come in our late teens and early twenties – a time when psychologists will tell you that we are the most likely to experience mental health issues. This is a time of transition for dancers. You are entering a pre-professional program away from your family, auditioning for or joining a company, or headed to a college program. It’s truth time. Will you actually get to be a professional dancer?

A very real, and unfair, reality is that a dancer’s peers will be the first to notice that they are struggling mentally. They may also be the only ones that take action. Very few dance schools currently maintain mental health protocols, though that is slowly changing. As a result, teachers are at a loss for resources, and thus less likely to investigate a concern about a dancer’s mental health. Even if they want to help, they may not know how to. I had friends in the studio who were willing to say “I’m worried about you.” If you are concerned about a fellow dancer, there is good advice in this article that I wrote for Dance Magazine.

You honored my boundaries when I needed you to

When I stopped dancing, I was not emotionally well enough to go to a performance. I swear I could smell a theater from blocks away, and the tears would just come. My departure from dance did not feel like a choice, but a mandate made by a major depression I simply could not overcome in the dance environment. I didn’t go to a performance for more than two years. And my dancing friends, many of whom were skyrocketing through the early phases of their careers, completely honored that. Eventually I made an agreement with them, “If you are dancing a role that matters to you, I want to be there. But you have to tell me.” And they did.

I certainly lost friends when I left dance. Not because they didn’t like me, or didn’t think I was a good dancer, but I think mostly because they just didn’t know what to do. But that friend that you miss. The one who used to be in the studio beside you, they are the same human being they always have been. They may not know how to express the boundaries that they need to maintain their friendships with dancers. But I promise they need you, now more than ever. Express interest in the things that occupy their time now. Be understanding if they don’t make it to your show. And know that the consistency of your friendship is the most validating thing you can give them.

I am eternally grateful to my dancer-friends. They are some of the most profoundly meaningful friendships I have in my life. But I would be remiss in a post on a mental health blog for dancers, if I do not mention the importance of the non-dancing friends as well. Dance can be all-consuming, which is understandable by its very nature, but dance psychologists agree that having interests and friendships outside of dance is imperative for your mental health. I’ll plan a toast to these magnificent friends next Thanksgiving.

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