Kathryn Morgan is on a mission to change the dance field. The Miami City Ballet soloist and Dance Spirit advice columnist appeared on the "Today" Show on February 27 where she openly discussed the challenges of body image and mental health in dance.
Two days later, Morgan took to her own YouTube channel to dig deeper on the subject. She shared with her followers that she had been recently removed from performing Firebird because of her body. We caught up with Morgan to learn more.
What inspired you to post a video discussing mental health?
I had that incredible experience of being able to tell my story on the "Today" Show and one of the things I really asked to talk about was body image and the mental side of ballet because I have dealt with it and I still deal with it. The problem is that the "Today" Show interview is only three minutes and I just felt that I needed to expand upon it because I did not get to say everything that needs to be said.
When I sat down to film it I didn't know I was going to get that emotional and I didn't know exactly what I was going to say, but I started talking and it all just came out. I was like, This is the time, no one is talking about this and we need to be talking about it.
Were you worried there could be consequences for speaking so frankly?
I was mostly worried about backlash in my own industry. Simply because I told the Firebird story. But when I told that story I just stuck to the facts, I didn't blame, I didn't rant. This was the situation; I was learning this role and I was taken out of it because of my body.
I knew I would get those comments, 'Well, you have to be skinny in ballet and that's why they took you out.' But I didn't know if other company directors and ballet dancers would say that I was just complaining because I didn't get to do the role, and that really did not happen.
I put the clip of Firebird in there to show the reality of the situation. My clothes hanging in my closet are size two and zero and extra small and I am considered a large size. I wanted to show people this is what I look like. This is the reality.
I think part of the problem is yes, ballet dancers must be thin. Why? Because that's the way it has always been. People don't talk about it because they are scared to because that is the way it has always been, and it occurred to me why does it have to be that way? Let's talk about it so that we can change that.
What is really sad is reading all the comments from people dealing with being body shamed and I really didn't know that it was going to get that kind of a response.
Do you think the aesthetic of ballet makes it reasonable to take a dancer out of a role because of their body?
I understand that every director has their aesthetic, but the problem is that the standard is, at least for me, unattainable. It's like the story I told about my friend who was told to try cocaine to get her weight down. When did that become okay?
Yes, obviously you need to be fit and healthy to be a ballet dancer, it is a very physical art form. And yes, the men need to be able to lift you. But I think the problem is that the standard is this sinewy almost pre-pubescent look. And for many of us that is not doable.
That standard needs to change. I'm never the thinnest one in the room, I never have been. And with my illness it just isn't going to happen. I will never be skin and bones; it isn't possible for me. It's frustrating.
How do you think ballet could continue to uphold high standards and honor the mental wellness of dancers?
That is the tricky thing. Part of it is companies just having someone the dancers can talk to. There is no mental health specialist at ballet companies. I think the way things are handled is not good. We need to be aware of the mind games that are played with dancers, and the mind games we play with ourselves. We all have been there where we are looking in the mirror and analyzing every curve and going down a rabbit hole. I think it is a matter of trying to find a way to handle it better. Again, it is that standard that I think is so extreme.
What has your own mental health journey been like?
When I got sick while at New York City Ballet, and started gaining weight very rapidly, no mental health counseling was given to me through the company. The attitude was, Well, it's not our job to get you in shape so get your weight down. So, I struggled. I beat myself up and thought it was all my fault and without even knowing that I was sick. They were acting as though I was going home and all I was doing was eating when I was at the studios dancing eight hours a day. I didn't have time to eat. But I still felt like it was all my fault.
I finally reached out to a life coach and a counselor on my own dime. And then I left the company and got very depressed because my identity was as a dancer and I didn't know what to do. I got to a very low point where I was standing at the top of my parents' stairs and wondered what would happen if I just jumped. That was the worst of it, and it was the only time I had thoughts like that.
Within two weeks of that moment I started YouTube because I knew I had to pull myself out of this. Rumors had started that I had been fired. It felt good being able to give back, and tell my story, and still feel important. For me focusing on that second career was my way of healing. It was therapeutic because I wasn't dancing, and I didn't have to beat myself up over my body anymore.
When my marriage fell apart that came with its own mental battles because it was horrible, and I was not treated well. To deal with that one I just got back into the studio again and started dancing for me. That's how I started dancing again.
And then I got back on stage. I did it. And not in just any company, but in a major company. And everyone has been thrilled for me.
That is what is frustrating to me. I was hoping that in the decade I was gone that things might have changed a little, but they have not. And I get it, the director has their aesthetic, and that is absolutely their right to pull me from something that they don't want me to do. The problem is that damages dancers mentally, and it is not just me. I know a lot of people who live through this. I am not on antidepressants, but I know many dancers who are.
What advice do you have for dancers who may be struggling?
Think about the bigger picture. As hard as it is, because I have been there, there is more to life than ballet. Nothing is worth compromising your health. You are beautiful no matter what.
For me, when I am stressing about my weight, it is much harder to maintain my weight. When I am not worrying so much it is easier. When I am stressed, I gain weight no matter what I do. Mental health has a huge correlation with physical health. Shift your focus. Focus on your technique or your love of ballet. For me it is not looking in the mirror for a while.
I don't have a perfect answer for how to fix it, but we need to work on it because these poor kids are being damaged. It is not okay anymore. The whole point of being a dancer is to love movement and to love being on stage and we are ruining it.