by Ashley Werhun
Mental stress and strain can lead to burnout and depression, and it can be a major roadblock in not only a dance career, but in leading a healthy life. Here are a few thoughts on how we, as dancers, can take steps to support our mental health…and that of our fellow dancers.
Resist Negative Thinking
It is part of the human condition for our brain to make up stories. Our psyche connects the dots with the information we have to draw a conclusion for a scenario. How many times have you not been cast, and your brain thinks, “I am not good enough for that role” or, “I shouldn’t be in this company, I don’t fit in?”
Rarely would it say, “There must be something better coming” or, “I think the role I am in will challenge me in the exact way I need to grow.” Simply recognizing that our brains may tend to slant towards the negative is empowering and helps us evaluate whether or not this “story” our brains made up is actually true.
Often times I encountered this exact scenario. One time I even naively went to my director, concerned that I wasn’t integrated enough on stage and he said, “Patience Ashley–I didn’t put you in this rep that much because you will be the lead in the next creation”. I walked out and reminded myself to trust. Trust yourself, and trust that the director/choreographer is doing what is best for the company and for the production. This situation was a blunt reminder to get out of my thoughts and back into the work.
The Power of Positive Talking – WebMD
The Power of Positive Self-Talk – Psychology Today
Mediation has been proven to reduce stress, improve athletic performance, strengthen the immune system, and lead to faster recovery. It also helps us connect with our physical and mental self through awareness.
Our minds are powerful. They can make an injury feel 10 times worse if you let it. Mediation allows us to slow our minds and feel our bodies in their current state without the veil of stress. Guided meditations can give you a mantra to focuses your day on. If you enter your day with gratitude and abundance in mind, it feels uneasy to shift into petty thoughts, or self-limiting talk.
Free Guided Meditations – UCLA Health
Meditation Basics – Psychology Today
Reach Out For Support
As dancers, our mental health is not to be taken lightly. It’s as important as our physical health. If you broke your ankle you would seek medical attention. If you don’t feel like yourself emotionally it could be a sign of a problem, and you don’t have to just suffer silently. There is help available.
If you find yourself struggling with depression, anxiety, or other potential mental health issues, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to talk to someone. Tell a trusted family member or friend what you are feeling and go from there. Sometimes just getting your feelings out is enough to make things better, but if not, seeing a counselor or mental health professional can be helpful.
Resources (For information purposes only – please see a mental health professional for accurate diagnosis and treatment):
Mental Health Information – National Institute of Mental Health
Social Services – Career Transition For Dancers/The Actor’s Fund
Be A Mentor
Dancers are often hyper aware of our bodies, and we don’t think twice about lending some support when someone has a physical injury. “How is your knee?” or “Did the acupuncture help your back?” are questions I hear in the studio. However, it is rare to overhear things such as, “How are you dealing with the stress of this season?” or “I feel like the choreographer doesn’t like me, how do you feel about working with them?”
The first few years of company life can be rough, and I often thought that I was the only one dealing with low self-confidence. It took an older artist in the company opening up about her own struggles to open my eyes to the fact that this feeling is not at all unusual.
If you’re an older dancer in the company, you have an opportunity to be an emotional leader. When the time and space is appropriate, why not ask a younger dancer to coffee? You’ll be surprised how taking a step outside of the studio can change drastically the dynamic. Often it only takes the question of, “How is this season going for you?” to open up the floodgates of both the good–and the bad. It may be a small gesture for you, but it can show someone who is struggling that they are seen, heard and valued.
In a field where there can be an underlying competitive atmosphere, I believe it is our obligation to step up and support one another. After all, when everyone is growing – the work grows. Isn’t that that is our real goal?
Mentoring And Coaching Skills – American Speech/Language/Hearing Association
A Final Thought…
There are dancers out there who haven’t been limited by their bodies – it can just as easily be the mental stress that is too much to handle. Being a professional dancer puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on the mind, as well as the body. Since these two forces combine and work together to allow us to do remarkable things, we need to treat them both well.
Contributing writer Ashley Werhun began her formal training Edmonton, Alberta. Her training was supplemented by attending The National Ballet of Canada, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, The Banff Center, and The Juilliard School during the summers. Werhun later studied at The Alberta Ballet School and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. Ashley is currently dancing with Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal for the 2014/ 2015 season, where she will be performing the works of Barack Marshall, Adonis Foniadakis Cayetano Soto, Wen Wei Wang, and Rodrigo Pederneiras.
Prior to joining BJM Werhun was a guest artist with Ballet British Columbia and was a founding member of Trey McIntyre Project. In six seasons with Trey McIntyre Project, she has been featured in world premieres including: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Sweeter End, Pass Away, and Ten Pin Episodes. Her performances have been acclaimed in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Seattle Times, and Chicago Tribune. Her work has been described as “simultaneously grand and cozy”, and with her partners she creates what has been called a “beautiful, melancholy duet… intertwining bodies in interesting ways; their movements growing with desperation as the work culminates in tragic climax.”
She has toured North America, South America, Asia and Europe performing, teaching master classes, and engaging through outreach with schools and hospitals. During her time as an Artist in Residence at St. Luke’s Children Hospital, she used dance as therapy to promote joy and healing. She cherishes these experiences and finds inspiration in each moment. She has spent her last two summers on faculty at The Sitka Fine Arts Camp in Alaska. Ashley is so happy to have returned to her native country of Canada and to and be part of this group of extraordinary artists.