Andrea Marks is a writer based in New York City. Beginning in her home state of Connecticut at the School of the Hartford Ballet, she trained in dance for over 20 years. She majored in English and minored in dance at Skidmore College and earned her Master's degree in journalism at Columbia University.
Train yourself and your staff to spot indicators of serious depression, anxiety or other mood disorders. Bonnie Robson, a psychiatrist who has worked with the National Ballet School of Canada, provided this list and emphasizes that it's for teachers watching for external signs of duress. Students should understand the internal symptoms of depression, as well, like those detailed by Dance/USA.
If someone on staff is worried about a student, Robson says they should tell the studio director, who should call a meeting with the dancer and her parents (that's essential if she's a minor, particularly) to share the observations and consider asking the dancer to get a professional opinion, while avoiding drawing any conclusions themselves. "If the parents or the student are in denial of any problem, the teacher or director has the right to ask for a letter stating that the dancer is safe to dance," Robson says, treating the concern as they would an injury or concussion.
Dance should be a release. But as rates of depression and anxiety rise among teens, and as students feel the pressure to take on ever more commitments, time at the dance studio can turn into yet another stressor. Even if dance isn't the cause of duress, dancers as a population can be obsessive and perfectionistic, qualities that build meticulous technicians but may also make them more prone to common mental health struggles than the general population.
It's a topic dancers can be hesitant to confront, and one that requires significant awareness-building and education—which doesn't happen overnight. "It takes time away from the dancing," says Brian Goonan, a sports psychologist who works with dancers in Houston. "Most athletes feel, 'If I don't spend my time with the physical self or learning the craft, then it's not valuable.'" But if a dancer doesn't develop mechanisms to cope with stressors and maintain a healthy sense of self, she puts herself at risk for anxiety disorders and depression, which can drain her energy and love for dance, cause her to struggle in school and personal relationships and, in the worst case, threaten her life.
Misty Lown remembers what it's like to struggle mentally and emotionally during adolescence. Her parents divorced and faced financial difficulties when she was in high school, at which point she started making destructive decisions like skipping school, and she developed an eating disorder. "I felt pretty invisible," she says. She credits a librarian at her school for taking interest in her as a person and making her feel like she mattered. "It only takes one caring adult to change the life of a child," she says.
Because of her personal experience, Lown, who now owns Misty's Dance Unlimited in Onalaska, Wisconsin, puts dancers' mental well-being first. "You realize you can shorten their path to discovering their worth," she says. Teachers, who see kids for hours a week—sometimes more than their parents do—can't afford to ignore the growing mental health problem. They may be the first (and best) line of defense to help students in need and nurture happy, healthy dancers.
Wobble-free balance—a sign of ankle stability—requires strength in the smaller muscles on all sides of the lower legs and ankles: the peroneals, the tibialus posterior and anterior and the flexor hallucis longus. Many dancers overuse their calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus, when trying to find balance on relevé, says San Francisco–based physical therapist Kendall Alway of ODC's Healthy Dancers' Clinic. "It's helpful for getting into relevé, but it doesn't stabilize you," she says. In other words, it gets you there, but that muscle alone won't keep you there.
You shouldn't wait for a surgery or injury to build muscles in your ankles and lower legs. Strong ankles support solid, beautiful lines and protect dancers while they're moving, whether through quick direction changes, landing from leaps, turning or balancing on pointe.
Here are some of Alway's favorite ankle-strengtheners that you can add to your routine.
Once a dancer recovers from a foot or leg injury—usually via rest and physical therapy—it's time for them to slowly reintegrate into class. They may ease in by taking barre or doing only the warm-up before working their way up to a full class, depending on how they feel and their physical therapist's advice. One of the last movements to add back into a dancer's regular practice is big jumps, since they require strength and control to take off and land safely.
But what if it didn't have to be that way? New research suggests that using jumps as part of injury recovery could actually help dancers make a stronger return to training.
Healthy, uninjured dancers have much to gain in strengthening their takeoff and landing muscles. Practicing pliés, followed by plié relevés and full jumps in parallel—looking in the mirror to monitor alignment—is a great way to fine-tune jumping technique anytime, say physical therapists Emily Sandow and Sarah Edery-Altas.
But as dancers, we should. We need our feet. They connect us to the floor; we push off them to move through space. We use them to relevé, roll through, land, stomp and tap. Yet we don't treat them well. And sometimes, we flat-out abuse them.