Free to Feel

By Robyn Breen
  • Breen in her work #heybabylove / Photo by Omer Yukseker

Generally, dancers spend a lot of time taking care of our bodies, but we can often neglect our minds. We spend time conditioning and training; we spend money on physical therapy and bodywork; we spend both time and money on professional training programs where we spend days, weeks and years training the body full-time. 

I believe that, as movers, we have an incredible mind-body connection. Because we are so in tune with our body’s sensations and we spend so much time exploring these sensations, they are inextricably linked to our moods, thoughts and feelings. As a movement artist with anxiety, I feel comfortable standing behind this next point: we feel a LOT. 

Speaking to my personal experiences, these intense feelings can be magical, but they can also lead to heightened states of anxiety. To be truthful, I often get severe stage fright. 

This was not always the case. While I was a student, one incident triggered it, this while I was a student in a professional training program, and it has been with me ever since. This anxiety has trickled into many other areas of my life, and I believe has held me back as an artist in some ways. 

Let’s examine adrenaline. This hormone triggers the fight-or-flight response in the system and results in physical side effects like increased heart rate, shaking and sweating (three things that are probably already present while performing movement for an audience). Consistently experiencing adrenaline in the absence of true danger can result in insomnia, anxiety and irritability, among other symptoms. Then there is “the let-down effect,” the low that is experienced after an intense high. And all of this is just in relation to performance. Let’s not forget the student-teacher relationships, competition that exists between peers and one’s own personal pressure to succeed. 

When I think of the incident that triggered this anxiety, I do not remember having an accessible support system. There were friends and family around me that I could turn to, but there was no support in the system itself. 

I cannot speak to all schools, or training programs, and I can only speak from personal experience, but I wonder if my situation would be different if there were an easy way to talk about the stress and pressure of being a dance student. I know that counsellors are readily available at the university level. But even with these resources, there is more work to be done to change the stigma. Let’s shift the culture from seeing certain mental health states as weaknesses, to talking about these issues openly and honestly and begin the process of caring and healing.


This article was originally published in the May/June 2018 twentieth anniversary issue as part of the anniversary feature “Provocations”

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