Mental Health in Dance: leading the conversation with Hannah Friebel & Sincerely Survivor

2020 has been a strange and challenging year for the dance community. We have faced the closure of theatres, studios, companies and schools. The cancellation of performances, classes, rehearsals, workshops and programmes. The validity of dance as a profession has been called into question. Our industry has been under political and economic threat. Many have lost their livelihoods. We have been separated from one another. Light has been shone on serious issues in the dance community, including racism on many levels from lack of diversity through to white supremacy; lack of regulation in dance education leading to abuse [TW: sexual abuse]; and dancers breaking the silence on the blatant discrimination they have experienced in their professional lives based on their bodies.

Photo by Jake Owens

As we reflect on these challenges and try to overcome them, we are venturing into the unknown. We know that the dance world is unlikely to ever be the same as it was, and we are not sure what the future of dance will look like. Something that is coming to the forefront during this time is the discussion around mental health. These are just a few ways in which dancers’ mental health could be affected in these times more than ever:

  • Grief of cancelled performances and other opportunities
  • Loss of identity of having our working life as we know it taken away
  • Feelings of lack of control over our fate
  • Feelings of depression or episodes of clinical depression triggered by extended periods of being in lockdown or quarantine
  • The anxiety of living through a pandemic
  • For black people especially, the racial trauma of witnessing racial abuse, hatred and even murder in real life and online
  • Fear for the health and safety of our loved ones
  • Worry and stress of sudden and possibly crippling financial instability
  • Concern for the survival of our industry
  • Issues that can arise in our relationship to food and/ or exercise in response to our sudden change in activity and possible resultant body changes

These are just a few examples, and there are so many more that will be very individual for different people. As many countries cope with a second wave of Covid-19, and either remain in or return to a state of lockdown, some are raising concerns about the impact of this on our mental health, and the mental health discussion- so often overlooked- is finally beginning to happen.

Very much pioneering a dance practice that is open and inclusive of mental health is Grace Dance, whose inaugural work Sincerely Survivor opened as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival this week, and which is showing in the UK from Sunday 15th November.

The Grace Dance website reads:

Throughout 2020, we have witnessed the Melbourne Dance industry in crisis, with theatres first to be shut and the last to re-open amidst COVID19. Face-to-face rehearsals have been cancelled for several months, not to mention the mental health implications on dancers and our broader communities. AusDance Victoria’s research found that the state’s dance industry lost two million dollars in income during the first lockdown alone, with dire impacts on our community’s mental health. Stimulus packages have been inaccessible for many in the dance industry, and our COVID recovery as an industry is yet to be mapped out. The vision and launch of Grace Dance Company seeks to respond to the unique needs of the dance industry and its COVID and mental health recovery.”

I first met Hannah Friebel, founder of Grace Dance, when I was in the second year of my degree and Hannah came from Australia to London to spend some time studying at the University of Roehampton. Hannah is an aspiring psychologist and a dancer with lived experience of mental health, who works to advocate for mental health inclusion in the dance industry through Grace Dance and other projects. With Grace Dance’s debut piece now showing online at Melbourne Fringe festival, we got together (virtually, and across a large time difference!) to discuss mental health in dance, Sincerely Survivor, and the future of the dance industry.

Hannah Friebel, founder of Grace Dance

“I look at mental health on a continuum”, says Hannah. “Everyone has mental health, everyone has positive mental health and negative mental health at different times in their lives, and we have to work to safeguard this. But then on the other scale, is mental illness[…] this is a diagnostic sort of thing, that a psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnose you with. So our mental health sometimes can get so bad that we get diagnosed with a mental illness.”

“For people living with mental illness, I would say that they are not included in the dance industry. I would not say they are given an opportunity to create art in response to their lived experience. I would not say they are encouraged to do that, and if they did, they would be put on the fringes of the industry. In saying that, I have structured my vocation or my career in dance in a way that I am my own boss, and I don’t report to anyone […] I can make whatever work I want to make. And our first work, is about mental health.”

For people living with mental illness, I would say that they are not included in the dance industry

In discussing Sincerely Survivor, Hannah says; “it’s about my lived experience of mental ill health, or mental illness, and the Victorian mental health system […] So anyone who has experienced mental distress of trauma, I feel, will be able to find healing and hopefully receive the invitation to find their voice, and to be able to tell their story in their own way. Or at least expand on what we’ve done. So this work is mental health advocacy.”

Sincerely Survivor is a piece comprised of a series of site-specific dances created during artist residencies at abandoned psychiatric institutions across regional Victoria, Australia. Hannah says; “there was kind of a re-training process that I went through with the dancers when we entered these spaces. Teaching them that, you know, these spaces held people- they were called ‘asylums’, and they were called ‘asylums for the criminally insane’, and… I don’t even like to use the words that they used in the past. You know? Stigma was rife. And people were institutionalised on an involuntary basis, and they were called all sorts of names, and this is where the stigma originates from. The asylums were pushed to the outskirts of cities [… and] what they turned into is a place where people would be locked in and mistreated and abused- sexually abused, physically abused, institutionally abused. And they would have no choice or authority or autonomy.”

“I’m furious about that. And if I lived 50 years ago, I would have been put there too.”

Photo by Daniel A’Vard at J Ward Asylum during a Sincerely Survivor residency, December 2019. Dancers: Georgia Karklins, Hannah Friebel, Stephanie Croft & Sarah Mann.

Hannah hopes that through this work, audiences and dancers might receive the invitation to start to tell their own stories of mental health in a safe way, because “it’s very scary to disclose to the public about your illness”.

“I will speak my story”, says Hannah, “and hopefully they will hear it, and they will see things are changing”. She shares that many people have been inspired by the work of Sincerely Survivor and Grace Dance, and realised that they are not alone in their struggles.

“So this is one of the reasons I’ve created Sincerely Survivor, because it explores the human experience of distress, and yes it is darker, and yes it is heavy, yes it is sometimes hard to watch. But it actually validates the humanness of us all.” Hannah insists that “in the same way that we need media that talks about mental health in a way that is not stigmatised, we also need performance and theatre and playwrights and art to be created that explores mental health. And the darkness does exist, but it does not overcome us.” She says; “the maladaptive sides of the culture that we exist in, we have to be able to talk about that. If we’re not going to be able to talk about that, we’re in denial of it all, and we’re just reinforcing the stigma. And people who are most vulnerable, don’t find safe spaces. And that’s the most concerning to me.”

We discussed the way that mental health is currently approached and treated in the dance world. Dance, and especially the professional world of dance (including professional practice and pre-professional training) is so demanding that there seems to be some confusion about what is normal and healthy for dancers to experience. Dancers are encouraged to give their all to their work, often at the detriment of their personal lives and even physical and mental health. It is so normalised to be overworked, fatigued, and extremely self-critical, that symptoms of mental ill health may go unrecognised for long periods of time. In this Dance Magazine article, Kathleen McGuire recounts her story of depression, which went undiagnosed for a long time and had serious implications on her life and career. Hannah remarks that when mental illnesses go undiagnosed, “people just say it’s a character flaw. They see it as a weakness of themselves, and there’s an amount of stigma that exists”.

Hannah Friebel. Photo by Kamilla Musland, 2015.

Feeding into this is the lack of separation that dancers experience between their work and personal lives, because our work is usually very closely tied to both our identity and our lifestyle. “It’s kind of like an abusive relationship sometimes”, muses Hannah. “It’s like the boyfriend that says “no, you can’t see any other people, you can’t have friends, you can’t have any other men in your life, any other healthy relationships, you know, it’s just about you and me, it’s ONLY about you and me, and we have to stick it together, otherwise you’re never going to be good enough for anyone else”. She goes on to say; “I feel that the pull that dance has is so much more […] in an all-consuming way it’s so much more than the pull of most other vocations”.

So how can we change the way that we approach mental health in dance?

Hannah seconds the message of charities such as USA’s Minding the Gap, which pushes for mental ill health to be treated in the same way as physical ill health in the dance industry and culture. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist”, she says.

Behind Bluestone Walls. Photo by Daniel A’Vard for Sincerely Survivor artist residency at J Ward Asylum, December 2019.

Here is the list of some of the changes Hannah wants to see happening in the dance world with regards to how we approach mental health:

  • “To the dance teachers, I would say get mental health training. Get mental health first aid training. Have close relationships and alliances with dance psychology professionals. And you need to be able to refer students on to a psychologist if they’re not doing well. You need to have a list handy, a list of resources. Even stuck up on your wall, you know, for dance students to be able to access”.
  • Hannah also wants to safer spaces for dance education, with stricter regulatory requirements and better reporting on safe dance practice, to safeguard against abusive spaces- “we need accountability in this space”.
  • More consumer-led leadership in the dance industry, with more women, people of colour, disabled people, and people with mental health experience in positions of leadership. “Basically consumer led leadership means that people with lived experience, or lived mental health, or the mental health system, need to be at the forefront. […] They’re the ones that have the answers.” Hannah advises that people already in positions of leadership and power lean out to allow those with lived experience to grow through.
  • Hannah recommends that dancers try to shift their ideas of dance away from product and goal orientated practice and engage more in the process. “This is what I mean about process-oriented practice, and not product-oriented practice: It’s not about getting there, and doing this, and finishing that, and rushing through everything. It’s actually about the inward transformation that happens over time, and I’d say my mental health recovery, the biggest component of that has been my storytelling through art.”
  • “What if we had a dance industry that enabled the recovery of its most vulnerable individuals? And allowed them to create work about the depths of what they experience? And gave them a platform to do that […] it’s about amplifying their voice.”
  • “I’d also love to see more consumer-led research, so people either as dance artists who have experienced stress and trauma and sometimes abuse in the dance industry, and the culture […] I’d love to see them doing research […] But more than just research, I’d love to see psychologists with lived experience practicing.”
  • “I think that contemporary dance companies need to be trauma informed when they create work. […] We need to be creating work in safe ways, that is not making someone with a potential history of mental ill health trauma quite vulnerable.”
  • Hannah also wants to see dance companies, particularly large ballet companies, employing a specialised dance psychology representative who engages in both research and practice that is evidence-based, beyond the scope of the work of a councillor or a sports psychologist. “I’m a strong believer in the research-practitioner model. So you have a practice, but that informs your research, and you have research, but that informs your practice. It’s a 2-way street”.

Some of these changes are simple and actionable, whilst others require a change in both ideology and practice at the top levels of our industry. However they are all key to progressing into a better dance industry post-pandemic. Hannah had a great message of hope about the future of the dance world:

“We have so much to learn, but I am so hopeful that the future will be better than the past. I think we will wake up out of Covid and be like, oh, yeah, what we were doing before that? I think post-traumatic growth will happen. We will be better because of this. I’m not afraid of lockdowns any more. I used to be, but I’m not afraid of them, because they’re time for introspection and settling in and, you know, connecting with yourself- if you’re in a safe space, of course. If you’re in a safe environment, and if you have all the food you need and safe people around you, I feel like lockdown is a spiritual awakening in many ways, for many of us.”

Hannah finishes; “I really invite dancers to consider their own nourishing of their spirit and their soul in this time, and consider how they can still themselves enough- if they’re safe, and if they’re able to, and if they have enough funding, all of that sort of stuff- to still themselves to reconsider, what are your hopes and dreams for the industry?”

Dancing in Open Fields. Grace Dance Company artist residency, August 2019.

Sincerely Survivor is a piece of art that is integral to this message. If we want to advocate for mental health in the dance world, and if we want to support positive change around how mental health is approached in this community, the first thing we can do is support art and artists that address these issues from their own lived experiences. Sincerely Survivor is showing online now as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival. UK showings are on Sunday 15th, 22nd, and 29th November at 12pm GMT, and you can book HERE.

US showings are on the 15th and 22nd November at 7pm EST, and Australian showings are as follows: 13-16 November, 20-23 November & 27-29 November (Friday & Saturday 5pm, Sunday 4pm & 11pm, Monday 11am AEDT).

WARNING: Sincerely Survivor contains potentially triggering content or themes, including mental distress, emotional abuse, institutional abuse and self harm or suicide.

You can find more information about Sincerely Survivor & Grace Dance HERE.

Those of my UK readers who watch this piece and would like to engage in a discussion surrounding it with Hannah via Zoom, please register your interest by emailing her at

List of Resources

Here is a collection of both general and dance-specific resources for mental health.

Dance Magazine article: Why are we still so bad at addressing dancers’ mental health?

Dance Magazine article: Tacking Depression

Dance UK News: Balancing a Healthy Mind and Body as an Independent Dancer

One Dance UK: Mental Health

Dance Magazine Article: How black dancers regularly confronting racism can protect their mental health

Mind UK: Support Guides

The Dance Psychologist: Dr Lucie Clements

The Dance Psychologist: Blog on Uncertainty in Dance and COVID

The Dance Psychologist: Blog on Body Image and Dance

Sincerely Survivor Mental Health Resources Australia

USA: National Institute of Mental Health Resource List

Minding the Gap

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