by Lachlan Ryan
Striving for excellence in the world of dance requires intense skill, athleticism and discipline. Less talked about are the mental health challenges that many people face.
Not many teenagers are focused enough to work towards the demanding career of a professional ballerina. Part high art, part elite athletic endeavor, dance is an unrelenting athletic and artistic pursuit.
For 17-year-old Ella Gordon, this focus and drive comes naturally but is also tested by the challenge of managing the anxiety that threatens to disrupt her aspirations.
“These challenges have motivated me to work on my mindset in life both on and off the stage.”
“There have been times when I’ve let nerves and performance anxiety get in the way of dancing. There have also been times where I’ve had a negative mindset about my dancing that held me back from improving,” explains Ella.
Ella calls the waterfront city of Geelong, Australia home. She shares a roof with three generations of women from her family, living with her Mother, older Sister and Nanna. It was her Nanna, a former tap dancer herself, that encouraged Ella to start dancing at the age of five.
Dance has played a formative role in Ella’s life ever since. Since age 7, Ella has maintained a distinction average (the highest grade possible) on all ballet exams she’s completed.
“It teaches you so much discipline and work ethic, but it’s also a really good art form to express yourself. Your artistry really improves from doing dance, as well as the physical side,” she says.
Ella now trains full-time, balancing her commitment to ballet with high school studies, having to give up mainstream schooling to study through an online program. She trains between two ballet schools, as well as regularly attends seasonal workshops and is taught by a teacher from the Royal Ballet School in London. Last year, she was accepted into a Spring Intensive (a select specialist course) held in Hong Kong, but the opportunity was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what does a day in the life of an aspiring dancer look like?
“It depends on the day, but it consists of doing our own home workouts and strengthening programs, and also doing multiple classes - usually in the evening or throughout the day. It’s also making sure that we keep up our schoolwork and making sure we're on top of everything else.”
Although young, Ella’s life has been shaped by dancing, with it playing a large role in her self-identity.
“Dance has taught me a lot of discipline and has really tested my work ethic and has made me work harder than I thought I could.”
Dance is a pursuit that demands a lot of its participants from a young age. With it, though, comes a unique life perspective and form of expression.
“You need to find that artistry and passion from inside that can then shine on the outside. It's being able to express yourself on stage and enjoy yourself."
Ella says that the biggest challenge has been building her self belief in the face of the challenges within the discipline.
“You have to really prove to yourself that you can do it, and look for the little things in the day and in the week that show you that you really can do it.”
Ella knows her competition is often standing beside her but also within.
“You can look at the guy next to you who is really doing well and getting lots of praise from the teacher. And if you're not getting the same, that can really make you feel bad about yourself. But you have to just push through it and know that if you put in the hard work you can do just as well.”
Challenges can create an almost love-hate relationship for any athlete with their sport. For Ella, this duality is something she has come to accept.
“Although it can be an outlet for your mental health, it can also be bad for your mental health. Negative thoughts can play into it. I think that everyone will experience that, but the more you try and push through it and be as positive as you can, the better the experience you have.”
Some experiences are better than others, and the challenging times can occur even when she’s on stage.
“It is somewhat an opposite feeling to excitement and is more a feeling of heaviness. It causes your head to be very full of thoughts, especially before going on stage; it can become overwhelming. Some nerves can be a positive thing and actually give you more adrenaline and inspire you to do better, but if there is too much anxiety it can have a negative effect.”
The pursuit is relentless both physically and mentally. For Ella however, it provides an escape for her mental health challenges.
“You can use your body to express what you're feeling, which has helped me find my own voice. It has helped me have another outlet outside of my daily life that is sometimes hard. My dancing is an escape tool.”
The nature of her discipline requires adherence to strict standards that become more demanding at the elite levels. This demand for certain physical characteristics can impact on a dancer’s body image - a pressure Ella understands.
“I think every dancer kind of struggles with that because you're put in a studio in front of a mirror with a teacher telling you everything that’s wrong about you and what you're doing, so it is hard, but once you find your own body and your own strength, then you know that you're happy with what you have!”
“There definitely is a standard in the industry that I think a lot of people are trying to live up to. I think there is pressure, especially with social media. You see young people that might be better than you and then find you’re just continually comparing yourself to others online.”
Thankfully, this is an issue more are aware of and taking steps to change attitudes towards these standards.
“The standards definitely vary. I think everyone wants to be at the best skill level they can be, but some companies and places look for certain dancers and if you don't fit into that, especially with your physical image, it's frustrating and disappointing. But there are also many companies and schools that are open to all types of physical attributes.”
With such clear and strong aspirations, Ella has plenty of experiences ahead of her.
“To be successful as a dancer you need to have some sort of positive mindset because, although it's hard, we're not going to grow or go anywhere having negative thoughts and a negative mindset about ourselves”
“I want to continue in the industry for as long as I can, whether that's in various styles or teaching. In a shorter span, I hope to get into schools and companies in Australia or internationally that are going to further help me turn dance into a profession.”
Ella is motivated to use her perspective and experiences to help shape the lives of others, even if in small ways, through her art and the causes she supports.
“I really care about mental health, especially being a dancer. In the future, I hope to use my art form to raise awareness about it and be a positive influence to others both online and offline.”
As Ella continues towards her next goal of being accepted at a full-time dance school in Australia, her ultimate goal is to one day be a professional dancer based overseas.
Her advice to those striving to overcome their own mental health challenges whilst pursuing a dream?
“My advice would be to not be hard on yourself when things aren’t working out or going the way you planned. You just have to keep working hard, trust the process, and believe in yourself.”
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