On mental health and the psychological impact of racial inequality in dance
Tell me about yourself and your background.
I started dancing at the age of 4. I did all of my training with the ISTD in ballet, tap and modern, and quickly recognised that I had a passion for teaching and choreography and in particular working with children and young people, so I did my teaching qualifications. I’ve worked professionally both as a performer and as a choreographer and teacher, then I set my own performing arts school up which is still going strong. I have three children, and they’re all involved in the performing arts.
How did you start getting interested in mental health in relation to dance?
Teaching children and young people is my passion, I’ve always been passionate about everybody feeling included within dance, and I’m passionate about passing on my passion and knowledge and experience. I've always been an empath and found that I can relate to young people and they can open up and talk to me – I've always been that type of teacher; I'm not just teaching the technical requirements for dance, it's been about a lot more. It's about supporting and mentoring them, building their confidence and resilience and seeing their worth. As dancers we're always striving for perfection but there is no such thing as a perfect dancer, there is no such thing as a perfect body shape for dancing, and I've always wanted to get that message across to the students that I teach.
Over the last six or seven years, I saw a huge difference with the students I teach, particularly those aged between 12 to 18. I saw a real shift in their focus, the way they felt about themselves and the way that they perceived themselves, their body image, confidence and self-belief and it really made me start to think, what is going on here? For me the one thing that changed in that time was social media and that has had a huge impact. So six years ago we set up an organisation called Freedom Foundation Limited and started to look at how we could get into primary and secondary education to have conversations about the impact of social media on mental health and wellbeing of children from young people. We quickly recognised that our programmes needed to be available to all children free of charge and so we became a community interest company two years later.
What kinds of strategies do you use to address these issues?
Music and dance have the power to empower young people and song-writing has been huge for getting children to open up about how they’re feeling. We get a number of disclosures very quickly in the first couple of weeks because a lot of young people struggle to vocalise how they’re feeling. They spend so much time online and on their phone and they communicate through Snapchat or WhatsApp groups. But actually the skills that are required for in-person communication like eye contact and being able to talk openly and putting a point across eloquently – those skills are being lost. So we use singing and song-writing in the programme and that has been a fantastic tool. We also use positive affirmations to help build up their confidence, we talk about how if you hear yourself making negative comments then you start to believe them. So flip that around, start saying positive affirmations to yourself first thing in the morning – look in the mirror, “I'm amazing, I can do this”. Another tool that has been really effective is something we call the 4M Coping Strategy which is part of our Motivational Mornings programme, which is about inspiring and motivating young people at the start of their educational day. The 4M Coping Strategy, Motivational Music for Mood and Mindset, is about tuning into different pieces of music, how that makes you feel, what colours can you see, what emotion does that represent, and we start to see how music can change your mindset. The children really love that, it works brilliantly, particularly when we’ve had to deliver online.
It sounds incredible and must have such a positive impact on the young people involved. Now let’s talk about you a bit more. Looking back on your training and career, have you experienced racial discrimination in the dance industry? What has been the psychological impact of this?
When I started dancing there were only five students of colour in my school, and I had a white teacher, but I never experienced any racism within that school personally, and my teacher tried so hard to respect my ethnicity. I'm really proud that I had that teacher and I had that training. For instance I didn’t want to wear the same coloured tights as my peers, I wanted to be on stage with bare legs because I had beautiful brown melanin in my skin – my teacher allowed me to do that.
But on the competition circuit, the thing that’s affected me the most is the fact that I never saw anyone that looked like me in the career that I wanted to do. I never had any Black teachers, I never saw a Black-skinned examiner or adjudicator who was assessing me as a dancer. It was a very white world and not very inclusive. But what I did see was what I now know is cultural appropriation at dance competitions. I saw black face; if there were dancers of colour in competitions I saw them doing characterised dances dressed as Zulus; I saw white students doing national solos of Indian origin painting their skin. And also, I loved classical ballet, and you see all these beautiful ballerinas, but my feet didn't do what they did, I didn't have a high instep, and that was pointed out to me. Being told to engage the pelvis, well I know how to engage my pelvis but pull your bottom in, I can’t do that because that’s my natural physical attribute because of my ethnicity. Those things are damaging. Black dancers being told to straighten their hair before a competition. Why? Why do they have to conform to do that? Neat hair, yes! But if that is your natural hair, why does it have to be that way? I can't believe it took me until I was an adult before I understood why we wore pink tights and pink ballet shoes and why we do that, that upsets me. In my training, not being taught about the Black pioneers of dance or the true history of jazz, that jazz dance came from Africa. There’s no history or education on that before you go to college. I believe that there's very little around now.
Then when I went through teacher training, I was the only person of colour, I never had any music or exercises in dance that were relatable to the culture that I grew up in. I wanted to succeed but it was very apparent that you kind of change who you are, so you suppress your identity to fit in. My dad’s Jamaican and my mum’s white English, and at home I grew up in a very Black cultured household. But as soon as I went to dance school I just wanted to fit in that white world, and so you change the way you speak, you lose your accent, you have to change so that you conform and talk and act a certain way. You go to dance competitions as a teacher and I felt that I needed to change the way I dressed to fit in; all of those things that had a massive impact on me. Even to this day, my school is in a predominantly white area, and I’ve had parents bring their children to the school and ask to speak to the principal, and they’re shocked when they I tell them that I’m the principal, because they’re not used to seeing that. How is it possible that in 2021, people are still shocked that somebody of colour is in that position of power. That is really, really sad to me.
And when George Floyd died, that was a catalyst for me. It opened emotions up that I didn't even know were there because it was the norm; this is how it is. I never felt I had the confidence to speak up about it because I didn't want to be seen as that Black girl from up North who’s got a chip on her shoulder because all you hear is, “we treat everybody the same, we don't see colour”. Personally I find that offensive – I want you to see my colour, I’m proud of the colour that I am and my ethnicity and my culture, and I want you to see that because I fought to be in a space where there weren’t many people that look like me. In the last 18 months it’s been a real personal journey and I’ve realised all of the things that I put up with. All the gaslighting, the micro-aggressions that I didn't even know were there, and thinking why did I not stand up for myself, why didn’t I call that out? It was almost like you should be grateful to be in that space. It’s taken me until the age of 46 to speak out but I’m so glad that I’ve done it and I will continue to make my voice heard and hopefully drive forward those changes that need to happen.
So what are the changes that need to happen in dance specifically?
There are so many! For me the biggest change that needs to happen is representation in education, that is the biggest thing because that affects so many dancers of colour and has had the biggest impact on me. You have to have representation across the board. If children don’t see someone who looks like them in that space, how do they know they can achieve that?
In the private sector I want us to be teaching students the right history: let’s not just teach them the technical aspects of dance, let’s educate children from an early age about where this movement came from, what style of dance you are doing. And then in terms of teaching, to be a good teacher, you have to continue to learn and unfortunately there are a number of teachers who will say “it doesn't really affect me, my school is already diverse”, but is your faculty diverse? Start looking internally then look externally for how you can improve representation. And things like casting – casting Black artists in lead roles that aren’t stereotypical and what the musical theatre world believes that Black people are. Allowing them to be in the same space is huge for the next generation. Then let’s look above that, be the choreographer, be the producer, be the casting director. As a person of colour you almost set yourself a limitation because you don't think that you will ever get up there, at the top of the pyramid. But how can anyone make decisions about equality, diversity and inclusion if there is no representation?
It has to come from the top and we all have to be singing from the same song sheet. We set up the Tired movement to start addressing representation in dance, and it’s about working as a collective. The strap line is the more voices we hear the louder we become. The aim of the Tired movement is to create a seamless continual line between what is being taught in primary and secondary schools into the private dance sector through to the vocational training colleges and then out into the industry. We do CPD training and talks, we have dance ambassadors who raise awareness in their own dance schools and communities, we have an advisory board of people from within the industry who feel that what we are trying to achieve is valuable and that want to be part of that movement.
What could readers do if they want to start creating positive change right now?
Firstly I hope that people will subscribe to the Tired movement, find out how they can get involved, find out about our plans for workshops, events and competitions that celebrate diversity and inclusivity. We have got some very exciting things in the pipeline that will revolutionise how dancers feel in the UK and that will be something I’m very, very proud of.
Then you really have to look at the self – look internally, look how diverse your circle is, and then start to understand the difference between diversity and inclusivity. Then as a dance teacher or within your own dance school, look at what you’re presenting to somebody who walks into your studio, what do they see, is it inclusive? What imagery is there, what colour are the dancers on your wall, what do you present on your website and social media? They’re easy, easy things to change.
Finally, I want to add that Black people don’t have all the answers. We can advise, but it’s not solely our responsibility to give you that information; we’ve all got Smartphones, we’ve all got the internet, go and do your research! We need to learn together. The Tired movement is all about being a collective and about making long lasting change and that’s what drives me, so we all work together. If I can look back and feel that I was instrumental in creating change as part of this collective, that would be success for me, and success for me would be not having to talk about racial equality in the industry anymore.
Photo credit @visionsofgraceUK
Read more about the importance of representation here.