Health & Body

This Studio Owner Built a Program That Prioritizes Mental Health Among Dancers

Photo by Megan McCluskey, courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

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.



Misty's Dance Unlimited students participating in a master class. Photo by Megan McCluskey, courtesy of MTJGD.

Helping students balance their schedules

Until recently, many of Lown's most committed dancers attended classes or rehearsals six days a week. Rehearsals for competition, ballet company and performance troupe dances were tucked in around other classes in 30-minute increments. It was an attempt at efficiency that wasn't working. For guidance, Lown talked to her clients. In surveys and discussions with parents, she heard over and over that students were struggling to get enough sleep and to keep up with demands of their dance training and other after-school activities. When considering restructuring, she polled parents on ways to improve the program. She decided to upend and remake her studio's schedule of 200 weekly classes to make everyone less stressed-out.

This means she gave up some revenue. Monday nights used to be a popular night for young children's classes, with 150 to 200 students attending classes. But it was the night the parents of older dancers preferred for rehearsals, so Lown took the financial hit and moved rehearsals to a single three-hour block on Mondays. Everyone's much happier, she says.

She also moved older dancers' classes to later in the afternoon, so they can attend after-school activities beforehand. Lown reasons that this group of students is concerned about improving their resumés before graduation, so she accommodates their other commitments. "Colleges want to see those after-school activities," she says.

A workshop with physiotherapist Lisa Howell (on mat). Photo by Megan McCluskey, courtesy of MTJGD.

Creating a Zen environment

Lown's Monday-night rehearsals now include a study space, an eating area for dancers staying through their regular dinner hour, and—miraculously—not a cell phone in sight. That's right: For three hours, there is no social-media–posting, no photo-sharing or newsfeed-reading. No phones allowed.

Connections between social media and mental health is a hugely popular area of research, with many experts suggesting spending so much of their days online can make young people depressed. The rise in depression and anxiety among teens correlates indisputably with the swell in popularity of smartphones. Excessive phone time may also make it harder to get a good night's sleep. Lown is already seeing positive results of going phone-free in students' dancing. "To get them dialed back in after being in digital land is hard," she says. Students were checking their phones between every rehearsal section. "Now they're more focused, doing more productive work in the classroom."

Photo by Megan MCluskey, courtesy of MTJGD

Making mental maintenance part of routine conditioning

Lown has a network of consultants she hires regularly to host talks and workshops for students and parents. Along with a nutritionist and a physical therapist, she invites a family practice doctor to talk about students' whole-life balance and tuning in to stress cues. A popular guest was the sports psychologist for the Minnesota Vikings, who talked about how mental health relates to performance.

She also offers yearly "dance pathways" conferences in the spring, where she meets with a dancer and their parents to talk specifically about the student's schedule and strategies for balancing that dancer's various commitments, including those outside of dance. "I don't address their development as a dancer," Lown says. "If they want to know how their pirouettes are progressing, they speak with their teacher."

Goonan says administrators show how much they care about students' mental health by how much time they make for it. If you bring in conditioning specialists and nutritionists, he reasons, you should bring in psychologists, too. "Class for mental health is not just how to eat a meal," he says.

Lown (in black) heads a curriculum-licensing program called More Than Just Great Dancing, with 208 affiliated schools. Photo by Megan McCluskey, courtesy of MTJGD.

A focus on being better, not best

A positive mission statement or mantra can help shape the culture of a studio. Lown's is "progress over perfection." She frequently shares a quote, widely attributed to Baryshnikov: "I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself." That's the example she asks dancers to follow to shape their expectations for themselves. Dancing better than you did the day before is something any dancer can strive for. For some students, this may not even mean achieving better form. "Their focus can become stronger, their attitude can become more positive, their teamwork can become more collaborative, even if their leg isn't going higher and they're not getting pointe shoes," Lown says.

A plan for reporting concerns

Similar to how teachers should be on the lookout for eating disorders among students, Lown and her staff have protocols for watching for common mental health troubles, like anxiety and depression. The studio relies on guidelines published by Youth Protection Advocates in Dance, an organization that promotes healthy and safe experiences for dancers. Misty's Dance Unlimited is certified through the YPAD training program. If a normally outgoing student becomes withdrawn, for example, or a dancer who typically looks put-together starts showing up looking unkempt, teachers report it to Lown, who will make arrangements to talk to parents. She's careful with wording. "We always say we just want to share some observations we're seeing in the classroom and see if you've seen them in other places and how we can navigate that," she explains. Goonan agrees it's essential to direct dancers to experts, rather than try to solve the problem yourself.

Photo by Megan McCluskey, courtesy of MTJGD

Lead by example

Lown encourages her staff to model healthy self-care and asks they take their paid-time-off days for any reason they need. "If things are hard at home, it's hard to be an A-plus teammate at work," she says. She also makes it a point to reach out if she senses a staffer is struggling. Sometimes just sending a text asking if they're all right or if she can help can go a long way, she explains. "Doing something to show teachers you care sends a strong message," she says. Lown's focus on a healthy work-life balance has clearly rubbed off on her teachers; staff bonding outside studio walls—book and walking clubs, for example—is a faculty fixture.

As for maintaining her own mental health, Lown sticks to a regimented schedule as much as possible, waking up early and building in time for yoga twice a week. She even schedules downtime, putting her phone away from 5 to 8 on certain nights off to spend uninterrupted time with her family. "Routines and boundaries help me," she says. "If a crisis conflicts with my routine, obviously I deal with that, but if I can keep to what I've established as good self-care 80 percent of the time, I know I have that margin for anything else that comes up."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.