Mental Health Awareness in Dance
Today marks Mental Health Awareness Day, and as we shine a spotlight on an issue that permeates our global community, we believed it would be valuable to narrow our focus and delve into the significance of acknowledging the importance of mental health awareness within the realm of dance. To shed light on this vital subject, we approached Angela Lutz, an Academy of Dance Arts alumni and teacher, to share her personal journey and insights.
1. Can you share a bit about your journey as a dancer and how you first became passionate about dance?
I started ballet when I was six because my mom (who is still dancing at the studio) was doing it. I chose to continue ballet because I was inspired by the older girls and I wanted to be like them someday. Some of the girls who I looked up to specifically were Lexi Caruso, Lauren Baznik, Marissa DeBenedictis, and Sam DeBenedictis. Throughout the years I enjoyed the feeling of performing on stage whether it was a competitive group dance, variation, or a whole production. After graduating from the Academy, I continued my dance education at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania.
2. In the world of dance, injuries are relatively common. Can you tell us about a significant injury you've faced and how it affected you both physically and mentally?
Os trigonum injury
In the summer going into my senior year of high school, I had a sharp pain on my left achilles whenever I pointed my foot or whenever I was en pointe. I got it checked out and it turned out from x-rays that I had an extra bone called the os trigonum in the back of my heel. This bone is actually somewhat common among dancers, and the bone can either be benign or it affects the dancer so much that surgery is required. After months of physical therapy and many visits with specialists, I made the decision to do the os trigonum removal surgery.
My recovery experience
The timing of the post-op recovery was not ideal because I needed to audition for college dance programs. I had to make an audition video en pointe the day before my surgery and I remembered in between takes I would be crying from the excruciating pain. (I do not recommend this to dancers as it is very harmful and a extreme behavior). I had enough time to recover before the in-person auditions to do a full ballet class but only in flat shoes. I was not ready to be en pointe until my very last audition which happened to be the one for Mercyhurst. While in the recovering process I was discouraged because I felt that I was missing out on many performance opportunities my senior year and I did not get the opportunity to continue improving as a dancer. During the months of auditioning I was very anxious because I was still not 100% back from the post-op recovery, and I would second guess my abilities as a dancer.
3. Many dancers struggle with the psychological aspects of recovering from injuries. What strategies did you use to cope with the emotional challenges during your recovery process?
Comparing yourself to others
Although I experienced a lot of stress and anxiety from my injuries, I have implemented strategies that helped me cope with them. It’s all about mindset, as cliche as it sounds. I need to be in the mindset of not comparing myself to other dancers because we are all on our own journey. I must acknowledge that someone else’s journey or progress should not affect my journey.
Positive self talk
Another cliche but underrated strategy is positive self talk. The dialogue in your head can make all of the difference. Are you going to be overly self critical of yourself and be cynical or are you going to be kind to yourself like you would be to your best friend? Now, this is easier said than done because dancers tend to be perfectionists and the voice inside your head can’t help but be over critical and be a negative influence on your mental health. There is also such a thing as toxic positivity where you don’t address the life hurdles of achieving optimism, which is something I don’t want to embody. I want to acknowledge that it is difficult to have positive self-talk, so you have to practice it and strengthen it like a muscle.
Focusing on what you can control
Another teaching derived from Buddhism that helped me is: if you are attached to things you cannot control, you are suffering; detachment to things leads to enlightenment and no suffering. This resonated with me because I feel free when I let go of things that I cannot control, like a weight lifting off my shoulders. I cannot change the fact that I am injured, therefore I should focus on what I can control, which is doing my physical therapy exercises or getting enough quality sleep for atrophied muscle recovery. Focusing on things that will move me forward in my journey rather than the weight of the past not only supports my mental health, but makes the recovery process seem faster.
4. How do you think the dance industry can better support dancers in terms of injury prevention and mental health awareness?
Positively Using Social Media
The dance world is small, but it’s even smaller and more connected thanks to social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok. The generation that consumes the most social media is Gen Z which is the current generation of dance students. The dance industry should use social media as a positive platform that promotes and educates what good mental health looks like as a dancer.
Mental Health and Injury Prevention Accounts
There are some influential social media accounts that are slowly making a difference in the dance world. They are opening up the conversation of mental health more and challenging some toxic traditional ballet teachings that do not support a dancer’s mental health. Some specific accounts that I believe shed light on mental health within the dance community include:
@kathryn_morgan (YouTube, Instagram), @kirsten_theconfidentdancer (YouTube, Instagram), @dancernutritionist (Instagram, TikTok), @thewholedancer (Instagram), @rachelkdaly (TikTok), @jasssome or @JasmineMcDonald (TikTok, Instagram, YouTube), @sarahgavilla (TikTok, Instagram).
Some specific accounts that are great for injury prevention include:
@drcarrieskony (Instagram), @rehabonpointe (Instagram), @claudiadeanworld (Instagram, TikTok), @balletwithisabela (Instagram, TikTok), @dansemedica (Instagram), @danceperformancetraining (Instagram), @dance.physical.therapy (Instagram), @physicaltherapyresearch (Instagram).
Although there are a good handful of social media accounts that can support a dancer’s journey, the dance world still has a long way to go.
How I support the dancers in my class
Supporting the dancers from a pedagogical standpoint, I want to explain in my classes why we do steps in a certain way because proper technique is injury prevention. For example, lifting the arches when your feet are flat on the ground is necessary so that there is less stress on the ankles, knees, and hips. Lifting the arches also allows the external rotator muscles in the hips to engage in order to maintain turn out. Furthermore, I try to make my class a safe and welcoming environment in which the students are not afraid to communicate with me about their injuries, symptoms, problems, or even life outside of the studio. I value the students’ mental health and safety more than anything like technique.
5. Have you found any specific techniques or therapies that have been particularly helpful in addressing both the physical and mental aspects of your injuries?
The benefits of PT and strength training
When I created a routine for myself that supported my recovery process, I felt stronger coming back to class than before the injury. Believe it or not, my injuries made me a stronger dancer than before. The reason why is because I gained knowledge on how to strengthen my body with physical therapy exercises and general strength training exercises. I would create a routine of exercises that I would do everyday, and what mattered is that I was consistent with the routine. It’s like taking your supplemental vitamins everyday. Taking a vitamin one day will not make a difference, but taking it consistently everyday will make a huge difference in the long run.
Listen to your body
My injuries also taught me to really listen to my body, and not ignore any pain or symptoms. Addressing tightness in my muscles for example, is one way I listened to my body. I would roll out the muscle using a golf ball, a Thera gun, rollers, or even Chinese cupping (I bought an at-home cupping set on Amazon).
The mental techniques that I mentioned above also helped me with my injuries, as well as breathing techniques that relieved anxiety, and talking about my struggles to those I trust. Communicating your struggles whether it’s someone you trust or a professional is beneficial because holding it all in is more damaging than ever.
6. Could you describe the role that mental health awareness plays in your life as a dancer? How do you prioritize your mental well-being in such a physically demanding profession?
Dance is more mental than physical
Dance is 90% mental and 10% physical. It is a mental game. In order to achieve very physically demanding movement, you must have the right mental health to support your body, otherwise, it is unsustainable. What is very common in the dance community, especially the ballet community, is that dancers disregard pain or symptoms they have because they want to achieve something like getting a good role or placing well in a competition.
The importance of putting yourself first
What needs to change is that we need to prioritize our bodies first more than anything, because again, it is unsustainable to ignore pain. My senior year of college I researched about the relationship between pain and the psychology of dancers and choreographed a contemporary ballet group piece titled “Do I Quietly Walk On This Path of Suffering”. Based on my research I concluded that the culture of the dance world and the glorification of high pain tolerance in mainstream media affect dancers’ psychology behind pain tolerance and their view of physical, potentially harmful, pain. This issue should therefore be combated with more easily accessible resources for injury prevention and psychological treatment. I added “quietly” to my title because this is something that is not talked about in the dance community. Understanding this research helps me check in with myself and identify whether I am participating in harmful behaviors.
Dance should not be your only identity
Another way I prioritize my mental health in dance is actually having hobbies or interests outside of dance. Dance should not consume you. You do not need to attach your identity to dance. Finding other things you love outside of dance should humanize you and make you a more well-rounded person. Having multiple interests can also help you approach dance and artistic expression uniquely because you gain different perspectives.
7. How do you balance the desire to push your physical limits in dance with the need to protect your body and mind from potential harm?
Listen to your body
You know your body the most, so listen to it. Symptoms are signs your body is telling you that something must be addressed and dancers should communicate with their teachers and medical professionals about any abnormal symptoms. Dancers should also identify the difference between “good pain” and “bad pain”. There are multiple types of pain including sore pain, sharp pain, aching pain, acute pain, chronic pain, visceral pain, and more. Good pain is often associated with soreness which is normal for muscles that are in the process of getting used to certain movements. Bad pain is often associated with sharp pain or a pain that just feels “wrong”. Dancers must also be aware of their energy levels whether it is caused from underfueling, lack of sleep, overtraining, lack of training, or mental health issues, and make the decision to back off of certain movements. While it is important to push yourself in dance to take yourself to the next level, it is also imperative that you preserve your body so that it can perform optimally, especially in the long-term.
Psychological relationship with pain
Based on my research from my senior capstone, dancers have a high pain tolerance and they are more likely to ignore chronic pain in order to “get through” a class or an important performance. The psychological factors that cause injury include: characteristics within certain personalities such as achievement motivation, competitive trait anxiety, and hardiness; history of stressors, for example, life events or previous injuries; as well as coping resources like social support and coping behaviors. Dancers who sustain chronic or overuse injuries are the ones more likely to disregard injury to the point where severe damage and psychological distress occur. When you are in a competitive environment, you are more susceptible to sacrificing your mental and physical health. When trying to achieve more in dance, it is never worth it when your physical and mental health are negatively affected. So again, listen to your body because you are first, and you are worthy.
8. In the context of your own experiences, what do you hope to achieve by raising awareness about mental health in the dance community, and how can individuals and organizations contribute to this cause?
I hope to normalize the importance of mental health within dance facilities specifically in studio, company, and school culture. The toxicity in dance culture needs to change and it starts by educating students and implementing healthy teachings in a safe dance environment. Students and especially teachers should constantly be evolving and challenging any traditional or outdated norms that prevent students from thriving. If we change the culture starting from the studio where the younger generation absorbs everything like a sponge, hopefully healthy habits will be ingrained in them and support them in their continued dance career outside of the studio.