In this episode, Kristin and Michelle share the importance of one’s mental well-being is in the ability to show up as your very best self on stage off stage in the studio as a dancer and a human being.
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Mental well-being a conversation with Kristin & Michelle from Danscend.
Who are Kristin and Michelle?
Kristin Deiss and Michelle Loucadoux have shared sixty years in the dance industry. Both have worked extensively as professional dancers and are well-versed and experienced in the realm of dance education. After working together in the education field for seven years, the idea of Danscend was born because of an overwhelming need that Deiss and Loucadoux observed in their students. No stranger to the need for mental health awareness, both creators wrestled with various issues in their professional dance careers as well.
In Danscend, Deiss and Loucadoux have created a resource that they wish was available when they were beginning their dance careers, a resource that will benefit not only their students but also the dance industry as a whole.
Career; then and now
I was a total button-head as a child and all I wanted to do was be a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. I was a Balanchine baby. I didn’t want anything else but to dance, Balanchine ballets in Lincoln Center as a principal with New York City Ballet. I was on the road to do it. I was a scholarship student at the Rock School, the Pennsylvania Ballet, I spent a summer at SAB. I was getting feedback that this was a career path for me and a real possibility and then I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, and I had to stop dancing. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to ever dance again. I was very fortunate and very lucky that it went into remission after about a year. So, I was told by my medical staff that I was cleared and ready to go. I could talk about this for days and hours, because I was not okay. I wasn’t okay physically, and I certainly wasn’t okay mentally, but as a 14- to 15-year-old, how was I to know that. I went back to training and it just felt like I was running up against a brick wall, my body was not the same. I was getting injury after injury.
My mind was certainly rattled, and I just couldn’t make sense of having a dream so ingrained in my being and in my heart and not having the ability to get there anymore, which is what it felt like. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I think especially because I was a button-head, the ballet training in me was like one plus one equals two. You do this, you do this, you get here. When that doesn’t work, when you did everything, right. Where do you go from there? I didn’t know and so I stopped, I quit.
When I was 17 years old, I was in Miami at the time training at the Miami City Ballet School. I just really had to face the facts and be like, my body is notwithstanding this kind of training anymore. I went to college for History. I got my BA in History, I went to grad school, I was in the Ph. D. program for History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I asked myself what I was doing with myself. How is this my life, I don’t even know who I am. I feel like I’m in a movie. The whole time I was dancing for fun. I fell in love with other forms of dance like contemporary and modern. I don’t need to have perfect rotation to still dance. My eyes were open to a whole other world, so I really became passionate about opening other people’s eyes. Dancers specifically, to this other world.
So I got my MFA from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and I spent some years in New York dancing with various companies. I then moved out to LA because I really wanted to teach in higher education. Those jobs are hard to get in New York City. So I came out here and I was dancing a little bit with some companies out here and I did gigs here and there. I got a job teaching at a school, a college at the time, that was called Relativity School. Changed its name to Studio School. Now Hussian College, Los Angeles. That’s where Michelle and I met and we’ve been working together for 7 years.
I’m now the chair of the dance department at Hussian. I am so passionate about this kind of work because I wasn’t taught how to care for myself in a way that would have enabled me to make different decisions about the path of my life, in the dance world specifically. For me, I saw how narrow-minded I was. I didn’t see that there were multiple paths open to me. I just saw the one and when that shut, I didn’t know where to go from there. I don’t regret you know what happened because I think it has led me to this place now into the work that I’m doing now. But had I had different mentors help me process this stuff mentally, I think I would have been in a different place.
At the time, especially in Ballet technique, it’s like there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way and there’s no in-between. You either have what it takes or you don’t. Part of having what it takes is taking the same path and following the same path that other superstars had. You train, you become an apprentice with a top 10 ballet company at the age of 16, maybe even younger. You don’t go to college. You become principal in your early 20s, and that’s your life. I know that this doesn’t just happen in the arts and in ballet. With Simone Biles, the decision that she made recently, this happens everywhere. We hold elite athletes, which dancers are, to a certain standard and it’s the top. The creme de la creme of bodies and minds can take a certain level of pressure. If you don’t rise to that place, then you don’t have it. It’s a ridiculous standard that we hold for humans in general.
Not everybody can be a Tom Brady and it’s not because they’re not capable. But Tom Brady’s career is not the career that all football players should be striving for. I shouldn’t have been striving for the career of one of the Balanchine ballerinas from the 60s or 70s, the women that I was looking up towards, because I’m me, I’m not them. Yet I was putting on somebody else’s identity and I didn’t understand why it wasn’t enabling me to move forward, because that wasn’t me. I don’t think that in ballet, specifically in my training, I wasn’t seen. My body was seen, my capabilities were seen, only to the extent of; do you fit the mold that we’re looking for. If you don’t, then there’s no place for you here. Instead of; if you don’t fit this mold, let me help you explore where you might find some freedom. I didn’t have that.
I heard someone ask my three-year-old son the other day, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and that just made the insides of my soul shrivel up because we don’t want to be a thing. We are not what we do. We ask each other, what do you want to be and then we all as a society, define each other and even ourselves by what we do, how we make money or what our profession is, as opposed to being ourselves. Which is a multi-hyphenate, completely complex individual, we all are so complex. To circle that back to my dance journey. I struggled a lot with the fact that I had a lot of different talents and interests. I thought that I just wasn’t good enough because I did a lot of things. I was the “jack of all trades, master of none”.
So I started out as a button-head. I studied at American Ballet Theater in New York. Didn’t get into a second company there. So after high school, I started dancing with Richard Ballet, danced for a few different Ballet companies while I was going to college because my parents had me go to college. Years later, I’m grateful to them for making me get an education. So I danced for ballet companies but I had always been a singer. I’d always sing the opera and I always had so much personality for ballet. Like, I’d be in Giselle and I would still get in trouble for smiling. “Michelle, stop smiling. You’re supposed to be dead.”
So, I randomly auditioned for a musical and got the job. I was dancing for New Jersey Ballet at the time. It was during our layoff in New Jersey Ballet. So, I did a little summer musical in New Jersey at a place called Papermill Playhouse and that was My Fair Lady. It was the most beautiful show and I felt so welcome
I did musical theater for a long time. After my first job I had to decide whether to leave the ballet company. Go back for another season or go to do musical theater. I started to do musical theater. I did regional theater for about a year and then started doing Broadway. My Broadway debut was in 2005 in Beauty and the Beast then I got to originate Broadway cast in Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, and the revival of Anything Goes. We did eight shows a week for almost 10 years of my life and then got to play lead on Broadway. I get to play opposite Joe gray and Sutton Foster and I get to play Ariel in Little Mermaid and it was this great thing. Then I just pulled the plug. I decided to move to LA and do television.
So I moved to LA and then started doing TV and film some of that stuff. While I was doing that, I realized I didn’t quite like it as much as the theater because you don’t have that energy. Then I got into education. So that’s how I met Kristen, one of my friends called me from the then college called Relativity School and said, we need a Ballet/ musical theater teacher. She told me I was right for this and so I went out there. Fell in love with the kids, as you can see students and we fell in love with the community and really higher education in general. I got so excited about it. So, I was there for seven years, I ended up being the dance chair.
Then when I got my Masters’s in business and then I ended up spending some time with the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies. I then left in September to start to Danscend and to pursue my writing career. I’m a published author so I write and stuff. All that to say, this weird multi-hyphenate person, and even now I use the word weird as a descriptive word to that. I don’t know why I feel I need to say that, because that’s not weird. We all have these different, you know, things inside ourselves that we should and can explore. I wish that someone had told me before my career had started because I felt like, there was something wrong with me that I was in a Ballet company and I really wanted to sing. I was in a musical theater show I was doing a Broadway show, but I also really wanted to write and I felt like there’s something wrong with me, because I couldn’t just pick one thing. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just be good at one thing rather than mediocre at everything? So that’s my history and then I met Kristin. Then and then we decided, let’s start something to help these dancers that need to find some resources to really help them understand themselves and create a more sustainable pathway in this dance industry.
When we create an identity that is based around one thing, let’s say we are a dancer, and we create our identity based around dancing. When that dancing doesn’t go, well, if we feel like we didn’t have a good performance, or we’re not doing well in the company, or we didn’t get hired for these auditions. Then that literally crumbles our entire existence. We feel that we are how we are how good or bad our dancing is. That is our identity and that is dangerous. Because, if we don’t create a foundation of our identity underneath and with that dancing that, I’m a dancer who likes horses, or brews my own coffee. It really doesn’t matter, read fanfic, whatever you’re doing. If you base your work on one thing, when that one thing goes away, then you are left with nothing which can cause a lot of problems.
Misconstrued identity for a dancer
That’s exactly what happened to me. I had no clue who I was what I was doing. I felt like I was floating in space. I didn’t have the capacity to even process what was happening. It took six years from when I quit, to realize that I could explore other avenues in the dance industry six years. We all know as performers that if you’re not consistently training if you’re not doing things to keep learning; six years is a long time to go to remove and then decide to come back. Especially when that six-year starts at 17. So, a good portion of my prime performative part of my life was gone. I had to go find myself and I do this because I thought I had found myself. I thought when I was 9 and I did the same thing like going to a school and quitting everything else. I have nothing else, only ballet, ballet, ballet.
That’s how I thought it was, I thought I had done it. I thought the hard work is done. Now I just show up. I do this. I do that and it’s like a math problem. It solves itself. I climb the ranks and here I go and then you get knocked down and you wonder why this didn’t work and you think that somehow, it’s your fault. It must be me. I not once questioned that it’s the environment or maybe the system or certain people in my life and I know at one point when I quit my mom mentioned to me that Julliard has a dance program. At the time I couldn’t believe that any dancer goes to college for dance. That’s not a thing. Those aren’t serious. That’s what I thought, that was the life I was living because I wasn’t hearing from those people. My parents weren’t dancers. So, they didn’t know so when I told them that wasn’t a thing, they accepted it. So, instead, I just did a total of 180. It doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, you’re a better dancer. When you bring to the table your entire self. You are a better performer and a better dancer, period. So it should be celebrated. It should be encouraged. I don’t know why it really hasn’t, up until this point.
The broken dance education system
I believe the system in the dance education world is slightly broken. It is, if anything it is it was not even built in a purposeful manner. We value this art, this beautiful, fantastic, important life-changing art over everything else to a fault. So, dance teachers are simply people that have been dancers that have finished their career for the most part, finished their careers stayed in that same studio, and just gone to the other side of the table. The education threshold for dance educators is very specific in America, very low, you don’t have to have a degree to teach dance at all. You don’t have to have a certification. You literally can just go, graduate from high school and not get into a company and you come back into the school and start teaching.
There is a level of generational trauma that happens with that. My dance teacher taught me this and they told me you have to just an example, look this way to be a dancer, you have to have this kind of body. So, I’m going to tell the next generation you have to have this kind of body to be a successful dancer, and they are going to believe that. They’re going to continue that on. When there’s very little education on so many things. Outside of the world of technique, like even how to teach, what’s the best way to get corrections? What is the best way to inspire your students in the dance studio? How do you deal with students that have negative self-talk? How do you deal with competitiveness in the classroom? There are so many things that are really prevalent that the teachers over the generations have not had the tools to deal with.
We know from research that teachers are actually teaching more of the soft skills than they are the subject that they are teaching. What students are absorbing from these positions are more about these things than about math or science, or in this case, dance That they’re actually absorbing the things that these teachers aren’t getting training on or aren’t even aware that they’re, they’re also teaching these things.
There are some pretty terrifying statistics. Kristin and I just got our Youth Mental Health First Aid certificates, which is, which is a really fantastic resource. By the way, anyone who works with people under the age of 18, it’s a one- day certification course that teaches you how to deal with everything from, someone who says that they feel they are having suicidal thoughts, to substance abuse, to have anxiety to all of these, these issues. So, one of the statistics that we learned in that training is that one in five youth right now will be diagnosed with a mental health challenge in their lifetime. 1 in 5. So, in March 2001, the US National Health Department did a study and doubled down on that, as far as the dance industry is concerned finding direct correlations between classical and competitive dance and instances of anxiety and depression and a whole slew of other things. So that one in five goes up with dance.
I think a lot of the time it’s chicken or the egg? So are these things exacerbated by dance? Or these people that have these struggles do they come to dance to find some respite in the art from it, but either way, we are headed down a path where it’s going to get more and more challenging for educator and it’s frustrating and difficult because we are in a very expensive, very fast-moving train right now.
Billions of dollars in dance competitions and the dance world and it’s a very large industry and it’s trying to hop on a moving train and change it while it’s going. So as Kristin and I have been talking about it, we do believe that starting with educating dance educators is a great way to start because dance educators are in the front of the room. If you are working with one student, it’s one student, and that’s fantastic. But one dance educator can potentially positively influence the mental wellness of an entire room, entire classes of students.
So, I think that is a good place to start. But I think that the simple place to start is having people recognize that there is a problem. So, we talked to a bunch of dancers, and you talk to educators and we ask, just an example, “Do you have a negative self-talk?” and they’re not sure. We then ask that we journal for a minute, let’s write down like what do you think when you’re at the end of the dance class? Can you say positive things about yourself for one minute? Inevitably? Usually? No, it’s very difficult. But can you say negative things about yourself for one minute, usually they can. I think on a simple baseline, it is education in the dance industry, that there is a huge problem, and that we need to begin to deal with it on many different levels.
If I look at the way that I was trained, and just in terms of the knowledge about the body and how it works and what’s important in terms of preventing and taking care of injuries, that has drastically changed from when I was a student. I think that there’s still room of course, but now people are talking about cross-training more, and that’s more accepted. And that’s sort of like, oh, of course, you should be doing that and as we’ve already mentioned, when we were dancing as students; ballet, you can’t do anything else. You just do ballet. Why would you run? Running will bulk your thighs, I was told. To get better at ballet, you must do ballet. Now I’m seeing way more out there about ballet dance. For one thing, for instance, ballet dancers have really weak hamstrings. Usually, if you’re just taking a ballet class, you are not engaging your hamstrings the way that you should. So what that’s going to do is it’s going to unbalance your body, you’re prone to certain injuries. This stuff is becoming more common in the general lexicon of dance and I’m hopeful that we see the physical aspect of it. That part of it is starting to shift and now here comes the mental part of it.
That’s what they’re doing with our Olympic athletes. There are books written on cycling teams who have simply started digitalization and made incremental changes in their training and dancers, like, just keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. It’s frustrating and I think especially now I think you’ve hit on something really important is really incorporating the advances in science into our dance training. It’s so funny that the general assumption is that your dancers are dumb. But meanwhile, they are some of the smartest individuals there are. They go into a room completely blind. and then in an hour, they’ve learned a minute and a half of very intricate choreography. A whole other thing is a stigma that dancers are that they are, in fact, the opposite. But the advanced advances in neuroscience and in all of these studies in the past 10-20 years of the mind- body connection, the gut-mind connection, the brain, how it works. We create, recreate neural pathways, and all of these things can be applied to dance directly. I think, unfortunately, that stigma, that part of that identity has been created of, I’m just a dancer, I’m too dumb to understand that or that’s not my thing, science isn’t my thing. That causes a rift between all of these advancements in science that can actually help dancers?
While dance is a mixture of being an art form and a sport. We are athletes, but we are also artists. We’ve romanticized the art form of dance so much that it’s this thing that only the select few can tap into. It doesn’t follow the rules of science. It doesn’t follow the rules of this. It’s like its own bubble and the only way to get there is by doing what we’ve done in the past. I think that mindset around dance is strong and a lot of people have it. It’s almost like, we don’t want to pull back the curtain and notice this. So, it’s a body. You just have to have a body; you have to practice skills. We can actually use science to help us achieve these things. We want it to be something different. We want it to be this magic that, that we can’t really explain that you just have to be in the studio and work, work, work, and then you’ll get there.
It’s the same mindset that you have as a starving artist, you just accept that for your art, you must struggle you must suffer. And yet you don’t have to actually.
Never questioning the mindset passed down to us
I’m a kid who has this dream and this goal and people I admire are telling me who I want to be just like them. But you know, it’s like, you either want to follow them or you don’t. It’s the horror story or like no, this is the way it is. But what about the middle. There’s always the middle. There’s always stories of triumph and struggle in the same thing. If we could be more transparent with our young students about everybody’s path and journey being different. As an instructor, I know my own. Of course, no instructor should know, all of the million paths that people could take. But I think that dance educators feel the pressure to know it all, and to be that voice, and to stand there. Even if they don’t know it, to say that this is how it is because that’s what their dance instructor did for them. I’m thinking about when I was a child, if someone were to have told me, in my deepest moments of struggle, I struggle too. Maybe one person in the dance world that I looked up to and admired and was dancing, I struggled too, and this wasn’t my path, either. It doesn’t have to be yours. There is not one path to success here. My brain would have exploded and well, then what are we all doing? Why are we telling these tales of glory and magic that really probably only happened for 1% of the population?
At Danscend, our company we have a dance educator mental wellness certification, and one of the first things we talk about is that there’s a choice when dance educators walk in the room. To either tell dancers to leave it outside the studio door, come in and be a dancer. They can choose to take that old mentality that you tell them it’s not okay to bring in whatever else is going on outside. Or the other side that they can do is to choose to simply ask a dancer, how are you, at the beginning of class it takes five minutes. And to share how they are too. This opens up a whole thing and it creates this teacher that we have previously put on a pedestal. It humanizes them, it makes them fallible, and they have feelings. It makes it okay to bring it into the studio. Use it as you’re dancing as you’re creating your art. Because otherwise, we’re creating a space that is not accepting of imperfection, and that creates a really big problem.
I’m going to take a left here for just a moment because I feel compelled. The things that we repress; the energy, the emotions, the fear, the anxiety, the confusion, the doubt, the self-deprecation that we repress will lodge and does lodge itself into your body and it will come out. It will come out in ways that you never imagined and when you don’t understand why you got injured or something happened, or all of a sudden, you’re getting sick all the time. All of these processes in our bodies are connected and if you’re not caring for your emotional well-being and your mental well-being, it will eventually show itself through your physical body. Part of what Michelle and I talk about a lot in the work that we do at Danscend is having to convince dancers and dance educators how important this stuff is. It’s not something that you can just sweep under the rug and say, I’ll deal with that later. Your mind is operating your body, whether you know it or not. Whether you want to be a part of that process and try to make that process healthier or not. It’s happening. It’s so important for your own physical health and if our bodies are our instruments, then taking care of our mind and emotions is part and parcel to taking care of our physical selves as well.
As Kristin and I were creating some of the courses for Danscend and doing all the research and writing the material. We were realizing we still struggle with it many years later. I have so many body image issues from my teachers who called me “tutu butt”, from the company who fired me because I was, ‘too fat” for their classical season. All of these different things happened to us, when our brains are still forming. Our brains do not finish forming until we’re 25. That is prime dancing time and that is when we’re in the dance studio being hurled these comments from our dance teachers, from our choreographers, from the people who run the companies. It gets literally lodged in our brains, and then can affect you throughout your life.
I will probably always struggle with my body image issues and feeling like I deserve my dinner. Have I worked out today enough to deserve to eat lunch? That kind of thing and that is from ballet and that is from Ballet teachers and his musical theater stuff, too. But that is from my teachers who were not educated in a healthy way to convey information to their students. I think to sort of going back really fast. So I think the dance industry right now is at a place they’re at absolutely at a turning point where we can. Right now, we are the codec of the world. We can either stick with our film, and I’m showing you the old school film on the reel of the film, or we can shift to a digital world. The dance industry is at an impasse where we can either include, we can change, we can pivot, we can become a company, an industry that is thriving because we have so much interest. But we’re either going to do that we’re going to go digital, or we’re going to die off like the dinosaurs and just do Tarantino films.
Where to find us
We do have resources for both dancers and dance educators. So we have a free five-day challenge called Inspiring the Whole Dancer for dancers, to help give them tools to get back into the dance studio post-COVID and really start to get their mind right for physically being in class, and that’s free. You can get to sign up on our website, danscend.com. Then we have a more intensive 12-week virtual course for dancers that really dives deep into the topics of self-talk, body image, and the importance of mental wellness. Then we partner with mental health educators, we have some psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed marriage and family therapists who used to be or are currently in the dance industry, that work with us and speak with our dancers.
Then we also do industry panels for that, called Nourishing the Whole Dancer and that’s on our page. We also have a new certification program for dance educators. So right now, just have a level one, and we’re looking to add a level two as well. But level one really starts to teach educators how to lead the classroom, in an inclusive, safe, positive manner, how to give feedback, how to deal with competitiveness, but also how to take care of themselves because dance educators that aren’t taking care of themselves are not going to show up in the best way possible for their students. So you can check that out on our website, you can email us, we have a free eBook for educators. We just launched and we do one and a half-hour virtual mental wellness workshops. So wherever you are in the world, you can sign up to have us come work with you, work with your dancers to just get you started in the right way for your new fall, or if you’re in Australia your spring dance session.
Our Instagram handle is @danscendofficial, and you can head to the link in our bio to see all of these resources as well.
Advice to younger me.
I think that what would have helped me and I don’t necessarily know that it would have changed my path, and that’s okay. But I think what would have helped me to know, is that my identity does not rest on my perceived success or failure of myself as a dancer, that that really is neither here nor there. That my soul is so full and this is but one small part of a much larger journey that I just cannot see yet, and that’s why this is so hurtful now because one part of me feels like it’s dying. It’s not dying. I’m simply transforming right into a better part of myself, that I just don’t know who she is yet. 16-year-old self, you’ll meet her and if I could come back to me now, from 20 years from now, I’d say the same thing. You’re just constantly ever-evolving. You learn more you grow more and to evolve is sad because things fall away. But there’s so much beauty on the other side of it.
Mine would be, you are not what you do. You are worthy of love. No matter what you’ve accomplished. You don’t need to win a trophy, win a Tony, get a job, be successful, run in circles in order to deserve the love of the people around you. I’m worthy of love just because I am me.
Michelle Loucadoux has been a professional dancer and educator for over thirty years. She danced on Broadway, in ballet companies, and on film and television and has traveled the world empowering young dancers. Michelle is a published author, has a master’s degree in business, and is passionate about creating a space for a more compassionate and inclusive dance community.
Kristin Deiss is a dancer, educator, yogi, and mom living her best life through helping others improve theirs. She holds an MA in History, an MFA in Dance, and is currently the Chair of the Commercial Dance Program at Hussian College, Los Angeles. Having battled a JIA diagnosis that changed the trajectory of her dance career, Kristin is dedicated to helping dancers better cope with the challenges of their art form.
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