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It’s OK to Grieve: Coping with the Emotional Toll of Canceled Dance Events

Grace Campbell was supposed to be onstage this week. Selected for the Kansas City Ballet School's invitation-only Kansas City Youth Ballet, her performance was meant to be the highlight of her senior year. "I was going to be Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote, and also dance in a couple of contemporary pieces, so I was really excited," she says. A week later, the group was supposed to perform at the Youth America Grand Prix finals in NYC. In May, Grace was scheduled to take the stage again KC Ballet School's "senior solos" show and spring performance.

Now, all those opportunities are gone.

The COVID-19 pandemic has consumed the dance community. The performance opportunities students have worked all year for have been devoured with it. Those canceled shows might have been your only chance to dance for an audience all year. Or they might have been the dance equivalent to a cap and gown—a time to be acknowledged after years of work.

You can't replace what is lost, and with that comes understandable grief. Here's how to process your feelings of loss, and ultimately use them to help yourself move forward as a dancer.


You Are Not Alone

Dr. Lucie Clements, a dance psychologist and senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Chichester in the United Kingdom, says that it's normal to feel like no one else can understand what you're going through right now. This is hard, and whatever feelings you're having are valid. Yes, there is a lot of suffering in the world at this moment, but it is completely okay to feel upset, angry, and disappointed for your own losses.

As we all practice social distancing, it's easy to feel alone. And the fact that dance has moved to online and social media platforms, where dancers frequently present polished, hyper-positive versions of themselves, can create its own strange feeling of distance and insecurity. Even participating in your own studio's Zoom classes, "You might think, 'These other dancers have a better space to practice in right now, and they are going to improve more,' " says Campbell. "Remember that a lot of people are in the same position as you are. Don't be afraid to reach out to your friends and tell them how you are feeling, because they may be feeling the same way, too."

Perform Another Way

"There is some benefit to adversity, particularly if you are sharing it with other people and collectively going through it," says Clements. Since traditional dance performances are off the table, consider connecting with an audience in an alternative way—maybe by creating something new that you can share with friends via video or on social media. Or make it a team effort, which will help you stay connected with your peers. "That creates something for the spectator as well," Clements adds. "You'll not only be helping yourself, but also the people watching."

This kind of content will serve as a record of an extraordinary time in your life. Kelley Larkin, director of Studio L Dance in New Jersey, has been motivating her students with challenges (including prizes like free summer tuition) to make dances and post them. "I tell them, 'All these videos that you make, save them all—I promise they will be useful later.' "

And not everything has to be audience-oriented. Don't forget to simply dance for joy. Now is the time to connect with why you started dancing in the first place. "At the end of every class, I let my students pick their favorite song and improv before we say goodbye to the class," says Larkin. "Just be goofy and have fun."

Connect with Your Disappointment

It's normal to feel sadness when something you've been looking forward to is canceled. But Clements says that it's also important to spend some time analyzing the reasons you're upset. Are you sad because you're missing the joy of being onstage? Or are you sad about losing a chance to win a prize, or impress someone in the audience? "There is an immense amount of research that shows that if you are motivated by something intrinsic—essentially, enjoyment—then you are more likely to continue and be successful," says Clements. "Those who are extrinsically motivated, who are going after a trophy, are the ones who will find this harder." If you discover that much of your disappointment is rooted in extrinsic motivations, this is a good time to refocus your approach to training, so that you're working for joy rather than for rewards.

The pain of loss is an affirmation of love. "I am motivated to keep going through this," says Campbell. "The reason that I'm feeling these sad feelings is because my passion is still there. It's definitely frustrating, but it's important to know that in the end, I want to keep trying because of that loss that I felt."

If you'd like to talk to a mental health professional, here's a list of therapists and counselors offering free sessions for dancers. You can also find mental health resources for dancers at the Minding the Gap website.

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Photo by Joe Toreno. Hair by Marina Migliaccio and makeup by Lisa Chamberlain, both for the Rex Agency.

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