Transcript, Episode 78: Students’ Mental Health Needs, Freelance Pay, and Our First Book Review

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Amy Brandt:
And I’m Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And we are very excited to present our first ever mailbag episode—yay! Over the past few weeks, you all have been sending in your suggestions for discussion topics, dance world ideas and issues you’d like us to get into. And we’ve pulled three of those from our digital grab bag to discuss today.

So, the winners are: incorporating mental health into teacher training, which is a big, important topic; negotiating contract and pay issues in the freelance dance world, another huge one, which Amy has a lot to say about; and then we’re going to do our first ever dance book review, talking about Gavin Larsen’s memoir Being a Ballerina—which, spoiler, we think it’s fantastic. But more to come on that.

If your topic didn’t make it into this episode, don’t worry. We’ll definitely be doing more mailbag rounds in the not-so-distant future, so please keep the ideas coming. Speaking of which, we always love hearing from you all, whatever you want to talk about, and the easiest way to share your thoughts with us—thoughts about the podcast, thoughts about some piece of dance news we’ve missed, thoughts about any and all things dance—the easiest way to do that is on social media. Make sure you’re following The Dance Edit @the.dance.edit on Instagram and @dance_edit on Twitter, and then leave us a comment, or slide on into our DMS.

All right, no headline rundown this episode, because we’re actually coming to you from the past. We’re recording this a couple of weeks before you’re hearing it, and our news will be old news by the time this drops. So we’re going to get right into our first discussion segment, which is ways to incorporate mental health in teacher training.

So many of you wrote in asking to hear more about dance and mental health, generally speaking. This is clearly weighing on everyone’s mind right now, which is not a surprise given the year and a half we’ve all had. And creating a solid foundation for young students, making sure that we are addressing their mental health needs as well as their technical needs, that’s such an important part of the equation here. So how can we make sure that teachers have the tools they need to develop dancers that are as healthy mentally as they are physically?

Courtney Escoyne:
I have two initial thoughts here, which I think speaks to why this is such an important topic. The first one is that oftentimes—as students and as young adults, but also just as human beings—I think oftentimes when you are dealing with an issue of mental health, actually reaching out to another person to talk about it can feel impossible, no matter how much maybe you want to or are aware that you need to. Sometimes it simply seems insurmountable. And so having someone—for example, a dance teacher, who is maybe seeing you more than your own parents are seeing you at this point—having someone just take the time to stop and say something or anything, or make an observation about it and do it in a caring way, that can genuinely make such a huge difference because it can open a door and form a bridge. And if it’s done delicately and with care and respect, that can make all the difference in anyone’s mental health, but especially students. Especially in this industry and this training environment that can create or exacerbate so many issues.

And the second point is that if you’re coming at this as a teacher, it can sound like such a big insurmountable thing of, “I have to figure out how to care for this as well on top of everything else that we are trying to impart in the studio.” But I think a key point is, it’s not on you to be 100% there for all of your students’ mental health needs. Because you are not a mental health professional, but there are mental health professionals. And so acting as that bridge and acting as a point of contact, again, can make such a huge difference.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, I have to say, as a teacher, you have so much responsibility in this regard that it can kind of be overwhelming. Not only do you have to think about how your own actions affect your students, basically the way you deliver feedback, but also just being on the lookout for these things, understanding how to manage a situation where, for instance, a young dancer seems to be developing an eating disorder, is showing signs, or seems withdrawn—to recognize that, and to understand how to handle that appropriately. I think that for teachers, it would be wonderful, as someone who’s taught myself, and as someone who—I know I’ve made mistakes that I regret teaching someone and the way I delivered something or my expectations of a student where I realized that I actually affected them negatively.I think as teachers, it would be wonderful to have those kinds of resources somewhere where they can go, whether it be an organization, a seminar, something to understand how they can help their dancers when they notice that something might be wrong. You never know what’s happening with them at home. There are lots of reasons why dancers develop eating disorders beyond just, “I want to be thin for dance.” A lot of times it’s other things that can contribute to that.

Courtney Escoyne:
And I think it’s worth noting that while eating disorders—that is something that tends to get a lot of attention in the dance world, and we’ve gotten, I think, much better about talking about it in the dance world—it is something that really dovetails into concerns about physical health, right? And so it, in a weird way, is almost the easier mental health issue to talk about, because it’s like, “Oh, well, this directly impacts your physicality.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s like the gateway mental health issue, yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yes. But there’s also a lot of other things, like depression, perfectionism, there’s all these other things that can also dovetail with eating disorders, but might have nothing to do with eating disorders, that is equally as important for creating resilient artists and also just resilient humans.

Amy Brandt:
And sometimes I think the way you react to something, you might think it’s helpful, but it’s not. For instance, the first half of my career, I really did struggle with anxiety and self-confidence. It was terrible. And I often would get lectured on my low self-confidence and that just didn’t really help, because it was one more thing that was wrong with me that I had to work on. It was very hard to figure out how to work through that and develop more confidence with just changing my way of thinking, et cetera. But often it was just like, “You have such low self-confidence and that’s what’s holding you back.” End of story. “Fix that.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah, and that’s so complicated because the vast majority of teachers, first of all, aren’t even coming from a place where they have any kind of pedagogical training happening. And even if they do, most pedagogy programs, if child psychology or psychology period is included, it’s like a blip on the curriculum, even though it ends up being such a huge part of the day-to-day work that you’re doing.

Dance [Teacher] did a great story about this partnership that Point Park University is developing with Minding the Gap, the advocacy group that’s working to support dancers’ mental health. And obviously not all dance teachers are working inside big institutions with lots of resources like Point Park. But the story did point out that they’re trying to develop a curriculum that could be shared with other dance programs in schools. And I think that kind of resource is really what’s needed so desperately here. Because yeah, most teachers don’t have the resources to retrain themselves or to invest in that kind of training. But a targeted curriculum like that that could be shared widely—it would be so helpful.

Amy Brandt:
Because teachers often get blamed for bad experiences and et cetera. But I think the vast majority of teachers really do want the best for their students, and want to understand how to navigate these situations to create resilient artists, and to have high standards for their dancers, but also just understand how the teenage brain especially is wired. I remember overhearing a teenage student—I said something to her, and I overheard her telling her other students something I had told her. And I was like, “That is not what I meant at all. At all!” And feeling so bad that it had been received this way. It was definitely a red flag for myself. I have to be conscious of how I talk to young people.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, how can we support teachers’ fundamentally good intentions with science and scientific knowledge? How do we back that up?

By the way, we do want to make sure that you all check out the Minding the Gap website, because it has some really great resources for people on all sides of this equation, students, teachers, everybody. That’s at wearemindingthegap.org. Please do go visit that.

Okay, so next up we have a super thorny topic, which is negotiating pay and contract issues in the dance world, especially the freelance dance world. This was submitted by Joe Lott on Instagram, and thank you, Joe, because there is a ton to unpack here.

We’ve talked a lot on the podcast about how dancers are often taught to focus on the work and not think about the money. Being a starving artist is seen as a badge of honor. That attitude, at least, is slowly starting to change—but you can still find plenty of unpaid “opportunities” out there. So how can you advocate for yourself in those kinds of scenarios, first of all, and then what needs to change structurally so that fair pay and reasonable contracts become, if not an industry standard, at least less rare? Let’s talk about it.

Amy Brandt:
Well, I’ll say that I freelance danced for 10 years in New York City. And when I first started out, I was really surprised at how often—I mean, I would say most of the time—when someone reached out to me with an employment opportunity, or I should say a dance opportunity, the initial conversation was, “Hey, I would love to hire you for this project. Are you available for these dates? Let me know.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
No mention of money.

Amy Brandt:
No mention of money. And in my naivete, for the first year or so, because I was trying to build up networks and things like that, I’d be like, “Oh yeah, I’m available. Project sounds exciting.” And then I expect the pay to be mentioned in the response and then it wouldn’t be. And then I would have to have this awkward exchange about pay.

And then you would find out that some jobs don’t pay until the project is done. You get a performance fee, but all that rehearsal time, you don’t get paid for it. Or you get paid in three installments. Or you get paid hourly or whatnot. But that information is actually really important to know. Because there were some things I signed up for that I was like, “I can’t afford to do this and I’ve already said yes. But yet I’m so desperate to build my resume that I’ll just do it anyway.” So it took me a while to finally, as soon as that email came with the schedule and, “Are you available?”, my response was, without even acknowledging the schedule, “What are you offering as far as compensation?” But it put the onus on me, which I didn’t appreciate. And I didn’t feel was professional.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well and I think there’s this idea around the mythos of the starving artist that if you love what you do, it doesn’t matter what you’re being paid. I think there’s this mythos that comes with that, which is, Okay, if I start asking about compensation from the get, if I start negotiating for what my time is worth, I’m saying I don’t actually care about the work that much. Which is completely untrue and doesn’t make sense and is not true in virtually any other industry in the United States. Could you imagine a doctor asking about compensation and the being told, “Oh, well you don’t care about your patients.”? That makes no sense.

So this is something that has been very particular to the artist experience, where we’ve been conditioned to just be grateful to have work without ever being taught to advocate for ourselves and for what our time and effort… It is actual physical labor. Dance is physical labor, and it takes so much. We all know how much it takes. You’re listening to this podcast, you’re involved in the dance world, you know! So we shouldn’t devalue that work.

It takes so much to be a dancer. And so saying, “Hey, my time and physical labor is valuable” does not inherently mean that you don’t care. It means that you actually value yourself as an artist and as a worker.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I think there are actually some overlaps between this discussion and the discussion we were just having about teacher training, because in both there’s this idea that the training you’ve received in the classroom will prepare you for the jobs you are about to take. And that’s not true. There are just so many aspects of these workplaces that you’re not trained to navigate, and you have to figure it out on your own. And yeah, as we’ve been saying, there are all of these implicit biases involved that make it even harder to do that.

Amy Brandt:
And when you are freelancing, you do have expenses. You have to pay for your own class and training. You’re responsible for making sure you’ve got enough pointe shoes ordered in advance, if you have special orders like I did. And that all has to be, I learned, factored in to what this gig will be worth as far as, are you paying to dance for this gig, or are you being compensated to cover these expenses that you are taking on?

And I’ll also say, I worked with some quite young emerging choreographers. They were starting out, they didn’t have anything. They didn’t have money to give. I worked with one, she was in her twenties, I was in my twenties, and she paid me an hourly rate, I think out of her own pocket, honestly. It was very small. But just to know that she valued each hour I was working for her felt great. And it made up for the fact that she didn’t have huge backers and patrons and things like that. And the work we did together was wonderful. And I really enjoyed that time and it was worth it to me.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think also as a freelancer, there’s a lot of factors that come into it. Because yeah, sometimes it’s going to be a friend of yours whose work you believe in who you know can’t actually afford to pay you what you’re worth. And I know when I’ve been in those situations, that’s been a very frank conversation at the outset. So it’s, okay, is it artistically feeding you? Might this lead to something more eventually? But also, what are alternative ways of showing value for your dancers? Something that I think should be acknowledged, and it’s kind of wonderful when it does happen, is okay, if you’re a freelance dancer, if you want to take technique class, you are having to pay to go take technique class. So I think something that can be done is okay, if you’re a young, up and coming choreographer, you can’t really afford to pay your dancers, make offering a warmup or a mini class part of your rehearsal process, part of the time that they are putting in so that they’re not having to go and pay to take a class and then show up to your rehearsal that they’re not going to get paid for. Things like that. Different exchanges that you can do.

Because also, all dancers these days are crazy multi-hyphenates who have so many skillsets at their disposal. So figure out what you can trade. If your friend’s really good at website design, maybe you can trade off for that. If your friend’s really good at constructing resumes, you can trade off for that. There’s a lot of different ways to approach this.

I do think there is a conversation to be had that I think is an ongoing one of, “Okay, if you accept work for free, are you then devaluing dancers pay overall for the field?” Because part of the way that dancers and freelancers are going to be able to collectively negotiate for actually getting paid what they deserve is if it is a collective thing, where there is a level of solidarity in place. But it’s a negotiation, it has to be happening. And I think it all comes down to what Amy was talking about at the very beginning, which is clear communication from the get-go. The onus shouldn’t be placed on the dancers. But when it is, dancers need to be equipped to be able to have those conversations.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And speaking of collective negotiation, clearly the union discussion comes into play here. I know there are conversations happening, and especially in New York and Chicago, I think—dancers thinking about, what would a freelance dancer union look like? Would it follow like the Writers Guild of America model? Would it end up under AGMA? How would that work? And I don’t think I need to explain the benefits of unionization to this crowd. But yeah, that can also be a long, complicated process.

Clearly we’re not going to solve this issue on this podcast today, but the larger point is yes, figuring out ways to acknowledge dancers’ value, whether that’s financially or in other ways, but acknowledging the value of the time and the work that dancers are putting in.

Okay, so last up today, we’re going to do our first ever book review. This was an idea suggested by @Kirouette on Instagram, otherwise known as Kyra Laubacher. And we’re kind of cheating here, because Kyra is a former Pointe intern and one of our frequent freelancers. So hi, Kyra, thank you! But it is a great season for dance book reviews, because there are so many awesome new books out. This could potentially become a series.

The book that we want to discuss today is Gavin Larsen’s Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, which is a beautiful memoir about Larsen’s experiences as a student and a professional dancer. Oh, you guys, I love this book.

Courtney Escoyne:
So I tend to be a little bit leery of dancer memoirs. I love them, but they tend to be a very specific category of book, I think, where there tends to be a lot of name-dropping: “And then I did this role and then I did this role.” And they kind of tend to fall into this very predictable formula. And this is maybe one of the first dancer memoirs in a while that I just love as a piece of writing. It is so beautifully written and also so cleverly written, because what Gavin does, at least in the beginning, is—she says in the preface that, “Sometimes my dancer self feels like a completely different person than who I am today.” And so the chapters that have to do with her training and her early career are actually written in the third person, which is a just brilliant writing device in that it, in a way, turns this kid finding her way in the ballet world into a character in a novel.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Every kid.

Courtney Escoyne:
Into every kid. And it makes it easier for you, the reader, to go into her shoes. Because all of a sudden it feels like you’re reading a novel. So of course you can picture yourself in that. And then there’s also interstitial chapters that are taking you through what a day as a professional dancer was actually like, and those are written in the second person. So it is emphatically placing you the reader in her shoes. And it is so beautifully written. I can’t remember the last time I read something and was like, “I want to go take class right now. Can I do pliés? I want to go do pliés.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
“I miss blisters.” I know, isn’t that strange?

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s a weird feeling.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I also enjoyed the overall show-don’t-tell–ness of this book, especially when it comes to the less positive aspects of ballet. Because Gavin is really self-aware, she’s very clear-eyed about troublesome situations she experienced and harmful thought patterns that ballet cultivated in her. But as a reader, you find those upsetting not because she’s telling you, “This is really upsetting.” They’re upsetting because they’re so sensitively drawn, in a way that reveals all of their complexities.

Like the scene where she has crazy vertigo, she can’t stand up straight, and she’s supposed to perform Allegro Brillante—which if there were ever a nightmare ballet to perform when you have vertigo, that it’s. And her director’s sort of shrugging response to that, which was basically like, “Don’t upset this casting house of cards that I built. Please just go on.” I think he told her to take some deep breaths. Gavin doesn’t cast any definitive judgments in her description of that scene, but the fullness of the description of it makes it an absolute gut punch to you as the reader: “Oh my gosh, that really happened to her. This is real life in ballet.”

Amy Brandt:
And the same, just the way she writes about performing and the joy, the absolute thrill and joy of performing on stage when it goes right—I think she delivered that perfectly. I think I marked this line that was just so beautiful. Let me see if I can find it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Is it the one about the Sugar Plum pas de deux?

Amy Brandt:
“Suddenly, at the height of the lift…”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes!

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I’ll read it to you, pod listeners: “But suddenly, at the height of the lift and on that one magnificent note, everything was crystal clear. This is the apex of life. This is the happiest person on earth can be. This is perfection.” And I so identified with that feeling of just having a performance where you’re just completely lost in it and everything goes just perfectly and it’s the most amazing feeling.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You know what’s crazy? I’ve never danced that pas de deux, but I have experienced that feeling at that exact moment as a viewer watching that ballet: “That is it. This is the reason we’re here and doing this craziness.”

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I also find there’s something very visceral about the way she describes her experiences. There’s that chapter where she describes her first week as an apprentice—

Courtney Escoyne:
Oh my gosh.

Amy Brandt:
—and having to spend the entire day in pointe shoes and how it was like, “What?” The torture and the pain, and just trying to get through, and her throbbing feet and all of that. It was just so spot on to me.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I think if I had to use two words, it’s visceral, and it’s novelistic. And I think those two things together—one, it just speaks to, again, extraordinary writing, just wildly impressive writing. But I think it speaks to the way that she’s managed in this memoir to both not at all gloss over the difficult, problematic, sometimes really awful parts of her career and a career in dance, but at the same time without ever once losing sight of, “This is magical and this is why we do this.” And managing to do those two things simultaneously in this beautifully honest way and this beautifully transportive way, it’s one hell of a hat trick.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. The sublime and the problematic and just the quotidian, everyday stuff. It’s all in there.

So, of course, we are encouraging you to go read Being a Ballerina, that’s our end verdict here! We will include a link to the University Press of Florida’s page for the book in the show notes.

And Gavin is also, well, just a friend, but also a friend of the pod. And she did this lovely, thoughtful interview with us about the book, about her decision to use the third person, the whole writing process, which is interesting, and also about, just more generally speaking, some ways that we can make dance environments more compassionate and empathetic. So please do go listen to that too. That was back in episode 60.

All right. That concludes our first interview mailbag episode. Thanks everyone for joining us. We’ll be back next week for a regular episode with more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Amy Brandt:
Bye, everybody.