Point Park partners with Minding The Gap to improve dancers’ mental health

Written By Amanda Andrews, Editor Elect

For years, dancers have been told to “leave it at the door” in regards to any issues with mental health. Now, the dance department at Point Park is hoping to prioritize dancers’ mental health and set an example for other institutions.

The dance department at Point Park is undertaking an ambitious project to address dancers’ mental health through a partnership with Minding The Gap. For two years, the founder of Minding The Gap, Kathleen McGuire Gaines, has been coordinating with department chair Garfield Lemonius to speak with dance students about mental health and has finally been able to introduce a mental health program and research study since the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester.

“There’s the mental health program, which is the [virtual] seminars and the breakout sessions, and educational roundtable discussions we’re doing with the teachers and students. And then…there’s the research,” Gaines said. “The goal of the research is first to gather data on the current mental health of a group of dancers at Point Park University and then to evaluate whether or not our mental health program is effective in helping them manage their mental health.”

According to Gaines, the actual mental health program is being given to the dancers as part of their education, while participation in the research for the study is optional. For the study, Gaines has teamed up with Dr. Leigh Skvarla, Dr. Brian Goonan and Dr. Lilana Araujo, all of whom have experience either working in the dance profession or doing research about dancers. The entire program and study have to be conducted virtually due to COVID-19.

Senior dance major Bailee Brinkman, who serves as the co-president of Point Park’s Dance Club, appreciates what Lemonius and Minding The Gap are doing for Point Park dancers.

“I always love the seminars,” Brinkman said. “I know we have a lot of eating disorder talks and mental health checkups, and I always think it’s good to know that there’s always resources there for us.”

“I think it gives us an opportunity to really step back and evaluate what we’re doing with our students in our classes. How are we educating our students? What are we doing? What is being perceived? We think of it as professional development as well for us, because it helps us to really reflect on our teaching and reflect on our own scholarship,” Lemonius said. “And importantly…from a student’s perspective, they see that we are committed to their training, committed to their education, their total education, not only their physical education, but also their mental education and that speaks volumes as a dance program.”

While this is the first year for the program and study, it is expected it will take three full years to develop this project. The project was able to get off the ground after the Staunton Farm Foundation, an organization that provides grants and support to mental health causes in Southwestern Pennsylvania, provided a grant of $23,000 for the first year. It is the first grant that the Foundation has given to Point Park University, according to Joni Schwager, Executive Director of Staunton Farm Foundation.

“At the time, we had a number of things that we wanted to be in place before we would consider giving a grant. And…[Kathleen McGuire Gaines] did every single one of them,” Schwager said.

Schwager said that The Staunton Farm Foundation wanted to see a mental health research component, that Point Park supported a program like this and that Gaines had passion for the project.

Gaines’ passion stems from her background in dance. She was a former dancer herself and trained in the pre-professional divisions at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and the San Francisco Ballet School, ultimately quitting the art form due to untreated depression. She has written about mental health issues specifically related to dance for around 11 years and founded Minding The Gap, a startup focused on bringing awareness to mental health issues and dance.

In an article she wrote for Dance Magazine in 2017, ‘Why Are We Still So Bad At Addressing Dancers’ Mental Health?’ that went viral, Gaines wrote about her own struggles with mental health as a former dancer and the unwillingness of the dance world to even address mental health challenges dancers face.

“I think part of it is just that mental health has historically been highly stigmatized, and especially when you’re participating in what is considered an elite art form. You too are meant to be elite, and because of the stigma surrounding mental health that makes you less elite,” Gaines said. “And the dance world is very kind of rigid and resistant to change. Especially in the classical forms like ballet, there’s actual pride that things haven’t changed in hundreds of years. So it can be very hard to shift the needle. So while we’ve seen mental health become less stigmatized in popular culture, it is going to be viewed as a much slower progression within dance because it is such a siloed art form.”

For dancers, the way they perform can lead to negative self-perception, according to Brinkman.

“I mean, all we do all day is stand in front of a mirror and stare at ourselves so it’s hard not to sometimes think negatively or whatnot on how your body looks,” Brinkman said. “And I feel like that’s a real negative subject in the dance world… I know it used to be really bad and I know the dance world is kind of changing a little bit in this aspect, but the whole body type image thing has always been a struggle.”

However, issues related to body image is only one aspect of a myriad of challenges dancers face, Lemonius said.

“Mental health has to do with many different things in the dance profession. It affects how dancers see themselves when they look in the mirror,” he said. “It affects their idea about the kind of dancer that they should be, what a dancer should look like, the mental space that a dancer should occupy, what goes into that mental space, and also who is valued in the profession. And this goes into the areas around diversity in dance and who’s…included in dance. So when you think of mental health for dance it encompasses all these different ideas.

Like with many issues, the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the mental wellbeing of dancers. For Lemonius, he believes instituting this program during these unprecedented times is critical for dancers.

“It is more important than ever and I hope that other academic institutions be it dance studios, or university training programs or even college training programs or high school training programs around dancer education will see this as a model and embrace the idea that they need to focus a little bit more on the maintenance with dancers in their program,” Lemonius said. “Because more than ever, it is needed now because of the uncertainty within our profession. Dancers see that artists who they idealized who they’ve always followed on Instagram, who they see themselves being in the future so to speak and see these dancers without jobs. The profession is so impacted.”

According to Gaines, part of the reason this program and study were able to come to the campus was because of the open-mindedness of Lemonius. In her search to find institutions that were willing to participate, some were not remotely interested.

“Also Point Park is one of the most elite Dance Conservatory programs in the country,” she said. “And it was important to me that this research is done on the most elite dancers that I can get to. So, it’s really fantastic to be able to work with a program that is as esteemed as Point Park dance program.”

Gaines could not say much about the progress of the study at this time due to its ongoing nature, but she was very pleased with the participation of the students and faculty, and Lemonius concurred that the reception to both the program and study had been “overwhelmingly positive.”

There is some consensus among students though that faculty could be changing how they are instructing to better help dancers’ mental health.

“I think sometimes though some teachers that we have can weigh hard on our mental health with how they talk to us or say things to us, but I feel like Garfield [Lemonius] does a good job on trying to educate us on what to know with our mental health and how to help ourselves,” Brinkman said.

The future of the program and study is dependent upon Minding The Gap allocating more funds for the project. According to the Executive Director of Staunton Farm Foundation, there is no plan at this time to contribute an additional grant.

“Right now, we are just providing one grant,” Schwager said. “We have not been in discussions about any further grant, and we’re a medium-sized foundation so it really would depend on what the next piece would be for, but we generally don’t award two grants in a row.”

Gaines is optimistic that other foundations will be willing to contribute funds in spite of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The primary goal is I want to help dancers,” she said. “My next hope is that our research can inspire other dance organizations to follow Point Park’s lead and that we can use what we learn here to better address the mental health needs of dancers elsewhere in the United States and in the world.”