Chelsea Keefer is a soloist at Ballet West and a certified yoga teacher. She recently launched a podcast aimed to provide mental wellness support to dancers on her website. Responses below are as told to Minding the Gap founder Kathleen McGuire Gaines.
What led you to mental wellness advocacy for dancers?
I had just joined Tulsa Ballet II when I was 18 years old. I had moved out of my parent’s house and there was all this pressure because I was in college while taking this first job and I was also working a second job to support myself and my living situation. I was really overwhelmed because in the first few months I was invited to dance with the main company and learn the Sylvie Guillem role in In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. So I’m this fresh 18-year-old who is just freaking out. I’ve got a lot of the company members upset with me and they were very blunt that they were upset. I was trying to cope and was feeling this overwhelming anxiety. And I didn’t even know what anxiety was at that point. I let the adrenaline of that situation drive me and didn’t really look internally at the conversations that I was having with myself in my head. Once I started to sit with myself in quiet spaces, I started to do yoga when I realized that I needed another form of release, I realized wow I speak really negatively about myself. How am I going to move past this? So a year later I went and got a 200 hour yoga certification at Kripalu in Massachusetts.
What was it like to get your yoga certification?
I spent a month there learning the training from 7am to as late as 9pm at night. We had some structured classes on and off whether it was meditation, asana, and hearing how important it was to have a stronger, healthier dialogue with yourself. We did a silent meditation for one day where we didn’t speak for 24 hours. It was very hard for me to be in that because I was aware that this ballet world that I am in challenges this from every angle of the mental game and how perfectionism is so prominent. And to really be constantly evaluating your body and the body dysmorphia that comes with that. I felt like I can still challenge this, I think I can have this experience and remember all that I am worth.
What realizations did you have about yourself and dance?
Too many times I tied my self-worth to the comments of my colleagues and my teachers. I needed a teacher to tell me that I was good enough because I didn’t have that within myself. That was what it was about for me, moving past the depression and the anxiety and the cycle of abuse that is within this career. Literally it is a cycle of abuse that the ballet world has been in for hundreds of years because of the work it takes to be in this career. It is a decision you make at such a young age, to really only focus on this part of yourself, and then when you get into your twenties it’s woah, I have a lot of stuff that I need process and work through to find balance in my life. To stay within this career I had to find ways to stay mentally and physically well.
What is the goal of your new podcast?
The podcast is very much about making this a conversation. It is about bringing my friends from outside the ballet world and their lifestyles and it exists in ours and how there are similarities. Just a perspective of life and getting comfortable at failing at something else and challenging yourself to think beyond dance after this career. Dancers are some of the most intelligent people you will ever meet just because of their awareness and capability to understand anything – there is this work ethic that is mind blowing. I think that if I can show in my podcast that there are so many routes that we can go after this career and still stay within it and how it’s ok to fail and start again.
How has your attention to your mental health benefited you and your dancing?
I think meditation and yoga or this understanding of this self-love that I need to provide myself has helped me avoid injuries. It has helped me know when in a rehearsal situation a week before performances if I am feeling like my body can’t do it I have the awareness that I can say I don’t need to prove myself to anyone today. What is important to me is the performances, not making it through this rehearsal day and potentially hurt myself more. It has helped me prevent injury, it has helped me learn when to stop. Also just being okay with taking personal days and not self-sabotage with ruminating on what people’s opinion of that might be. No, I am going to take my personal day and I am going to enjoy it.
Do you think the dance community does enough to address mental health issues?
No, I don’t. It’s so frustrating because it’s right in front of you – all of it – and it just isn’t being addressed. The way communication is happening within the workplace, or even outside of it and how you just are experiencing a level of depression and you just won’t put a name to it. You think well this is my job and I’m going to keep doing it. You don’t stop to see your own self worth and take care of you. I think there has been this cycle that has yet to be addressed because we don’t have enough people within the roles of our leadership that have found multiple identities, and have educated themselves on how to be leaders, and want to relieve some of these negative aspects of the mental game that exists as a daily practice in the ballet world. Dance needs compassionate leadership.
What advice do you have for young dancers?
Be gentle with yourself because you are already doing more than enough. You have so much self-worth to offer and that doesn’t depend on someone else’s opinion of you.
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