Prioritizing Dancers’ Mental Health

An Interview with Kathleen McGuire Gaines at Minding the Gap

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

Kathleen McGuire Gaines is the founder of Minding the Gap, an organization that seeks to make dancers’ mental health as important as their physical health. Here, Kathleen shares why improving access to mental health resources is of personal significance to her, how the pandemic is affecting mental health, and what Minding the Gap is doing to change the culture of mental health in dance.

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Can you share a little bit of your own history and how you became passionate about dancers’ mental health? How did Minding the Gap begin?

I was a ballet dancer who left home at a young age to train. I’m originally from upstate New York. I left home at age 14 to train at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s preprofessional program, and then when I was 17, I went to San Francisco Ballet School’s preprofessional program. I was in a highly competitive environment separated from my family. This is a common experience for dancers trying to pursue a career. I was not a very confident dancer; I didn’t think much of myself and I relied on the people at the front of the room to validate me, which is kind of dangerous. But things were mostly going well for me.

Shortly after I arrived in San Francisco, I sustained my first injury, which was a stress reaction to my second metatarsal. I went from being seen, near the top of my class, and being considered for roles within the company, to being vapor. The moment I got injured, I felt like I just disappeared. I didn’t have good coping skills. I really believed that if I wasn’t a dancer in one of the biggest ballet companies in the country, then I was an abject failure. I was rigid in my thinking about success and value, and I went through my first major depression. I tried to manage it in ways a lot of teenagers without good mental coping skills do: partying and trying to control my body through disordered eating.

When I stopped dancing, I went to the University of Pittsburgh to get a writing degree. As I was leaving dance, I asked myself, “What else keeps me happy?” I kept a detailed journal the entire time I was in San Francisco that made me feel better, so I went to school for writing. When I graduated, it was the start of the recession, not a great time to be a writer. I was working retail, and I knew I had to figure out how to get published. I saw an advertisement for unpaid internships with Dance Magazine. I applied and got the internship. I went to New York City and lived on a girlfriend’s couch. I accidentally became a dance writer; I didn’t particularly want to write about dance. When I left dance, I was emotionally scarred, and I had no desire to see any dance performances. Through beginning to write about dance, I found a cathartic way to face my dragons. I took the mindset of: “What do I wish I had known?” I wish someone had talked to me about mental health. I wish someone had normalized it. I wish going to therapy had been as normal as going to physical therapy.

I started writing a lot about mental health topics starting in 2010. In 2017, I wrote an opinion piece for the Dance Magazine website, “Why Are We Still So Bad at Addressing Dancers’ Mental Health?”, where I shared my own mental health story as well as ideas to make mental health culture better based on the many  interviews I’d done. I was stunned when that article went viral. It was obviously very affirming to hear I wasn’t alone, but at the same time it was really sad. Minding the Gap was born out of the reaction to that article. Mental health professionals and dancers were reaching out to me from all over the world. I had created this call to action. In late 2018, I founded Minding the Gap. We are a social good company, and we seek to make mental health regarded with the same seriousness as physical health in dance culture.

Can you give an overview of what Minding the Gap does?

We are a young company, and now we’re trying to live through a pandemic, so it is evolving. Right now, Minding the Gap is primarily focused on advocacy and research. I want the solutions we create to be what dancers need, not what I think they need or what therapists think they need. We have a townhall series where we talk about a mental health topic with a mental health professional and a professional dancer. I also speak with leadership at schools and companies all over the country to advocate for access to mental health resources. In the long term, we will be providing consulting to dance institutions who are interested in implementing robust mental health programs, as well as offering direct services for dancers. Those are being developed as we grow.

In terms of Minding the Gap’s research, can you share a little about your methodology?

So far, we’ve done two surveys. One immediately followed the 2017 article and was posted on Dance Magazine’s website. Almost 900 people responded. The results from that survey are on the Minding the Gap’s homepage. I asked simple questions with no clinical measures, like, “Have you dealt with a mental health challenge in the past five years?” Seventy-five percent said yes, 14 percent said maybe, and only 11 percent said no. I asked if their school or company had a mental health professional that dancers are referred to. Seventy-five percent said no. I found that direct correlation shocking. Only 12 percent said yes. Of that 12 percent, I asked, “If yes, can you reach that person directly?” Thirty-seven percent of that 12 percent said no. This illuminated how big of a problem mental health is and pushed me toward founding Minding the Gap.

We did a survey last winter on mental health topics dancers are interested in. This has been helpful information for mental health professionals who work with dancers. When we think of mental health problems in dance, we very quickly think of disordered eating. While that was important to dancers, it wasn’t in the top three topics. The top three were self-esteem and confidence, anxiety and depression, and dealing with rejection. This tells me dancers are intuitive. Any of those topics could lead to an eating disorder. It’s interesting to me that dancers are more focused on the cause and not the outcome.

Finally, we have just recently been awarded a grant by the Staunton Farm Foundation to do clinical research on the mental health of dancers in Point Park University’s dance department. While there is some great research out there on dancers’ mental health, a lot of it is focused on perfection and eating disorders. I’m interested in depression, anxiety, and self-esteem, which are more foundational mental health blocks. We will be implementing a program with the dancers and monitoring their mental health throughout. We want to see if our program is effective and how it needs to be adjusted based on feedback from dancers and teachers. The program is funded for the first year, but we would like it to be a three-year trial. You can’t just plop a psychologist in a dance studio and expect dancers to go talk to them. There’s a lot of work that needs to happen to change the culture. I’ve seen well-meaning schools and companies give out the number of a psychologist to dancers, but I ask: Have you normalized mental health as part of the culture in your environment? Do dancers think they’ll be looked at differently if they need a psychologist?

What are the biggest ways you are seeing the pandemic affect dance artists’ mental health?

It’s having a tremendous effect on mental health without a doubt. I think the dance world in many ways is collectively experiencing what we experience when we’re injured. The dance world has its foot in the ice bucket right now. Anyone who has been injured knows you are physically separated from your peers in the dance studio. The pandemic is that kind of loss on a social level. And then physically, you can’t do what you want to do. Even if you’re doing your barre in your living room, I doubt you’re doing grand allegro. Dancers are dealing with issues that are very similar to when we are injured, but all at once, which is good and bad. Obviously, it’s sad and difficult. But there’s something about collectively going through this that’s important. I don’t want people to lose sight of that. No one is alone in this. You’re in the company of every other dancer in the world.

Many dancers are grappling with the loss of identity; if I’m not a dancer, then who am I? I would argue that feeling can be very productive. It is incredibly important for dancers to acknowledge themselves as humans beyond being dancers. It’s productive during this time to look at other things that make you happy. Dance isn’t forever. You never know when it will be no more for you. That transition is going to be a world easier if you have identified other things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. So the pandemic is difficult but also an opportunity.

Of course, there are lots of issues related to fear of eating and maintaining, as well as fear of falling behind. I think that dancers just need to keep in mind that you’re not missing something when everyone else is in the same storm. The longer the pandemic has gone on, the clearer it has become that this magical day when a switch flips and we’re back all at once isn’t going to happen. Dancers and everyone else are going to reemerge into what we consider normal at a very small pace.

Dancers are perfectionists, and it’s a hard time to be a perfectionist. Through being in this moment when it is impossible to be perfect, can we honor and love ourselves as imperfect because of this experience? Can we be gentler with ourselves? Eventually we will be back. You will be dancing again. It’s going to take time. I hope what we learn from this is that we are far more resilient than we thought we were.

To your knowledge, is there any research on the mental health of dancers of color and if it differs from their white colleagues?

I do not know of any clinical research to that effect, though certainly anecdotally, it’s easy to say yes. In the research I’m going to be doing at Point Park University, race is an identifier we’re going to use so we can potentially look at the data from that lens. I wonder if other researchers have done the same but the research hasn’t been filtered in that way.

Similarly, do you know of any studies looking at if female dancers or nonbinary dancers experience different mental health outcomes from their male colleagues?

It’s an area of interest to researchers that is currently be carried out, but I’m not sure if there’s anything existing. Women certainly receive the message loud and clear that they are disposable within the dance world. There’s this idea of: If only I were a guy, I would get a job. But the opposite is true for many male dancers. While they have a greater sense of value in the dance world, that acceptance is not mirrored outside of dance. It’s interesting to look at those two sides of the coin.

Since founding Minding the Gap in 2018, have you noticed more companies and schools creating mental health resources?

I definitely think there’s change coming in a big way. Since I started writing about mental health 10 years ago, it’s incredible the change in terms of the number of people willing to speak about this and the number of mental health professionals who have worked with dancers. There’s a big leadership change that’s going to happen in our culture as a whole as the boomers retire. We’re already starting to see that, and with that comes a much greater interest in changing the status quo. When I talk to younger dancers now, they want to have conversations about mental health. They are eager to ask questions. When I was their age, there’s no way I would have asked a question about mental health in front of my peers. More schools and companies are actively thinking about this. They need to create more action, but it’s all ultimately tied to funding.

Since so many dancers will work freelance at some point in their career, are there any resources existing for those dancers? If not, what solutions would you like to see developed in the future?

First, that issue needs to be primarily addressed by major changes to the medical system in this country. Having access to good medical care should not be reliant on having a good job. That being said, I believe choreographers and leaders of small dance ventures can invest in making sure their dancers are in a safe and productive space, even if they are freelance. That might mean choreographers or leaders do work themselves to unpack some of the potentially abusive behaviors or leadership styles they have inherited from their dance education. In the dance world, the dancer becomes the teacher, and it becomes a cycle. Whatever has been normalized for that teacher is then passed to their students. That’s how the cycle of abuse continues. At the minimum, if you can’t offer dancers insurance or access to mental health, you have a responsibility to do some work on yourself to make sure your dancers are truly in a safe environment with you. And you can still know a therapist who you trust and respect, even if all you can do is give dancers their name and phone number.

How do you see Minding the Gap expanding or evolving in the future?

I really would like to complete this research at Point Park University and do additional research to get my arms around how we can best implement mental health programs and what those programs should look like. I would like Minding the Gap to help dance schools and companies of any size make more emotionally inclusive and safe environments for mental health. I’d love to create programs that allow dancers to access resources directly even if they don’t have a company or school affiliation.

Basically, I want to become irrelevant. I would love to see the day when I close the doors because the mental health programs in dance institutions rival physical health programs and I’m no longer needed.

Kathleen McGuire Gaines, Photo by Nicholas Coppula

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To learn more, visit www.wearemindingthegap.org.

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