Help students deal with depression.

Metropolitan Fine Arts Center staff found ways to support Katharine Cook when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Not long ago, Jill Cook got a phone call from the office of Melissa Dobbs, director of the Metropolitan Fine Arts Center in Northern Virginia, concerning her daughter Katharine repeatedly not participating in dance class. Cook thanked them for calling and hung up. Then after thinking for a few seconds, she called back and said, “Listen, I have to let you know what’s going on.” Katharine (then 10 years old) had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that swings sufferers from the extremes of euphoria to deep despair. Being open about her daughter’s condition proved to be a good move. The studio staff responded with concern and understanding and found ways to support Katharine.

Dance training can push students to the limit, and many thrive in this challenging environment. But long hours, competitiveness and the drive toward perfection may send susceptible students over the edge. “Depression is not caused by the dance world,” says Barbara Kravitz, a New York City–based psychoanalyst who danced with Pennsylvania Ballet, “but the profession’s challenges can bring it on if there is a predisposition or vulnerability.” The good news is that dance teachers who are aware of the symptoms and sensitive to the needs of those who suffer can encourage their students’ mental health.

Depression affects 8 to 10 percent of adolescents and is especially common in post-pubescent girls and gay or bisexual youths, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. But mental illness can be tricky to spot since it’s often mistaken for typical preteen and teen moodiness. If a student is late for class and out of sorts now and then, she is probably just having a bad day. But if she exhibits some of the following symptoms for two weeks or more, it’s a cause for concern.

-    Withdrawal from social situations (e.g., sitting alone during rehearsal breaks and between classes)

-    Tardiness

-    Fatigue

-    Disengagement/apathy

-    Agitation, difficulty concentrating

-    Weight loss or gain

-    Change in appetite and/or sleep habits

-    Frequent complaints about headaches and/or stomach aches

-    A change in friends

-    Becoming easily discouraged

-    Tearfulness

-    Aggression/irritability

-    Signs of self-injury (If you think a student is purposefully cutting themselves, seek help from a psychiatric professional right away.)

So what should you do if you suspect a student might be dangerously depressed? “If you teach in a public school, go to the school counselor,” says Cook, who, in addition to being Katharine’s mom, is assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. Explain your concerns to school personnel who are trained to deal with psychological issues and may have access to a more complete picture of the student’s mental health. “A public school can be held liable if you don’t go through the proper channels,” she says.

If you teach in a studio, it might be okay to speak with the student privately. You could ask, “You don’t seem like yourself. You seem so tired these days. Are you okay?” Or pull a parent aside to say, “Mary has been late recently and that’s not like her.” It’s good for the dancer to know you’re empathetic, concerned and available if she wants to talk. But before approaching the student or  family directly, consult with the studio director or owner and consider seeking advice from a trained mental health professional.

Though dance teachers aren’t counselors, they can provide crucial support for students struggling with depression. At Katharine’s studio, teachers are especially mindful of her condition during long recital week rehearsals. “Katharine burns out and some warning sign always comes up. This year she developed a psychogenic cough,” says Cook. “They keep an eye on her and let her go home early if she needs to, or sit out or get a drink of water.”

Anne L. Wennerstrand, who became a psychotherapist after years as a dancer (she performed with Laura Dean and Dancers, among other groups), advises, “Be willing to be flexible. Don’t be too wedded to a plan. If the child is close to tears, don’t keep pushing.” And be especially attuned when a dancer is feeling challenged.

“Difficulty with a movement or step can shake a dancer’s self-esteem,” says Kravitz. “Think about how you can help her through to mastery in a constructive way.” It can seem like a depressed student is just not trying or has a bad attitude, but keep in mind that, in this case, the behavior isn’t willful.

While sensitivity is helpful, being overprotective can be counter-productive. “Competition is a normal part of dance,” says Cook. “Keep an eye on kids as they struggle with it, but you can't protect them completely." DT

 

Janet Weeks is pursuing dance education for special needs children.

Photo: Metropolitan Fine Arts Center staff found ways to support Katharine Cook when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (photo by and courtesy of Glenn Cook)

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jacqueline Chang, courtesy of Ailey Extension

Marshall Davis Jr.'s introduction to tap dance began at 10 years old at African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, where his father is director, in Miami, Florida. Training began in sneakers and dress shoes that Davis Jr. did his best to get sound out of. "My father was reluctant to invest in tap shoes, because he thought it was likely I would change my mind about dancing," he says. But it didn't take long before Davis Jr.'s passion for tap became undeniable, and his father bought him his first pair of tap shoes. Just one year later, Davis Jr. became the 1989 Florida winner for the Tri-Star Pictures Tap Day contest, a promotion for the movie Tap, starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. Through that experience, a new tap-dancing future was opened.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Are there good sources to find replacement dance teachers? When I go through standard employment services, I get people who are not properly trained or lack experience.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Courtesy of Susan Jaffe

Throughout Susan Jaffe's performance career at American Ballet Theatre, there was something special, even magical, about her dancing. Lauded as "America's quintessential American ballerina" by The New York Times, Jaffe has continued to shine in her postperformance career, most recently as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She credits the "magic" to her meditation practice, which she began in the 1990s at the height of her career. We sat down with Jaffe to learn more about her practice and how it has helped her both on and off the stage.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Reviewing a simple recording of your voice when you're teaching can help you hear how you sound to your students. Taking the time to play back your instructions, corrections and compliments throughout class will help you find any weak spots as well as recognize some of your strengths. It's a great technique to help you evaluate your instructional ability and make improvements, and pat yourself on the back for things you are doing well. Plus, it's super-easy to do!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Including ballet competition standout Alina Taratorin (photo by Oliver Endahl, courtesy Taratorin)

Congratulations to the 39 talented dancers just named 2020 YoungArts award winners! This year's group of awardees includes several familiar faces from the competition scene.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Brian Babineau, courtesy Burghardt

When Alicia Burghardt entered Dean College in Massachusetts as a freshman dance major, it hadn't occurred to her that the Boston Celtics had a dance team. A competition kid with aspirations for Broadway, Burghardt never imagined herself as an NBA dancer. But by the time she was finishing her senior year, she'd not only joined the Celtics Dancers, she was choreographing a number for a major playoff game. And after finishing her rookie year, surrounded on that TD Garden parquet floor by uproarious fans, she couldn't help but stay for another. "It's unbelievable performing for Boston fans," she says. "They're so loyal to their team. It could be third quarter, down 20 points, and they're still cheering."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
"The Greatest Show on Earth." Photo by Brenda Rueb, courtesy of Vona Dance

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending

"No formal training. No dance studio. No mentor," says Erik Saradpon about his beginnings in hip hop.

"I think that's why I'm especially tough on these guys, because I don't take the relationship for granted," he says, referring to his students. "I'm like a dad to them. I had a shortage of role models in my life. I wanted that so badly. I project that onto my kids."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
From Coppélia. Photo by Toshi Oga, courtesy of MOGA

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Nanette Grebe/Getty Images

Have you heard the story about the dancer who needed a double hip replacement…at age 16?

It's not an urban legend—just ask iconic choreographer Mia Michaels. In a video series about dance injuries, produced by Apolla Performance Footwear, Michaels tells the tale of a teenage comp kid who pushed so hard she ended up in surgery.

That dancer's harrowing story was one of the inspirations for the Bridge Dance Project. The new initiative—brainchild of Jan Dunn, co-director of Denver Dance Medicine Associates, and Kaycee Cope Jones, COO of Apolla—aims to connect members of the competition and commercial dance communities with dance science experts. While many academic and professional concert dancers have benefited from recent advances in dance medicine, that information hasn't made its way to most of the young students in convention ballrooms. And as the technical demands on those students increase, so does the number of injuries.

We talked to Dunn and Jones about how the Bridge Dance Project was born, the initiative's long-term goals, and why young competition and commercial dancers should make injury prevention a priority.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Jessica Kubat (center) with her studio staff. Photo by Vincent Alongi, courtesy of Kubat

Jessica Kubat's path to becoming a studio owner wasn't typical or glamorous or the product of a family business, handed down. When she opened MJ's House of Dance in Lindenhurst, New York, this past summer, she had just turned 40, was a mom of three, and had worked at two different studios long-term. Over the last two and a half years, she'd painstakingly saved up $25,000 and had gone to the Small Business Development Center at a local college on Long Island for help creating her business plan. Her area was moderately saturated with studios, so she spent considerable time planning what would set her school apart—live musical accompaniment, for one—and hired a marketing director nine months before the business even opened. It was a methodical, careful approach—Kubat calls it "the old-fashioned way"—to opening a studio, and it's paid off: She started summer classes with 75 students and is well on her way to reaching her first-year enrollment goal of 250 dancers. "When I turned 40, I decided that it was time to do something bigger," says Kubat. "I always wanted to own a studio—it was just never financially available to me."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
From "Boston—Our City." Photo by Rachel Hassinger, courtesy of BalletRox

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox