Higher Ed

Inside Point Park’s First-of-Its-Kind Dancer Mental-Health Program

Garfield Lemonius vividly remembers the night he watched an ambulance drive away with one of his York University classmates after she fainted at a dance performance.

He and several other dance students had taken the Toronto Transit Commission downtown to see a show, and that's when his classmate—who he describes as a beautiful dancer struggling with an eating disorder—passed out, and ultimately dropped out of the program.

Lemonius had watched his classmate wither and wanted to help, but felt woefully inadequate.

"We were teenagers," he recalls of that moment in the early 1990s. "What were we going to say, 'You need to eat, so maybe you should get on that?'"

Now 47 and chair of the dance department at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Lemonius wants to make sure none of his students find themselves in similar situations— either that of the young woman who was struggling or the classmates who felt helpless. He also understands that eating disorders are an extreme manifestation of the stress and self-esteem minefields that dancers navigate every day. That's why he and the dance department have partnered with the advocacy group Minding the Gap to offer Point Park teachers and students a three-year pilot program aimed at normalizing the mental-health needs of dancers, and providing students with specialized resources comparable to physical therapy.

"Let's face it," Lemonius says. "When we talk about a dance students' health, our go-to is their physical well-being—What are we doing to take care of their bodies and make sure they are in proper physical condition? Which means, do they have the strength, flexibility and stamina to do the work we are asking for?—ignoring the fact that there is a larger issue there, and that is their mental health."

Lemonius looks forward, pointing both fingers upward with elbows bent, as students copy him behind him

Garfield Lemonius. Photo by Kaylee Wong, courtesy Point Park

Assisting Lemonius in closing that gap is Kathleen McGuire Gaines, a dance writer and mental-health advocate who has emerged as one of the field's strongest proponents for improving mental health.

In July of 2017, Dance Magazine published a reported essay by Gaines detailing how unaddressed depression had stymied her own career.

"I was never a confident dancer," Gaines wrote. "I relied heavily on the praise of my teachers and casting to feel my self-worth. And over time, the micro-failures that dancers must overcome each day started to chip away at me."

Her essay cites a theory by Dr. Brian Goonan, a Houston-based psychologist who works with dancers. "The same drive to succeed that makes so many ballet students great may also predispose them to depression," Goonan says.

The piece went viral, and Lemonius was among many who read it and wondered anew at the headline: "Why are we still so bad at addressing dancers' mental health?"

Lemonius was surprised to learn that Gaines lived only miles away, working as a freelance journalist and arts administrator. He invited her to Point Park, and months later, what began as an intimidating opportunity to speak directly to students evolved into Minding the Gap, an advocacy and consulting business that requires Gaines to do something she never expected to do as a dancer: talk.

"Being a dancer plus a writer does not necessarily make me a good speaker," Gaines says. "I was quite nervous about it."

For that first talk at Point Park, Gaines took along Dr. Leigh Skvarla, a certified counselor with extensive dance training who is now a Minding the Gap research partner. The prepared presentation went smoothly, she says, but Gaines found the Q&A shocking: For more than 45 minutes, the Point Park students peppered her and Skvarla with questions. Their eagerness seemed worlds away from her own extensive dance training at the San Francisco Ballet School and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, as well as summer programs at SAB and Chautauqua.

"If I'm sitting in that chair, I'm 18 years old, there's no way I'm raising my hand and asking a question about mental health," Gaines says.

Gaines, a young white woman in a blue dress, stands at a podium, holding a microphone and looking at her laptop

Kathleen McGuire Gaines. Photo courtesy Ascender

Today's Gen-Z dancers are more comfortable confessing their own self-doubts, yet there's a gap between what students may share on Instagram and what they'll say in the studio to a professor. Likewise, teachers need to better understand how something as simple as giving a harsh correction or commenting on physical appearances can be internalized by a student who's psychologically vulnerable.

"We've got to figure out, How do you correct a student with weak technique while still conveying to them 'You have value and you are wanted here'?" says Ahmad Simmons, a 2010 graduate of Point Park. He stays in close touch with Lemonius, and was thrilled to hear about the partnership with Minding the Gap. "That's amazing," Simmons says. "I wish we would have had something like that when I was there."

Plans for the Minding the Gap partnership are moving forward because Lemonius watched that initial Q&A session with Gaines and Skvarla and thought to himself, "This can't be a one-time thing."

Thanks to a $23,000 grant from Pittsburgh nonprofit the Staunton Farm Foundation, Point Park is halfway through the first of its three-year partnership with Minding the Gap. Although Point Park students did meet in person this semester, Minding the Gap initiatives—including a roundtable for around 10 full-time and 30 adjunct faculty members—were moved online.

"Working directly with the teachers is a key element of the program, since the teachers are effectively the keepers of the culture and are vital to destigmatizing mental health within their dance environment," says Gaines. "Teachers, of course, have their own mental health as well."

For students, the Minding the Gap program consists of one seminar each semester, and in the spring semester, students will participate in "breakout rooms" that delve more deeply into specific topics. Students are also participating in a research study that Gaines hopes will more clearly delineate the unique needs of dance students. Results so far are "really interesting," she says, although it's too early to share details.

While she's working with the university, Gaines hopes to develop resources and a curriculum that Minding the Gap can take to other college dance programs, schools and companies. They are still seeking funding for years two and three at Point Park, however, which will allow the program to expand to include one-on-one clinical support for dancers. Gaines notes that finding money wasn't easy, even for someone who, like her, has also worked in nonprofit development.

"Arts organizations would look at me and say, 'But we fund art creation?' They did not understand why I was asking for money to improve the mental health of dancers," Gaines says.

A decade after graduating from Point Park, Simmons is hoping benefactors back a program that will prepare students for the mental rigors of a professional dance career. He's found great success, playing Pippin star Ben Vereen on the hit series "Fosse/Verdon" and appearing in multiple Broadway shows, including Hadestown and West Side Story.

And yet he's known many who have lost loved ones in the performing arts community to suicide because they've suffered from inadequately addressed mental illness. And even in professional New York theater, he's encountered situations that resemble the scenes he reenacted in "Fosse/Verdon," where a genius creator somehow has license to scream at performers for spurious reasons.

"There is still this idea that pain and suffering should be part of making art," Simmons says. "The sooner we can address this, the better."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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