Lindsay Dreyer December 2009
According to Katie Bergstrom, former corps de ballet dancer with New York City Ballet (NYCB) and graduate of The School of American Ballet (SAB), aspiring ballet dancers deal with the same issues facing regular high school students. “There was always a group of kids who were considered the ‘bad kids.’ I think the main reason kids did it was for recreational/experimental use. They just wanted to look cool,” she recalls.
Dance teachers should look out for signs that students are experimenting with drugs and/or pressuring other students to experiment. Sometimes they can be difficult to spot, especially when the substances being consumed are over-the-counter. “I don’t know if you could call Advil a painkiller, but that is really overused and I think makes it easier for people to think its okay to take things like Vicodin and drugs like that,” reveals Bergstrom.
But drug use is not the only problem to look out for. According to dancers like Bergstrom, alcohol abuse is fairly common in the professional realm. “I think it’s easy to feel like its OK to abuse alcohol, only because it’s obviously more socially acceptable,” she explains. “After a long day, your body is killing you, and you just want to sit on the couch with a big glass of red wine. I think it’s easy to get into a cycle of drinking on a daily basis as a way to unwind and numb the body. It’s like a painkiller in a sense.”
Ballet dancers are extreme perfectionists, which is what drives them to soar beyond expectations. But sometimes, the need for perfection can drive them to unknowingly sacrifice the health of their bodies for the perfect silhouette or the perfect arabesque. The best thing a teacher can do is to educate his or her students about taking proper care of themselves, and above all, loving and respecting their bodies. Creating an open line of communication will show your students you can be trusted and that you truly care about their health and well-being.
But sometimes, it’s better and more effective for students to hear the advice from an outsider. Bringing in a professional nutritionist for one-on-one meetings or group discussions is a great way to get students involved in the dialogue. At SAB, for example, students are required to attend “Finding Your Way” programs in Alcohol & Drug Education, Nutrition & Wellness, which are designed to give them a well-rounded educational experience.
Additionally, it’s important for teachers and faculty members to set strict rules and adhere to them. “The faculty at SAB, during my years, were relatively strict and we were taken care of really well,” explains Bergstrom. “I felt like the RAs in the residence hall did a really solid job of keeping track of everyone. Curfews were strict, and they had to know where we were at all times, until the age of 18.”
Zero tolerance drug and alcohol policies are the best way to keep your studio substance free. For example, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s substance abuse policy states: “Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s forbids the possession, consumption, sale, or storage of any alcoholic beverages or illegal drugs on School property or School sponsored events. Students face immediate dismissal from the School, and will be referred to the proper authorities, should they be involved in any of the above activities.”
It’s not enough for these policies to be set; they must be adhered to, even when the offense involves your best or favorite dancers. Exceptions cannot be made. At Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB), even scholarship students are held accountable. “CPYB has a zero tolerance policy for drug and alcohol use as these actions endanger the safety and well-being of the offending student and others. Scholarships can be withdrawn anytime at the discretion of the artistic director,” reads the 2009-2010 student handbook.
The best thing a teacher can do, above and beyond setting and adhering to rules, is to create an environment based on positive encouragement. “Being a dancer is incredibly taxing, both physically and emotionally. You spend all day standing in front of a mirror, judging, perfecting, and picking apart every aspect of yourself,” says Bergstrom. “For most of the young dancers, you start your career aiming to please. That is all you want to do. A smile, a nod, anything! And when you’re that young, you need it.”
The good news is that dancers these days are smarter than ever before and are taking the initiative to make better choices. They have learned from the painful stories of Gelsey Kirkland, Patrick Bissell and others. “It’s different than it was in the 80s,” says Bergstrom. “For the most part, dancers want to take care of their bodies and stay healthy.” And that is certainly half the battle.
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