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untitled: on mental health and embodied artistry

by J. Bouey

Ain’t it time for the dance field to invest in mental healthcare similarly to how we invest in physical healthcare? While the term healthcare in the United States of America is an ever expanding topic that deserves intense granular analysis to support its reformation towards universality, for the sake of this essay*, I’ll keep the term within the boundaries of dance and how we’ve invested in supporting dance artists’ physical health and underinvested in supporting our mental health.

I would like to take this time to bring your attention to the foundation of western dance as of December 2020. No, not white supremacy (though valid… yes, and). But, to the very floor that dancers have rolled in and out of, jumped on, and rehearsed feats that boggle the minds of physicists around the world. The sprung floor, and it’s monetary value, is very well known in our field. Amy Smith published an article in Dance Teacher Magazine, Your Studio Space: Equipping Your First Dance Studio, in 2016 that listed the cost of a “sprung floor” at $10-$30 per square foot. For an average size dance studio (I’ll use a 20 foot by 30 foot studio for my example) the floor alone would cost between $6,000 and $18,000. When we factor in the expertly informed labor required to install the floor, we will see the cost of the floor exceeding most New York City based dance artists’ yearly income.

As a field, we rarely question the financial investment of a good sprung floor because of its contribution to the field of dance. Students train on these floors, artists rehearse on these floors, and many perform on these floors if the studio space can work as a performance space as well. We don’t question the monetary cost because we fully accept the necessity to have a good sprung floor to protect dancers’ bodies. Some of us refuse to rehearse or perform on floors that are not sprung for this very reason! We also show respect and honor to the floor by taking off our street shoes before stepping on it. We’ll even go as far as to communicate this ritualistic practice of removing one’s shoes to visitors of our sacred creative space.

While the financial investment in a sprung floor is meant to protect the physical body from injuries, we also invest our educational knowledge towards teaching students of dance how to protect their bodies as they train and rehearse, and to treat it like a well tuned instrument. We teach in this way because, as practitioners, we know that broken bones, dislocated joints, bruises, and tears can hinder a dance artist’s ability to fully embody their artistic ideas. Isn’t the whole point of being a dance artist!? But, do we know how interconnected our mental health is to our ability craft an idea?

In many ways, yes we do. We’ve talked about the mind-body connection for a few years as a field (hell, we even use “mindbody” as an operating system to schedule and sell movement classes), and it is embedded in the shared intergenerational knowledge of performers and movement practitioners. Many dance artists have some general understanding that what happens in the mind affects what the body does because it is all working as one system. Many of us living with mental illnesses can attest to the interdependent relationship between the mind and the body because we have experiences where our mental state binds or manipulates our bodies despite our attempts to gain control (i.e., an anxiety attack). While an anxiety attack that causes paralysis or hyperventilation is an example of a medical emergency that requires specific skills and knowledge of the person and affliction to mitigate, for the sake of this comparative essay, I will liken the anxiety attack to a twisted or sprained ankle. Many of us in the field have experienced a sprained or twisted ankle, know how to treat it, and equip studios and stages with first aid kits to treat such an injury should it happen. In the dance field, we do this because it is common. We live in a time now where anxiety attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and trauma responses to the effects of covid-19 are now common in our field. This impacts everyone, not just younger generations who have built a culture around naming and seeking support for their mental illness and mental health challenges. We all have mental health to take care of just as we do physical health.

Now, I would be remiss if I did not share how systems of oppression impact and afflict mental health disproportionality depending on how we identify in the united states of america. First, most dancer artists live at or below the poverty line. This includes the professional** dancers too! When I was dancing for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, my pre-tax annual salary for 30 weeks of work was $24,750 and I was able to survive by applying for food stamps/SNAP benefits and going on unemployment during the staggered 22 weeks throughout the year when we were “off”. The rehearsal schedule unfortunately proved too intricate to find sustained part-time work to supplement my company salary. Some of my fellow company members supplemented their income by working part-time shifts before and/or after our six to eight hours of rehearsal. When rent in New York City averages $3,000 per month for one-bedroom apartments, or a room sublets for about $1,000 per month, the financial stress deteriorates the dance artist’s ability to focus on the creative process.

For many dance artists working outside of salaried positions it gets worse. “Freelance” might as well be synonymous with the wild west due to lack of regulations, protections, and resources for dancers to utilize to stay afloat. Many social services for artists aren’t even available to freelance artists because of our dissociation with companies and major industries like Broadway. Come tax season, the flurry of 1099s that hit the mailbox can feel like hell after being reminded that, for a full year, you had to forgo paying taxes so that you could eat and afford shelter. Most dance artists can not financially afford to see a therapist under these circumstances. This is the bulk of our dance community living under these circumstances. Existing at multiple intersections of oppression compounds the stress on mental health.

Black and Indigenous dance artists in the united states of america live our lives in a state of anxiety due to the state sanctioned violence we’ve witnessed and experienced from inception (among a litany of other systemic stressors). The summer of social justice in 2020 has helped make this much more clear to non-Black and non-Indigenous folx. So, if you have questions about the validity of the opening sentence of this paragraph, I invite you to do your googles. We’ve done a hell of a job articulating our dire existence in this country (through art, literature, academic text, scientific journals, and on, and on…), and I will not invite Black and Indigenous folx who find this writing deeper into their own suffering in an attempt to validate a damn thing. Just know that we never stop being Black and/or Indiginous when we are rehearsing or performing. We carry the burden of what that means in every waking moment. Learn about it.

Every dance artist that is not white passing suffers from the systemic oppression of white supremacy, and brings that into the studio with them as well. That oppression manifests in xenophobia and xenophobic remarks while navigating through convoluted governmental systems to work within this country as a dance artist without the risk of deportation or imprsonment looming over their shoulders.

White supremacy also manifests in the lives of trans, gender-non conforming, and gender non-binary artists who are still being misgendered and suffer transphobic remarks and abuse inside and outside of the dance community due to an antiquated and hegemonic binary gender construct that is uncessesarily being held up during auditions and casting processes. Fat dancers are still systemically overlooked, underbooked, and being advised to lose weight if they want the opportunity to be seen on stage doing what their bodies can do at their current size due to the unrealistic body standards that have trickled down from ballet. Also due to that, the dance community is still battling against disordered eating. One could argue that this is our industry’s number one mental illness to combat. Many of our training programs and rehearsal settings are perfect environments to breed body dysmorphia if left unchecked. And, finally, too many dance artists in our community have been sexually assaulted or know someone that has been by another member of the dance community. Unfortunately, most of these perpetrators are not held accountable. Partially because of the public scrutiny victims of sexual assault have undergone when they have taken up the courage to speak out (especially for victims who were assigned male at birth), and partially because of the risk of being blacklisted by the perpetrators who often hold more relative power in our field as gatekeepers and key holders.

As a Black, agender, able-bodied, dance artist living with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and was raped just under a year ago (at the time of writing this), I can tell you that I have countless experiences where the state of my mental health prohibited my ability to create and perform, just as a broken bone or torn muscle has as well.

However, the disability rights activists have taught me a lot about how to advocate for my needs and assess whether environments are adequately equipped to support people who had similar mental illnesses and traumas as mine. Disability rights activists have been essential in designing the society we live in now by pushing for minimum standards of accessibility care through the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Disabled artists and neurodivergent artists are criminally underrepresented in our dance field and we have a lot of work to do to make our dance field more accessible. Investing in mental healthcare during training, rehearsals, and performance is one way of expanding that accessibility.

Many of us will be returning to the studios and creative processes with new mental health challenges due to covid-19, and some challenges that have been greatly exacerbated during the pandemic. Luckily, we can mitigate this by establishing new studio, rehearsal, and production guidelines that specifically meet our collective mental health needs, like requiring all staff members and students to undergo mental health first aid training. We can also make anxiety de-escalation practices common knowledge. Similarly how we remedy a sprained ankle with the RICE method (rest, ice, compress, and elevate), by putting infographics in each studio near the first aid kits, for example, we can make grounding and mindfulness practices common knowledge. Making resources available for the community and students is also super impactful. Crisis hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and local crisis lines (similar to NYC Well) can help dancer artists in crisis and dance artists helping a fellow in crisis as well. While we are at it, let’s redefine our education programs to encourage more research and creative processes on the connection between mental health and embodied artistry. Everyone has mental health to be concerned with, and embedding this awareness into the creative process and performance practices for students can be instrumental in dismantling the stigma of living with mental illnesses.

Implementing these practices and establishing guidelines that support the mental health of all involved helps dismantle stigmas that are major barriers for dance artists, and aspiring dance artists, who live with mental illnesses that are less discussed than anxiety, depression, and disordered eating. There are dance artists living with dissociative identity disorder, borderline personality disorders, schizophrenia, agoraphobia and more that intentionally hide their illnesses out of fear of losing their job or not being hired. The stigmas misinform us all and support the harm we unknowingly inflict on others, and ourselves. By combating these stigmas, we make our field more accessible and welcoming to dance artists living with the more stigmatized illnesses, and make the field a place for them to heal instead of hide themselves from.

It is time that we prioritize care for those who exist at the margins of society and experience oppression at multiple intersections by investing in mental healthcare from an anti-racism perspective. As we do that, we will inevitably take care of those closer to the center as well. Let us destroy mental health stigmas by removing the bricks we have access to, and laying a foundation that allows for future generations to dream of a world we are too traumatized to imagine.
*I wasn’t thinking “essay” when I was writing this. Moreso used this opportunity to speak to the dance field, present and future. So, if these words, grammars, and formatting do not fall into your definition of essay, then… yes, exactly. And, that’s not my intention beloved.
**I do not like the word “professional” because of the elitist and white supramist undertones but, another essay for another time… just know I only used it to communicate to a larger audience. Unfortunately, I vomited in my mouth a bit when I wrote it.

About J. Bouey:

J. Bouey is out here doing their best, damnit! Currently moving on pandemic timing and prioritizing rest, J. is finding their way back to joy. Determined to manifest the dreams dreamt in their youth, J. is assuming this responsibility because these dreams sustained them when the sun didn’t shine or shined too bright to see