Q: What was it like going through dance training to now, from a mental health perspective?
A: Ballet training has formed the person I have grown into. My mental approach is healthier now though than it was whilst growing up.
I began dance classes in N Ireland, in a freezing cold church hall. We then moved to Libya where I had no dance classes at all. Moving to Brussels I joined a dance school and after watching a performance of Giselle, which flicked a mental switch in my head and soul, I knew this is what I wanted to do.
I had discovered my passion and decided to do my best and see just how far I could go with it. At this school I began understanding the concepts of discipline, humility and perseverance.
I had a very controlling and disciplining mother and it was beginning to take its toll on me when I was 8-10 years old. For example, I was constantly being told to not get a big head if I succeeded in anything, hence I ended up never feeling quite up to par. I was told off whenever I giggled or laughed. The ballet class gave me a place where I learned to control any feelings of upset and just keep on keeping on, no matter what. I was so good at masking my emotions that I stopped giggling and laughing, as clearly it got me into trouble every time I did! People around me became worried because I never smiled.
Escaping to ballet class
The ballet class was becoming my ‘meditation’ area. I could be as serious as I liked, because it was something different: focus and concentration. I started disappearing into a world of detail and attainment of perfection in everything I did in class. Even now, when I teach, there is no outside world; there is only the studio, the student, me, and the work we are challenged by. If you asked my students what my classes were like they’d probably tell you that we have a lot of laughs and fun. I don’t teach them the same way that I was taught.
Reward and recognition
My attention to detail and hard physical work was gaining me some reward and recognition from teachers and classmates. I didn’t really have much of that outside of the studio, so it was a lovely surprise for me! I was becoming one of the better younger students, which is what kept me going. If stuff was horrid at home then I could always look forward to dance lessons. One teacher was nasty and tough and I was sure he hated me. His partner in the school was my favourite lovely person, she seemed to love her students.
First dance job
At 16 I became the youngest member of the Ballet van Vlaanderen. Up to this point I was the product of a training and parenting system that told you were never good enough. You’d almost feel that you deserved any failures. Some of the older style ballet teachers would harangue you in class, sometimes in hurtful ways, but also sometimes with humour born of fondness for you. The trick was to know which was which. However, basically, I never felt good enough, clever enough, smart enough or thin enough.
My parents split and I was used as a tool by my mother. My dancing became a place of respite for me where I could be me and disappear into the steps and combinations. Even now, entering a studio is like coming ‘home’.
I married at 20 then had two children and three years off dancing. I came back to get fit. Went on the RAD PDTC teacher course. I taught at Pineapple and auditioned just for the heck of it to see if I was any good and was offered 4 jobs as principal dancer…. That’s a story for another day. So I kind of proved to myself that I had achieved my little girl’s dreams of making something of myself from all the hard work and mental focus. However, I was still struggling with feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem.
I gave up dancing and teaching and spent 25 years as a Personal Assistant among many other things. I felt worthless, incapable, wasn’t dancing and felt that I was hopeless at everything. The only thought that stopped me from ending it all was the thought of my two beautiful boys. I have since divorced and remarried.
Back to Ballet
After 25 years I came back to class and I was asked to teach again. I have been teaching at this school and guest teaching at others for 10 years now, these being the most satisfying and rewarding years.
Now I can see that all of my early struggles, both physical and mental, and my overcoming of them, were to enable me to help others. I am quite happy now with the person that I have finally grown into, mostly! I have learned through much trial and error, and it is the hard stuff that has made me find ways to overcome, that I can now pass on if I feel it is appropriate and going to help.