Suanne connects with Arianna from Dancers Anonymous about what is not being done to support this neglected topic of artist mental health and how Arianna is filling this gap.
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A safe place to share | Dancers Anonymous
Who is Arianna?
Arianna is the founder and social media lead of Dancers Anonymous. She created this page hoping to help dancers, address the way dancers are treated, and ultimately foster a more inclusive and healthy environment that helps artists thrive rather than beating them down. After her own experience dancing professionally, struggling with mental health, and recovering from disordered eating, Dancers Anonymous and the stories are being shared through her and others to remind them that we all can implement change if we really, truly want to.
I grew up with the pretty typical ballerina dream like you fall in love at age three and just want to keep doing it. After high school, I joined a trainee program with a pretty prominent US company. I, unfortunately, had a very negative experience and ended up developing disordered eating and also feeling extremely depressed and anxious all the time, which were new things for me to deal with. I came to the realization after about six months into the season that I was just not going to be happy in the career and it wasn’t for me and that I had a lot of things I had to deal with that I had learned over the years without even realizing it just like unrealistic body standards and unrealistic high expectations just of myself to perform always and be perfect always.
There was so much built up to this and I just cracked and there were no resources for me to turn to in the company that I was in or in the broader dance community that at least that I was aware of at the time. And so I was forced to pick between do I keep dancing and throw my mental, physical health aside or do I take care of myself. And I ultimately chose to take care of myself, which was a very difficult decision. It shouldn’t have to be but it was. I felt pretty bitter towards dance for a good four or five years after I quit. I just wanted to get as far away from it as I could. I just stopped dancing entirely, went back to school, studied something totally unrelated, and cut dance out of my life for a little bit.
And then the pandemic hit and everyone was forced to think about all those things that they hadn’t thought about and just sit with their thoughts and feelings. I really realized that ballet was still affecting me and it was still affecting all of my friends in really difficult ways for me to process. The trigger point for me was watching Catherine Morgans talk about her experience at Miami City Ballet. I remember watching this video sitting there and then just like a waterfall because it brought everything back for me.
Like this is still happening to people, to like prominent dancers who are loved by their community. And then they’re going to these companies being treated just like absolute trash and no one even cares. Like there were so many people just like, oh, well, she’s lazy. I’m sure that there’s more of the story, but you could see in her speech, the way she talked, how much pain she had gone through. It really reminded me of myself and about so many other people that I knew that were going through the same thing.
I was like, okay, I can’t keep sitting here and watching this. I need to do something. So I basically thought, wouldn’t it be really powerful if all of us were sharing our stories because it would reinforce in each other that confidence to share things because if it’s just one person sharing, it’s nothing. But if we can all come together and kind of talk about it, maybe we can finally move away from all of this really archaic structure that’s just holding us back and really limiting the dance community, specifically the ballet community, which I come from, but it’s across the spectrum of the dance community. Everyone’s going through this to some degree.
So we created me and my two friends that I grew up with and dance with, which is such a beautiful thing because we have so many shared experiences and we’re so close already as friends. And we’re just putting all of our talents into this project, Dancers Anonymous. It’s basically an anonymous storytelling platform. We have a completely anonymous form that you fill out, no personal information. You just write whatever you want, click submit. We don’t know who it comes from. My lovely friend Mara turns it into a beautiful graphic and we share it through Instagram and through our website. We’ve so far had, I think now 35 stories since we started in February, which is excellent. We’re all really happy with our progress.
It’s both exciting and beautiful to watch other people sharing and people commenting and saying, yes, I’ve gone through this, like thank you for sharing this and people being so receptive, but it’s also really hard because you keep reading these stories and you’re just like, how is this happening? It’s a very mixed emotion for me. I’m so proud and happy that we’re doing this, but I’m also really sad to read a lot of the stories, and hopefully sharing them will help us start addressing them.
At this point, I feel like people are talking but not being heard. And hopefully, the more that people talk and come together and work together as a community, then eventually we can become irrelevant, which I talked to you about that our ultimate goal is we don’t want to be relevant to the dance world, we don’t want to have to exist, but unfortunately, we need to right now.
There were a couple of factors. This is kind of a loaded statement, but I think I had a good dance community that I grew up with. I say that’s loaded because I know that the same teachers that were really supportive of me and really gave everything to me also couldn’t or chose not to give that to everyone and that different people at my studios had different experiences with different teachers. So for me personally, I had a lot of support from basically every single teacher that I grew up with. I wouldn’t call myself a naturally gifted ballet dancer. I didn’t have the legs, the feet, all that, but I wanted to work really hard and I would just express that to different teachers that I grew up with. Like, I want this, I want to work hard. I want to train, I want to do private lessons. I want to push myself and they were receptive, and they said, okay, you don’t have everything, but we can work together and you can get there. And I believe in you, basically. That was the kind of support that helped me get as far as I got and that they really did watch my processing from struggling. When I started pointe, I like barely got over my shoe. Like it was not good.
And I went from that to now that I’m removed from it, I’m so proud of the dancer I became because I worked so hard for every single inch of flexibility and like all the way I got over my shoe. One of my very favorite teachers of all time is still one of my best friends she tells me to this day how proud of me she is and how she’s never seen anyone work as hard as me. There was a lot of personal connection and I came from small studios that really invested in us as people. Of course, I can see the flaws in all of my teachers because of their own trauma, but I really felt like they came to me with the most honest version of themselves that they could give. They really wanted me to succeed because they saw how much fire I had in me. I worked my butt off and they were willing to work with someone who wanted to put the time in. There are plenty of students who just won’t work or don’t want to work or whatever, and a good teacher wants to work with a student who wants to work at the end of the day.
I know that my experience from my position was really different from other people’s. I do still deal with my own little traumas from that too because it’s like how does it feel to be like that student? And then you have so much to live up to. There are plenty of other layers to that. But to get back on track, I felt like I had support from my teachers. I come from an immigrant family which my father is from the former Eastern bloc. So it was very much this mentality of like you push yourself, you keep going.
My dad would always say like, you’re the best, doesn’t matter what anyone else says, you’re the best. And you have to always remember you come first. No one else comes before you, because he came from an environment where he felt like nothing because of the amount of poverty and just like depression that he lived in, that he had to lift himself up out of that. So he raised me with a similar albeit flawed, but the similar mentality, which carried him through all of that difficulty and raise me to always keep going and always put myself first, no matter what that looks like. And that kind of like screw everyone else. Like if you’re not happy, it doesn’t matter. Keep looking and keep going. And so I’ve had a lot of support from my family as well in that way.
I think that I just realized one day that I went from being a really strong, healthy, and honestly happy dancer, I was not like thrilled with myself, but I was like, I’m a solid dancer, to losing so much weight that I couldn’t do things that I loved anymore. I couldn’t balance anymore the same way. I was just so thin that I had no energy and I had no strength. So dancing didn’t feel the same for me. I was like this isn’t even funny. Like, what is the point? Why am I doing this? I just felt so sad that one day I couldn’t get out of bed and go to class. I had always been at every single class for my entire life. Like I was that addicted to it that I was like, go, go, go. And then one day I just couldn’t. And so I was like, I can’t go. I can’t. Even if I go, I can’t do the things I want to do. I feel like I’m being treated like crap and why would I keep going and doing this? And so it was hard, but it was also easy because it was like, why keep going? Like there’s no point anymore.
About Dancer’s Anonymous
The day-to-day depends on how much engagement we get, which we’ve had really great engagement with, but we don’t really push people to share anything that they’re not ready to share. It’s just an open resource for people. Sometimes we have like one story a week. Sometimes we have three or four and it just all depends on if people see something and want to share it or someone shares the page with them. Really right now, we’re just hoping to keep building our community and keep connecting with other people who are passionate about talking about these things and changing them. There are plenty of dancers out there whose career either profits off of other people failing. There are so many just silent voices that are out there and finding those silent voices and igniting them is tricky, but that’s what we’re working towards.
And so anyone that resonates with a story or just with what we’re doing or wants to share their story, like spreading that word as far as we can get it is our ultimate goal right now. It’s like getting more people to engage because we’ve had a great engagement. We want to get even better engagement. And then just like sharing resources with each other. Like we always reshare resources that we think could help dancers or posts that we think could help dancers. So like if someone is producing content that fits in like we want to connect and we want to work together.
The next steps
Our next step is we have a lot of people sharing through the written anonymous form. It’s great. It’s awesome. Our next step is to introduce a peer support group for dancers where they actually come and talk to each other about things in a safe environment that is not associated with any sort of company, organization, anything. It’s just a safe space for dancers to come, talk about whatever they have to talk about, and leave. And that hopefully this continues to build that initial thing of you share your story and you start to talk about it, and then you talk about it to other people. And then we have a bigger conversation. And then we as a community, which is like the majority of the community want things to change. There are very few people actually, though they’re prominent, actually want this to stay the same, but they have all the power right now, but in the numbers of the people that want to change it, we have the power to push for change. That’s our next step in building a larger and larger and larger conversation.
Standing up for me
It’s really hard to take that step and stand up for yourself though. I think also just the nature of especially ballet, but all forms of dance we’re very much like the seen not heard and we don’t really have a voice in anything. We are just told what to do and we’re given very strict standards to meet. I feel like this also affects me personally. I’ve really had to unlearn that in a lot ways of like, no one’s telling me what to do. I have to tell myself what to do. I have to make my own decisions, and someone else’s vision for me is not my own vision for me. It’s really hard and it affects us in so many more ways than we even realize. The way that we see the world is just different.
I think that the more we can give dancers a space for that voice that they don’t have or they feel like they don’t have, even though they do, but they don’t feel safe to express it because every time they do, then they get backlash in their company or in their organization. The more we can give them that, then the more we can actually create a dance world where it’s not just top-down like this is what you do. And if you don’t meet this standard, then you’re not good enough. Hopefully, we can eliminate that. Well, it’s a lot of work.
Career transition for dancers
I think that another really important aspect, which we’re not necessarily full-on addressing now, but would like to address eventually would be a better career transition for dancers because it’s so hard to do anything except own a studio as a dancer. It feels so isolating. When I pushed myself out, like did that to myself and put myself in a new environment, it took me so long to actually get to a place where I was like doing okay. I feel like there were so many random little skills that I just didn’t know or never learned because I had such a different and particular upbringing and the way that that mentality impacted me and still impacts me. It’s like so much to unlearn and that takes so much time and so many resources like we don’t account for that. So like expecting a dancer to just career transition on their own is a lot. And I think that the resources that are out there are just not sufficient or don’t address it properly.
Bio of Arianna:
Arianna is the Founder and Social Media Lead for Dancers Anonymous. She created this page hoping to help change the way dancers are treated and ultimately foster a more inclusive and healthy environment that helps artists thrive rather than beating them down. After her own experience dancing professionally, struggling with mental health, and recovering from an eating disorder, Dancers Anonymous and the stories being shared through it remind her, and all of us, that we are not alone and all want to see things change for the better. This page is both an expression of her own experience and a place for you to share yours, free from judgment or repercussion.
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