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."