Kathleen McGuire Gaines
Dancers: honor your mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
As the imminent threat of COVID-19 continues to sweep the globe, dance studios are closed, performances cancelled, and tours grounded. When I speak with mental health professionals who work with dancers, I often ask them, what are the most psychologically challenging obstacles they see dancers face? Their responses have become predictable – injury, and transition away from dance. These two experiences in the life cycle of every dancer create the perfect storm that can lead to depression and other mental health issues – the inability to continue dancing or a crisis of ones identity as a dancer, distance from a dancer’s social group, and uncertainty about the future. As the Coronavirus pandemic spreads it feels that the entire dance world is collectively sitting at home with an ice bucket.
As I watch the streams of social media postings from dancers in these uncertain times, I become overwhelmingly concerned. What we are experiencing is a threat to the physical wellness of our global community, but it may also present a mental health crisis for our dance community. Desperate for answers that may help dancers navigate this uncertain time, I reached out to some of the mental health professionals who know dancers best.
They are concerned about the ways the shutdown specifically impacts dancers
The mental health professionals I spoke to shared the following common themes among the issues dancers may currently be facing:
The need for social connection. Dancers lives are deeply intertwined with their community of other dancers and teachers. Isolation may be particularly challenging for dancers to navigate emotionally and can lead to depression and anxiety.
A loss of structure. Dancers thrive on their routines; the predictability of the flow of a dance class or the comforting traditions they maintain as they prepare to perform. There is a fear that dancers may ruminate, and turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such substance abuse to deal with that loss.
Dancers may be far from home and be desperate to be with loved ones out of concern for their health and well-being. Others may come from dysfunctional family environments and they are separated from their studio which serves as their safe “home.”
Without the opportunity to dance, dancers may become overly concerned or even obsessed with their physical fitness during time away from the studio.
Isolate physically, but not emotionally
“Reach out to others – self isolate physically but not emotionally. Social support comes not only emotionally, but in the form of information. We are lucky to have social media and the internet, so keep in touch with colleagues and provide information about closures, auditions etc. We need to be wholly aware of the significant number of individuals who live alone, or who may have poorer living conditions. Identify a peer or colleague who might not have someone at home and make sure you keep in contact with them over the phone or online.”
Dr. Lucie Clements, The Dance Psychologist, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Chichester, UK.
Make a schedule and stick to it
“Dancers should keep their routine as much as possible. So for example, there are dance classes that are online. I recommend that dancers in one class or company agree they will watch class X at Y time and all do the class at the same time even using virtual technologies (Zoom, Skype, etc.) so they are doing it together. I also suggest that they get up and go to bed at the usual time, eat like they normally do, and stay outside their bedroom during the day.”
Dr. Nadine Kaslow, Psychologist and Professor in the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University
“Maintain a routine, such as waking up at the same time, making plans to talk or video chat with family and friends to create accountability. A routine can contribute to a sense of normalcy which is valuable in uncertain times.”
Josh Spell, Licensed Social Worker and former dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet
Focus on the opportunity of the time that you have
“Plan to go for walks, runs, hikes through the park. Talk to a friend as you go or listen to music. Keep to a routine. Set the alarm to get up at the regular time (avoid sleeping in) Make healthy meals and snacks. There is time for this now. Sort your photos and videos. Think about making an album and having it printed. If you are part of a company, you might want to get others to join you. Do something you always promised yourself you would do if only you had time.”
Dr. Bonnie Robson, a retired psychiatrist who began working with dancers at the National Ballet of Canada in 1982
“Instead of dwelling on time lost, use this unexpected available time constructively to catch up on various chores or, to think and do things other than dance (e.g. , perfect your cooking abilities; start learning a new language that may be useful during tours).”
Dr. Jo-Anne La Flèche, Clinical and Dance psychologist who works with dancers at L’École supérieure de ballet du Québec.
Explore other interests
“I always recommend that dancers develop other interests to help us stay rounded individuals with a broad identity. You can use this time away from dance to focus on other hobbies, or even to learn a new skill. I have been learning calligraphy and how to paint with watercolors – these help me to relax and focus on my well-being. Learning a new hobby may be something you carry forward with you.”
Dr. Lucie Clements
“Take this time to explore other identities separate from being a dancer. It is also a great opportunity to practice self-inquiry, meaning what is it about this specific time that brings up tension or specific emotions for you. Bring curiosity and openness to these feelings instead of pushing them away. Ask yourself, what is it that I might need to learn about myself? This process can be translated into the ballet studio and can also be extremely useful in remaining flexible and resilient in life, which is a pillar of mental well-being.”
Stay positive and focus on what you can control
“Dancers should plan for their return to dance (the target at this point is a review of conditions at the Beginning of April). Make a set of goals and then make a plan to achieve these goals. Perhaps to improve conditioning and aerobic skills.”
Dr. Bonnie Robson
“Remain mindful of how much time is spent listening or reading the news and do not hyper focus on the negative. Go opposite to the urge to concentrate on the aspects of your life that have been put on hold and look at this time as an opportunity to focus on gratitude and self-compassion. Remember, although there may be physical distance, we are all experiencing this time together which can strengthen our bond in the dance community.”
“Stay connected to the dance community and to close ones to prevent isolation, but WITHOUT co-ruminating on problems and all the possible catastrophes that may eventually appear (e.g., losing dance contracts). Get into a proactive problem-solving mode on every element you have power over, while letting go on what you can't solve (e.g. make fun plans for the future, take up simple pleasure activities).”
Dr. Jo-Anne La Flèche
Keep moving, and dancing
“Continue to remain active, even if in your apartment/home, because the sudden decrease in endorphins can also contribute to depression. Remember that even walking around, stretching on your yoga mat, doing calisthenics like planking, squats, push-ups, jumping rope, crunches and even walking in nature increases your heart rate.”
“Breathe deeply and use mental imagery either to perfect technical difficulties or to rehearse choreography, in real time while listening to the actual music, with eyes closed and lying back in a relaxed position. Keep in mind that imagined movement activates the same areas of the brain as real movement.”
Dr. Jo-Anne La Flèche
“Dancers can find a way to dance anywhere. Just do it. Find a barre, or fence, or barrier, and dance.”
Dr. Bonnie Robson
Honor your feelings and your strength
“It is normal to experience fear and uncertainty right now - dancers should not hide their feelings. If dancers can embrace feelings of vulnerability that are coupled with a conscious awareness of their emotional resources then they can maintain a healthy balance between feelings and adaptation. It is always helpful to remember that dancers are survivors. Dancers have endured throughout the ages. Today's dancers can draw strength from so many previous generations of dancers who protected dance, even in the darkest moments.”
Dr. Paula Thomson, Professor at California State University, Northridge, licensed Clinical Psychologist, certified Sport Psychologist.
If you are experiencing a crisis please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1.800.273.8255 or visit our website to see other resources.
For other COVID-19 resources for dancers:
The National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response