I Trained As A Ballerina For 16 Years. No One Ever Asked About My Mental Health

Courtesy of Willa Bennett

I can still hear my ballet teacher scream, "Fight through the pain." She'd often yell this phrase at me in the middle of a barre combination, as I moved with my peers in unison across the studio floor. In the 16 years that I trained under her, I internalized this sentiment: If I wanted to be a successful dancer, I would have to suppress any feelings or physical discomfort that arose, and always prioritize strengthening my body. The more I practiced ballet, the more I edged toward burnout, fatigue, and frequent and irreversible painful injuries.

As I grew older, my relationship with dance became more complicated. When I moved on stage in my wooden pointe shoes, somehow all of my challenges were erased. I instantly became the strongest and most confident version of myself. However, when the lights faded and I returned to the studio to rehearse and practice my technique, I never felt like I was good enough. I was almost always uneasy, battling severe self-doubt and a deep-seated insecurity that I couldn't articulate.

These lived experiences aren't uncommon for many dancers. It became clear through talking with dancers and dance specialists, that while there is a large emphasis on the human body in pre-professional ballet culture, there is little to no room for dancers to explore conversations around their mental health.

"Many dancers really struggle with their self-esteem," Terry Hyde, a dance psychotherapist and founder of Counselling For Dancers [sic], tells Bustle. "Not only are many dancers raised to think they're not good enough from the moment they begin training, but they're also taught to not speak about mental health, any physical pain, or think about their identities outside the classroom." He says, "It's engrained into you in the studio that if you're not suffering, you're not working hard enough."

In a recent study published in The Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, "excessive exercise training, in conjunction with various external stresses, and insufficient recovery can lead to a debilitating syndrome in which dance performance and the general health and well being of the dancer can be affected for months." The study concludes that there is actually "little gain to be made by working through fatigue, illness, or injury," despite what many in the community are conditioned to believe. This “no pain, no gain” attitude, one that was integral to my experience as a ballerina, seems to be counter-productive and cause great long-term harm, physically and emotionally.

As my own passion for dance intensified, the more I struggled to cope with the fact my dance career would become unsustainable. When my injuries became so painful that they prevented me from attending class, I’d be so upset that I wouldn’t be able to leave my bed. My self-confidence became reliant on my ability to physically perform in class. Physical therapists, sports medicine specialists, and physicians were recommended in helping me through my injuries, but somehow, not even once in my 16 years as a pre-professional dancer was any conversation around my mental health or body image even broached.

When I spoke to three retired female dancers, who received similar training to mine, I realized how common this was in dance. Each of them reported not receiving any education around their mental health. They also reported feeling like there was no space to discuss how to emotionally navigate such a demanding, inherently physical, and at times toxic climate.

Sarah, 25, tells Bustle, “I have never hated myself more than the years I spent training to be a ballerina, and more importantly I never felt like I had any place to talk about the long-term repercussions of being a [pre-professional] ballerina had on the way I learned to treat my body.”

Hannah, 24, says she felt similarly. “When I rehearsed I felt deeply insecure. This push and pull of self-criticism and self-expression made my relationship to dance complicated and confusing, and those feelings certainly affected my mental state [and continues to affect me today]."

Alex, 24, tells Bustle, "Regardless of your mental state on any given day, you were expected to show up and work your hardest." She says, “I, like most dancers, loved the rush and feeling you got when [a show] was over but the process leading up to any show (the 12 hour days every Saturday and Sunday, the yelling, and the sizing of costumes) made me literally so miserable, not to mention that I was always injured and in physical pain."

Alex, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, says, "I actually broke my ankle at a dress rehearsal before a recital and [my ballet teacher] called me after hearing that I had broken my ankle and asked if I could still perform in The Nutcracker that night. There were just no breaks because it was such a serious commitment. I could never miss a class even when I had a fever, [my teacher] used to call me and yell at me to come sweat it out."

"It was absolutely toxic and I was miserable for most of it," Alex says. But, she says, "I can’t say I don’t miss it.”

Hannah and Sarah tell Bustle that they could never go back due to the severe consequences dance had on their mental and physical health. "I still love dance as an art form, but I wouldn’t return to it in fear of being pulled back into the toxic thoughts that it often brought me," Hannah says.

I would be lying if I said I didn't still struggle with self-doubt, or think about ballet at all.

Tessa, 26, who still dances professionally, says that "[she worries] about burnout and injuries almost every single day of her career." She tells Bustle, "I just got cast to perform with one of my favorite dance companies, and the first thought I had when the creative director told me the good news was how terrible it would be if I injured myself right now." She says, "I honestly can't even imagine how much more positive my relationship with my body is going to be when I quit dance."

For me, it was after spending numerous weekends injured, soaking my sore body in epsom salt, that I eventually began to daydream more and more about a life free of six-hour rehearsals, bruised toenails, and ice buckets. After graduating from college and learning that there were more facets of myself I wanted to explore outside of dance, I eventually decided to quit.

As Hyde, the dance psychotherapist, finds when most dancers do decide to quit, "it is common for many retired dancers to struggle with feelings of loss, and re-finding their identity, during the first few months."

Quitting doesn't have to be the end of one's relationship with dance, however. "I also like to remind dancers to look at the other ways to identify with dance besides just practicing it," Hyde says. "You can choreograph, teach, become a sports medicine doctor. There are ways to be involved with and passionate about dance without sacrificing your body and mental health."

It wasn't until I quit dance that I realized how toxic it is to derive self-worth from the shape of one's body, and to put oneself through immense duress to feel instances of accomplishments. By retiring my dance career after 16 years, not only did I free up my schedule to dive deeper into other passions of mine, like reading literature and writing poetry, but I learned that I didn't have to physically tire myself to feel this same sense of fulfillment and purpose. I also found that writing and reading helped me create more time in my life to prioritize and better understand all my thoughts and feelings, gave me a new cathartic outlet to express myself, and continues to help me feel a genuine sense of control over the innumerable emotions that I once buried beneath stage makeup and tutus. In return, after giving myself more room to explore my thoughts, I've discovered that my relationship with my mental health has improved tremendously.

I would be lying if I said I didn't still struggle with self-doubt, or think about ballet at all. I still miss the adrenaline rush of performing and having such a consistent outlet to express myself. But, while I have moments when I still wonder what my life might have have been like if I had continued to pursue a career as a ballerina, I am also now confident that if I hadn't let go of dance, I wouldn't have known how much more I have to offer than just my too-often-injured limbs. And all the qualities that define me outside of a dance studio deserve space and exploration, too.