Addressing dancers’ mental health in a time of fear and uncertainty

Our world right now is scary and uncertain. COVID-19 has us working from home, stocking up on non-perishables, sanitizing everything we touch, and practicing social distancing. It’s somewhat serendipitous that I had a Zoom interview already scheduled with psychotherapist, Terry Hyde. As a former professional dancer himself, Hyde specializes in mental health specifically for dancers.

“I was a very lively child and kept jumping all over my mother’s furniture,” Hyde laughs. “So, she sent me to ballet class!” And, the rest was history…At age 10 Hyde scored a 5-year scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dance and went on to train at the Royal Ballet Senior School. He danced with the Royal Ballet, London’s Festival Ballet (now called the English National Ballet), in the UK tour of WEST SIDE STORY, and in shows on the West End, in film, and on television.

At the young age of 29, Hyde had to retire from dancing. “After I stopped dancing, I couldn’t watch any dance on television or at the theater,” Hyde remembers. “It was an automatic thing, an unconscious response. Years later I learned that what I was going through was the grieving process—I just didn’t know how to handle it.”

Transitioning to a new career path, Hyde set up a business management organization for people in show business. “My clients would off-load their issues on me,” Hyde says. “I remember thinking, ‘What do I do with all this information?’ So, when I sold the business 15 years later, I decided to train to be a psychotherapist.”

“Dance is a niche market,” explains Hyde. “I’ve been there, done that, and now I can help others.” Dancers are unique beings – both athlete and artist, professional performer and perpetual student, dedicated achiever and forever dreamer. Determination and discipline are drilled into the dancer (especially the ballet dancer) at a very young age. Those are tremendous traits to possess, but they can be taken too far, leading dancers to endure distress or push through pain in pursuit of their beloved art. “It’s important for dancers to tend to their mental health,” says Hyde. Dancers usually just focus on the physical—their nutrition, sleep habits, and taking care of their bodies. But to be well holistically, they must also tend to their emotional and spiritual sides. “For example, say a dancer gets injured performing a step in a show. When she’s healed, she still feels wary of dancing that step—even hearing the music causes panic. But her hindrance is not physical, it’s mental. In my work with the dancer, we would use visualization and process the experience to prove to herself that she can, in fact, do it.”

Currently, Hyde is pursuing some very intriguing research—asking if dancers are more predisposed to injury if they have mental health issues. “If you’re not balanced/feeling good, are you more likely to get injured?” Hyde wonders. “And vice versa…If you’ve been injured, you might feel depression or anxiety about getting back into dance.” While studies haven’t been done yet in the dance field, research in athletics does show a correlation between mental health issues and the susceptibility to getting injured.

“I tell dancers that when they have a day off, take the day off!” he says, seriously. “Don’t take class. Enjoy other interests and make friends outside of dance. Otherwise, you’re living in a bubble. And if that bubble bursts—like it has now—you’re going to feel lost.”

I, for one, feel very lost. While many people envy my career as a professional dancer—pursuing the dream I have held onto since I was a little girl—I see the pursuit as both a blessing and a curse. When your identity is so tangled in and dependent upon your career, the highs may be very high, but the lows are devastatingly low. COVID-19 makes us worry about our health, and that of our families, friends and the world. But it also makes us question, “Who am I right now? Who am I without dance?” So, how can dancers cope amidst the current health crisis? Hyde gives his advice:

  1. “Dancers need to take class each day. There’s a wonderful community of free online classes right now. Scheduling class into your day keeps a sense of normalcy in the dancer’s life.”

  2. “Take advantage of online resources. What do you want to learn? Maybe it’s handiwork, cooking, or history. Cultivate your interests and keep your mind active.”

  3. “Communicate with friends and family via phone or Facetime. Consider reaching out to those with whom you’ve fallen out of touch.… Use this opportunity to repair a relationship or recognize you need to cut it off from your life.”

  4. “Really notice the good things of each day.”

  5. “And, most importantly, reach out if you are having a hard time.”

Hyde is candid with me; “I think there’s going to be a delayed reaction from a mental health perspective,” he says. In the dance world, there’s no work universally. It’s not, ‘She’s working and I’m not.’ All shows are closed – there is no professional work or traditional in-studio education right now. While dancers are engaging in virtual classes via Zoom and Instagram Live, Hyde worries that cabin fever, financial strain, and lack of human connection will start to weigh on people.

“This is its own grieving process,” he explains. “You need to recognize that this is a situation you cannot change and discover how you can work within it. Dancers especially need control in their lives—We learn that from day one as a toddler in ballet class. Control is part of our identity. Lack of control, then, creates anxiety. The work comes in understanding that you cannot control the situation and in becoming more pragmatic and flexible in the present.”

But the skills and habits we have as dancers can help us in this period of uncertainty. We must utilize our determination to stick to our virtual dance classes even if we feel silly doing ballet barre at the kitchen counter. We can call on our creativity and imagination, remembering the hobbies and things we loved to do as children. Who knows?—Maybe we’ll start our own business or rekindle a joy that we had forgotten about.  We can make the most of our time and find inspiration within ourselves, turning deep inward to ask tough questions and discover what is truly meaningful to each of us.

Hyde reminds me of the Prayer of Serenity during this scary and confusing time: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.

Sure, it’s easier said than done…but that’s where therapy comes in. “Everyone should do therapy,” encourages Hyde. “You don’t have to be unwell to come to therapy, you may just be at a crossroads or want to work on personal development.” Caring for ourselves holistically—mind, body, and soul—is the best use of our time right now (and, maybe, always).

Hyde is based in the south of London and sees clients in the United States and Canada via virtual appointments. He is currently offering two complimentary discovery sessions to new clients. Dancers, companies, and parents can find more resources at Hyde’s website, http://www.counsellingfordancers.com.

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© 2020 by Mary Callahan