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Dancers' wellbeing

O bem-estar dos bailarinos

Tradução em português no menu de opções EN/PT

A month ago I was asked to collaborate on building a platform that would help support dancers' mental and physical health, and since then, I have stumbled upon many opportunities to reflect on the subject, on the importance of doing things that make us feel good and worthy, that help us get through the obstacles in our jobs and daily lives. Since May is "Mental Health Month", I decided to post here something inspired by a piece I wrote for Counselling for Dancers, in the hope that it will raise awareness to what is so often neglected in the dance world: our health and wellbeing.

Dealing with our emotional state is essential in our job; it is what lies beneath our tenacity, resilience, our performance level and how satisfied we are with ourselves and the world around us. It is human nature to always strive for more and obsess over work, especially when one is a perfectionist, but I find that in ballet, certain traits of our personality are enhanced. We get so carried away in our passion and it easily stirs us emotionally; with every missed performance, every ‘failed’ audition, every casting sheet that goes up on the board where our names are nowhere to be seen comes a wave of disappointment that breaks our heart to pieces. We build expectations and it is as if our lives are dependent on it.

Throughout my career, I beat myself up for many outcomes that were out of my control and that led me to believe that I wasn't good enough, but my professional (and spiritual) journey have taught me that trusting in ourselves and in our abilities is perhaps the most important factor in reaching our goals and leading a happy life. Instead of feeling disappointed, I started to see each outcome as a learning experience and each role, no matter how small, as an opportunity to develop my artistry, believing that greater things would come when I was ready for them.

Sonatina © Andrej Uspenski

I’ve always underestimated how important it is for dancers to rest, sleep and eat well, and prioritise our overall health; since joining The Royal Ballet and experiencing what it's like to have a full-on schedule of rehearsals and performances, it became essential for me to really focus on tackling all these issues and finding ways to recuperate and reenergize. My fatigued body just won't respond to an anxious mind; one thing leads to another and I start to lose sight of who I am, and what I'm really working towards. I start questioning myself, my abilities, and the purpose of working so hard. Where is it leading me?

Dancers are driven and encouraged by the desire to realize our full potential and perform our very best, being relentlessly determined and hard workers, but that constant drive and that pressure may leave us physically and mentally drained. Usually I come back from a holiday feeling reinvigorated and inspired to work even harder, and I see that all I needed was a good rest and some space. Going out for a coffee, a good read, or a catch up with a friend over lunch during tough seasons can instantly lift my spirits. I try to do little things in the day that make me feel calm, grounded, and that help me put things into perspective.

Finding a life and work balance has become important to me, but it is hard when our agendas are always full and when one has been raised to believe that you won't get anywhere without a lot of hard work. My mother pointed out the other day that I speak of work/life balance as if I never took ballet classes on free weekends, never exercised during holidays or went to the gym in my spare time. I do all these things. Dedication is my mantra, it has always been.

We can't expect to change who we are, but we can learn to build skills to navigate life more freely and to recognise certain patterns in our behaviour that are detrimental to our health. I find it nearly impossible to live unconcerned with the demands of my job, but there are moments when I can (and should) switch off. I have learned to recognise when I need to chill and step away before the scale tips too far one way. The signs are I lose enthusiasm and joy at work, I get grumpy and stressed, I look (and feel) tired.

One thing that has helped me keep an open mind and not lose sight of big values - mental health, relationships, spirituality, self-esteem, and appreciating the world out there - is to pursue other interests. We live in constant fear of what the future might hold, knowing full well that our career is short, but are often so absorbed in our dancing that we disregard other aspects of our being, other paths that could be nurtured and pursued. I have always loved reading and writing and can't live without my books. Four years ago I finally decided to start studying towards a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing with the Open University. I’m finishing my fourth year now and loving the experience. Two more to go!

Studying has enriched my life in many ways, but it has also been a good distraction from all the anxiety and stress of ballet. I also found, amidst this pandemic, a valuable hobby which gives me great pleasure and a new sense of purpose: writing this blog. It has made me appreciate dance even more and all that it has taught me about life and myself.

Dancing means embracing a lifestyle, one which brings us great joy and satisfaction, but it does not ask us to jeopardise our mental health and wellbeing; on the contrary, our dance career is supported by our values, friendships, and life experiences. Nurturing them allows us to do our job to the best of our abilities.

Truth is the happier I feel inside, the more motivated and confident I am at work, the more I enjoy it, and the better I dance.

Celebrating opening night of La Bayadere, finally able to breathe and acknowledge the hard work put into it.
'If you feel good about yourself and believe that you deserve to be happy, you will attract those things in your life.'

Most of us weren't born ready to face the many challenges and thrive in this profession, and having a strong mind is even more important than having the best physical qualities in the world, so it is up to each of us to seek help, counselling, and develop these emotional skills. Getting rid of the negative self talk and replacing it with positive affirmations has made a big impact on my life, and so did meditating.

One might not be a believer in the law of attraction, but we can be sure that in raising our sense of self-worth and caring for our mental health, we naturally interpret things in a more positive way; we are gentler to ourselves and better equipped to dodge the obstacles and disappointments that life throws at us.

May each dancing moment and each action of our days soothe body, mind and soul.

Sonatina © Andrej Uspenski

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