Mental Health is Health
Remember during the Tokyo Olympics, when there was a pretty big firestorm surrounding athletes’ mental health? Gymnast Simone Biles decided to step back from the team competition and it quickly became a buzzy talking point. That a world-renowned gymnast on the grandest stage there is would say, out loud, that she was prioritizing her mental health = HUGE deal. Personally, I couldn’t help but admire her strength and courage. And I couldn’t help but see a very clear parallel line in the dance world.
It’s a GOOD thing when our students can stand up for themselves and say, hey, I need a breather, or I need to reevaluate my class load, or change up my commitments. It’s an EVEN BETTER thing when they can do that and feel supported at the same time.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold students accountable for commitments. After all, as parents and teachers we are the grown-ups who are experienced and trained to guide them in life skill building. But I DO think kids should feel empowered to speak up, as Simone Biles did, if they do not feel like themselves, and especially if they need to seek medical help. Just as we would want to heal a broken bone or mend a sprained ligament, we would want to encourage therapy or counseling or rest time for our students who need support for their mental and emotional well-being.
More and more, I coach studio owners to recognize and support the mental wellness of their students. It is a delicate balance—we are not doctors, after all—but we CAN create environments that help our kids express themselves; places that can be a safe spot for coping with today’s pressures and uncertainties. As an extra layer of training and support, I often find myself recommending the training at Youth Protection Advocates in Dance®, particularly the YPAD certification course.
There’s a “part two” to my admiration of Simone Biles and the connection I see to dance. This relates to her decision to remain on the floor during the team gymnastics competition. Rather than retreat to her room, she cheered on her teammates—and her positivity was contagious! She led with a smile and she built up the confidence in her fellow gymnasts. She stood on the side, but she took her role there seriously. You could see that the team felt her support, and that her support was genuine.
This is a lesson that’s not new in dance, but now there’s a new context we can see around it. Even when a student feels down, they can still be an amazing teammate. Even when they can’t perform as they normally would, they can still lift up those around them. What an incredible example of what we are always telling our dancers: You are a part of the team no matter what. Your presence makes a difference. Dance should not be a series of solos; it’s a group effort. You need each other to be at your best.
And, as in the Olympics, “best” can’t truly be measured by the color of a medal—or a medal at all. It can only be measured by what’s in the effort, and what’s in the heart. From my perspective, this message will stick with us a long time—especially if we continue to pay attention to our dancers’ well-being in our studios.
I hope we will all remember the Tokyo Olympics for its spotlight on mental health, for the courage of Simone Biles. She didn’t know it at the moment, but she inspired more than just a generation of future gymnasts! She inspired teachers, coaches, and students from all walks of life.
She is a champion for how she trained in the first place. Then, she became a champion standing up for herself, and by default, others. And, she showed what it looks like to be a champion for her team. This wasn’t the first time in her career she used her voice to stand up for and to protect herself and others, and she has my ongoing admiration.