Rachel Neville

What the Dance World *Still* Gets Wrong About Mental Illness

Don't let her sizeable Instagram following or willingness to speak publicity about living with anxiety, depression and autism give you the wrong idea. "My speaking out about it does not mean it's easy or fun," says dancer Sydney Magruder Washington. "It means I'm not ashamed and you shouldn't be either."

And though (thankfully) open conversations about mental health are becoming more common in the dance world, there's still a long way to go. We picked Washington's brain about what it's like to live with mental illness as a dancer, the survival tips she's learned and what the dance world still doesn't seem to understand about mental health:


What It's Like to Dance with Anxiety and Depression

In an already ultra-competitive field, living with mental illness can make daily activities—like going to class or auditions—feel like insurmountable challenges. "It makes it hard to do the things that should be fun, and harder to do the things that are already hard," Washington says. "Auditions are not fun for most of us because it's nerve-racking to be judged on how you do in the moment. But when your baseline feeling is that you're worthless it becomes twice as difficult to receive criticism."

What the Dance World Doesn't Understand About Mental Illness

It's not uncommon to hear the phrase "leave it at the door," meaning dancers should forget about any outside problems and be fully present in the studio. "I'm really sick of that expression," says Washington. "I have chains on my legs and I can't take them off. It's like having an extra backpack on your back except that backpack has a voice and it's yelling mean things."

She also wishes people understood that for dancers with a mental illness, every day is different. "It's not as predictable as you would think," she says. "These aren't periods."

What Needs to Change

Yes, every company needs a staff psychologist and every dance program needs a unit on mental health, says Washington. But it's also about changing minds and attitudes: "A lot of the older generation has a toxic mindset about mental health," she says. "Why should we wait for these people to die off? Why should we put the impetus on all of us who are coming up? Old people are perfectly capable of learning new things."

Washington says she's been told things like: "If this is too hard for you, go do something else." Her response? "No. You don't get to kick me out of the thing I love because I'm struggling."

Her Best Survival Tips for Dancers With Mental Illness

Keep your dance bag packed at all times. "Sometimes when the motivation hits you, you need to do it right then or you're going to lose it," she says. "If I decide at the last minute to go to an audition my bag is by the door and packed."

Have a backup plan. If your mental health keeps you at home for the day, "find ways to invest in yourself at home," she says. "Get a yoga mat, get some weights, do your own small workout so you don't feel like the day is completely lost."

Schedule things for yourself on bad days. "Go look for an audition that's in two weeks," she says. "That'll help to get you back on track and give you something to look forward to."

Latest Posts


Maria Kochetkova. Darian Volkova, Courtesy Kochetkova

Maria Kochetkova on How COVID-19 Affected Her Freelance Career, and Her New Home at Finnish National Ballet

When international star Maria Kochetkova embarked on a freelance career three years ago, she never envisioned how a global pandemic would affect it. In 2018, the Russian-born ballerina left the security of San Francisco Ballet, a company she called home for more than a decade, for the globe-trotting life of a guest star. Before the pandemic, Kochetkova managed her own performing schedule and was busier than ever, enjoying artistic freedom and expanding her creative horizons. This all changed in March 2020, when she saw her booming career—and her jet-setting lifestyle—change almost overnight.

After months of uncertainty, Kochetkova landed at Finnish National Ballet, where she is a principal dancer for the 2020–21 season. Pointe spoke with her about her time during the quarantine and what helped her to get through it, her new life in Helsinki, and what keeps her busy and motivated these days.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
DTH's Alexandra Hutchinson and Derek Brockington work out with trainer Lily Overmyer at Studio IX. Photo by Joel Prouty, Courtesy Hutchinson.

Working Out With DTH’s Alexandra Hutchinson

Despite major pandemic shutdowns in New York City, Alexandra Hutchinson has been HIIT-ing her stride. Between company class with Dance Theater of Harlem and projects like the viral video "Dancing Through Harlem"—which she co-directed with roommate and fellow DTH dancer Derek Brockington—Hutchinson has still found time to cross-train. She shares her motivation behind her killer high-intensity interval training at Studio IX on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

As Ballet Looks Toward Its Future, Let's Talk About Its Troubling Emotional Demands

As a ballet student, I distinctively remember being told that to survive ballet as a profession, one must be exceptionally thick-skinned and resilient. I always assumed it was because of the physically demanding nature of ballet: long rehearsal hours, challenging and stressful performances, and physical pain.

It wasn't until I joined a ballet company that I learned the true meaning behind those words: that the reason one needs thick skin is not because of the physical demands, but because of the unfair and unnecessary emotional demands.

Undoubtedly, emotional and physical strength go hand in hand to some extent. But the kind of emotional demand I am talking about here is different; it is not the strength one finds in oneself in moments of fatigue or unwillingness. It is the strength one must have when being bullied, humiliated, screamed at, manipulated or harassed.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks