Rachel Neville

What the Dance World *Still* Gets Wrong About Mental Illness

Don't let her sizeable Instagram following or willingness to speak publicity about living with anxiety, depression and autism give you the wrong idea. "My speaking out about it does not mean it's easy or fun," says dancer Sydney Magruder Washington. "It means I'm not ashamed and you shouldn't be either."

And though (thankfully) open conversations about mental health are becoming more common in the dance world, there's still a long way to go. We picked Washington's brain about what it's like to live with mental illness as a dancer, the survival tips she's learned and what the dance world still doesn't seem to understand about mental health:


What It's Like to Dance with Anxiety and Depression

In an already ultra-competitive field, living with mental illness can make daily activities—like going to class or auditions—feel like insurmountable challenges. "It makes it hard to do the things that should be fun, and harder to do the things that are already hard," Washington says. "Auditions are not fun for most of us because it's nerve-racking to be judged on how you do in the moment. But when your baseline feeling is that you're worthless it becomes twice as difficult to receive criticism."

What the Dance World Doesn't Understand About Mental Illness

It's not uncommon to hear the phrase "leave it at the door," meaning dancers should forget about any outside problems and be fully present in the studio. "I'm really sick of that expression," says Washington. "I have chains on my legs and I can't take them off. It's like having an extra backpack on your back except that backpack has a voice and it's yelling mean things."

She also wishes people understood that for dancers with a mental illness, every day is different. "It's not as predictable as you would think," she says. "These aren't periods."

What Needs to Change

Yes, every company needs a staff psychologist and every dance program needs a unit on mental health, says Washington. But it's also about changing minds and attitudes: "A lot of the older generation has a toxic mindset about mental health," she says. "Why should we wait for these people to die off? Why should we put the impetus on all of us who are coming up? Old people are perfectly capable of learning new things."

Washington says she's been told things like: "If this is too hard for you, go do something else." Her response? "No. You don't get to kick me out of the thing I love because I'm struggling."

Her Best Survival Tips for Dancers With Mental Illness

Keep your dance bag packed at all times. "Sometimes when the motivation hits you, you need to do it right then or you're going to lose it," she says. "If I decide at the last minute to go to an audition my bag is by the door and packed."

Have a backup plan. If your mental health keeps you at home for the day, "find ways to invest in yourself at home," she says. "Get a yoga mat, get some weights, do your own small workout so you don't feel like the day is completely lost."

Schedule things for yourself on bad days. "Go look for an audition that's in two weeks," she says. "That'll help to get you back on track and give you something to look forward to."

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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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