The Mental Health of a Young Male Dancer

This is a piece I have written for my Gold arts award, exploring the mental health of a young male dancer.

The Mental Health of a Young Male Dancer

The mental health of a young male dancer is the issue I have chosen. The reason for my selection is because mental health is such a hot topic because the way it can affect people can be fatal. This is why I’m focusing it on young male dancers. The four aspects I will focus on are: stereotypes and challenges, body image, gender, and mental health. These four aspects I have researched in major detail and have first hand experienced every single one of these topics. So this article will also be very personal to me. As a young male dancer myself encountering problems with my body, mental state, and stereotypes have been very common so I really wanted to find out if other people have faced these problems and whether it is a wide spread problem or not. I will commonly be referring to research I've found in order to prove and contrast my opinion.

The stereotypes and challenges young male dancers have to face on a daily basis is quite extreme and in my opinion is the leading factor to the damage of their mental health. Countless times I hear derogatory comments such as “faggot” or “bender”. Some in fact are too offensive for me to quote. These are thrown about at other male dancers and also myself, but why are young male dancer’s easy targets? So I have carried out research to try and make sense of why this is. I found an article written by a successful ballet dancer called Roger Lee and he spoke about how the girls in his ballet class when he was just starting “had a ball laughing, pointed out my flaws and lack of training” as a result of this he felt his masculinity was questioned and his dreams of becoming a professional dancer were slowly diminishing. From reading this article it clearly shows how much these comments affected his mental health and nearly made him quit what he loved. I carried out a survey and when asking ten male dancers and ten female dancers the question “What stereotypes/ challenges do you think males face in dance?” I received some very interesting but expected results. One of the responses was “Males can be stereotyped as homosexual for dancing”. Twelve of the twenty individual’s said about them having homosexual stereotypes to deal with which further supports my original statement. On the flip side of things some male dancers use these comments to strengthen their mental health. For example when I had a one to one interview with an aspiring young male dancer in his late teens I asked him the question “do derogatory comments affect your mental health?” to which he replied “no, they make me more determined”. So this can show even with the negative comments made towards young male dancers that with the right mindset comments like these act as fuel in helping you reach your goal. Another question I asked in the interview was “What challenges do you think you face being linked to your friendship group” to which the participant replied “they’ve gotten used to it” and “they don't ask questions”. This could show that actually these stereotypes are being slowly eliminated and some males are facing less and less challenges by the day. This does show that as we move forward these comments are having less of a negative impact on male dancer’s mental health and labelling all male dancers as “gay” as an insult, is now becoming a thing of the past. 

Another concern is that young male dancers may have poor body image. Personally, I have always had troubles accepting my body image because I am “too skinny”, “weak”, and “not the perfect figure”. Even though I understand my body is still developing it is hard to come to terms with the fact I haven't got muscly legs or big arms like the male dancers plastered inside dance magazines. This image people have of what the ideal body image for males is inside of dance and outside has a detrimental effect on the young males mental health because they will live their training believing they aren't good enough because of their body. Which of course isn't true. When discovering secondary research I found out that Jake Ashby a dance student at Laban had based his article off of the body image of male dancers. From his questionnaire that he carried out the majority of people thought that a stereotypical male dancer looked strong and muscular, again having a real impact on the mental health of male dancers that don't fit that ‘criteria’. I myself also created a survey and one of the questions was “Do you believe body image is a leading factor to a young males mental health?” and seventeen of my twenty participants responded yes. When I analysed these results further I found that nine of the responses were from females so even the other gender can agree on this body image issue. On the other hand in my one to one interview my participant explained that seeing strong muscular dancers when he was in year seven made him inspired and the thrive to be like them, having a positive impact on his mental health because it gave him something that he wanted to work towards. He now feels better about himself because he's no longer self-conscious about his body image. This could also be similar to a lot of other individuals having a positive impact rather than negative. So for the majority of male dancers the expectation has a negative effect. The industry can easily change this expectation by presenting a diverse range of body shapes and sizes in magazines/ articles. 

Having been accepted into a conservatoire as a young male dancer I've more often than not been told that I only achieved due to my gender, and that it was “easier” for males to be accepted into professional institutions or professional projects. Being told this took the joy and happiness out of it because it felt like I hadn’t got there because of my own skill but due to the fact I am male. This can definitely have a negative impact on a young male dancer’s mental health because they will live their career believing they've only achieved due to their gender. So I decided to include a question in my survey asking whether the participants thought it was easier for males to be accepted into conservatoires/ professional projects. The results I received were not surprising. All the females that took part said “yes” and even some males agreed. Gender shouldn't play a part in the success of young dancers because I believe it should be based on whether the institution or project believe you have the potential. However there is no ignoring the fact that there are more female dancers. Therefor competition for work and places at conservatoires are going to be in greater demand. This does give males a slight advantage but should not be seen as a reason for their success. When interviewing one to one I asked the participant the same question to which he replied “there are more females so it’s harder for them, however whatever gender you are as long as you're determined you deserve it” and I whole heartedly agree with this statement. From looking at the facts and figures all of the members at Herne Bay High school that were accepted onto the Centre for Advanced training scheme at Laban are male so I do believe gender within the dance industry is an issue that needs to be tackled and made fair for everyone. My last argument on gender arises with this quote that I found on an article, “do women need to change their attitudes and become more assertive and arrogant in order to achieve?” This statement in my opinion is extremely biased as you cannot talk about the whole of the male gender as arrogant and assertive because they may have achieved within the dance industry. If a young male dancer was to see this quote and believe it he could think that he's only achieved because he's arrogant and assertive. Which is most likely far from the truth. So in conclusion the assumptions made about gender can have a negative impact on a male dancer’s mental health because they are made to feel less worthy and can be judged on their gender or attitude and not their talent. 

Personally I can see both sides on how dance can have a positive impact and negative impact on mental health, however it is solely based on individual experience. You may go through your dance career with very few setbacks and negative experiences or you may endure countless setbacks that make you feel worthless or not good enough. I’ve heard that the dance industry is a cut throat place to work so you always have to ensure the passion and determination never leaves. I found six articles on males individual experiences in dance and how it affected their mental health, four of them negative and two of them positive. The four negative articles all have similarities such as suicidal thoughts, hiding the pain, downward spirals, and not having enough support. One writer spoke about how he hid his depression for so long he ended up quitting dance all together, something that he really regretted. Looking at these negative based articles I decided to include a question in my survey that asked “Do you think dance has a positive or negative impact on mental health?” to which 85% of participants thought it was either positive or very positive. One of the positive articles I found spoke about the benefits dance has on your mental health and how dance teaches you a lot of hard life lessons while thickening your skin and preparing you for the real world. Being cruel to be kind. The other article was based upon scientific studies and one of the facts were “dance provides an opportunity for individuals to communicate their feelings”. This is really helpful to males because statistically males find it harder to talk about their problems which is why men are three times more likely to commit suicide than females. Another positive impact I found through research is how many individual aspects there are in dance. For example confidence, expression, creativity, team work, communication skills, and the list goes on. These in my opinion all usually outweigh the negatives so for some individuals like myself facing challenges these positives can tip the balance. In one of my survey questions I asked whether they thought consequences for example suicide, self-harm, and self-inflicted body disorders were more common in males or females and the result was 50/50. When analysing this data further the genders were mixed so it wasn't a biased answer however real stats prove it’s more common in males meaning more awareness needs to be raised so people understand this scary figure. This relates specifically to dance because the more and more males in dance to endure mental health problems will only rise this statistic. Especially when male dancers are so heavily linked with bullying in the early stages of their careers. 

For my arts issue I set out to research the pressures on a young male dancer and the impact on their mental health. It was quite tricky to locate information because most of the articles I was finding were based on women’s experiences and not male’s. However when I started to find useful information it became easier to search what I was after. My research hasn’t changed my view or influenced any decision on my arts issue, it has just further proved my hypothesis which was stereotyping is still a huge issue for males within dance and this has a massive effect on mental health. I was unable to find statistics within my research due to there being no articles describing male statistics in dance. I feel like if I had have found statistics it would’ve supported my primary research because there would be similar links. The closest I found to it was males are three times more likely to commit suicide than females. Whether this has any link to dance in any way is another matter. From when I first started I was just basing it off the challenges males face in the dance industry however the more and more information I discovered it all had a link to mental health. I feel like the issue of poor mental health is one that an increasing number of young men are faced with and as a result including a certain number of male dancers. In my opinion I believe that men do suffer more pressures in today’s society by having to fit in and show no individuality otherwise you could be judged negatively for it. This bad trend of expectations that men feel they have to live up to, is the reason why male dancers are treated so poorly, because we are the ones trying to stand out and make a positive difference. I do think the majority of mental health issues faced by male dancers is society related of the general male population rather than industry related because as I stated before the expectation males feel like they have to follow rains down on the dreams and creativity of any male dancer, due to them not seeming the social stereotyped of strong, rough, and violent. My reasoning for this is because men could feel insecure themselves and by insulting another man for their career, feel more superior. However this is not the case and results in a vicious cycle of men putting each other down because of insecurities. Now it has been scientifically proven that males find it very hard to speak out about their mental health problems, consequently ending in suicide because of untreated depression. For the majority I do consider this to be a massive issue so the only way in my opinion to improve this situation is to spread awareness and have more available mental health professionals close by to allow for men to have somewhere to release any built up thoughts and feelings. From personal experience I myself thought seeing a professional would be patronising and fake. However in my opinion this is far from the truth.   

Header Image Credit: Google Images

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Luke Lamkin

Luke Lamkin

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  • Oliver Jones

    On 8 November 2018, 11:37 Oliver Jones commented:

    I think you raise an interesting point about the mental health of boys in dance. You have really used the primary research well and I feel that you are looking at the perpective through a very professional eye. However I feel that you could have possibly spent a little longer looking at how the mental health issues could be combated rather than simply leading yourself to the conclusion "have more available mental health professionals close by" because in my opinion there are a lot of alternatives for you to look at.

  • jack taylor

    On 8 November 2018, 11:46 jack taylor commented:

    I agree that the mental health of male dancers is a massive problem that doesn't really get addressed the fact male dancers are just told its easier because there men can be really harmful especially if they don't get into a dance piece and then are told its just easier for them. For the body image problem I do agree as I face this myself but I think for theses dancers you see in shows and on magazines they only look this way because of year of training and a proper diet. This was an enjoyable read and a very relatable topic for me.

  • Emma Del'Nero Williams

    On 8 November 2018, 12:11 Emma Del'Nero Williams commented:

    An interesting article and viewpoint. I am sure many young male dancers face challenges in the dance profession and it is essential to develop ways of coping with rejection and the feelings associated with being selected based on a certain body type. Mental Health is becoming an increasing talked about topic which is helping to remove some of the stigmas attached. Hopefully this will help men to be able to talk about these type of issues more openly.

  • Antony Hoadley

    On 8 November 2018, 12:27 Antony Hoadley commented:

    I think that opening it up saying that you have experienced all aspects is a powerful start because it shows that you truly have an understanding of what your talking about and that you care about this issue. You do see a lot of male dancers though so this may show that the world is changing and males are getting less abuse as personally I haven't had any negativity said to me about doing dance.

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