Turning pain and perfectionism into power in ballet

Joëlle-Aeby“I broke my hip on stage at 21… it took me six months to recover, but I was back for the next season,” ballet dancer, Joëlle Aeby relates this story with an unruffled charm, as she sips her latte, peeling a layer of pastry from a croissant.

We meet in a Northcote coffee shop in Melbourne’s arty inner north, down the road from the studio where she teaches ballet between rehearsing and performing with Victorian State Ballet (Vic State Ballet), where she is a company artist.

“I don’t think it was just the gruelling dance schedule I was under…” she adds. “I think my bones were already brittle, from osteoporosis, I wasn’t eating enough.”

At the time, Aeby was dancing full time in a ballet company in Prague. Even before she left home at the tender age of fifteen to pursue ballet full-time, she was winning prestigious competitions in European conservatoires and attending summer schools with eminent ballet companies.

The archetype of extreme dedication from a young, pre-professional age in the ballet world persists. This idea is that only through ‘cult-like devotion’ and brutal training schedules will the best dancers win opportunities in their profession, as Rosemary Martin, Professor of Dance at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (and former Dancer of The Royal New Zealand Ballet), puts it. Yet there is a movement among companies and schools for this ‘all-consuming lifestyle’ approach to ballet coaching and performance to shift.

The Australian Ballet (Aus Ballet) have been leading the way in injury prevention and recovery for some time now, with Dr Sue Mayes as their principal physiotherapist, and a team of medical and allied health professionals working collaboratively with the dancers.

Individuals are prepared for upcoming roles using evidence-based practice and knowledge of the demands of particular repertoire, most of which has been developed by Aus Ballet and the knowledge shared, allowing other companies globally to adopt these useful practices.

Alongside promoting wellbeing, injured dancers are provided the time to slowly recover from inevitable setbacks, and in most cases bring them back to their full potential. This is a real contrast to what ballet dancers like Aeby and Martin went through in their professional dancing careers ten to twenty years ago.

“I potentially tore a ligament in my knee a year before I considered surgery and rehab… by then much damage had been done.” Martin says. “I did what many other dancers did at the time and took anti-inflammatories, dancing through the discomfort for the whole season, until my knee eventually gave way and it was clear I had to get reconstructive surgery… I was only 25.”

Martin explored the cultural context of pain and injury in ballet in her 2009 Master’s Thesis: ‘Ballet is always going to hurt”: Attitudes surrounding female ballet dancers dancing in pain’. What she found was that many ballet dancers of her generation had grown up with this received ‘wisdom’, that pain was to be ignored and pushed through.

This has been ‘slow to change’, she adds, ‘nothing happens in isolation… the culture of ballet training through the nineties for example came with the heroin chic culture of the fashion industry then, to be ultra-thin was seen as a desired aesthetic and that infiltrated ballet which had always had a problematic, idealised relationship with the female body… there is a tension still between ballet as a form and as a historic or cultural practice’, so while there has been progress in the literal training programs for ballet dancers, the paradigmatic shift is lagging behind in that change, ‘there are some leaders in the ballet world who went through that punishing training themselves and are inspired to change it, and some who are more slow to change.’

“Ballet has so many -isms that come with it: sexism, ageism, ableism, racism, body fascism… due to the very elite way it was developed, these things take time and leaders in the world of ballet to unpack and challenge, to be redressed.” She adds. Yet ballet “must deal with these problems rather than hide from them… hiding from the darker side needs to be rebalanced.”

Speaking of leaving her career in ballet due to the injury at twenty five, she mentions the silence and confusion that surrounded her as “no one knew what to say… there was very little support to transition out of the ballet company and into a new career… injury and retirement were almost seen as taboo subjects, a source of shame and fear.”

Provisional psychologist and PhD Candidate Inge Gnatt also experienced a career ending injury due to overtraining and echoes the experiences of her former colleague Professor Martin. Gnatt has since taken a professional interest in the psychological aspect of supporting dancers to thrive in their training and career, and be valued as whole people. “Given the young age at which training becomes intensive, there is a risk their world becomes so focused on ballet, that they miss out on so many wonderful life experiences.”

Ballet schools and companies in Australia and internationally are beginning to recognise this and prioritise physical and psychological support during a dancer’s training and career, and embed policies to enable transition following retirement.

In the pursuit of perfection and because dancers tend to be highly motivated people who are deeply passionate about their art, psychological distress and problems around disordered eating and eating disorders can develop for some. Fortunately, this issue has been recognised within schools and companies who pay attention to both the physical and psychological health of their dancers, and provide specific support to students and professionals who are experiencing difficulties.

“Dancers are elite athletes who endure an incredible workload, and the approach has got to be compassionate and holistic, so that everyone can reach their optimal level of functioning,” She adds.

“Empowerment can be achieved through evidence-based health information, which is provided in an appropriate way, and meets the needs of the dancer promoting autonomy, and ultimately longevity in the profession. While we’re starting to hear more conversations around this and commitment from many directors who embrace and value diversity, there is still a long way to go.”

One aspect of focus in Gnatt’s work is how the dancer interacts with their environment to maintain motivation in what is a very tough profession. This includes allowing acceptance of what is out of one’s control such as external validation or decisions around casting, and committing instead, to elements that can be influenced for example, how they show up to class and rehearsals.

This approach paves the way for internal drive and focus, and can put into practice the strong commitment required without being impeded by negative self-talk, comparison, or unhelpful perfectionism.

Perfectionism can occur along a continuum from helpful to unhelpful, the former is the type we should cultivate, the latter can be extremely damaging and lead to mental and physical deterioration, Gnatt says.

“Ballet is a pressure cooker for perfectionism, but I encourage students to use their perfectionism in healthy ways, to drive them in their dancing, but not punish their bodies or ignore their emotional experience through engaging in disordered eating or ignoring pain.”

“Thankfully emerging dancers and the top teachers and coaches are connected and savvy, they are open to, and respond quickly to progressive ways of approaching their professional lives. I am excited to see where the next generation takes things, and will continue to support dancers, parents and teachers in my work as a psychologist and researcher,” says Gnatt.

“It takes support and leadership from ballet schools and companies themselves to create wider change in the industry, to ensure happier and healthier dancers.” Professor Martin adds.

Aeby, as a soloist for Victorian State Ballet and ballet educator, is leading this new era. “I want to run my own training academy eventually for young dancers where I can prepare them for the ballet world, the resilience they need, but also support them to take care of themselves… We are not machines,” she says.

“We are people, and artists, who need to sustain our passion and ability in ballet by taking care of the body, resting, eating well, training sensibly, listening to your body if it’s in pain, getting the physiotherapy you need…” says Aeby.

This is the change we need to see in the ballet world and a balancing act for the next generation of dance directors and teachers.

Victorian State Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast will be presented at Chapel Off Chapel (29 June – allocation exhausted), before playing the Manning Entertainment Centre, Taree (30 & 31 July), and the Palais Theatre, St Kilda (6 August). For more information and full performance schedule, visit: www.victorianstateballet.org.au for details.

Image: Joëlle Aeby (supplied)

Author: Leila Lois