Dancer mental health with former Royal Ballet dancer & dance counsellor

Former Royal Baller dancer and dance counsellor Terry Hyde joined us on our podcast show to discuss the important topic of dancer mental health and wellbeing. We talked about depression, rejection, injuries and performance anxiety.

Listen to the podcast or read the interview below:

As a dance counsellor, what are you seeing are the challenges that dancers are facing today, that’s having an impact on their mental health?

I think most of all it’s lack of support from the vocational schools, and I’m generalising here , as there obviously are small pockets of good support from vocational schools and also from dance companies. But there’s generally a lack of support, but there are pockets where there’s very good support for dancers’ mental health and wellbeing.

What do you find, in terms of the conversations that you have with dancers, why are they turning to people like yourself (counsellors) for the support?

There are the basic reasons, as you’ve mentioned – anxiety, depression – but there are other aspects to that. So the reason dancers come to me (if they’re not freelancers), is that they don’t want to go through their vocational school or they don’t want to go through the company to get help because of the mental health stigma – which is all of the world, it’s not just in the UK.

But, the reasons that they come, as I mentioned, are anxiety and depression. That’s two of the most common things. But underlying that, is the way they’ve been treated at the school or the company or in childhood. I’m what’s called a ‘Psychodynamic Psychotherapist’ and I work with the unconscious. And the unconscious is recording everything as we’re going. Even in utero it’s recording what’s going on in our life, both implicitly and explicitly. Because sometimes it’s a person’s perception of an incident or a situation that creates a trauma that’s not actually really there. So, it depends on the environment in which we grew up and how we perceive things.

I started doing ballet when I was six years old, and a lot of people do start ballet even earlier than that. And it’s all very specific. If you’re not pointing your toe right, then you’re wrong. It’s all very black and white thinking. And there’s the traits that we develop to protect ourselves and make sure that we’re right and correct, which makes for very black and white thinking. And so, if there’s no proper support from teachers, as we’re corrected all the time, so in actual fact, we go through life right from early childhood, not feeling good enough.

Especially now. I mean, it wasn’t so much when I was training but now there’s also competitions. And that is a black and white thing. You’re either a winner or you’re not. And so, when people go for auditions for corps de ballet especially, a number of you get in. So you know that you’ve got in, and you know that you’re good enough. You then have to sort of fight to continue that. And right from childhood there’s always that comparing, especially when teachers say: “Now, look Joanne here, she’s doing it right.” So that means that everyone else is doing it wrong, rather than doing it in a different way.

And I’m not saying all teachers do this. I am generalising, but these are the aspects. And words are so powerful, especially when you are kids. They pick things up, and that’s where it all starts – all in childhood.

Photo by Matthew Henry
Photo by Matthew Henry

It never leaves you actually, the training and the constant corrections. I was lucky, I had some really wonderful teachers. But even then, you are looking in the mirror thinking: “How can I be better?” and “How can I be better than the next person?” or “I’m not good enough. I’m too fat.” or ” I’m not flexible enough.” And then, as you say, you’ve got to then have your exams, auditions, competitions. And now, young dancers have social media to contend with as well. So, it’s not just about what’s going in on the studio or they’re home, but this is about what’s going on around the world, that they’ve got to contend with. And that must be quite difficult.

Yes, that’s part of the anxiety and the depression, seeing other people. And I try and impress on the dancers, when that is the aspect that they come into therapy for, that they are unique. We are all unique. We all have different things. Now, I’m 5’5”, so I fit in a niche market, as it were, with dance, character work. I was quite happy with that, but then some people may not be. They want to be the tall Prince.

Because I realised right from the beginning that’s what I wanted to do. And in fact, you say I did ballet, but from ballet when I left the company, I went into musical theatre. And so, I was singing and then acting as well, and did films and television. So I’ve done quite a wide spectrum. So I understand everything. And I was amazed at how easygoing the musical theatre was, compared to ballet.

I know now it’s different because there’s so much competition out there. There are so many more boys dancing now, which is great. But it does mean there’s less opportunity because there are so many dancers. Now they’re going into the commercial theatre, there’s a street dance, etc., etc., which is great, absolutely great.

It’s so important that we talk about dance and mental health because it’s a very exacting and very challenging career, that doesn’t last too long.

Yes, and when I do my mental health self-care workshops for colleges and vocational school, I start off talking about injuries. I ask the group to tell me about the injuries that they’ve had in the last six months or the last year – what they had, what they did about it, how long it lasted, what was the rehabilitation, and all of that sort of thing.

And after that settles down – because that only lasts a few minutes – I say to them: “Okay, so how’s your mental health? Who’s been feeling down?” And there’s silence. And you can see the tumbleweed rolling across the room. But there are a few people within each group that have done therapy, and they are the ones that are starting the ball rolling and they will talk about it. And then other people say: “Yeah, actually I was feeling quite low,” or “My granddad died and I’m still suffering from it.” So it’s not just dancers’ issues where dancers come to me, it is everyday issues such as bereavement.

And when you’re going through a ballet career or a dance career, you’ve got the student stage; you’ve got the little kiddies’ stage and then you’ve got the student stage, then you’ve got the dance company and the anxiety of jobs coming up and things like that. There’s transitions all the way through. And each transition is a bereavement, because there’s a loss there.

And so,  if you’ve had to give up because of injury, or something happens at home that you need to give up and look after somebody, or you’ve come to the end of your dancing life, regardless whether you’re going onto teaching or choreography or anything else or totally something different, there is a loss there.

And I can say, as an example, I had to give up. I won’t give you the reason why, but I had to give up. And I couldn’t watch anything on television, I couldn’t go to any films where there was dancing, I couldn’t go to any ballets or shows for four years. And I didn’t realise, until I had therapy myself – because as a psychotherapist, we have to do four years of personal therapy during our training, and that’s to help us understand and clear everything out – I didn’t understand what that four years of not wanting to see anything to do with dance was. And I realise now that was me grieving, and I didn’t deal with it then, but I’d obviously dealt with it in therapy.

Photo by Etienne Boulanger
Photo by Etienne Boulanger

Do you talk to dancers about the issues around performance?

Yes, I do because there’s also performance-linked anxiety and also injury linked anxiety. And those two seem to go hand-in-hand to a certain degree. In other words, someone’s got over an injury, it may have been some time ago but they’re still, in the back of their head, they’re worried about doing a step that caused the injury. I work through visualisations with them to get them to understand how their thinking is affecting them.

And especially for performance, I use a technique whereby they rehearse – so they do an imagery performance, which sports people do – and we work with the imagery factor of their performance, their solo, whatever they’re doing that they’re having difficulty with – falling off pointe or not finishing pirouettes properly. And we work through that. To a greater extent, it’s successful. It’s only going to be stopped by the individual that will still think that they’re no good. We have to work over that as well.

And I work with the underlying factors of childhood and all those aspects as well, because there’s a trigger somewhere back there that is stopping them thinking in a very clear way.

It’s really important and great to see famous dancers talking about their own experiences with anxiety, depression, therapy so that younger dancers can know that it’s ok to talk about these things.  

Yeah, that’s a good point because if it’s ok to talk, then they will feel more at ease and ask for help. The first stage of anyone’s healing is asking for help. That is the first stage, and that’s sometimes the biggest step for some people. If they’d grown up in a family that doesn’t talk emotions or things are swept under the carpet, then they’re not used to opening up and talking.

If they come from a family that is overly supportive, then they don’t know what the big wide world is like, and when they come out into the big wide world, bang! It’s like hitting a brick wall. So there are two extremes and they’re both polarised.

When do you think a dancer should ask for help and what factors are there to look for? 

It’s understanding the symptoms. I think every school and every ballet company or every dance company should have one person (and this is for the UK as I don’t know what else happens outside the UK) who does a mental health first aid course. I think every school that I contacted, and this was more of an acting school, every teacher has gone and done the mental health first aid course. I actually think that’s brilliant, because then they, the teachers, can recognise the symptoms in the students that can then be signposted to a therapist or just talk with somebody.

Sometimes when things get on top of them, you just need to offload. And it may be an hour, and that’s it. I’ve had people come to me for one session and we’ve hit the trigger, we found out what it was and they’ve been great. Whereas others, they take months.

Photo by David Hofmann
Photo by David Hofmann

It’s important to recognise that just because you do reach out to get some support and to have a conversation with someone, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you a failure. But also that it doesn’t mean that it can’t just be resolved in one or a handful of sessions, to make you more confident and better at your your career.

That’s right. If you look at injury, and as I said, students, they don’t mind talking about their injuries. Professional dancers don’t mind talking about their injuries, they’d rather not have them, but sometimes a massage or whatever can put them right and they’re back on stage in a few days. Sometimes they’re off for six months, but they accept that.

Why can’t they accept mental health issues in the same way? As I say before, it’s the powers that be that need to impress on the dancers and the students that it’s ok to be off, to be unwell, to be sad, to be low, to be anxious. And once that comes from the top, then people will open up more.

But I think because it’s such an aesthetic art, everything has to look good, everything has to feel good. And maybe with this stigma: “Oh, we don’t want any anyone knowing that we’ve got dancers with anxiety or depression.” It doesn’t affect them so much to have dancers who are injured, because they’ll put a little notice in the programme. But you can’t see a mental health issue, can you? It’s not visible. And when someone walks down into the class with a limp, you know that there’s something wrong.

What can parents, friends and teachers look out for in their dancer friends and family? 

The basic symptoms are low mood, being a bit touchy, quick tempered,  wanting to be by themselves a lot, not talking. And the answer to “Are you all right?” – “I’m fine.” That sort of answer or “I’m ok.”

I do a hashtag called #AskTwice on my Instagram account. And it is: “How are you?” When people say: “Hi. How are you?” They don’t actually want an answer. But when they can see that someone is not well, and it’s visible or if you’re quite sensitive, that you can see that they’re not well, ask twice. So: “Hi. How are you?” – “No, actually, how are you?” Because the “Hi. How are you?”, people walk past each other without even wanting an answer. So, really ask “How are you?” or “I can see that you’re feeling low.”

You talked about transitions, which must be quite daunting to think about or to start thinking: “Well, how do I move on from this? How do I transition into the new stage in life?”

And you’re talking about short career, but actually, when you consider that most of the dancers start early on in their life – three, four, five – it’s actually a long span of time, and, it’s their identity. So when they finish dancing, they have lost an identity.

Take for instance an engineer or an architect, they start when they’re perhaps 16 or 18, depending on what exams they take, and that’s when they start. And then they finish a lot later. [But dancers finish] at 30 or less – I think I retired at 29 – you might say that’s a short career, but I’ve been doing it since age six. So that’s 24 years.

And this is the most formative period of your life when you’re young, and as you mentioned before, that your subconscious is recording your experiences and forming your world view and of yourself. This point about the identity is quite a significant because dance is not just a physical challenge of an athlete, although dancers are athletes, they have to perform at peak performance, but also, as you mentioned, it’s an artistry as well. They have to tell stories and it has to look beautiful all the time, and it’s all about presenting this perfection. And this identity must be very hard to change.

Well, yes. We talk about the identity and the loss of identity. So we’re talking about grace and bereavement again, when there is a change. And you know, it’ll be the same for athletes as well, because they get injured, they have to give up. And I think from that point of view, it’s how to deal with it. How to deal with the process of change.

I’m doing university research on neurodiversity. So the neurodiversity includes ADHD — that’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Autism. So, we’re looking at the spectrums and how the training from an early age exacerbates some of those traits to develop ‘black and white thinking’ – the ‘right and wrong’. For example, if you’re not pointing your foot right then you’re wrong – and then there’s the concentration that’s needed, the perfectionism within that, [which can] exacerbate all those traits.

Are the traits leading the dancers or are the dancer able to control those traits? In other words, if something goes wrong and you have high scoring traits, as it were – because we’re going to use a scoring method – does that make them anxious when when things go wrong or when things change?

If people are reading this and thinking: “Well actually, I think maybe I am too hard on myself or maybe I am making it more difficult for myself.” What do you think that they should do for themselves?

Well these traits are wired into the brain, but although the wiring in the brain can’t be changed, you can set up new neurotransmitters by changing your way of thinking. When I do these tests, do these inventories, for the dancers and for the general public as well – people seem to be attracted to certain careers. People who are high on the spectrum are attracted to certain careers.

And so, I do this test for them and I get them, not just to ask the questions, but when they see where they’ve answered and they realise what they are, I get them to do examples. So they’re actually doing it for themselves: “Oh yes, I do that. And I do that when such and such…or I think this way. I do that way…or I don’t do this.” And they get to realise what it is. And I say: “Okay, well how do you think you’re going to be able to change?” And we work out ways that they’re going to be able to change their way of thinking so it sets up new neurotransmitters and neural pathways.

The old ones, using an analogy of railway tracks, the old ones, they’re rusty, they have grass growing up around them, and the new tracks will be nice and shiny and being used all the time! The only thing is that the old tracks will still be there. So if that individual isn’t mentally strong enough and a trauma happens, they may just revert to the old tracks and the old ways. It’s a constant thing to try and develop the new ways of thinking.

There’s this expression I use: “It doesn’t matter.” In other words, do you really need to do that every time? It doesn’t matter. “No one’s going to die.” Is another expression. So, you can change, so you’re not necessarily stuck like that.

I think although Autism, Asperger’s and ADHD are disorders in the extreme, it’s wonderful to have the diversity there, in any aspect. We’re all on the spectrum, all of us. Regardless of whether we’re dancers or not, we are all on the spectrum. And the hyperactivity gives us the go, gives us the confidence to drive ahead, focusing on certain autistic traits. Focusing is great. And we need to drive ourselves and control our life. But it can get to a detrimental stage, and at that point, that’s when any changes and anxiety comes in because they can’t control it anymore.

Photo by Ahmad Odeh
Photo by Ahmad Odeh

And it — the industry is very much often — can feel like you don’t have control, like you mentioned before, when you go in for auditions. And a lot of dancers, when I ask them what advice that they would give to other aspiring dancers or choreographers or artistic directors — anyone within the profession — there’s a couple of themes that come out. And those are always: “Be true to who you are.” Because we’re all individuals and individuality is so important, and not trying to be someone else. And also, as part of that, when you aren’t selected for the audition or for a part, to not take it personally because it is very picky. People are selected, you mentioned before, five foot five. People are selected for all random reasons, in terms of their height and their flexibility, their skin color, they’re physical aesthetic. It’s who they are now, it’s how many social media followers, can have an impact on a dancer’s career. It’s getting insane. But it’s being able to — That’s the advice that they often say. But it does come with the challenges of being able to respond positively to those types of rejections. And that must be a very, very hard when it’s something that can happen over and over and over and over again in a career.

And a lot of dancers, when I ask them what advice that they would give to other aspiring dancers or choreographers or artistic directors, there’s a couple of themes that come out. And those are always: “Be true to who you are.” Because we’re all individuals and individuality is so important, and not trying to be someone else. And also, as part of that, when you aren’t selected for the audition or for a part, to not take it personally because it is very picky. People are selected, as you mentioned before, for all random reasons, in terms of their height and their flexibility, their skin colour, their physical aesthetic. And now it’s how many social media followers, which can have an impact on a dancer’s career. It’s getting insane. That’s the advice that they often say. But it does come with the challenges of being able to respond positively to those types of rejections. And that must be a very, very hard when it’s something that can happen over and over and over and over again in a career.

Yeah, it’s a mindset that’s needed. And you’re so right with them understanding that they are unique. You cannot control the artistic director’s thinking. You cannot control the choreographers thinking. If they have a mindset of what they want, that’s what they’re going to go for. And it’s just to keep telling yourself: “I wasn’t right for it. Not that I’m no good, but I wasn’t right for it. And there’s going to be something else.” Even if it happens over and over again, something is going to happen.

I work with the idea of the Law of Attraction, and I work with the idea of the Law of Attraction from a quantum physics point of view. And quantum physics says that positive energy will attract positive energy, and vice versa with negative energy. So, if you keep thinking that you’re no good and it’s not going to happen: “I’m not going to get the job,” then you’re attracting all that negativity into you. So think in a positive way: “Okay, that wasn’t right for me. There’s going to be something coming up.”

I get people, clients, to write a list of their intentions – what they want. But the list must be written in a positive way. So you wouldn’t write: “I  don’t want this and I don’t want that.” It’s “What do you want?” I know as kids, we were brought up saying: “I want, don’t get.” But actually, you can do that – write it. I want to do this. I want to do that. And I want this in my life. I want etc. etc.

Given that your experiences as a former dancer and your many years as a counsellor and your specialisation in helping dancers, do you have an overriding piece of advice that you would give to the aspiring dancers today who are entering into this professional world, or aspiring to enter into this professional world?

Be kind to yourself, both physically, mentally and emotionally. Give yourself time off. When you do have a day off, have a day off. That’s what it’s for – for resting, both body and mind. It’s no good going cross training, pilates or anything like that. Have a day off. Really, that’s the basis of it. That will allow your mind and body to rest.

If you’re experiencing depression, anxiety or stress, please reach out to a friend, family member, your school, company or doctor. 

For more about Terry Hyde check out: counsellingfordancers.com

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