Pointe Magazine Piece: Is Professional Ballet Safe for Very Young Dancers?

Melissa Gerson, LCSW, the Founder and Clinical Director of Columbus Park Outpatient Center for Eating Disorders came to the mental health field after a having fulfilled a dramatically different career course as a professional ballet dancer. Melissa joined the Miami City Ballet Company at the age of 18 and danced as a member of the MCB corps and later as a soloist with the company for seven years. While she was driven by a deep love for ballet, she was challenged by the pressure to meet the rigorous physical and aesthetic demands of a ballet career. These early experiences spurred an interest in the emotional needs of individuals in performance-oriented fields like dance, sports, and theater as well as a curiosity about mental health more generally. Now with her professional focus landing in the treatment of eating disorders in the general population, she enjoys contributing to various arts organizations and media outlets who appreciate Melissa’s unique background and perspective.

Please click here to enjoy the Pointe Magazine article here in which Ms. Gerson is quoted. 

Pointe Magazine Q&A with Our Clinical Director, Melissa Gerson, LCSW

Q: What are some of the dangers for young dancers who join professional companies at a very young age?

MG: At age 15, 16, 17, the body is not fully matured.  There’s still a lot of development and change that will continue over the years. So the body that you’re hired in will not necessarily be the body you’ll have indefinitely. Puberty is hard enough without the added pressure of employment.  Ideally, you have a chance to settle into a young adult body before moving to the professional stage.  I also think it’s hard for artistic leadership to adjust visually to a body that’s developing and changing.  Perhaps without even recognizing it, there’s an inherent expectation that one should maintain the body you’re hired with.  Obviously, this is unrealistic – impossible really – for someone who joins a company in an adolescent body.  I’ve seen this lead to some problems for young dancers who evolve over the first years of company life and feel that the artistic leadership is no longer responding as favorably.

Q: What can happen if you turn professional too early?

MG: I suppose the risk is that you struggle in isolation – surrounded by colleagues who may be twice your age.  Professional companies don’t necessarily have the capacity to anticipate difficulties or catch struggle that might be going on for someone.  Further, the life is demanding, exhausting so the added stress of that transition can wear on someone who might not have the maturity and wherewithal to cope.   I’ve seen many instances where young prodigies have struggled when thrust into a company before they’re emotionally ready and strong enough to endure the stress of it all.  So in the worst case, I suppose moving a career too quickly could ultimately disrupt the career all together.

Q: What can young dancers do to stay grounded?

MG: For one, balance is essential.  Putting all one’s eggs in the dance basket is dangerous.  I encourage young dancers to develop themselves in other areas… try to make some friends outside of ballet… and always remember that there is a long life after ballet – even if you have a full career – so don’t wait until it’s over to think about that next step.  Build stability for the future early.  I also think it’s essential to have trusted adults in your corner; people you can turn to for support, guidance.  People on the periphery to talk to if you’re struggling.  And of course, self-care is essential.  Even when you’re young, you need to think about nourishing yourself, respecting your body, knowing your limits, listening to your body when it needs rest.

Q: Do you think ballet is inherently an unhealthy environment for young people?

MG: No.  I think it’s a beautiful, magical career.  But dancers need to develop and maintain a thick skin. They have to learn to advocate for themselves… care for themselves. And develop solid support networks.  And again, make sure that all of life doesn’t rest on ballet alone.