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Mental Health in Dance, with Dr Lucie Clements

I personally work towards educating and encouraging learning about the body and physical training in dance, but what about the mental aspects of the dance industry? I was taught by Lucie during my Master’s degree and was always (and still am) completely inspired by the way she talks about her research, so there was no doubt in my mind about asking to have a talk with her for the STRODA project about her research and experiences of mental health and dance.

Dr Lucie Clements is a Chartered Psychologist, Academic and Researcher working with training and professional dancers, dance teachers and parents to help promote healthy engagement through workshops, lectures and “The Dance Psychologist” website and Instagram. Lucie completed her BSc in Psychology at the University of Surrey before continuing to achieve her Master’s and PhD in Dance Science at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Alongside lecturing at Chichester University Lucie, continues her own research and works to empower dancers, teachers and parents with the psychological skills needed to thrive in the dance industry including dealing with performance anxiety, stress management and optimal response to injury.

So you started off as a dancer yourself, what brought you to wanting to delve into the psychological aspects of dancers and dance training and performing?

I had quite serious injuries, labral tears in my hips when I was thirteen and then all the way through my teens up to the point at which I would have pursued vocational dance training. I think although I found the physical side of it very difficult, the impact it had on my body, the pain, I found that psychologically that was probably quite a bit harder for me to cope. Predominantly not knowing what the future was going to hold for me and not knowing what the consequences of that injury actually were because it went undiagnosed for such a long time, because people didn’t really understand the dance specific nature of that injury. I think I was just left with a lot of unknowns. And at that time, as well, the teaching I was having was kind of one that was a bit like “if you’re injured just deal with it” and that was really psychologically impacting on me for a very long time.

Then I started doing psychology at A level and I really just saw this reflection between the two and an opportunity to get some of my personal questions answered, which I think is what brings a lot of students to psychology, that they feel like they see answers. I remember when I was doing psychology A-level there was lots of studies about ballet dancers and anorexia, so that nature/nurture debate with eating disorders, so how they develop, is it genetic or is it the role of the environment? And there were lots of studies that were using ballet and gymnastics as the role of the environment, so a strict environment, and how that impacts dancer’s psychological wellbeing and I think it kind of made things really interesting that there could be a link here between the two. So that’s how it all started.

You mentioned the “if you’re injured, just deal with it” kind of attitude that I think a lot of dancers have come across, I know I certainly have, where I was doing my vocational training there was a lot of that kind of thing going on. What kind of impact do you think that has mentally on dancers, the kind of conflict of feeling “I really just need to be cracking on with it” but physically really struggling?

I mean I think, for me personally, it definitely impacted my confidence, my self-belief that there was actually something wrong with me and that undermines the fact that you know your own body. When someone else is essentially saying “there is actually nothing wrong with you just crack on”. And my experience was being normalised, with the injury I was carrying the impact on self-confidence is severe. Females typically really struggle with their sense of self and their self-confidence through adolescence, figuring out who they are. Adolescents are so prone to mental health problems anyway because that’s when you see the peak in mental health problems, and now I just realise that that kind of treatment was just not ideal for an adolescent. They should be participating in activities that are promoting their sense of who they are, promoting their identity not taking it away from them. So, I think if a person is injured in their adolescence it is potentially detrimental to their long-term sense of working out who they are and what their worth is.

You've previously conducted research in a few different areas in dance psychology like creativity, motivational climate, and performance anxiety, what do you think was one of the more impactful insights you've found through your research?

I think the one that I’m the proudest of is one that got published recently which is looking at the role of the climate in promoting creativity in ballet. That’s probably the one that, I think, is really important because, again, I think that very traditional black and white teachings are going on in ballet. There’s quite a lot in dance psychology that looks at the role of climate and the implications of that for health and wellbeing but I think that there’s a lot in there to be discussed around how it impacts on people’s ability to be themselves, and part of that is being creative.

We found that where the dance environment was particularly autonomy suppressive, so it wasn’t supporting the students to stand up for themselves or have a voice, that their creativity was really being inhibited by that. I think it’s really important in this day and age where lots of dance schools say that they are promoting creativity, to know some of the implications of that teaching style on creativity. That you may be trying to develop creativity, giving creative tasks, but the traditional dance styles are at odds with creativity developing because it’s very judgemental and creativity is about this kind of non-judgemental ability to just devise, be free with your decisions.

Yeah that is interesting, it’s interesting how a lot of vocational schools will promote things that they haven’t necessarily looked into much research about the best, or the most efficient way of doing, or if there’s any research on it at all, so it’s good that’s now being done.

Yeah, its interesting because there’s a real difference between creating something and being creative, you can create something by just putting parts of something together. So, like, if you think about ballet, you have your set structure and you’re just finding different ways of putting it together so it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re being creative, you’re making a variation of something that’s almost identical to something else. Is that actually creative? And that’s why I think it’s really interesting to think about what is being creative vs creating something. Like if you make a cake, you put ingredients in, you follow orders. That’s creating a cake, not being creative. You put the same ingredients in but in another way, and you get something out that’s pretty much similar to every other cake… that’s not actually creative.

You give workshops to schools and organisations about psychological tools and skills, what would you say is the most requested workshop you have given so far and why do you think that is?

Yeah, I think the most requested one is probably about performance anxiety and I think it’s because it’s quite visible. I think that teachers often request that either for students or for themselves in order to help students because they can see it quite clearly, you can see when someone’s anxious or students will tell you that they’re anxious. It probably does help a substantial amount of people because they start to understand theoretically if they’re sweating, why they then feel anxious or if they’re anxious, why they then forget things on stage. A lot of people will admit to having performance anxiety as well. I think there is less of a taboo around it, I think it’s okay to say you have performance anxiety or for students to say “I get so anxious” or “I get stage fright”.

Ah okay, is there something you think should be more requested?

I don’t know about ‘should’ be more requested necessarily in terms of workshops, but things I’ve found most interesting in the conversations that I’ve had recently with some of places that I’ve been and have come out of discussions I’ve had, and I think a really really important discussion I would like more places to be having is about what kind of health support they should be providing in this arena. Sometimes dance schools or wherever I go don’t have that kind of understanding of what the different roles are in mental health. I guess it’s kind of similar to the average person not knowing the difference between a strength and conditioning coach, a physical therapist and a personal trainer. That conversation around the different avenues of support that you can put in place for dancers has been something that has started coming up in conversations that I’m having and I think that that’s important for people to be talking about in dance - what are the different roles and what do we need to put in place? Should we have a counsellor that’s accessible for students and on top of that what else do we need? So these kind of conversations around how do you build a good mental health support package is something that’s coming up more and I think that should be the responsibility now of every dance school to say “we need to have this conversation to figure out what to put in place and what are the results?”.

Dance training or vocational training focuses a lot on physical training with generally little regard to developing psychological skills such as coping mechanisms with everything that comes on the mental health side with performing. In your opinion which psychological tools would you recommend, along with all the support systems you were just talking about, to really aid and support the high volume of physical training dancers go through?

I think it’s important that in classes there are things that are integrated into the everyday class setting, and I think in some places they are. Like an example of this would be often when I talk about mindfulness people say, “But we’re already doing that”. However, what I think could be done better is the education around how to implement mindfulness effectively. So just the same way we’ve made a move forward with what’s the correct way to warm up in dance, that we now start to talk about “There are lots of ways that we might try mindfulness, what would be a better way to do it, what’s the kind of scientific approach to it?” and including a kind of more evidence based approach to incorporating things like mindfulness, breathing or relaxation into classes.

I do also believe in and feel quite strongly that every dancer in vocational training should also have a module or a curriculum on performance psychology and mental health. A broad perspective about understanding mental health generally because I also feel it’s really important all young people discuss mental health, not only in a dance context. There’s a really high prevalence of mental health problems generally, one in four people have mental health concerns and I think that generally in society we should be teaching people mental health awareness. So, taking time to have discussions around it and kind of understand skills, the classic ones like self-talk and imagery but also how to look after yourself at the weekend and things like that and really promoting the importance of that balance.

And finally, I think there should be kind of regular teacher learning sessions as well, because the thing I think that most of the time, you know, most teachers you talk to are really interested in what you’ve got to say and they understand concepts of motivational climate but it’s about how to actually put that into practice, over time. I don’t think you can go one time into a dance school and say “Do x, y and z and you’ll fix your dancers mental health”, I think it’s about your continued development and checking back in. “What did you try? Did it work? And what skills did you try to incorporate with your approach?” I think it has to be a really holistic approach where you’re putting it into the dance technique where it’s becoming part of the daily class, plus the students having something separate, plus also the teaching as well…that’s my dream!

Yeah you find so often than in classes that sometimes it’s really “Go go go!” especially if you’re working up to performances, sometimes it’s even kind of a “right have no time, skip the warm up straight into the routine” very overwhelming, there’s no time to settle in and make sure that everyone is okay, fully in the room, fully mentally prepared for everything that’s coming and therefore able to cope.

Yeah and also I think it’s really important to prepare people for how to cope afterwards, so after you’ve done these really intense performances or if you’re doing a tour or if you’re doing five performances in three days like how do you come off stage and wind down and get yourself ready for the next one. So those kinds of things, for me, should be part of the curriculum and as you’re leading into an intense performance schedule “let’s recap what we’ve talked about” and make sure that everyone’s doing it too.


You can find out more about Lucie and her work at her website The Dance Psychologist and her Instagram page where she shares her wealth of knowledge and offers workshops.

Lucie is also undertaking research into dance and mental health in collaboration with One Dance UK and Minding the Gap, so if you are over the age of 18 years and would like to participate please follow the link

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