Quantifying Psychological Wellbeing in Dance

An Interview with Dr. Moitree Banerjee, Dr. Lucie Clements, Kathleen McGuire Gaines, and Erin Sanchez

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

Awareness of mental health and wellbeing within the dance field is growing, as well as an anecdotal understanding that many dancers face mental health challenges throughout their careers. Unfortunately, the evidence is currently extremely limited, which means that funding for increased support, education, and policy development are difficult to justify. That’s why psychologists Dr. Lucie Clements and Dr. Moitree Banerjee at the University of Chichester have partnered with Erin Sanchez at One Dance UK and the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science and Kathleen Gaines at Minding the Gap to carry out a research project across the entire dance sector to establish an evidence base about the psychological wellbeing and mental health needs of dance students and professionals. Here, they talk about why their research is much needed, some of their methodology, some unexpected demographic findings, and how they hope to apply their work toward bettering mental health across the dance field.

Image of a dancer with text

Pictured: Olivia Cowley, Photo by Rick Guest

This image was used as part of One Dance UK’s campaign to recruit participants to join the Psychological Wellbeing in Dance Study.

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Can you each share with me a little bit about yourselves and your entry point into this research?

Erin Sanchez: I’m an advocate, educator, and applied researcher. My role as an advocate is through working for the sector support organization for dance in the UK, which is called One Dance UK. I also work for the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science. In both of those roles, I support dancers to be healthier both mentally and physically. I am currently undertaking a PhD supervised by Professor Dave Collins and Dr. Christine Nash, exploring the development, deployment, and nurture of psychological skills among dancers and how that affects their career success.

One Dance UK previously caried out national scale research in the UK called Fit to Dance. These studies, carried out in 1992 and 2005, investigated the incidence of health and injury among dancers. Self-reported questionnaires indicated that 80 percent of dancers reported sustaining an injury in the past 12 months, but 92 percent of dancers reported having a mental health concern in the same period. Supported by One Dance UK’s senior leadership and the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science partners, our desire was to underpin this anecdotal evidence with validated questionnaires to gain a greater understanding of this important issue in dance. Kathleen’s powerful voice as an advocate and Lucie’s formidable research expertise have been a huge gift that has allowed the project to happen.

Kathleen McGuire Gaines: I’m the founder of Minding the Gap, a social good startup that is dedicated to seeing mental health regarded with the same seriousness as physical health in dance culture. I’m a former ballet dancer and contributing writer to Dance Magazine. Minding the Gap did a survey in 2017 that was posted on the Dance Magazine website. We had about 900 respondents and found equally distressing trends in mental health. For example, only 10 percent of dancers said they would definitely feel comfortable reaching out to a teacher or leader in a dance school or institution. We’re using the same questions in our survey to see if the answers change as we grow the population size.

My entry point into this research came from meeting Erin after attending the International Association of Dance Medicine Conference in Montreal in 2019. Through my enthusiasm and hunger for data, I was lucky enough to be invited to join this incredible team.

Dr. Lucie Clements: I’m a chartered psychologist and lecturer at the University of Chichester. I have a PhD in Dance Science, which means my expertise is in researching the psychological wellbeing and creativity of dancers, and I also have a business as a dance psychologist where I provide education and consultancy. Growing up, I did substantial ballet training which came to an end when I had serious hip injuries, which led to my love affair with the psychology of dance.

Through various conferences and working with One Dance UK, I met Erin. I was looking for a new project and became interested in making sure my research had a clear application leading to impact and change. Through discussions with Erin, we decided to reignite this question about mental health in dance and revisit the 2005 questions from the One Dance UK project. It’s my desire to ensure my research has impact and facilitates change.

Kathleen: It’s safe to call Lucie the leader of this effort and the primary investigator.

Dr. Moitree Banerjee: My introduction to this project has been through Lucie, and through her I’ve met these amazing colleagues. I am a clinical psychology researcher. My research is focused on mental health problems and interventions for mental health problems. I believe there’s no single mental health solution that fits all; there should be many kinds of interventions for people coming from different backgrounds and from different circumstances.

I used to be a dancer myself. I trained in Indian classical dance. When I used to dance, I experienced liberation. Lucie and I have had this chat about how I used to see dance as freedom whereas there are so many dancers who experience mental health problems in dance. It will be wonderful if we can address this through our work so people only associate positivity with dance.

How did the Psychological Wellbeing in Dance Study begin? Was there a particular impetus?

Erin: Lucie was the impetus. She contacted me and said she was interested in carrying out research that was impactful. We discussed the fact that the Fit to Dance research needed updating and further investigation. Lucie and Moitree bring to the project their deep academic knowledge as well as a strong appreciation for real application. Kathleen brings a massive knowledge of what the sector is actually like. We’re a strong interdisciplinary team.

Lucie: For me, it was the need to do research and make change. In the British higher education system, we’re encouraged to think about how our work can directly help human beings. As a psychologist, that’s at the core of what we’re doing. There’s so much anecdotal evidence of mental health concerns; there’s a high prevalence of self-reported concerns. I wanted to use more clinical and academically reliable measures that would enable us to see what the prevalence is of those mental health concerns in comparison to the larger population. Is it really the case that dancers are suffering more? If it is, then we can use this data to make a stronger case for changes and better support for dancers.

I understand your team conducted an extensive survey on psychological wellbeing in dance throughout 2020. How was the survey structured? Can you give me a bit of an overview?

Erin: It was an online survey, and there were three broad elements to it. The first part was a repetition of Kathleen’s 2017 Minding the Gap survey just to get a sense of where we are now three years later and also to understand more about different populations, including more UK or European dancers.

The second part was a replication of the Fit to Dance survey. Part of that original survey was devoted to mental health and part to physical health, but we only replicated the mental health section. Both of those are not validated surveys; they’re more sector-focused research asking questions of dancers and dance leaders.

The third part of the survey was validated questionnaires, and those covered anxiety, depression, athlete engagement and burnout, flourishing, a wellbeing scale, a scale that looked at the mental health impacts of COVID, and motivational climate. All those validated questionnaires were at the end of the survey, and there was also demographic information at the beginning.

Lucie: In the third part, we worked on ensuring that we used measures that other researchers use so that we can compare our findings to other populations, including the ‘normal’ population and sports people. But Erin and I also agreed it was important to assess the positive mental health outcomes of dance and acknowledge that some dancers are hopefully also experiencing wellbeing!

How did you get the word out about the survey to ensure you had a broad sample?

Kathleen: We relied heavily on social media from our own accounts as well as asking various influencers to share the survey. We did get Dance Magazine and The Dance Edit to share the survey on their social media accounts. And then it was boots-to-the-ground emailing the survey over and over again to dance leadership at schools and companies and asking them to share it with their dance populations. That last effort was the hardest because of COVID and the fact that many of these institutions were closed completely or navigating difficult times. It was hard to get a buy-in.

What types of dance forms did you try to have represented in the survey?

Erin: We were hoping to reach as broad a spectrum of dance forms as possible but found it difficult because of the infrastructure of different dance training and professional organizations. Where there was a clear organizational structure and website with email addresses listed for staff who are paid to look after different aspects of the company, it was easier to reach people. However, due to COVID, many people were on furlough or were out of work. Reaching freelancers in general was very difficult. Through using email as a strategy – we sent about 1200 emails over the course of the recruitment period – we realized people either weren’t looking at their emails, or were unable to respond to things that were not directly urgent to their professional survival. Social media was much more effective at gaining participants. Towards the end of the recruitment period, we were very lucky to establish a relationship with independent filmmaker and image-maker Rick Guest, who kindly shared his beautiful images of dancers. We reached out to the dancers who also kindly provided quotes about the importance of mental health to them. It was a powerful way to draw attention to the survey and led to some positive engagement.

Lucie: It’s great that we have so many different dance genres in the data but that makes the analysis a little challenging. We will hopefully be able to look to see whether one genre is impacting wellbeing in particular, for example, and whether some of the findings or assumptions about mental health in classical dance forms are also concerns in other dance genres.

I understand this project was launched last June 2020. How did the pandemic shift your approach to the research?

Moitree: One of the impacts that we faced was dealing with recruitment. For any research to be successful, it’s important to have data from every population we want to study. At the same time, the impact of COVID on mental health was quite critical. We had to work to ensure we collected information on how COVID impacted our particular research. We still have to look into the data to understand the impact it’s had, but the pandemic has made people more aware of mental health. People who probably wouldn’t have paid attention to it concentrated more on our advertisements for the survey. From a research perspective, the difficulty of the pandemic is that the primary focus was the mental health of dancers as the world was prior to COVID. The worst thing to happen is for the ongoing mental health issues that were highlighted in previous research to not get highlighted as a result of the pandemic. From a research perspective, it’s important for us to stick to the original question we set out to ask. If it’s helped in the recruitment in terms of people being more aware and open, that’s good, as mental health still has a lot of stigma. From the data aspect, we still have to see the pandemic’s impact. In any case, how COVID has impacted dancers’ mental health is also quite interesting.

Lucie: Erin and I discussed this a lot, as fundamentally we will never know whether the data we get looks the same as it would have pre-COVID. It’s probably safe to say we have all been emotionally and mentally affected by the pandemic, and lots of research is showing that wellbeing is suffering. But we agreed that in a way it doesn’t matter, as the pandemic will have very lasting effects on the performing arts and careers of all involved, and those mental health effects may last for years. Personally, I think it gives more meaning to the research as our dancers will need support more than ever before, because of the pandemic.

I understand the survey was recently closed and it’s still early to share findings, but what trends have you seen emerge from the data so far?

Erin: We’re right at the beginning of that process, as the survey closed on the 31st of December. We don’t have any clear understanding of trends yet, though we do have some indication of the types of participants. We had about 700 people fill in the whole survey. In terms of geographic spread, roughly 200 respondents were from the US, about 450 from the UK, and 100 from Canada and a smaller number of people from Finland, France, Germany, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, and Ireland, among others. Broadly, we had about 1,100 who filled out both the Fit to Dance and Minding the Gap portions but didn’t go on to complete the validated questionnaires. We also had an interesting demographic spread; a large percentage of our population was women. Over 1,000 women responded, but less than 70 men. We also had a large percentage of white people respond; 900 of the 1,100 were white. What we noticed is that we were not capturing a diverse picture of the dance sector. Those are important trends for us to recognize in terms of us interpreting this data carefully.

Kathleen: Good research should compel as many questions as it does answers. In the work I’m doing separately with Minding the Gap at Point Park University, the demographics of the dancers who are choosing to participate in the research is almost identical. It raises the question: Why are white female dancers more compelled to participate in research like this?

What do you plan to eventually do with your research findings?

Erin: From the perspective of sharing the information, it’s vital that we share our findings with the participants. We want to reflect our analysis back to the people who participated in the survey, so they have a sense of closing the loop by hearing back from us about what was found. The theoretical model is an action-based research approach where, as research is being interpreted, it’s being shared, and action is being taken on the findings which changes the situation, which is then re-researched and analyzed and shared in a cycle. That’s necessary from my perspective working as an advocate in a support organization. As quickly as possible, we need to share the information and implement change. That will include events, social media campaigns, and a booklet. And we do want to also publish this data academically.

Moitree: We do plan to work toward academic publication. As Erin said, it’s very important for the people who participated in this study to know about its results. But I do believe there will be aspects of the findings of this research based on the questionnaires that could be generalized to dancers around the world. Dissemination can happen in two ways. One is to create more awareness among participants. Our study is participant-driven, and we want them to see what their study has resulted in. Also, when we have a publication, it helps us to disseminate it across the globe, which we are eager to do. In terms of our model of analysis, once we have looked at the cleaned-up data, Lucie and I are going to see how this data is similar or dissimilar to the existing theoretical models of mental health in dance. Does the data fit the theory? It could be that the data fits the theory. Any provisions we have existing for mental health across different populations groups can be applied, which makes life easier, but I have an inkling that might not be the case, in which case this is the starting point for something much bigger in understanding the mental health model of dancers so that we can support them in the future.

Lucie: I’m very excited to share the results but, with a data file as large as this one, we have to be really careful to plan every step and ensure that we are being clear with the take-home messages in the data. What we find in the UK dancers might not be the same in the US, for example, so we can’t start sharing until we know a clear strategy. We will likely be sharing the first findings this summer.

Is there any scenario in which you will rerun the survey to try to get a more diverse pool of applicants?

Erin: The data that we gathered will be an interesting place to start. As Kathleen said, the best research is the kind of research that asks more questions. Now we know that online surveys disseminated in the way we did was engaging for white women. What way of gathering information is more engaging for diverse populations of all ages, including men, people of color, and people in different dance forms? I venture to guess it’s not an online survey. We might need to think carefully about the methodology in future studies.

Moitree: One of the things that might put things in perspective is that in mental health research in general, 80 percent of the participants are white females. This could be related to the stigma of mental health as well as cultural constructs in different groups that find mental health difficult or a sign of weakness. Cultural stereotypes related to mental health might also impact recruitment.

Kathleen: Another layer I want to add because it’s such an important question is that if we look at the time period in which we were soliciting responses, it was not only a pandemic but a racial uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd. It was a time in which dancers of color, and in particular Black dancers, were expelling enormous amounts of emotional energy. To fill out a psychological survey probably didn’t feel like the best use of their time. I think that’s another lens we need to apply.

How do you see this research eventually impacting the dance field?

Kathleen: As an advocate for mental health, it is tiring to try to convince those in leadership positions that the emperor has no clothes on when he’s standing there naked. This research is tangible and important in advocating for the needs of dancers. Part of the reason this team is so diverse in terms of skillsets is simply so we can bring it to every corner possible. We don’t want this information to live in an academic silo. We want it to be part of the breathing reality of dance culture. That’s where advocacy is important in addition to academic standards. Too often, research is done and then it sits somewhere for academics to ponder but doesn’t necessarily reach the population whose lives could be changed by it. That’s my goal. I want to change lives. That’s all.

Moitree: I completely agree with Kathleen. There are two kinds of mental health research. One is to understand the field, and the second is to come up with solutions. This is the former where we are trying to gain knowledge of the kinds of mental health conditions within this population group. There can be lots of further steps that can be tailored as interventions for dancers that help them come up with solutions on how to cope with stresses. For me, the final goal is one day when two dancers are having a chat and one will ask the other, “How are you doing?” and the response will not be, “Oh I danced here and performed this,” but instead be in terms of how they are actually feeling because they understand that mental health is equally a part of their lives.

Erin: I agree entirely with Moitree about the need to understand more about populations and what’s going on with them in terms of prevalence of specific concerns, both concerns such as mental illness and stressors, but also prevalence of psychological wellbeing. We need to tell that story as well because there are a lot of protective factors in dancers’ psychological health that we need to maximize and build more strongly into our preparation and daily lives. I’m also aware of what Lucie and Kathleen said about making change. In that sense, statistics are powerful. They can support funding for entirely new organizations, help to overcome barriers, and provide rationale for structural changes.

Lucie: I want to see this research leading to better support for dancers. This might be through employing mental health professionals, embedding wellbeing into the curriculum, or making psychology a compulsory part of teacher training. But honestly, even if this work only changes the experiences of a handful of dancers and maybe one school or company adopts a new approach to mental health, to me that is still a success. I have had quite a few dancers email me to say thank you for putting this survey out there, and for making them feel seen and heard and raising the awareness. That is so deeply rewarding and means we have already done a tiny bit of good with the work.

Image of a dancer with text about mental health

Pictured: Jordan James Bridge, Photo by Rick Guest

This image was used as part of One Dance UK’s campaign to recruit participants to join the Psychological Wellbeing in Dance Study.

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Follow @onedanceuk for publication of findings, and learn more about their work supporting health, wellbeing and performance in dance: https://www.onedanceuk.org/programme/healthier-dancer-programme/

Learn more about Lucie’s work at www.thedancepsychologist.com.

Learn more about Kathleen’s work at www.wearemindingthegap.org.

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