The status in Mental Health. A conversation with the founders of Dance Better, a mental health podcast for dancers.

GUEST CONVERSATIONS

April 9, 2021

 

Susanne Puerschel’s guests in this episode are, Sarah Schiewer and Courtney Ulrich who are former dancers, now massage therapists who share a mutual passion for mental wellness and dancers. They are bringing together mental health experts from all corners of the ballet world to explore how dance training impacts the mental health of dancers and what they can do to help them “Dance; Better.”

 

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The status in Mental Health. A conversation with the founders of Dance Better, a mental health podcast for dancers.

Susanne  

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Pointe To Rise Podcast. I am so grateful that you are here. Today we have two special guests that are the founders of the Band’s Better podcast, which I was honored to be a guest on already. And today Sarah and Courtney are going to be our guests. So Sarah  Schiewer, a former dancer and now a massage therapist, will share a mutual passion for mental wellness and dancers. Sarah, who danced professionally, is now the owner of Tech Valley, a virtual Ballet School that incorporates mental fitness into each and every ballet class.  Courtney Ulrich is a wellness coach who helps young women level up their relationship with their body image, emotional health, and self-worth. The two have joined forces to form Dance Better and mental health podcasts for dancers. They bring together mental health experts and dancers from all corners of the world to create a safer dance world for everybody. I am so excited about this conversation; I’m confident that it will offer you a lot of content. And without further ado, here are Sarah and Courtney. Sarah Hello, Courtney.   Hi, how are you? Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. I’m glad and honored to have you. I cannot wait to have a conversation with you because I really want to dive into why you’re doing what you’re doing. I am so grateful that you have put it as your mission to make a difference in the dance and ballet world. And we’re going to dive all into this today. Let’s start with individual introductions.

Courtney  

I’m gonna let Sarah take the road. I was just gonna say the same thing.

Sarah  

Oh, goodness. Well, hello, everyone. My name is Sarah Schiewer. Formerly Sarah Hammers, my maiden name. And I have been involved in the ballet community since I was three years old. So about 35 years. I started as a little baby.  I was a pre-professional student. I danced professionally for about six years, both here in the United States and overseas. And then I got my degree at the University and tried corporate America for a few years. Not for me. All the while, I was teaching Ballet when I retired. And then I went back to massage school, actually, which is where I met Courtney.  That’s where I’m at today. I now own my own virtual ballet school. We’ll dive into that, in a little bit here coming up. But um, yeah, that’s, that’s me in a nutshell. 

Susanne

Where? What corporate America Job did you have? And why did you go there? 

Sarah  

So right out of college, I was hired as a customer service representative for MotionWear, a leotard company. I’m sure you’re all familiar with them. They’ve since closed. I still see them on Instagram. So I’m not really sure. But yeah, so I was a customer service representative. So if you own a dancewear retail shop, then if you were placing an order on the phone for some stock, I would be the person you spoke to. I did some catalog choreography for them, too. And then eventually, I did some sales as well. So I loved working with all the dancers and studio owners and stuff like that. I loved that aspect because I could stay connected to the dance community, but just basically staying chained to a desk for eight hours a day is not for me.

Susanne  

Oh, I hear you. Okay, thank you for now.

Courtney  

Hello, everybody. My name is Courtney. I’m looking forward to sharing a little bit, I guess, about myself. So I, too, started in the ballet world when I was three. I had a very traditional ballet experience throughout my grade school years until graduating high school. Then after that, I had a pretty unconventional path. I’m 25. So it’s only been maybe seven, or eight years since I graduated high school. But since then, I’ve had many shifts and changes in direction a little bit, still finding my footing. I grew up in a very Russian training school, all through middle school in high school. About seven years old was when I decided, well, I’m going to be a professional dancer when I grow up. Competed heavily at scholarship competitions throughout the end of middle school and high school. I was really loving being immersed in the ballet world, which also came with some downfalls, which we’ll get into a little bit later.

After that, I decided to go to college for dance, and actually didn’t end up doing any auditions for companies, which was unusual, given the years that I’ve said that. And then my freshman year of college, I decided to stop dancing. And from there, I stayed at the University, I went to Butler University, loved their dance program so tremendously, but had some other stuff going on. And so I, when I stepped away from dancing, stayed there for two years, kind of bounced around majors, didn’t really love anything that I was doing there anymore. So I ended up going straight to school for massage therapy, where I met Sarah. I’d always known I wanted to do something involved with dance, or the human body as I had always loved anatomy. So I was like, I don’t really want to go to PT school. So I’m just going to become a massage therapist. And so then after that, I’d stayed teaching a little bit. So I had my foot in the dance industry, even though I was not on stage. Starting to go through school and music, a career as a massage therapist, and then kind of came to a point where I left the job I had as a massage therapist. At the same time, I left my job teaching. And it was a time where I needed to make some profound changes for my own mental health. Since then, I found a job that has provided a very healthy work environment for me, and I’ve been able to find a lot more work-life balance.

 And then we through COVID, and we’ll get into that a little bit more.  But you know, I kind of started the podcasts and things like that. I kind of finally found some balance and was ready to peek a little bit back into the industry. 

Sarah  

The first question that comes to my mind is your experiences during your time in that industry. What made you want to make a difference that made you give birth to the dance better podcast? Anybody like you?  I’ll jump in.  I don’t think that my experience is super special or unique. It’s probably very similar to the experiences of many other dancers, former and current. Of course, I had the body talk several times. I tend to carry weight in my hips and my thighs. That was always a struggle for me because that’s just where my body naturally wants to be. And so I definitely had some body issues that were definitely brought on by some conversations that people above me had without naming names or anything, of course. That definitely was something that has, you know, carried through into my adulthood. But I think really, what’s really poignant for me is that I really look back on how I started teaching when I was about 18. Really I started professionally dancing, maybe 19, I started teaching, like a lot. And I think that’s not unique, either. There’s a lot of dancers out there who do that. On my level, I look back on my own mental health evolution through those years of teaching. And just really thought, wow, there have been some significant changes in my own way that I teach how I communicate with dancers. And I really wish that I had had a teacher growing up, I had outstanding teachers, but mental health was never a focus. It was never talked about; it was never incorporated into the lessons. And as I have evolved as a teacher, I’ve started incorporating it more and more. And I think making a significant impact on the students that I’ve had.  I just think it’s so important that we share the tools we’ve learned along the way from talking to all these people. Especially, with all the teachers and directors out there.  Because it’s the only way that the ballet world and our art form as a whole will continue into the future.  If we create a space and an environment where dancers are allowed to flourish as artists and grow, and to not inhibit that growth with all of these terrible, you know, practices that are so common. 

Susanne  

So one thing that stood out for me was you saying that my story isn’t unique.  I want to encourage anybody and everybody that whatever you are experiencing doesn’t need to be unique. It doesn’t need to stand out to make it wrong or not helpful or not aligning with your goals. And quite honestly, I had that same problem, too. And I had a problem. I did not question or challenge that. perception, let’s just say. I never spoke up because I was so immersed in the world. I thought, well, that’s normal. That’s just what we have to do.

Sarah  

Well, I say that because I don’t feel like I say that, because I want to tell people that it’s okay, you’re feeling this way. That not to take away from my own experience. But just to reassure your listeners that there’s a reason behind that because many of us experience it.

Susanne  

Oh, gosh, if that came across that way. 

Sarah  

No, no, I clarify. Yeah. 

Susanne  

I’m just saying that our stories don’t have to be unique to share them and make a difference in somebody else’s life. So that’s really all I want to say. 

Courtney  

I totally get that what you’re saying as far as just voicing them is powerful in and of itself. That’s something that I found very cathartic when we even shared with Sarah. Looking back, you know, early  last fall, understanding that what I had just taken on is like, these memories I had that led me down this road. They may be unique, as far as what words are said to each other. But just sharing them is really cathartic, the best word I have for that. And to answer, as far as what these moments were that led up to this,  I have some moments from very early days that really affected my body image intensely. And some days, it’s like, I totally have it figured out and other days that, like, bite me in the butt, you know, because I still have some processing to do. So, I mean, I was 10, when I first heard that, that my body wasn’t enough. I was 12 when I was competing, more so than it was like you’re on stage. There’s a lot more comparison involved there. And that’s a lot for a young mind to go through. Really. Yeah. And then as I got older, and I was, you know, in my teenage years, you go through puberty, your body changes, you turn, you’re literally changing from a 12-year-old into a young woman. There was a lot; it felt like there was no room to grow into a young woman. I had to stay in this 12-year-old body image. But even that wasn’t attainable then. So it was like I was always chasing this approval. And this people-pleasing started to come into play, that really affected body image, as well as just in general, like how I showed up even academically. I’ve always kind of been curious about the chicken or the egg situation. If people-pleasing and perfectionism was innately in me or if there were certain circumstances that kind of fueled that became part of how I showed up, if that makes sense. Yeah, such different things like moments over those 12 years of my training from seven to 19. Basically, just other phrases were said. Different looks that I had taken on as my own truth were really just someone’s opinion.  But it felt heavy because it felt like the opinion of the industry, but it was, you know, this person speaking to me. And then going to Butler was a very different experience because I had a lot of empowering teachers. And I think at that point, it was just really confusing. And I was just already feeling some burnout; I think some days it just felt like too much. It was a lot to process but it is refreshing. I’m happy. And you know, good to see that it wasn’t all my fault. However, it was just hard.

Susanne  

Wow. So Wow, that is heavy. That feels really heavy.  I want to give you a hug right now. 

Courtney  

I’m getting more comfortable talking. It’s getting easier to talk about it the more we talk about it, but I still shake. 

Susanne  

That’s okay. You know what? No, that’s so good. It is so good because of that first step and that second and third step. They’re so hard. They’re so hard sometimes. Because we think we let go of that old identity of ours.  I don’t think I’ve ever done that on the show or personally. Because body image was definitely something that during my training years was something that had led to me feeling unworthy of everything. Particular being an unfit person, regardless of what I was doing, or money or anything like that. When I left home, I was 10 years old, and I was absorbed in this high-performance mentality. And that was in the mid-80s. And I was always sent away to gain more weight because I was that little child that wouldn’t eat. My father died when I was six. And I struggled with eating like I was always too skinny. Okay. And I was immersed in a life of 15 other girls around me, like 24/7. We all know how little girls can be with each other when we’re spending too much time with each other. And we were, they were pointing at me, like calling me out to my ballet teacher saying that I’m overeating. Like, I eat two pieces of bread at night. And that’s too much. And from that moment on, like my world turned upside down. I was like, I don’t understand. But so far, I’ve heard I need to eat to gain weight. And now I can’t. They were telling me repeatedly that I’m too fat and my hips are too broad. I should not be in a unitard ever on stage because I look too much of a woman when I was 11. When puberty came I mean, it was just like, oh my god, I don’t understand what’s all this. My classmates were making fun of me, my teachers told me to stop eating, you’re fat, and not getting off the ground. And I am not over-exaggerating. It was a daily reminder. Susi, when you break your breasts, a jiggling, you need to flex those muscles in there. Things like that every single day, and particularly when you’re already so ashamed of your body.

Because you don’t know what’s going on. I’m just now, and I’m in my mid-40s, okay with having breasts as a woman because I was always ashamed. I still believe that if I want to be successful, I can see stillness. I understand that these teachers that have given us these stories have not had the opportunity to correct their beliefs from what they’ve been taught. And I’m not angry at them, nor do I give them any kind of fault or have I forgiven. 1,000% Yeah, we are now in the 21st century. It is time now that we’re changing that narrative so that the people after us can really truly live healthily. Fulfilling the dream and not stepping away with it and having that heaviness and the inability to breathe when we talk about it. Yeah. 

Courtney  

And I also think for people to look at dancers as people, and not just dancers. I mean, can we only think about that for a second? 

Sarah  

Something that you said that really kind of clicked with me was that it seemed like you were being ridiculed for your weight, so that was the way I perceived it you say it was as though it were a character flaw. And I always thought… And I still struggle now. I mean, ask my husband. I think every criticism is a criticism of my character because of every correction, not technique correction, but every comment about my body or any kind of negative. I internalize that as “Oh, you’re a terrible person.” You’re irresponsible. Like, I was injured all the time. I’m hyper-flexible, significantly, not a lot of stability. So I was always injured. I was permanently getting injured. And I just didn’t care about my body.  There was a character flaw, you know, and I think that was something. I don’t know if I was just projecting on you when I heard you talking about it. But I think that’s something that a lot of dancers struggle with. Yeah. 

Susanne  

And it’s a shame that it’s being put onto you like you are not good enough, or you are lazy or because you’re not eating. Like you don’t have enough discipline to get whatever needs to come off you. And therefore, shame on you; you shouldn’t be here. Oh, it is yucky out there. There’s like an angel like we had, we had to weigh in every week, they would take our body mass index (BMI) every year.  Our teachers had books with our weights recorded every week. And if we gained weight, we were called out in front of everybody. We were later on, hey, if you’re over 50 kilograms, you can’t do classes. All of these things were in place to shame you into showing you that you are not enough. If you have too much. 

Courtney  

Yeah. I think that that shame, too, is part of why this sledgehammer to your self-worth takes over, and it goes into other areas of your life you mentioned. Like when you’re feeling like you’re not enough, not enough for your job, not enough for your money. You are not worth (fill in the blank). Even though you feel like, at first, it is identified with your body, it can really show up in a lot of other areas of life in a very messed up way. And I definitely experienced that with, you know, out of college, starting new jobs, and understanding a living wage. And you don’t have to say yes to every opportunity. And you actually get to have a job that pays you well. And I know these are things that when my mom would say them, it’d be like, but it’s not possible, right? Like I would just get in my head, it might seem if you’re not, as I didn’t grow up with these beliefs. It might seem like, well, of course, you’re worth a job that you can pay your bills, or, well, of course, your body is going to change as you go through puberty. But of course, these things, and sometimes it’s tough to fight that when you have so much what feels like evidence in the other direction.

Susanne  

And this is why we talk.  that change in the industry is so overdue because we keep producing the same thing repeatedly, like the stories shared now. That’s what I left 30 years ago. And why are we still? So let’s talk about your podcast. What’s the vision like? I want the bigger picture, perhaps painted in every single color. I want to know it all! 

A mental health podcast just for ballet dancers. We’re bringing together mental health experts from all corners of the ballet world to explore how dance training impacts the mental health of dancers and what they can do to help them “Dance; Better.”

Courtney  

I will jump off with a start point here. When we first talked about it, I was just like, we’ll just do like a small video series or just videos, not too big, maybe three. Maybe only one person will hear it. Maybe one person will listen to this and start to have some aha moments while listening to when we spoke to each other about it. We each had aha moments. So we were like, yeah, this conversation needs to continue because, at the time, I didn’t. I was not immersed in the dance world by any means. So I didn’t have to. It’s not like I was searching for podcasts. I didn’t know if this was even out there necessarily.

My closest experience with anything like it had been Katharine Morgan’s YouTube page. And that was back in my Butler days, but it was still about the extent of what I knew was out there. So I was like, let’s start this project. Let’s do it. Let’s see where it goes. And it basically turned into I just wanted more awareness. I felt solid that this is something I think everyone knows. And I feel like I don’t understand why no one’s talking about it more. It was understood, this hidden thing that nobody wants to admit, that change needs to happen. I feel like you get through if you go through it, quote-unquote, toxic upbringing; once you leave, you leave the industry, you don’t want to turn back.

 And if you stay in the industry, you do what you can. But it’s like this idea that you don’t want to ruffle feathers, and you don’t want to disrespect anybody. So you’re going to do better by yourself. But that’s where the line stops. And so we had our first guest, Terry Hyde, and he really kind of opened this door of like, bringing it into a podcast and like, okay, we’re gonna do this thing. And I think, for me starting it, it was just getting that awareness piece. I feel like it’s grown so much by the people listening and the guests were having on and prompting other conversations to happen. Both in our communities and theoretically, they take it as their right with whoever listens to it. I want to be the first piece of this puzzle to kind of help spark some new sparks so that this keeps going. 

Sarah  

Now that we’re in it, since October, I think that was when we started, October, believe it or not, it’s almost March. Um, but I think you know that we’re starting to see more and more podcasts now that we’re in it. Just people talking on Instagram, and Suzanne, your platform we’ve gotten connected with. It’s really encouraging because it seems to be spreading; I feel like COVID was the spark, and it has spread like wildfire.

Susanne  

Covid was our permission to maybe create some waves to what you want to fire up now. Like, it’s not possible. I want to see more. I run against closed doors every single day with just the mindset of change. It so hard, and it’s gonna take forever in the ballet world. And I was like, okay, you know, what, we can definitely look at it that way. And we go on to exactly see what’s happening, or we are going to change our perspective and say, it is happening because I am starting it. My starting and passing it on to the next person is the first step, with a ripple effect that goes faster than you can imagine. And staying quiet; you know, change doesn’t happen from above. Not often change happens now. And like I was part of the Berlin Wall falling, it came from us people. Not on top. It was a mistake. It was a complete mistake. Yet it’s happened, you know, like a whole system completely crumbling.

I am so eager to see the people that are even having these beautiful places in the Ballet world now that they’re starting to speak up. Hey, actually, there is a different way. There’s a way where I don’t hurt at the end of the day. I cannot give 100% every single day. Women have got to say this. Women have cycles; like we cannot perform on our highest ability at any given point. It actually harms our overall health to do so. Like, accepting that there’s so much more research out nowadays than there was in the 90s and early 2000s that we can consider. For that to happen, we really need to acknowledge that the arts are required, like a dance. Yeah, Ballet is required. They’re important too, to the economic growth of a society, right? Yeah.

Sarah  

Absolutely. 

Susanne  

A little rant here.

Courtney  

We’re gonna go do it.

Susanne  

 It is like a “web,” which is a hard word for a German girl to say. It’s been spun for so many decades and told to us this is how we’re going to do it. And this is what it’s going to look like. And if you just cut one string, the whole thing is going to fall apart. Well, no, it’s not going to fall apart. It is only going to blossom and become better. 

Sarah  

Because I heard that word. Yes.

Susanne  

Coming up now, and I just did a podcast episode on perfectionism, actually, 

Courtney  

Yeah, we’re planning one as well here in the next couple of weeks.

Susanne  

Let’s talk about that.  Yeah, do it. Um, I feel my perception of what it really was taking to be a good dancer was I had to be perfect. That was my story, what I’ve learned that was given to me. I wonder where you were?

Sarah  

Well, I’ll say that I feel like I have a little bit of a different feeling about it. So I was surrounded, you know, I was in a tremendous pre-professional program. I have to say that my teachers were excellent. They were very caring. I have a cohort of students around me who were so tightly knit and were, so you know, just so supportive of one another. So I had a wonderful experience during that time. But I always got the sense that, you know, I would go to summer programs, too, you know, these more prominent schools across the country. I always felt that to succeed in Ballet, you had to work very hard in class, of course, and you had to dance six to eight hours a day. And then you would also need to come home and do an hour of Pilates, maybe some yoga, and fill in the blank. Even and also Yeaevennd, and have a salmon, a piece of salmon and some asparagus. And that’s it, the whole day, you know, like, I had this idea, right, of what you had to do to be a professional dancer. And I didn’t do those things. And I had an immense amount of shame and guilt around the fact that I wasn’t built that way. I had the sense that some people are just built that way. And they want to come home and do Pilates and never drink and never go out with their friends and only focus with tunnel vision on their goal. And those are the people who succeed in Ballet. And I have. Do you remember the movie, “The Turning Point”?

Susanne  

Yes, so….. 

Sarah  

In “The Turning Point”, there’s two main characters. One is the prima ballerina, who is retiring. And the other main character retired early, got married, had kids, and owns a school. Hmm. And the theme of the movie is really kind of looking down on this woman who got married and had children and owns a school because she stopped her career early and she didn’t go on like her best friend and succeed. And so I kind of always identified with that character because I always felt like oh, well, I’m not, I’m not the perfectionist. And so I’ll never really succeed at this job. But I think that it in itself is some toxic perfectionism, even though I wasn’t a perfectionist, 

Courtney  

I think I’m just watching.  I don’t know what to do with this.

Susanne  

I love everything a bit. 

Sarah  

So you know, I retired very early, I was only 25. You know, and, again, I was injured a lot. So you know, perhaps I could have used some of these mental health things that we’re all learning right now to extend my career healthfully. But I really, for many years, follow a lot of shame and guilt around the fact that I just didn’t want it. Maybe I didn’t want it enough. Or perhaps I just wasn’t crazy enough. To put it bluntly. Maybe now, I just wasn’t pathological sufficient to deserve being a dancer. 

Susanne  

Your good instinct was too strong. Jeeves Sarah. Right?

Courtney  

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, for me, I definitely have a little different experience there. Um, for me, my upbringing in Ballet was much more. Perfectionism was very present. There was no room to be imperfect, you know, daily reminders that you were less than, that kind of thing. So that’s where it really felt like you know, it’s you, it wouldn’t necessarily say it in so many words about you needing to be perfect. Still, it was in the perception of other things, or sometimes, it was blunter. But I definitely carried that as an idea with Ballet.

Ballet is perfection. If I do Ballet, I have to be perfect. If I succeed in Ballet, I have to be perfect. And that there’s no room for less than ideal. And that’s where I think that’s probably the most robust missed truth that carried into adulthood. Because I have found myself, I’m getting better at it. But I find I really struggled with giving myself permission to be less than perfect. Because whether it was like choosing a career, that wasn’t what I thought about. Allowing myself to be okay with what my body looks like, I can exercise this way instead of that way. It’s an idea that if it strays from what I perceive is perfection, it’s like, well, I can’t do that because that’s not good. That’s not right. This is the only thing that’s allowed. So I have to do this, I have to look like this, I have to behave like this. Which is not healthy. 

Susanne  

 I did some research about perfectionism. Because I am, I’m definitely recovering like it was in my way, for the longest time, trying to start a business and then be perfect. It just doesn’t work. It’s like water and fire together. Like you sit in that inaction your entire life. Like it’s just not going to happen.  Perfectionism is actually a clinically diagnosed illness, like a mental disease. Which applied over a long term of time, will then also have physical showings. Like anxieties, stage fright, eating disorders, depression, you name it, all of these can be signs that people have been under the influence of perfectionism.

Perfectionism also keeps you from learning new things that you can know and like. How dare I be under the impression that after I left school, I’m done with learning, and cannot invest time into education. I am only investing time in maintaining. Because that needs to be perfect. What  I discovered that I’m, like, oh, I’m now going to help development. So I heard yesterday that self-development gives you permission and the tools to think more and better. So for me, personally I had this aha moment around if I would have had self-development in my early career I literally could have been everything that I wanted to be when I was a little girl. I was in my way. That was everything that held me back from stepping up. You know, I had the body. I had it all. I had to position. I had the people that wanted to work with me and push me into that position. I didn’t have the tools.

Yeah, um, so the three of us know that self-development is an ongoing process. It’s never gonna end; there’s no perfectionism. There are, you know, lows and highs. It’s learning how to know yourself and how to deal with things if we had the perfect world and training or companies.  Tell me what would we do?  Let’s just play stupid idea time. Our creative juices going? Yeah, I actually renamed it to brilliant ID time because there’s no stupid idea. Let’s play brilliant ID time. Like what would it look like to you right now? I’m in companies or even schools, because that’s where your expertise is. What would that look like? Like body training versus mental training? 

Perfectionism also keeps you from learning new things that you can know and like Click To Tweet

Perfectionism also keeps you from learning new things that you can know and like

Sarah  

For me, something that comes to mind instantly is language. If we can adjust the language 

Courtney  

Oh, sorry. Sorry. I thought I was wanted or something.

Susanne  

Another product that comes to mind is Cart, So go ahead, language. 

Sarah  

Yeah. So language is really something that I think comes to mind. Because it’s something that felt very detrimental to me. So it’s quick on, okay, that needs to be fixed, in my opinion. And so we’re just the words you’re using, going beyond saying negative, you know, don’t say negative, say something positive. But even just, at the moment in a private lesson for your competition solo. For example, changing that, that language too. Instead of, why did you do that wrong, like, try that again, try it this way, right, just kind of shifting your words to be more positive and encouraging. But even just like words, in general, at the end of class, passing in the hallway, anything, just like having a culture of encouragement. This is something that I’ve come across in my self-growth this last year. I guess you could call it an idea if it’s foreign to you.

Nevertheless, this idea of speaking life over people, and just, you know, believing in them. Even when they don’t believe in themselves, can you imagine how happy and successful dancers would be?  If everywhere they looked, their teacher was encouraging them and building them up and saying, you could get this? It’s in you. Let’s try it this way. Let’s, you know, let’s try again tomorrow as you can to see that positivity would be incredible. For teachers to verbalize and vocalize to their students. And the other way of that has words on the walls, right? If your studio is empty, put up a poster with an encouraging quote or something that is a visual reminder for your students that you put that there so you believe it. So it just kind of reinforces that idea. I’m also a very visual person. So visible and verbal encouraging words, I think that is something that I’d love to see in each studio. 

Susanne  

And I, because there’s what we’re a jumped up and down voice, the ability to speak, the ability to form different words. Um, I believe, and please correct me if you disagree. Dancers are not very flexible in expressing themselves. And here’s the thing, like, when you talk to dancers, they don’t like talking like professional dancers, quite honestly. Like, we’re using their words, having an array of words available to express their emotions, and understanding what these words actually can provoke, as in terms of emotions in the other person.  So if we think of dancers who are now in teaching positions and haven’t gone down the self-discovery lane yet, they will then just repeat what they’ve been taught. Right now.

Not using your ability to speak because you haven’t yet explored what that looks like. Because you think you’re a dancer, and you just can’t talk because you never have, that was my story. Definitely, yeah. Held me back from speaking all the time. So I think that is such an essential component in what we can do to change is actually look at people that are really, really good with their words. Look at people that, and I’m not talking about people in the ballet industry, like I’m talking about Will Smith and Rene Brown. You know, all of these people that are out there that are making a difference and are really highly into self-development, like Rene is probably already way up here. Like we take Adele, like coaches that are just starting out now, for example, you know, like, imitate their way of talking and then get into the thinking, but I think that would make me totally agree and help to make such a big difference. Because it’s not coming from a place of lack and fear and power. It’s coming from a place of love. And that’s what we’re not seeing in the industry. There is no love there; it is only to work hard. I have to break you down so I can build you back up, that kind of thing.

Courtney  

I think, just to add one small tangent, a lot of this resistance is like, well, it’s been done this way forever. It’s that the argument people have can produce good dancers. So why should we touch it? But on the other side, sometimes I just want to take on a school. Can we do a one-semester study? Let’s just pretend that this works for one semester and just see what results we get, And I wish to call and say, let’s just try it. 

Sarah  

Yeah, I agree entirely, Courtney. And I think that what’s interesting is if we raise our kids, and when I say our kids, I mean, our students, if we raise our students to not accept these things, and we raise our kids to have a voice. They’re going to grow up, and they’re going to own schools, and they’re going to be the directors. And they’re going to be the choreographers. And they’re going to want to facilitate the same kind of upbringing that they received. Because as humans, that’s how we’re programmed. Unless there’s an interruption of therapy or some sort of intervention. We’re going to repeat our history. If we’re starting over and Suzanne, you talked about teachers who maybe don’t have that self-awareness yet, that they don’t have a voice. I really encourage studio owners out there to do training, team team-building training with you. I don’t want to say employees because that’s a whole other podcast.

Because quite often, we’re not employees, but we’re treated like employees. But to have your team come together and do some training. Like Courtney said, how to better direct your students with words. Even talking about tactical corrections, there’s a lot of information out there right now about things like how to handle the covid pandemic. And so I think studio owners must take the initiative to not just hire the next 18-year-old or 22-year-old out of college because they have a decent resume. You know, these people can be precious. Still, they also need that extra piece of training on how to develop a healthy studio culture.  Just because they were a great ballet dancer does not make them great ballet teachers, sorry. But oh, sorry.

Courtney  

I get you.

Susanne  

tIt’s totally different in a completely different realm of existence when you’re a dancer. And being a teacher means being a leader. And I don’t see leadership, right at all, from a really great corporation that had excellent leadership practices in place. It has nothing to do with leadership. And that’s, that’s the gap. Yeah, I feel like we’re putting these names into these leadership positions. And directors and, and they’re starting, they’re beginners. They’re at the beginner stage; they may know how to stage a ballet. And they may know how to run a rehearsal by telling them how to put their foot into such a spot and pointed foot or put their arms in a good fifth position. But they don’t know how to motivate themselves. They don’t know how to have hard conversations, radical conversations, don’t even deal with any kind of breath or pain from their people, or navigate energy in a room. All of that ultimately for it. Yeah. And it doesn’t set them up for success either. 

Courtney  

No, it doesn’t. And that is something when you think about whether… sorry, got a little fiery there when you said that.

Sarah  

Well, when just this idea that it doesn’t set them up for success.

Susanne  

Well, right. Like, what are your eyes? In Ballet? We have to do it this way. I heard it yesterday. Yeah. And I’m not. I’m not here to shame anybody. But it’s time that we’re talking real language. It’s time that we’re pointing our fingers. Listen, there are so many different things available that it is now time to step up. Because if we keep doing it the same way, it’s not going to survive. Perfection is not relatable. People are not going to step into that environment anymore. I wanted to add something when you said Yes, it’s working that way. It has been working that way for so long. And some people are, you know, famous and making a career out of it. Look at where they’re at. Look at the percentile. Who actually wants them actually being up there; how broken, are they actually fulfilled? What is their mentality? Do I want to end up that way? And how many more people could even be in that same spotlight? If we had any kind of self-development in the industry, like everything, we do start with the mind. Why? Why are we not developing it at all? And quite honestly, once you’re a principal dancer and then what? What’s after that? Right? Your artistic director just trades time for money. Like there is no evolution, there is no upper limit to break through anymore. Right. And I feel like that with self-development being like the focal point in the industry, we would create so much more. Having people actually come again and watch. 

Courtney  

Absolutely, I agree 1,000 percent on both sides. Because of this statistic, I am not gonna try and quote it. But such a high percentage of our audience members are former dancers. And if we keep mistreating them, that percentage is going to keep dwindling. And that’s a high percentage. Yeah, it’s really high. It’s like 70, maybe. 

Sarah  

No, no, I thought it was like 45 to 50 percent. 

Courtney  

Oh, I thought it was; maybe it’s different ones. But on the other side. Suppose you keep this idea of self-development in the center. In that case, fewer dancers are going to quit in middle school or in high school. Their careers might last longer. They might give themselves permission to start their own company or do their own creative collaborations. This leads to hiring opportunities for more people and then more people are dancing. And then there are more arts, and again, like it’s, there is so much of a ripple effect here, by doing that one action. People are showing up to support the people who are doing things right. To me, it’s a big loop. Yeah.

Sarah  

Yeah. You know, I’d also like to point out a concept. Susanne, we were talking about our ideal, you know, perfect world. Parents out there are listening. You would never tolerate your child coming home from fifth-grade elementary school and saying, “Oh, my teacher told me I was fat”. I can’t have lunch now. Right? We would not tolerate that. In fact, that teacher would be fired and potentially arrested for child abuse and neglect. This is a real legal problem. This is child abuse. Our children are being abused. And it’s not just the ballet community. It’s gymnastics, it’s these, you know, high-level performance type programs. You would never tolerate that from anyone else except for their coach. And I don’t understand it. 

Susanne  

And why is that? Why do you think that is? I just had that conversation this morning with my coach.

Sarah  

Interesting. So I think it comes back to what we were just talking about. A lot of parents in this position probably weren’t dancers. All they know is this guy’s super famous or this woman is super famous, or this teacher has produced (I hate that word). But they’ve built a successful dancer. So if it worked once, it’s going to work again. So we have to put up with this abuse that’s happening for my child to reach this goal. Yeah. And so it’s something we just put up with.

Courtney  

It comes from personal experience.  In those situations, my mom and I, we’ve had so many conversations; like we’re good. We know you do the best you can with the information you have at the time. Yeah, ever looking back at that now, would we make different decisions? Yes, but it was so hard to see it at that moment. Because when you’re new to that world, when you’re a young student, everything around you says if you want it, this is the only way to that it’s possible. So it’s like, well, your daughter is, you know, twirling around the house, 24/ seven, this is clearly her passion and her goal. We can’t say no, we can’t afford to move to a different state. We’re told this is where she should train. We’re told this is an okay way that dancers are being taught. So we’re just gonna put our heads down, and we’re gonna get through it, and it’ll be worth it one day. But there’s that whole side of it that needs to change. The other side that I think is really important as to why this is happening is that I believe there is an unhealthy amount of, like, self-worth for teachers for their staff. I was just gonna say that, yes, yes. When teachers feel like their worth to show up in the world is determined by their students ‘ competition, they will fight for their students to be perfect because that reflects their perfection. That’s what I’m saying about prayer that is not healthy for that kid, that kid does not deserve that weight on their shoulders. Right? Oh, I could go on quite a soapbox there. 

Susanne  

We are going to put a bow on this. So good. I could talk to you two, like forever, honestly. It’d be a two-hour episode. There is so much fear. Thinking. Your fears have so many levels. And fear shows up in so many different ways. At the end of the day, it is always fear that is the trigger for shame, guilt for not sharing, for not speaking up for all of that. Back to your 16-year-old self. What is that one thought-provoking thing you would tell her with the knowledge that you have today? Perhaps, “Listen, girl, it’s not what you think!” What would it be?

“Listen, girl, it's not what you think!” Click To Tweet

Sarah  

Go ahead, Courtney.

Courtney  

For me, it is your body’s going to change. And it’s okay. It’s not the end of the world. It’s going to change. And then it’s going to change again. And change. And then it’s going to change again…. And you keep having your own healthy behaviors of what you decide is healthy. Stop listening to everything else. It’s their own projection. It’s their own. You get to live this life for yourself. It is actually your life. It’s yours. Don’t let anyone else take that away. I’m gonna go puke. No. I literally just like, oh!

Susanne  

I have a bucket here. 

Sarah  

Shake it out. Shake it out. Check it out.

Susanne  

Not so much. Oh, I’m happy. Feels the same way? 

Sarah  

I was looking at pictures from that time. Somewhat recently, we posted some fun pictures of ourselves on our Instagram when we were small, young, younger kids. And so it brought up a lot of memories. I think I will pull her aside. And I don’t know if I would, if she would, listen to me. Because she was pretty stubborn. But I would pull her aside to say that you are 100percent responsible for your happiness. You create the reality that you choose to live in. That applies to your dance career, which involves how well you’re doing in school. This applies to what boys you decide to be in a relationship with. That applies to whether or not you choose to drink and do drugs. It’s all up to you where you choose to put your energy and what reality you choose to live in.

Susanne  

That was the hardest step for me in my journey into self-development, taking responsibility for every experience. Yep. Even though I was trying so hard to always find other people to blame for it. No, I’m almost sure that since the world of dance and Ballet, particularly in the professional realm, is so much, you don’t have any say per se. Your schedule is being taken care of like there’s not much room, we assume. We’re making our own decisions. And when you don’t have that trigger every day to take responsibility for yourself. It is so easy to get into that comfortable rut. It’s his fault. Uh-huh. I am just fine the way I am. I’m not gonna take responsibility. And that’s, that’s, I think, is the hardest step that you take into self-development. And it’s a step that holds up so many. Some dancers are actually taking that step. Yeah, you put money behind something. It’s like, oh, I’m better; gonna show up. Yep. Right. Like, when I paid for my first event, like, I couldn’t even do it. My husband had to do it. And I was a second before I had to go down there and mingle with other women, 499 of them; I can’t do this. No, I am not worthy of that. I am not worthy of being happy. And all of that stuff came back up. Yeah. And it’s not easy to look at it. It’s a daily thing that we do.

Courtney  

Ownership of that responsibility was a very pivotal moment in my own growth. My physical health, my emotional health, my mental health, I choose to take that ownership. And for me, it was letting go of someone else’s reins that felt like they were still on me. Yeah, I was like, this is not their last show. I have not been part of their life. This is my life. Not only do I get to take ownership of my life. It is my responsibility to take ownership of my life because no one else is right. Driving the ship is me. So it was a tough-love moment of like, get it together. You have to own your happiness.

Ownership of that responsibility was a very pivotal moment in my own growth. Click To Tweet

Sarah  

I’m still working on it. But I really only started doing this maybe five years ago. It took me a very, very long time to even accept that concept into my brain. And I’m still working on it every single day for sure. 

Susanne  

What’s something we are going to work on for the rest of our life?  And I think this is where we’re circling back to perfection. Like the Progress is. Progress is a beautiful thing. Like it’s not arriving somewhere. Yeah, you have days where you feel like you have reached your goal. And the moment you think that the next higher version of yourself is presenting itself and saying, Hey, yo, yeah, remember, sister, we’re not done yet. Like you are nervous for the rest of your life. That’s the beauty. It’s not about getting there; it’s around your progress that you’re making. Tony Robbins says that success is not in arriving. Success and happiness lie in progress. This is one book to start with, you would recommend to anybody wanting to take that first step. It can be a podcast too, or a person that they could listen to, to open up the, you know, the doors a little bit, and let the light in.

Courtney  

I will share first because I am not a huge reader; Sarah probably has one of those Rolodex things of her book list.

Sarah  

I’m looking behind my shoulder right now. But I’m gonna pick.

Courtney  

Something tremendous, like, wildly impactful for my growth. It’s a book about a technique. So it’s not necessarily just words, but you can do it for yourself. But it’s called the Aroma Freedom Technique. I’m actually getting certified in it right now. But it was life-changing for me. And it really is a technique I like a lot. It’s like giving yourself permission to explore your own self-growth, if that makes sense. And for me, that was something that I liked and had so much resistance to. So finding a way to unlatch that connection in my brain that I was feeling. Like a powerful way to find a way to unhook that or, whatever visual you want to put there was, was my first step for taking ownership for these things. One of them, but it was the most impactful. So yeah, it’s called the Aroma Freedom Technique. It’s by Dr. Benjamin Perkus, psycho clinical psychologist. So it’s a good read. 

Susanne  

Link that into the show notes. 

Courtney  

Sure. Yeah. I think it’s on Amazon.

Sarah  

 I’m going to share a book, and hopefully, one day, we’ll get the author on our show. Because she’s not a dancer, but I’ve spoken with her twice on Instagram, and we’re trying to put something together. But this is her book. “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women”, subtitled “Why Capable People Suffer from Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive Despite It”. We keep saying we’re gonna do an imposter syndrome episode, which we will. But that has really ruled my life. My adult life. Absolutely. And this book has really not only delved into why it’s ruled my life for so long. Also, some practical things that you can do day to day to kind of start chipping away at it if it’s something that you feel like you identify with. So that, and, just guys, get a therapist, get a counselor, once a week, you can do it virtually now. Um, you know, if you don’t have insurance, you can go through one of these, you know, apps or whatever, and they have discounts for people you know, for financial hardship. Get a counselor. I do it every week, and I can’t tell you how, how incredibly life-changing, life-changing it is. So yep, those are my recommendations.

Courtney  

I second that.

Susanne 

I’ll share one more time, “The Giant Leap” by Gay Hendricks; absolutely life-changing in terms of the upper limit. How to break through the upper limit? Why are we actually staying where we are? It is so good. I have so many Thank yous underlined. 

Sarah  

I’ve seen that in a few different places from others, groups of people I know. So I need to put it on my reading list.

Courtney  

 As someone who isn’t a huge reader, I really want to try audible or something like that Meat Eater. 

Susanne  

I’m not a reader. I disliked reading quite a bit. And I have like 10 books on the go. But I make myself if it’s in my calendar every day. I’m reading five pages of one book. Yeah. To get some inspiration. Some thoughts are going great. If I don’t schedule it, I’m not doing it. 

Courtney  

I like listening to an audiobook when I go out walking. And when it’s cold and I don’t really like going out. 

Sarah  

New to you guys. Hot Tip. There’s an app called Libby Li BB Y? And it allows you to connect your library card to your phone. And you can borrow ebooks and audiobooks through your local library for free. 

Susanne  

Oh my gosh, guys, go get it. That’s awesome. Yes.

Susanne  

Alright, ladies, uh, one of the most extended episodes on the Pointe To Rise podcast yet. I thank you so much for your open mind for the passion that you’re bringing into the industry. It’s probably the most challenging healing process that you are undergoing. However, I think everything happens for a reason. And the only way to a happier you is to get through what you know really hurt you in the past. So I commend you guys for doing what you’re doing. Thank you so much for showing up. And thank you for having this conversation with me; thank you. 

Courtney  

Yeah, thank you for having us. It’s been wonderful to speak with you and, you know, discuss all these things. As you said, we can talk.

Susanne  

Thanks so much for tuning in.

So much ❤

Susanne

 

About Guests.

Sarah Schiewer and Courtney Ulrich are former dancers, now massage therapists who share a mutual passion for mental wellness and dancers. The two have joined forces to form Dance; Better, a mental health podcast for dancers. They bring together mental health experts and dancers from all corners of the ballet world to learn how to create a safer dance world for everyone.

 

Courtney is a wellness coach who helps young women level up their relationship with their body image, emotional health, and self-worth.

Sarah, a former professional dancer and now the owner of Tech Ballet, a virtual ballet school, incorporates mental fitness into each and every ballet class.  

Important Links:

Sarah’s Instagram

Courtney’s Instagram

Dance; Better Podcast

Further resources from Dance Better

Tech Ballet

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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. 

THE POINTE TO RISE MANIFESTO