Dancers Anonymous: Advocating For Mental Health In The Dance Industry With Rose Knight And Arianna Babraj

Podcast

July 30, 2021

PTR 106 | Dance Industry Mental Health

 

The dance industry can be a very stressful world to be in. Many dancers lack the needed support to keep their mental health in good shape. Join our host, Susanne Puerschel, as she sits down to talk with the founders of Dancers Anonymous, Rose Knight and Arianna Babraj. Rose and Arianna tackle the mental health issues experienced by people in the dance industry and discuss how their collaborative effort aims to help their colleagues. We also hear how working together has touched their lives as well as their future plans for Dancers Anonymous.

Call To Action:

Dancers Anonymous and Sincerely Survivor (Our Australian partner in Mental Health) are collaborating to create tailored Peer Support Groups for dancers all across the industry. We are aiming to provide continued Mental Health support to Dancers and their experiences through moderated conversation with both Peers and Professionals. We are aiming to lead the charge in encouraging dancers to break the stigma of talking about Mental Health by providing a safe, moderated space to connect with Peers through honest, respectful conversation.

Watch the episode here:

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Dancers Anonymous: Advocating For Mental Health In The Dance Industry With Rose Knight And Arianna Babraj

I have the whole team of Dancers Anonymous on the show. We’re doing a full interview. Arianna and Rose are both in the house. Before we get started and jump into all the questions I have for them, I wanted to read something to you and make you aware of something that if you are a dancer, this is definitely for you. Dancers Anonymous and Sincerely Survivor, which is their Australian partner in mental health are collaborating to create tailored peer support groups for dancers all across the industry.

We are aiming to provide continued mental health support to dancers and their experiences through moderate conversation with both peers and professionals. We are aiming to lead the change in encouraging dancers to break the stigma of talking about mental health by providing a safe, moderated space to connect with peers through honest and respectful conversations. If you are called to join this peer group, please reach out to either, @DancersAnonymous on Instagram or through their personal IGs, check out the link in their bio and you will definitely get answers. Without further ado, let’s jump right into the episode.

I am on the show with Arianna and Rose from Dancers Anonymous, 2 out of the 3 strong women trio, that have formed Dancers Anonymous. If you have been following the show, Arianna and I did a short episode to introduce her journey and how Dancers Anonymous was founded and what we can expect. We decided to bring on one more of the warrior women here to talk about this wonderful project. Arianna, why don’t you kick us off with how the two of you met? What’s your history and how did this come about?

Collaboration allows you to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses, be comfortable with them, and then work with other people who can fill in those spaces. Click To Tweet

Honestly, I don’t even remember when I met Rose because we’ve been friends for as long as I can remember. Probably around the time we were ten or so, we did Nutcrackers together and we were at the same dance studio and classes together all the time, and then we parted ways when we graduated high school but never lost touch. Our other colleague and dear friend, Mara, who cannot be here with us, we were always dancing and on the same high school dance team, and then we went to the studio together. We’re pretty much as close as you can get when it comes to being friends. When I had this idea for Dancers Anonymous, it made sense to me that I would bring on people who I loved and trusted, who also had experiences that I had shared with them and who had important voices and skills to bring.

Mara is our lovely designer, so everything that you see that’s designed work is hers. She’s mega-talented and Rose has a very strong background in the administrative side of the art scene. She studied Arts Administration and her skills are important in leading our projects. I feel we all can bring something to this project to make it what it is. I’m excited that we can continue to keep our friendship alive but also work towards something together. It brings us even closer, which is an amazing thing to me.

I find this so beautiful because you’re talking particularly around collaboration and each one of you has their superpowers and you’re leaning into those superpowers. You’re not expecting each other to do things that you’re not great at. Where I have seen so many times, not only in business but in the arts, our upbringing, the culture and the industry of dance and arts all together that you only are somebody if you can do it all yourself and if you’re perfect. That cuts you off from your superpowers. It doesn’t give you the ability to be a beginner at something new. Let’s talk about collaboration and its importance and benefits. Who wants to go?

Rose, why don’t you go because I’ve already talked?

I’m so excited to be here and thank you for that wonderful intro, Arianna. Collaboration, as you said, is very important because what it does is allows you to recognize your strengths and weaknesses, be comfortable with that, and then work with other people who can fill in those spaces that maybe you’re not as comfortable with and need some support, and maybe they have a better understanding of this area or you two connect. We have two heads that are better than one. The great thing with the three of us is three heads are better than two. It’s been a wonderful way for the three of us, not only as friends to reconnect and move through our years of dance, school and life together but also now as new colleagues, partners and peers in this new, wonderful sphere of dance and mental health. We’re having new conversations all the time that we never would’ve gotten to have had we not collaborated in this wonderful, crazy way. It’s been a great experience, not only as friends but also now is as coworkers, if you will.

When we’re talking about collaborating, what’s one learn that you have had so far?

Something that we’ve each learned?

Yeah. Collaborating also means you are choosing to see and work with each other and also accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and not judge each other for that but help each other rise to be able to produce more. I’m sure there have been learnings and conversations that may not have been the easiest to have. Is there something that you can perhaps give as a tip or a learn that you have had for other people that are scared of collaborating because it is easier to do it all by yourself. We know all the stories. Share away, my loves.

PTR 106 | Dance Industry Mental Health

Dance Industry Mental Health: We want to open this up to anybody and everybody who wants to share, who wants to hear what other people have to say, and hope that can lead to changing the mentality of the industry.

 

I’m very happy to put it out there that I am 100% that type of person and I think that it comes from many things but I have both this dance background where I’m like, “It’s all on me. I have to be perfect. Otherwise, I’m not good enough,” and I also have this immigrant family background where it’s all about, “Your work is not about your value but about my value as your parent and if you don’t do more than what I did, then I didn’t succeed as a parent.” It’s the American dream. There was a lot of pressure on me at home and dance, so I’ve always been the type of person who’s like, “I have to do everything by myself and if I don’t do everything by myself, then I’m somehow letting people down and failing myself, which is such a huge burden to put on yourself.”

This experience of sitting down and saying, “I have this idea. I want to make this happen and help people but I have no idea what I’m doing and I need help.” Saying that to myself was huge because I’ve done it in smaller ways in my life but this is definitely the biggest capacity that I’ve done this and saying like, “I cannot do this alone and I don’t want to.” Figuring out that I don’t want to do it alone, I want to do it with people and my friends who are important to me, and having this inner dialogue with my past patterns in my brain of like, “No. You have to do it alone. Otherwise, it’s not good enough and you’ve failed.”

It’s not like, “You didn’t succeed,” and taking it away from that and making it more, “It will be so much better if I do it with people and it’s also not about me. It’s about helping people. How do I help people most effectively and how do I take it off of myself?” If you can take it off of yourself, it makes it so much easier because all of a sudden, you don’t have to live up to those standards that someone else put in your brain for you, and then you realize like, “I never thought this. It was all other people told me this or I made myself feel like this.”

It’s holding me back. I’m not making myself any better of a human by expecting myself to do everything perfectly all the time. It’s a huge relief, honestly. It makes me less stressed out because Rose knows me so well. I’m a very stressed-out person all the time. It always has to be going, doing things and achieving, go, go, go. I feel I’ve achieved more in this by not doing everything and that in itself is a personal success for me. It will also end up being a success for us as a group because we can move forward together. That’s my long-winded answer to your question.

I was listening to a podcast. You know how perfectionism and doing it yourself is so widely spread in the dance industry. “There were two sentences that perfectionism isn’t really about being the best and being perfect but it is about the fear of being unloved, abandoned and rejected.” That hits so hard. The reframe for me was, “Hallelujah, a-ha,” white lights going off. My entire life, it wasn’t about me being good enough. It was about me fearing being abandoned, not being loved, that people will reject me over and over again, and how that spreads itself out until now in every possible way. Knowing that was like a whole book opened for me through two sentences. That’s the power of words. This is why we’re here and talking. What about you, Rose?

As far as collaborating, dance is a very non-verbal art form and dancers by nature are expected to be very passive when it comes to decisions that are being made and speaking up for themselves. That’s been my struggle. It’s making my feelings, thoughts and ideas verbal, instead of going, “Anything, that’s fine,” very passively letting other people take charge, instead of standing up and giving my ideas, thoughts and feelings. For Arianna and I to both have these wonderful discoveries at the beginning of this as individuals have cemented a bit more who we are in terms of how we work together. Also, individually as dancers have allowed us to work through some of our stuff, issues and shed some light here and there on our things.

I was noticing that I was always standing in the back and very easily passive in terms of sharing thoughts and feelings. It was new for me to stand up, talk to Arianna and say, “What about this and this? We can do this and what about this?” It was very new and uncomfortable but when you’re starting a new organization, you have to go there. If you don’t, then you’re going to run into issues later on, especially if you’re working with friends. It was so important and impactful that we did have those hard conversations at first because now we know how each other works and operates in this new sphere of working together. It’s not to say that everything is wonderful and peachy all the time because working with friends is wonderful and can be that but it also requires work. It’s been great to explore that and when you have great friends, it makes it much easier to do that work.

It is so impactful to have hard conversations to know how each other works and then operate in this new sphere of working together. Click To Tweet

A business leader that I admire a lot said that, “Whenever you start a new business, regardless of how many times you’ve done it or whatever you do new, it will surface all of your weaknesses and baggage that you have been carrying around. Launching a new business is not only launching a new business. It is rediscovering everything about yourself.” Thank you for sharing that. When we’re talking about collaboration, you have made yet another jump. I’m not sure if you’re seeing that yet but I want you to know that you should be so proud of yourself because you are completely rewriting the legacy that has been passed on to you. In collaborating with others, reaching out and saying, “We want to build Dancers Anonymous to this level, so here is who we can partner with.” Let’s talk about that partnership you newly established and what that would look like. Rose, you’re the expert on this one.

This is Rose’s realm of expertise so the mic’s all yours.

We have new partnerships indeed. We are partnering with a wonderful young lady named Hannah, who runs Sincerely Survivor. She’s our international Australian partner in mental health advocacy. That’s been very interesting and a great collaboration. She has so many wonderful resources and is a lovely person, in general, to work with that it’s been great. For our collaboration, what we’re doing is taking what both of us do individually and in terms of mental health advocacy and resources and our Dancers Anonymous connections in the dance world. I’m putting them together to form some peer support groups. What we’re doing is actualizing what Dancers Anonymous does online and moving that into a more physical, one-on-one, person-to-person form.

That’s been a wonderful thing to get to know Hannah and new collaborations are always scary. This is our first big leap into partnering with yet another wonderful human. We’ve been so excited and have been rubbing our little mental health advocacy hands together for a while now to come up with something that can hopefully change what mental health support for dancers looks like in this industry because it’s essentially non-existent, I would argue.

There are companies that say, “We’re doing it,” but they’re not giving the dancers time, nor doing it doesn’t necessarily mean that people feel safe enough to go talk. Some don’t even know that they need help because of the stigma around asking for help and not appearing as perfect, reliable and always in performance capacity mode. There’s so much more to mental health and what dancers in particular need as high performers and being seen. Even if we look at a structure at a company, dancers are the ones that are getting paid the least out of the entire company. That, to me, personally shows how much they’re valued. We invest money in other things that we think are important versus supporting the product of the company.

This is why in mental health, your page and organization, collaborating, stepping out of your comfort zone and dealing with your baggage are so important. This is where it starts. It always starts with every single one of us because the more we are giving ourselves permission to step out of these boxes that we were put into, the more we’re giving permission to others to do exactly the same. That’s how we ignite change in this industry. What does that partnership look like? Give us the nitty-gritty as much as you can share.

We’re working out details in terms of we’re hoping to start with monthly peer support meetings. We want to make sure that the dancers who attend are comfortable and they feel safe because sharing experiences and stories can be one of the most difficult things. Like I said, dancers are verbal and non-verbal art form. It’s going to take some real support and resources to make dancers feel okay enough to open their mouths and share what they’re feeling, experiences, the good, bad, and the ugly. What we’re aiming to do is tailor make a space where dancers can do exactly that. They can feel comfortable and know that it is a confidential peer-to-peer conversation about mental health, anything and everything in the dance world, and anything that they’ve experienced or maybe another coworker experience. Dancers’ careers are not just when they’re in a professional company. It can span from training when you’re very young to post-career.

We want to open this up to anybody and everybody who wants to share and hear what other people have to say and hopefully, that can lead to changing the mentality of the industry. It starts with dancers. Once dancers realize their power in the situation, we’ll start to see people start to set examples of what continuous mental health support looks like. What we’re trying to do is, again, we’re working out the kinks. It’s going to be via Zoom so we can include everybody. We’re working on different time zones as well so that we can make sure that no matter where you are, hopefully, there will be a time zone that works best for you. We are excited about this collaboration, just starting respectful, honest conversations between dancers in a safe, comfortable and confidential environment.

PTR 106 | Dance Industry Mental Health

Dance Industry Mental Health: The great thing about peer support is that there are no industry people in the room, no artistic directors, no CEOs. It’s really about the connection between dancers.

 

When you say peer to peer, is that dancer to dancer?

Yes.

Are they giving each other advice or they just listen read to each other?

Not necessarily, so we’re not doing group therapy because there are different doing group therapy and peer-to-peer support. We are not licensed therapists and not licensed nutritionists. We’re hoping eventually to be able to bring on professionals so that people can go to a licensed source for any questions and concerns that they might have. Our main goal is to engage dancer to dancer. The great thing about peer support is that there are no industry people in the room, artistic directors and CEOs. It’s about the connection between dancers because we find that a lot of the most honest conversation happens between dancers themselves.

I’m already 10,000 steps ahead, so I’m reeling myself back in. My creative mind is going. I can’t find a pen, so it’s going to go in two seconds. It’s not going to be here anymore. Let’s talk about the future state of Dancers Anonymous. From our last conversation, Arianna, we’re hoping to get to a point where this is not being needed, where dancers don’t have these stories anymore that you are putting up.

If you haven’t checked out the page yet, this is your time. Go to Dancers Anonymous and go and read all of these stories that dancers are sharing. If you may be thinking that, “They verbally abused me and they told me not to eat for five days. That is not normal.” Go read all of this to maybe find yourself in those stories and find permission to let go of your expectation that you must suffer in order to be an artist. Let’s talk about the crowdfunding campaign that you are launching. What is it for? Who is it for? What is that going to allow you to create further down the road?

I can talk about this. My lovely boyfriend is a professional photographer. He wanted to get involved because he obviously sees me going through all of this, probably more intimately than anyone because he has to deal with me at all hours of the day. He knows how ballet continues to play a very prominent role in my mental health. He was inspired by what we were doing and wanted to share his skills. We had, throughout quarantine, been doing little ballet photoshoots for fun because we were bored and needed something to do. We were like, “Let’s go out and take pictures.” He had this idea to take that and show a different side of the dance industry, which we don’t usually see.

We see beautiful photos of ballerinas everywhere but do you ever see a picture of a ballerina when she’s in the shower crying, not eating the meal that someone made for her or mourning the death of her career? These are some of the images that we’ve tried to create with photography and, to be very honest with you, I’m nervous about it because it’s very raw. It’s not the kind of photo I would usually post of myself because it shows struggles that I’ve been through, that my friends have been through and it’s very painful to relive. One day we were editing the photos together and I burst into tears because I’m like, “This has been me for so long.” It hurts me to look at myself going through that. Without giving too much of it away, it’s very powerful and raw. It can help people to see someone else like the stories. See someone else going through what they’ve gone through or see an image that embodies what your struggle is.

What we’d like to do is offer up the album at a price to be released through a GoFundMe page. If you’d like to view the album, then you can give some money to our organization, which will help like Rose said, hopefully eventually, pay for professionals, compensate us, pay for our Zoom and all of our other things. The fees that we have so that we can give ourselves as best as we can to this effort and make it sustainable for us, too. For now, our goal is $10,000 but we’ll see how it goes. I believe in everyone, you can come and give us your money and it will go to a good cause. That’s our first crowdsourcing fundraising effort. We have some more coming hopefully. Rose and I have been discussing it already but for now, if you want to support what we’re doing, that is the best way. The release is planned for July 1st and all of that information will be available on their page.

A lot of the most honest conversations happen between dancers themselves. Click To Tweet

We’re raw on this show too, because all of this is an evolution. We are always learning and that’s something that we were never allowed. Arianna, you talked about it so clearly and loud in our last episode that not only in your home but also in your career. Learning was never an option. It was the same for me. I was never allowed to make mistakes in my home or my mother’s presence nor the studio or anywhere else in life. That is super stifling. That is a tight little container we put ourselves into. Everything outside of that container is what life is about. Keep on learning. Keep on doing what your gut tells you to do. I thank you so much for being on here, being vulnerable and stepping outside of the zone that you know is not only comfortable but more familiar because that’s how you ignite change. Thank you, ladies. It was such a pleasure to meet you.

Thank you so much.

Important Links:

About Rose Knight

PTR 106 | Dance Industry Mental HealthMy name is Rose and I’m the Project lead here at Dancers Anonymous. Dance- Ballet in particular, and I have had a complicated relationship as it’s been the thing that’s brought me the most joy and also the most heartbreak. Most of that pain, I can now attribute to a lack of Mental Health support as a young dancer and student.

I am beyond thrilled to be a part of such an inclusive and supportive platform for dancers to not only find a community but to have tailored and thorough resources to look to for help.

About Arianna Babraj

PTR 106 | Dance Industry Mental HealthMy name is Arianna and I am the Founder and Social Media Lead for Dancers Anonymous. I created this page hoping to help change the way dancers are treated and ultimately foster a more inclusive and healthy environment which helps artists thrive rather than beating them down.

After my own experience dancing professionally, struggling with mental health, and recovering from disordered eating, Dancers Anonymous and the stories being shared through it remind me, 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 my own experience and a place for you to share yours, free from judgment or repercussion.

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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. 

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