A conversation with Kathleen McGuire Gaines


April 30, 2021


Susanne connects with Katleen, she shares her background, how she got in love with dance, a setback she encountered at a young age that crushed her dancing dreams and led to major depression, how she channeled the energy into writing and addresses the issue of dancers’ mental health today.


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A conversation with Kathleen McGuire Gaines

Who is Kathleen?

Kathleen McGuire Gaines is the Founder of We are Minding the Gap. Kathleen is a former dancer, a writer, and a mental health advocate for dancers. As a dancer, Kathleen trained at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and the San Francisco Ballet School in their professional division. And she also spent summers at the School of American Ballet and the Chautauqua Festival. Over the last 10 years, Kathleen has written more than 150 articles on dance for Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Spirit, and Dance Teacher Magazine. 

Minding the Gap was founded as a reaction to the outpouring Kathleen received after she posted the article, “Why Are We Still So Bad at Addressing Dancers’ Mental Health?” on the Dance Magazine website in the summer of 2017.  Her ambition is to enhance a movement with results in mental health being regarded with the same seriousness as physical health in the dance culture. I am so thrilled to have this conversation with her and to share it with you. Because the more and more we’re talking about these issues, the more we’re going to turn the needle and the more we are going to find solutions on how we can do it better. And in case you haven’t read her most recent article in Dance Magazine, go have a read through at “COVID’s Silver Lining: Seven Ways the Pandemic has Changed Us for the Better” is a really, really good read to change perhaps your perspective on the pandemic over the last year. All the things that we have not had sometimes can get us down and really be in our face. And with actually looking at the other side that there are also good things that happened. That this is a pause that was long overdue for the ballet and dance world.

Getting Drawn to Dancing

It’s interesting now that I have my own child. It’s so obvious because they just unapologetically move when something moves them. And so I think I was very moved. As a child I really enjoyed dancing and my parents noticed it. So I was enrolled in the creative movement very young, like a lot of us were. I joke that I just never grew out of wanting to become a ballerina. It seems like a lot of the others in my class did, and I just never did it. I started dancing because I loved it. I started dancing, because, in its best moments, it’s the most natural freeing thing in the world.

During the pandemic, I’ve had nights where I’ve just had to blast music in my kitchen and just dance like an idiot. You just got to get it out; feels really good. And now at the ripe old age of 37, I no longer judge myself around it. I’m finally coming to a place where I can do that. But it’s taken a really long time. It’s been a really long journey and a lot of hard work.

My Journey

I grew up in a small city in New York, Binghamton, New York. I went to a small school there. I started doing summer programs when I was 10. When I was 14, I left home to train with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. And I was there for three years until 17. I went to San Francisco Ballet School and their pre-professional program. I did my summers at school for American Ballet. I was in a very highly competitive environment at a very, very young age. I left home very young. I was really serious., I needed to be in the best school now. I need to get better now. I might have done it a little bit differently. But I was never a very confident dancer. I never really fully believed in myself. I really needed the people at the front of the room to tell me I was doing great, that I looked good. And that’s a really dangerous place for any dancer to exist or any human to exist. For dancers it can be particularly challenging. 

In San Francisco, it was right around Nutcracker. We’re getting ready for Nutcracker. So it’s probably September,  fairly early on in my first year there. I suffered from my first injury, which was a stress fracture to my second metatarsal, the famous pointe shoe injury, which I got because I wasn’t properly nourishing and resting my body. I remember that moment really well. I had lacked a lot of confidence in my dancing prior. That was really the moment that led me to my first major depression. You know, I went from being the highest level at San Francisco Ballet School, rehearsing company roles for Nutcracker. I was there. I could smell my dreams. And then I got injured and kind of vaporized. I just felt like I had disappeared. And I’ll be honest, there were some things about the way injuries were handled at that time; the leadership of the school has changed since I was there. I can’t speak to what it’s like now. I was required to sit in every single class that I couldn’t dance in and write down all the combinations and all the corrections and hand them in at the office at the end of class. So for eight weeks, I had to sit and just watch my peers. Keep going without me. 

It’s a really good example of a situation where the intention isn’t harmful. The intention is, “Well, you can’t dance so you’re going to continue to learn in this manner.” And I’m not saying there isn’t a benefit to watching some classes and writing combinations, but it was very harmful. During this period of time, I became depressed. I started yo-yo-ing with my eating going from not a fun eating disorder but very disordered eating patterns, to just eating everything in sight, going to parties and doing drugs because they made me feel better. And, goodness, all these horrible coping skills that I learned, essentially, from the people around me, was because there was no one showing me positive coping skills. My family was 3,000 miles away. They lived in an apartment. At 17, it was really hard. I just really struggled to come back from that. I really, really struggled to come back from that. I think that’s as far as I’m gonna go on that one right now.

Dear Younger Me

It’s interesting because I have the benefit of everything I’ve learned over the course of writing and working on Minding the Gap. I also have the benefit of not being 17 anymore. So how much of it would have sunk in? I’m not totally sure. I think, most importantly, just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true. That’s something my colleague, Dr. Lisa Barlow, says often, and I just love it. And I still to this day, stop myself and say, “What was that? What was that thought?” “That’s not true.” Your thoughts are not facts.

So many dancers try to please others, and especially so many females do. It’s very easy to get into this cycle of, “Well, they hate me.” “Well, that was terrible.” You can get into this thought cycle that is really damaging and not serving you. I think self-talk is maybe one of the most powerful things a young dancer can shift and something I really wish somebody at some point had just said, “What you’re thinking isn’t true. It’s not.” If you’re having negative thoughts, like “I’m the worst dancer in this class.” Well, is that thought helping you? Is it? Is it? Because maybe it is for some people. Maybe it’s like, yeah, it’s motivating the heck out of me. And here I go. And I’m working so hard because I’m going to prove them wrong. But then for others, it’s just completely defeating. Is that thought actually helping me? I think that is the very beginning of the seed of self-esteem. And I really wish that I would try to impart that on myself. Then the next progression from that is just because your teacher says it, doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because your partner says it, doesn’t mean it’s true. I think that would have been a life-changing perspective for me.

These tools are so simple. Most of the best advice that I get from psychologists around mental health skills are self-talk. That’s so simple, but most people don’t even recognize you’re having a thought. It’s just this stream running through your head. Whereas, if you practice, and it does take practice, you can actually pick those things out and think, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you slow down here. Where are you going? That’s not what this is?” It takes practice.

Writing, Minding the Gap, and Other Ventures

I got into writing during that difficult time in San Francisco. I kept a very detailed journal, which is pretty terrifying to look at now, but groundin, as well. When I stopped dancing a few years later, I didn’t know who I was. I had developed no identity outside of dance. I had no idea who I was. And my mom asked me. I remember it was like, “Well, I’m gonna go to college, but what am I gonna do in college?” I had decided not to dance. I was done with dance. For me, it was all or nothing, and I was at the nothing point. I could have nothing to do with it. My mom asked me, “What else makes you happy? What else do you enjoy?” And that should not be a hard question.

I realized that one thing that made me feel better when I was really sad was writing in this journal. It’s the one positive thing I did for myself. I did it just to vent. I didn’t even realize that I was utilizing a coping strategy. I was, and I really enjoyed it. People would say things like, “Oh, you have a way with words” and stuff like that.  “Well, I’ll go to school for writing.” So I went to school for writing. I majored in fiction because I didn’t want to have to write about dance and I was afraid of nonfiction to write about dance. Then in fiction class, they said, “Where’s your story about dance?” Then I started taking nonfiction as well and some journalism and I actually fell madly in love with nonfiction writing. I graduated just in time for the recession, yay. And graduating from college during the recession and starting a business during the pandemic, is awesome. My timing is great.

Maybe there’s something about the way you have to scrape and strive. I went to the University of Pittsburgh, and I got a writing degree, a fantastic program. I loved it. And when I graduated, I was working in retail. It was a decent job. I had some money but getting started in writing is hard. You have to be published to get published, and you ask, how do I get on this carousel? I think I should try and get an internship with a magazine or something because I love magazines. I am a magazine junkie. When you see me on an airplane, I’ve got like seven magazines. I love the good ones. I love the trashy ones. I love magazines. And so I saw an opportunity to apply for an internship with Dance Magazine. Well, I mean, I know about dance. So maybe they’ll accept me. And they did. And for me, when I walked through the door that first day, it was like, “Okay, I just have to get through this. It’s a means to an end.” I fell in love with dance writing. I discovered that having a voice in dance, one felt very empowered to be in a space where I once felt so muted and canceled and forgotten and to finally be able to speak out loud. Using actual words in that space is an incredibly, freeing, and therapeutic thing for me. 

In addition, I started really loving that I could ponder on the questions and things like what do you wish you had known?  Or what do you wish you could have learned? And really dig into them. And every article I’ve written has come from a place of wishing I had known this or wishing someone had told me that. I really fell in love with that process. And because of Dance Magazine, Dance Media, Pointe, Dance Teacher, and Spirit, when you’re doing fairly well for one, you start getting passed around. I started looking at it through different lenses, sometimes, through the lens of a teacher. Dance Spirit, being composed of younger competition dancers, was an interesting practice as well. That is how I got into it. It was completely by accident.

Blessed are the Vulnerable

There’s so many incredible things about dance that help you. But I would also argue not to be a Negative Nelly. But for those people who are feeling like they don’t quite fit in dance, especially in this way, is what you and I are discussing right now. Those things that make you unique and special will also serve you right. Your vulnerability will serve you, your empathy will serve you. Taking that internship at Dance Magazine changed my life. It changed the whole course of my life. It has led me to doing some of the most meaningful things I could even imagine, finding a feeling of purpose. That is not identity. Like it’s based in my beliefs. It’s not based on who I am. It was terrifying walking into that office that day with the emotional way I felt about dance at the time. It took remarkable vulnerability to do it. I kind of can’t believe I did.

Who’s on your Board of Directors?

Going back to one of my collaborators of Minding the Gap, when we work with dancers, something that she’s asked them before is who’s on your board of directors. So think about the board of directors that lives in your head. Essentially, the guidance and opinions that matter to you. Who put them there? Did you put them there? Is there someone at that table that you did not put there? Why is that person there? Is it because they have a title and power? Or is it because you genuinely care about their opinion and feel that they care about you? 

The Dancer’s Plight

From the perspective of teachers and dance leadership, the way a teacher was taught was never really disputed outside of the dance bubble. It just perpetuates. And the words coming out of our mouths are often the same words that came out of our teachers’ mouths. We can, in that way, unknowingly pass on trauma. And there’s almost this idea that you have to suffer. “Right? Well, that’s how it’s done. That’s how I was taught. That’s how you make resilient dancers.” I mean, I have to prepare my favorite one. I have to prepare them for what it’s like to be a professional dancer. That’s some really dysfunctional energy you’ve got going on there. If you’re like me, I have to be mean and borderline abusive to young dancers because I need to prepare them for the abuse they’re going to get as professionals. How about we just direct that energy where it needs to go? Which is towards, “Why is it like that? Dancing hard enough? It’s hard just to just do it. Well. It’s hard.” You know what? It’s so hard.

How Minding the Gap all began

I wrote an article in 2017 called “Why are We Still So Bad at Addressing Dancers’ Mental Health” where I shared my personal story around my mental health. After doing hundreds of interviews with dancers and mental health professionals and such, I had come to these little things we can do that will start to change the mental health of dancers in the environment. And so I wrote this article and it went viral. It’s one of the most read articles Dance Magazine ever published, which was absolutely dumbfounding to me. It was a very comforting feeling, “Hey, I guess people relate to you. You’re not some weak loser.” But at the same time, it was like “Wow, I did not need this much company in this. This is not okay.” That so many people relate to this experience. So Minding the Gap was really born out of that. Because I had people reaching out to me from all over the world, dancers and mental health professionals and teachers and saying, “We’re with you. Let’s do this. How are we going to change it?” That’s kind of like, “I’m going to figure that out.” For me, it felt like a moral mandate.         I was seeing this so clearly. And because of my writing, connections with people and the mental health professionals that specialize in working with dancers, I can pick up the phone and call them at any moment and say, “Okay, let’s figure this out.”

Done is Better than Perfect

In terms of how it’s going, Minding the Gap officially launched and I got the LLC for it in 2019, though, of course, there was a lot of work leading up to that. And in the same year, I was accepted into a startup incubator here in Pittsburgh, which was a really amazing experience because, well, first, I’ve never been an entrepreneur before and second, my professional background, outside of writing, is in nonprofit fundraising. So transitioning my mindset from the nonprofit world to the entrepreneurial startup world was massive. It was a massive step. 

I think one of the things I’ve learned most about being an entrepreneur that I’ve taken away is perfect is the enemy of good. I could waste a whole bunch of time trying to create, but done is better than perfect. If I had held on to my perfectionistic striving, I don’t think Minding the Gap would exist because it’s hard for me. Well, “This video isn’t perfect,” but you know what? It’s going on! It’s just got to go up. That’s been an interesting learning. 

My Quest for Data

So we did this incubator. And the whole time, I’ve been hungry for data because when I talk to leadership, often I feel that there’s some of them that want to believe this is my opinion. “Well, that’s your opinion.” I hear that a lot. “That’s your opinion. That was your experience. It’s not like that here. We know a psychologist.” All these things that they run the gauntlet from “Well, I’m sorry, you’ve had a rough time.” And l say, “That’s not what this is about.” You’re not listening. 

Essentially, I was frustrated that there’s not enough data, especially in the United States. So there is some really amazing data, and I don’t want to imply there’s no data. There’s some amazing researchers out there doing amazing work, but they can only produce so much data. It’s a small group. And most of it is happening in the UK and Australia. So there’s not as much data on dancers in the United States. Though, looking up, Dr. Paula Thompson and Dr. Victoria Jacques, if anyone’s interested in some fascinating data about dancers in the United States, they’ve done some research. There’s a lot around eating disorders and perfectionism, but there’s not a ton around anxiety and depression. These kinds of core building brought back issues that lead to those things or contribute to those things. And I really felt I needed some data to be, “Look, this isn’t my opinion. Here is some data.” Um, so I wasn’t finding exactly what I wanted. That’s kind of where the kind of research aspect of Minding the Gap came from. 

We’ve done several informal surveys. One was on the Dance Magazine website and one was on our own social channels. And then we’re actively participating in two IRB-approved clinical research projects right now. So the research part of Minding the Gap is very important to me because I feel like it brings things to light. It just brings this out in the light like the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. “You guys, let’s talk about it.” 

Then the other aspect of it is wanting to create meaningful programs. Our mission is to see mental health in dance culture regarded with the same seriousness as physical health. I believe that that requires systemic change. You know, there are great mental health professionals and coaches for dancers out there working one-on-one, which I think is so important. I believe it’s important to address the individual. But if that individual is then turning around and walking back into a dance environment that is toxic or doesn’t fully understand crafting language to minimize trauma, then they’re just getting a cycle of getting hurt over and over and over again. I also think that current and former dancers are the majority of the dance audience, and we need to honor the dancers in our schools and companies. They are the financial livelihood of this art form. Let’s create dancers who, when they move on from dance, don’t avoid going to performances for three years like me. The only reason I started going, aside from having friends who were still dancing, I was writing about dance.

We want to develop programs that can help institutions to fundamentally change the culture of their schools to include mental health culture, and that includes a lot of work with teachers and leadership, that includes work with dancers because it really is more complicated than “Oh, well. Here’s our psychologist.” Go talk to that person. They’re not going to go.

Psychologists for Dancers

I do think it’s possible to see someone who was not a dancer themselves being a psychologist for dancers. And in some ways, it’s sometimes helpful to have that person. I was talking to a dancer the other day that was talking about their therapist who has never been a dancer but has worked with athletes and such. 

I think it’s interesting to see there are lots of different ways for people to get to being that right person. I do think that anyone can be a dance therapist, even if they have experience in similar pursuits. I actually think gymnastics and Minor League Baseball have some very interesting parallels to what it feels like to be a dancer or be in football, swimming, and track. If the professional understands those things: that they need to come into the studio, they need to spend some time in a dance studio, and they need to come to performances and make themselves familiar. 

Identity as a Dancer, Creativity for an Entrepreneur, and Persistence

I talk a lot about identity, and I give dancers a very hard time about needing to diversify their identity. It should be multifaceted, and it should be a pretty long list. And this is not just having “I am a dancer,” on your t-shirt. An absolutely intrinsic part of my identity is that I was a dancer. It always will be. It in my DNA. It has shaped me in both very positive and very negative ways as anything in which you immerse yourself completely. I think that when it comes to being an entrepreneur, you have to be creative. And I know this is gonna sound silly, but there’s something about being a person who learned how to move your body through space, who learned how to fall correctly, physically fall correctly, who learned how to land a jump, and a turn and all that I know. That sounds silly, but I just feel like there’s this connection between getting yourself off-kilter and creativity. I think that definitely is programmed into your brain like a dog with a bone. That also comes from dance. 

I hate petit allegro but I did it almost every day of my life for almost 20 years. Do you know what I’m saying? You got to do that to do everything else. And so I think that when we talk about how resilient dancers are, that’s the kind of resilience we should be looking at, not she can handle getting yelled at in rehearsal. She can do Lego even though she hates it.

There’s that kind of phrase: “If you love it, you’ll never work a day in your life,” kind of thing. If you can find that job you love, you’re never working. I’m calling BS on that a little bit. Every job has moments or things that you just don’t want to do, but are absolutely vital to what you’re doing. And I think dancers are really good at that. We’re really good at that. I hate transcribing interviews. Oh my goodness. I can procrastinate transcribing an interview like you can’t even imagine, and yet it’s an absolutely vital part of my writing process. Like if I were to have someone else transcribe it, the art of putting together that story and weaving together that narrative that is happening while I’m sitting there typing out every word each person I interviewed said, that’s where I start seeing the fabric and the links and the important salient consistencies. That’s just an example. But I think that serves me in everything and I do think that comes from dance. I think that fortitude comes from dance.

Create Boundaries 

You can’t be everything to everyone. People will reach out to me, and they want me to collaborate on something or they want to talk. I want to give all of myself to all these people, but I can’t physically please everyone. That’s hard and that’s another part of being an entrepreneur. I think it’s part of when you’re building a business. It’s part of understanding who you are, but also understanding who you’re not and creating boundaries. Those are things you have to do as an entrepreneur. 

Everyone Needed

This is a really, really large ship and it’s going to take a lot of water to raise it. So everyone who has it in their ability to be expressive about this has to work towards changing this. We need all the troops. We need everyone. We really do. Everyone brings something different and special to the conversation and different skills. And it’s actually been wonderful to see over the last few years. 

What’s Cooking?

There are a couple things on the website that I think can be helpful for people. At the beginning of the pandemic, I started something called the Mental Health Town Hall Series. I ended up doing three of those. They are recorded interviews on various topics related to dancers living through this pandemic. We did one that was on Identity. So we have Biscuit Ballerina on with Dr. Brian Goodman, who’s one of my collaborators. We did one on Food and Body Image with Katherine Morgan. We did one on “When COVID-19 Means It’s over”. There’s so many dancers that have been forced into retirement because of this or have retired with no fanfare or don’t know if they’re retired. There’s so much closure that’s being lost right now. So that was part of it, too. So that’s on wearemindingthegap.org under Resources Town Hall. That resources page has tons and tons of phone numbers and links to mental health resources that are available to people, hotlines, etc. So if someone’s feeling lost and they don’t really know what that first step can be, there’s a first step on that page. I hope that they will look at that. 

We’ve talked about identity a lot in our conversation today. And so I’m about to launch a diversifying identity, kind of a conversation video series. And in the first one, I interview the Editor in Chief of Dance Magazine, and the Editor in Chief of Point, and it’s the three of us discussing how we got into dance writing and how to write a good pitch, what editors are looking for, and all these things, because I find a lot of dancers have been reaching out, wanting to know about my writing, wanting to know about mental health careers. The silver lining in all this is that we’re spending more time with ourselves having to imagine a life outside of dance. And while that’s incredibly painful, I think it’s also incredibly healthy. And so I want to help with that. This is the time to imagine and seek out the other things that make you happy.


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Past Episodes 

There is a better way to pursue ballet at the professional level. Instead of dancers pushing beyond their body’s limits, there is a healthier way to train your body, your mind and your spirit to soar. To become the best at your craft, you must be healthy. The mentality of surviving to make a performance perfect is an old paradigm that needs to change. As athletes, dancers must thrive in order to shine and connect with their audience. This new approach, leads to fulfillment, strength and longevity. It allows you to give more of your heart and soul on stage, creating an unforgettable experience that moves your audience. And that’s the whole pointe.