edition July-August 2022

Entrapped In A Web Of Vulnerabilities

"Mental Health in the Dance Community – What Do We Know and What Do We Need?" asks Luísa Saraiva. The choreographer has been thinking about these issues for some time now, and her essay points out their urgency.

The working environment and conditions in the performing arts create a specific set of challenges towards developing professional identities, creating a sense of career, and managing work-life balance [1]. In the dance community – in which most artists work as freelancers – job insecurity has become standard. This precariousness is translated not only into unstable working periods, but is also usually coupled with financial stress; high levels of competitiveness; pressure to be constantly available and flexible with one’s time; a lack of clear goals with well-defined measures of success; and a lack of a sense of stability – often connected to a transnational lifestyle.

Luísa Saraiva
Choreographer, dancer and researcher with a background in Clinical Psychology

Academic research on job instability consistently shows that poor working conditions have a significant negative impact on mental health [1]. In the performing arts – in which contractual relationships are increasingly fluid and characterized by high levels of deregulation, power imbalances, and lack of social protection [5] – it is long overdue that we start to address the immediate and long-term consequences of this culture on the mental health and well-being of dancers. For the purposes of this article, I am using the term ‘dancers’ to include all performers that are working in the dance field.

Meta-study reveals an alarming trend
The World Health Organization (WHO) conceptualizes mental health as a “state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Over the last decades, the (unfortunately only) sparse psychological research available has shown that dancers are an especially vulnerable population when it comes to mental health, with a higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders than the general population.
In May 2022, a union of artists based in the U.K., Equity, published a scope review led by Dr. Lucie Clements [2]. This review examines the academic literature available on the socio-cultural, situational, and personal factors related to mental health in the performing arts sector and “has confirmed a clear trend for increased mental health concern across the performing arts and entertainment industries – as well as demonstrating the complexity of the issue, with significant contributing factors including the precarious nature of freelance work, antisocial working hours, time away from home, and financial fears.” This study is available on Equity’s website and is a read I recommend for all of those interested in this topic.
The process of individuation and differentiation between a personal and professional identity is particularly complex in the dance field, as private conditions and decisions (such as injury, sickness, motherhood, just to name the most obvious) have a direct impact on working possibilities. Most dance professionals started their training at early ages of development, contributing further more to an enmeshment of personal identity and lifestyle with professional decisions. These aspects permeate all dimensions of career development and power relationships, creating a web of vulnerabilities at different intersection points.

Responsibility is placed on the individual
In the German dance scene, there are institutions – such as ta.med and Stiftung Tanz – that provide services related to physical health and career transition of dancers. Also, Themis Vertrauensstelle provides support to cultural workers that have been victims of sexual harassment and violence. Nevertheless, it is striking that, when it comes to mental health, the responsibility is solely placed on the individual to search independently for help, though the issues that are being dealt with are very often a direct consequence of the difficulties experienced in navigating the world of work and its connection to other life contexts.
This type of structural arrangement reinforces inequalities, blaming the victim policies, and an entrepreneurial-type thinking of self-optimization. There is often an implicit belief that it is up to the individual alone to provide for their emotional labor, to find individual solutions for systemic problems, and to define their own limits and thresholds. This also means that those who lack networks of support and/or who come from less privileged backgrounds are left in the most vulnerable positions. This is all the more true for the LGBTQIA+, disabled, and ethnically diverse communities, who have to deal with multiple layers of stressors and discrimination. It is also important to mention that, although health insurance in Germany covers psychotherapy, the dance community is very international, and it is undeniable that accessing mental health services in languages beyond German and English can be difficult and create a further barrier in finding suitable help.

COVID-19 as a magnifying glass
The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a magnifying glass of the mental health issues that are most prevalent. The dramatic disruption of dancers’ work during the pandemic has exacerbated symptoms and heightened the awareness of the necessity for more consistent support. The changes brought about by the pandemic manifest themselves in several dimensions, such as: changes to daily routines and working practices; modifications in interpersonal relationships; loss of professional, social, and support networks; loss of aspirations and self-fulfillment; lack of motivation and focus; an experience of health concerns (for those who struggled with sequelae of COVID-19 for longer periods of time); the experience of “a detraining syndrome” connected to restless, somatic anxiety, and negative mood; a sense of learned helplessness; and a need to accumulate different professional roles. [4] These experiences can be both physically and emotionally draining. Although the short-term effects of lockdown measures have been widely discussed (i.e. stress, loneliness, anxiety, depression), we know very little about how the experience of loss, the pressures and challenges of the last two years, and the seemingly return to a “normal” working life will play out in the future. The pandemic has deeply disrupted, transformed, rerouted, or stalled the working lives of many performing artists. And if for many some of these changes might have come with a silver lining, or created even new opportunities, it is important to normalize the conversation around the ongoing difficulties and struggles.

Required: specialized help in a consistent program
Therefore, it is urgent to create spaces of discussion and to provide access to professional and specialized help, tailored to the needs of the community. Parallel to the very valuable and necessary peer-to-peer initiatives of care and well-being, it is important to propose the creation of a mental health service for the dance community and a network of affiliated practitioners.
It is common that research and intervention programs work within broad scopes, directing their efforts towards the performing artists in general – dancers, musicians, actors – or, also, many times making similar recommendations to both performing artists and high-level athletes. Although all these populations share many similar issues and concerns, there are key differences in both contextual and structural factors. A consistent program, with the possibility of creating enduring support and change needs to be particular for the dance community and have a long-term scope [2], [3], [5].
In recent years, funding bodies, cultural policy makers and art institutions have strived to advocate for policies of care, inclusion, and solidarity in their public programs. However, parallel to this tendency there seems to be a lack of financial and structural resources directed inwards, and that is a primary obstacle towards creating structures that promote inclusivity and enable a better work-life balance [2]. Organizations such as ZTB, Tanzbüro Berlin, LAFT, and   are addressing some of the problems of artists’ working conditions, by providing support and information about working structures, and promoting exchange and accessibility. The mentoring, consultation and peer-to-peer programs are readily available to the community and offer help to navigate different areas of dancers’ working lives. Supporting and funding such further initiatives is a very important first step. The recent creation of working groups focusing on parenting artists and on work culture, denote the interest of the community to call for change and action.
Nevertheless, it is urgent to recognize the need to engage with policies that enable good mental health at a structural level, involving not only dance artists but also producers, theaters, programers, policy makers, and funding bodies. The goal is to ensure that we can create safe spaces and a culture of support for those struggling with mental health, and that there are quality services available to those who search for help and/or with pre-existing conditions. Only through a systemic approach does it become possible to develop coping strategies and skills, to foster resilience, autonomy, and empowerment.

[1]     Chirban, S. A. & Rowan, M. R. (2017). Performance Psychology in Ballet and Modern Dance. In Schinke, R. J.  & Hackfort, D. (Eds.). Psychology in Professional Sports and the Performing Arts: Challenges and strategies. Routledge: New York
[2]     Clemens, L. (2022). Equity global scoping review of factors related to poor mental health and wellbeing within the performing arts sectors. Equity Mental Health Report.
[3]     Rusak, H., Goh, T., Barbe, F., Newman, R., & Blevins, P. (2021). Breathing through the Pandemic: Performing Arts Challenges and Responses to the Mental Health Implications of COVID-19. WAAPA Edith Cowan University. www.waapa.ecu.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/960387/Breathing-through-the-pandemic.pdf
[4]    Samuel, R. D., Tenenbaum, G., & Galily, Y. (2020). The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic as a Change-Event in Sport Performers’ Careers: Conceptual and Applied Practice Considerations. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 567966.
[5]    Visser, A., Lee, M., Barringham, T., & Salehi, N. (2021). Out of Tune: Perceptions of, Engagement with, and Responses to Mental Health Interventions by Professional Popular Musicians – A Scoping Review. Psychology of Music.

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