Dancing with anxiety

tl;dr Anxiety makes attending dance class particularly difficult in ways that have nothing to do with actual dancing. So, it’s time to make some changes and start talking about how we can better support dancers with anxiety instead of leaving them at a disadvantage. 

September 2016

So I just came out of a “levelling class” (ie. audition) during which I was so anxious that my legs were shaking for the entire adagio and I could not get them under control.

I’m saying anxious not nervous, because this is specifically linked to my anxiety, not general audition nerves (although I’m completely certain that those definitely had a part in this too). To be explicitly clear, I had a panic attack in the middle of this class and it is not the first time I have danced through one of these in class.

I know that sounds a bit dramatic – when most people think of panic attacks, they think of hyperventilation, or at least something BIG, DRAMATIC and noticeable. I have never hyperventilated and, to be honest, my panic attacks are very silent and easily hidden. For some reason (I’m pretty sure it’s dance, to be honest), I can be in the deep dark depths of ABSOLUTE AND UTTER PANIC, and appear completely under control. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have physical symptoms.

Just to give you an idea of what I’m dancing through, here is a nice list of symptoms courtesy of the NHS. For anyone that doesn’t experience panic attacks/has no real context for what I’m talking about, I suggest choosing any three symptoms from that list and imagine trying to dance in class with them. Then, for this specific circumstance, add it to general audition nerves (because auditions are awful).

I can do it. In the years and years and years of attending dance class and having panic attacks, there has been a total of one instance in which I have had to actually stop dancing.

But that doesn’t make it easy.

We have a culture in the dance world of “going to class”. In the way dance is structured, attending class is a necessity for dancers. Of course, instruction or just outside guidance is always useful for optimal growth (though a committed person can make amazing growth without guidance), but I believe the bigger issue is space. When I studied cello, I had one-on-one lessons, not a class, but I only needed a tiny room to practice in and a slightly bigger one for lessons. Class is a replacement for practice time and the most efficient way to provide instruction, because very few people have enough space to really practice dance in their homes and studios are too expensive to make private lessons cost-effective.

But attending class is a huge challenge for anyone with anxiety. Before class even starts, I need to make sure I get there 15 minutes early, if I show up earlier, I feel overeager, if I show up later, I’m late (my private teacher drilled the 15 minute thing into me) and showing up to class late is Bad. Not only does it mean I’m not properly warmed up, but it means more people look at me than if I’m there before them. It also means I can’t choose my place in the room.

Which comes to point two – I have next to no spatial awareness and I am constantly terrified of accidentally wacking someone else. I need to space myself in a place where I’m near as few people as possible and stay as far away from those people as possible. I can hardly ever dance full out in a dance class simply because I am so anxious about hitting other people.

And then there’s food. Another huge anxiety for me is not eating enough for class. So, before I go to class, I have to be sure I’ve eaten a good meal, even if it’s a very weird time of day. And, even if I’m fully fed, if I haven’t eaten some kind of snack bar before class, the chance of panic attack increases quite a lot. I never struggle in class because I haven’t eaten enough, but I am consistently struggling because I am worried that  haven’t eaten enough.

And that’s just a few examples.

Note that none of the things I’m anxious about is dance. It’s very easy to forget that dance actually encompasses a large amount of skills and activities that have nothing to do with the actual moving part of it (I’m writing a list because it’s important to me that we recognize dance is interdisciplinary).

But that also makes it feel kind of silly that the things that make dance hard for me are not the actual dancing.

And it makes me wonder about the other anxious dancers. I skip class a lot, because going out is sometimes too hard. Who else is following this pattern? Who else is being held back, not because they can’t dance but because their anxiety is keeping them from going to class? Why the hell is there no support to get us dancing?

I mean – why not have anxiety-friendly dance classes? With smaller class sizes, maybe self sign-in to avoid the timing discomfort, the options to take breaks to eat, stretch, have a panic attack without having to dance through it.

I mean, my anxiety isn’t just making it hard, it means I am not progressing as quickly as my non-anxious peers because I literally cannot dance as often. So why can’t we start trying to make practice space more available and accessible (cheaper? available to non-professionals?, I point towards the Dance Complex in Boston as a model that has worked well for me) so people who can’t get to class can still have space to dance?

I know a lot of my opinions on dance boil down to “dance is great! But we really need rebuild the structures that support it from the beginning all over again”. And, of course, that’s not going to happen immediately. But I do think we do need to start thinking about how dance supports and fails people with anxiety (and other mental illnesses) and we need to start thinking about how to integrate those people, us, into mainstream dance, instead of keeping us out in specialist “dance for mental health! Wheee!” classes (because those exist. But I’ve never gone to them. Because I am professional-track and want classes that will help me build the technique I need to dance professionally). While, it’s great to get everyone dancing, as long as mental health support isn’t integrated into all dance classes, there will always be the image of the Real Dancer and the Person that Dances For Fun.

And who’s to say someone with anxiety can’t be a Real Dancer? (and who’s the say dancing for fun isn’t real?)

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