Keone and Mari Madrid on "World of Dance." Mari has opened up about her struggles with depression. (NBC)

These Famous Dancers Are Talking About Mental Health—and We Thank Them for It

Recently, our friends at Dance Magazine posted a thought-provoking article about the dance world's inability to address dancers' mental health. It was one of their most-read articles to date, and it encouraged dancers, parents and teachers to share their own personal stories.

That group of storytellers includes some very high-profile dancers, and we're especially thankful for their courage. We hope that their willingness to discuss such a personal issue will help younger dancers feel comfortable talking about mental health as well, and hopefully help lead to better support systems within the dance community.

Here are two big names who've been open about their struggles.

Mari Madrid

When Keone and Mari Madrid performed "Darkness and Light" on "World of Dance" a couple of weeks ago, it was clear there was a powerful story behind the routine. A few days later, Mari wrote a blog post about the meaning of the dance and how it reflected a difficult time in her marriage with Keone. She admitted that she's been dealing with depression since age 15, but had tried to keep her negative thoughts to herself. It wasn't until more than a decade later, when Keone couldn't provide the support she needed on his own, that she opened up and sought help. We recommend you read the entire post, but the ultimate takeaway is that there's no shame in mental illness:

"To anyone dealing with depression and not thinking that it's worth it to keep going, to deal with the burden of living. Don't. Give. Up. Don't be opposed to reaching outside to get help and to keep searching for the right help. For what is going to be effective for you. And if you love someone who struggles with mental health, don't give up. Continue to love them, to search for how to support them through these waters."

Sydney Magruder Washington

Sydney Magruder Washington lists many titles in her Instagram bio: professional ballerina, Brown Girls Do Ballet mentor, wifey—and mental health warrior. At age 11, she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), followed by subsequent diagnoses of major depressive disorder and panic disorder with Agoraphobia. On her blog, The Black Swan Diaries, she writes that as a child she used to hide her diagnoses, until she came to the realization that they're nothing to be ashamed of. In an article on The Mighty, "Dear Ballet Community, We Need To Start Talking Openly About Mental Illness," Washington discusses how the ballet world expects you to leave your mental health issues at the door, writing them off as character flaws when that's clearly not the case:

"Mental illness isn't baggage you can check on your way out of the country for your company's annual tour. Trauma doesn't wait politely for you beyond the threshold of the studio while you focus on engaging your inner thighs in rond de jambe. Mental illness and trauma bulldoze their way into every crack of your life without your permission and make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for you to even do the things you love most in the world. But most teachers, artistic directors and choreographers don't account for that."

Washington is a vocal advocate for support systems and open communication among choreographers and teachers, and she hopes to change the perception of what living with a mental illness looks like.

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Ashton Edwards Is Breaking Down Gender Barriers in Ballet

When Ashton Edwards was 3 years old, the Edwards family went to see a holiday production of The Nutcracker in their hometown, Flint, MI.

For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

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All the Hollywood and Broadway Musical Moments to Look for in “Schmigadoon!”

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of about two dozen dancers got the rare opportunity to work on an upcoming Apple TV+ series—one devoted entirely to celebrating, and spoofing, classic 1940s and '50s musicals from the Great White Way and Hollywood. "Schmigadoon!", which premiered on AppleTV+ July 16, stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, who get stuck inside a musical and must find true love in order to leave. The show features a star-studded Broadway cast, including Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski and Dove Cameron, and is chock-full of dancing courtesy of series choreographer, Christopher Gattelli.

"The adrenaline was pretty exciting, being able to create during the pandemic," says Gattelli. "I felt like we were representing all performers at that point. There were so many who wanted to be working during the pandemic, so I really tried to embrace this opportunity for all of them."

Gattelli says it was a dream come true to pay tribute to the dance geniuses that preceded him, like Michael Kidd, Agnes de Mille, Onna White and Jerome Robbins, in his choreography. Each number shows off a "little dusting" of their work.

Dance Spirit spoke with Gattelli about all the triumphs and tribulations of choreographing in a pandemic, and got an inside look at specific homages to look out for.

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Shouldering the Load: What kind of dance bag should dancers use?

Walk into any dance convention, audition or class, and you'll see a vast variety of dance bags lining the walls. But can the style of bag you use (and how you wear it) have an impact on your dancing?

Don't worry—you won't have to shoulder the load alone. Dance Spirit spoke with two physical therapists who specialize in working with dancers to find out what dance bag is best.

What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

Gearhart suggests dancers pick a backpack made from a lightweight yet durable and breathable material, such as cotton, linen, nylon or polyester. Straps should be wide enough to not dig into your shoulder muscles, so avoid drawstring styles with rope straps. Adjustable and padded straps are best, so you can wear the straps at a length where the bag rests at the middle of your back.

Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

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