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Mental health and well-being in classical dance - An inquiry
- Ramaa Venugopalan

June 12, 2020

A recent article in a world dance magazine addressed the mental health of dancers in ballet companies. The counsellor revealed key points that hinder the mental well-being of dancers through their training years. The article had a deep impact on me, and I could not resist from a similar inquiry into the world of Indian classical dance.

Are we classical dancers living in a mental sphere of happiness or anxiety? What are the factors that make up this health index? Are we assessing our mental and emotional well-being? Most importantly, are we dancers truly happy? Warped in layers of perceived notions of divinity, adherence, non-questionable notions, unspoken rules, dancers are so caught in multiple layers of agony that an inquiry into the mental well-being has been rarely assessed.

A glance into the eco-system that defines the sphere of the classical dance and an inquiry into factors that affect mental health reveal much.

The young mind - Nascent influences
The dance teacher, along with the parent, is a key influence on a child's psyche. Children are enrolled early into learning classical dance and this is where the seeds of well-being or otherwise are usually sown. The learning space is a taut box of rigid regimes, discipline, low tolerance, high expectations, and to a large extent a normalisation of identity. Group classes, the usual norm, merges multiple identities into a single one, thus scaling up the expectation that all the students will rise to the benchmark set by the teacher. This, subconsciously, propels the child to expedite the learning curve regardless of their inherent ability. The first seed of anxiety is sown here.

Dr. Aarthi Doss, a practicing physician and child health care specialist, opines that the introduction to any activity always begins with parental persuasion, peer pressure or external influence. This persuasion can also have an impact on the child's ability to adapt to any activity. General Anxiety Disorder, she says, can manifest in multiple ways. Frequent complaints of headaches, anger, lack of focus, or clinging are the result of supressing emotions such as helplessness, jealousy, regret, grief and embarrassment; key behaviour patterns that parents must watch out for.

Dr. Aarthi also states that any kind of trauma regarding self-esteem or physical appearance at a young age can have a lifelong impact of esteem issues and insecurities. As dance teachers, what one remarks about physical appearances or ability manifests as inner voices in the heads of the young child. If one is not careful, these inner voices amplify and have the power to silence any other ideas of the self. These permeate into the teenage sphere manifesting as anxiety disorders, esteem issues, depression and somatic manifestations.

The initial training years are instructive in nature, devoid of pathways for the children to express themselves. Teachers must tread this path with care. Supressing a child's response or expression but later expecting the child to be creative and emote can mar the child's ability and emotional landscape. The key is to help the child deal with emotions, express and provide ample freedom within the confines of the form to enable an organic creative growth. Rather than a strict instruction, for example, says Dr. Aarthi, an explanation to help the child understand why a certain movement is done in a particular way helps.

Teenage and young adults - External influences
The crucial phase - The first noticeable changes are physical appearances. The child has learnt the craft sufficiently and forays into learning compositions that are filled with myriad emotions including sensual and sexual undertones. It is this juncture that predominantly determines how the child grows up into a young adult, adapts to the multiple layers that dance offers, and most importantly develops the attitude that permeates into the self.

Body changes, gender orientation, peer pressure, dealing with co-dancers along with one's own internal understanding of body is a huge mental agony in itself.

Comparison, inducing semblances of competition, exposure to the concept of 'star performers', defining subjective success paths, and most importantly the concept of making it to the good books of the teacher occurs in this phase. The words and the validation of the teacher are sacrosanct. Questioning the teacher is unheard of. Mostly. Healthydiscussions are way off the radar too. Behavioural patterns, abusive or otherwise are shoved under the carpet and often dismissed as "the teacher has the right to reprimand and be demanding".

The identification of one's own dancing capabilities comes to the fore during simple and small performance opportunities or group productions. Teachers seldom address this crucial phase sensitively. A discussion on why a particular child is essaying a part is never explained, and the spirit of camaraderie and team work is not addressed. The children are left to make their own subconscious assumptions as to why they were not good enough to grab that important opportunity or role.

This phase is also one of self-discovery. Debunking the myth of physical appearances, enabling your child to understand that dance and its overtures are only role plays, encouraging them towards a holistic approach to the form can keep the mind balanced. It is equally important to keep communication channels open and observe any excessive behaviour patterns in the teenager. Excessive indulgence on a particular aspect, for example, a physical appearance such as jewellery or makeup, or a good body can equally harm the teenager.

"Encourage healthy discussions about ideas, the dance form and possibilities rather than discussing personas. Expand the horizons towards healthy reading habits, lectures, history and allied subjects. Monitoring their online presence and a conversation about its pros and cons also helps them use the online media effectively", advices Dr Aarthi.

Encouragement, not excessive indulgence, is the key. Non-validation from the parent or teacher can lead to displeasure and self-doubt.This may eventually lead to challenges in relationships, promiscuous sexual and emotional patterns, thus hampering the future. "This process is cyclic," says Dr. Aarthi and the patterns tend to permeate into future generations. The learning space must foster an inclusive and understanding atmosphere. As facilitators, it is important to be patient and watch out for bullying, body shaming, teasing, especially with children grappling with gender and sexual identity.

The mirage - The desire to be somebody else
If there is a space that continuously feeds into the delusion of being somebody else, it is the dance space. Exposure to successful, globetrotting performing artists, who speak about dance as an exotic and esoteric entity are key factors towards widening an empty hole within. While one does need to look out for exceptional artistry outside, the learning space actively does not foster the key aspect of individual happiness and acceptance. Constantly wanting to be like a popular dancer, lures the young mind along with a generous thrust of skewed concepts of excellence and perfection.

Competition and power play
The dance performative space is rampant with power play, often brutal. Professional dancers, freelancers, and contractors, who work with Gurus /star dancers/senior/popular artistes, often agonise over myriad emotions. Unsafe environments with sexual and/or emotional misconduct, passive discrimination, a non-conducive environment to discuss and opine, disparity in financial compensation, expectations of idealism, gruelling rehearsal schedules and travel plans, absence of compassion towards family and other commitments... often leave the youngsters exasperated. Obligation and fear are underlying rules which cannot be broken. The sheer density of dancers who may grab an opportunity away is a constant fear.

The competitive spirit is so deeply rooted that one rarely forges a bond or trusts a co-artiste. A deep feeling of exclusion and loneliness plagues fellow dancers. Not being understood or simply heard leads to depression and insecurity. The view of the dancer's world is so myopic that outside help is rarely sought.

Healing and harmony - the way forward
The focus for each dancer is to survive. Concepts such as re-invention, new choreography, breaking barriers, out-of-the-box thinking, and collaboration-are but ways to force oneself into the permanent memory of the galaxy of performing stars. Years of baggage, subconscious conditioning, a sense of self-inflicted purpose, a mirage of fame and glory, clouds the ability to look squarely at the lack of harmony within. Use of anti-depressants, drugs, alcohol abuse, sexual and emotional dysfunction, and a constant need for validation are tell-tale signs to seek help.

All stakeholders of this eco-system have a shared responsibility. Parents must observe the interest and well-being of the child. The triggering of behavioural patterns, sexual or emotional, requires immediate monitoring and calling out offenders. Acceptance that the child may not be meant for a particular skill is the key towards realising the child's true potential.

Teachers of classical dance must reflect and reinvent notions of power and compassion. We are imparting art, not running a factory to churn out perfect, dancing robots. Providing a safe, conducive environment, fostering an open healthy positive relationship with our students is our basic responsibility. Reaching out to students, allowing them to let go, innovatively encouraging them to address emotions and being kind to their physical issues go a long way in fostering a healthy bond. Let the dance learning space be a safe space for them to be open, debate, and integrate with the ethos of the dance form.

As independent dancers, the onus is on us to reflect on our path, our purpose and to constantly monitor our own well-being. Calling out offenders, defying toxic relationships in the garb of well-known teachers, choreographers, organizers and sharing such information to protect fellow dancers is a serious responsibility.

If continuous anxiety or emotional disturbance persists, reach out to your family physician or a well-wisher who has a history of your mental and physical condition. They can help tap flags and advice accordingly. Sometimes, just talking out helps a long way in addressing and accepting problems. Take the time out to have a dialogue or conversation openly with someone you trust. Accept and understand where these are stemming from. Identifying the source of pain often helps one on the path towards healing, believes Dr. Aarthi.

Dance is a reflection of one's own self. One might camouflage it with frills, outward display of happiness and validation. Once the make-up is wiped out and the media is shut down for the day, one must meet oneself in the darkness of the night. If it is filled with peace and harmony, all is well. If not, it is imperative to seek help. All else is walking towards a mirage - a futile one at that.

Ramaa Venugopalan is a performer and teacher of Bharatanatyam from Bangalore, for a little over three decades. She pens her thoughts about dance regularly for the print media.

This article addresses almost all the points that runs in every dancer's mind in the industry. There needs to be more awareness and attention paid to the mental health aspect of the art form and how it is taught. Really appreciate Rama akka for writing this very important and informative article that makes one feel included in the industry. At some point or the other, every dancer experiences one of the above mentioned issues and it's usually just kept within until this subconscious pattern is even acknowledged. I wish we had discussions and workshops for mental health tailored specifically for the teaching and performance set up in the industry.
- Varsha (Oct 10, 2023)

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