Skills Exchange Day 2

Self, support and emotional vulnerability

Sarah Lewis

Sarah headshot.jpg

Sarah graduated from London Contemporary Dance School in 2007. She joined Verve08, the graduate dance company at Northern School of Contemporary Dance, touring venues in England, Scotland, Ireland and Finland, and won best international performance at the ITS Festival Amsterdam. Sarah works with professional artists, students and community dancers, teaching and choreographing regionally and nationally, independently and for companies including Norfolk Dance, DanceEast, English National Ballet, Richard Alston Dance Company and Rambert. In 2012 Sarah was mentored by Rosemary Lee choreographing a large scale community project in Norfolk with a live choir. Since 2011, she has regularly performed with SMITH dancetheatre, including rural and national touring of Agnes & Walter; a little love story, The Devil's Mischief, commissioned by The Pace Prize 2012 and After the fall: A little Morality Play, commissioned by Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2015. In 2013, Sarah founded Glass House Dance with co-director Laura McGill and in 2014, together became Escalator Outdoors artists, creating and touring dance for outdoor and unusual spaces nationally. In 2015 they were commissioned to make and tour a new interactive dance performance to tour to residential homes, day centres and hospitals, accessible for people living with dementia. Glass House Dance are associate artists at Norwich Arts Centre and Sarah and Laura are members of the Norfolk Dance Artist Collective. Sarah is also a qualified yoga teacher, having completed her 200hour yoga teacher training with the World Conscious Yoga Family in Rishikesh, India and teaches regular classes as well as classes specifically designed for dancers and dance students.

I have spoken about burnout and resilience building to many dancers across my work and I have been personally affected by the negative impact that lack of support for resilience as an individual and in organisations can have for your physical and mental health and wellbeing. In my research preparing for the AEP launch, I was interested to hear that many artists are struggling in the same way to find a sense of self, life and work balance and to stand up for their values when under pressure to survive. As part of the AEP Skills Exchange Sarah Lewis offered a workshop and discussion on resilience practices to support the artists to understand their values and what they are uncompromising on...

What is resilience? 

  • What are your concerns around your own resilience or the resilience of the people around you?
  • Where or when do you feel you are lacking or missing resilience in your life?
  • What are your symptoms of burnout/stress or overwhelm?
  • What do you do at these times?
  • What might a resilient Self look like?

From my training and background with The Well House, Resilience building is Based on the practices of yoga, mindfulness and meditation to support people to be able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions or situations by becoming experts in themselves.

The emotional regulation model

In their book, Mindfulness for health (2013), Burch and Penman outline 3 distinct parts of our emotional system:

  • Avoidance
  • Achievement
  • Soothing/contentment

All three systems are equally important. Too much or not enough of any part causes our whole emotional system to destabilise and become less resilient.

In a sector (and a western culture) which values achievements, and avoids illness and even rest, we are predisposed towards a less resilient lifestyle. Anecdotally I would argue that for most dance artists the balance can be readdressed, and this was echoed around the AEP artists group.

Values reflection - a personal task:
I asked people to firstly draw a big circle and within it write the main aspects and activities in your life with the things you spend most time doing in the centre, the least time doing towards the outside and virtually no time doing on the outside.

On a second piece of paper I asked people to scribe their values in any way they wanted. They could write their personal values or things they valued. They could write in list form or in another circle.

On a third piece of paper I asked the group to rewrite the first circle only this time considering what it would look like if you were being true to your values.

This task is reflecting on how things are and how things might be. It’s a task to do regularly to check in, in order to create a more resilient and sustainable lifestyle. Resilience isn’t only about having practices that support us in our working life, though there are many, but to build a life that supports our health and wellbeing, which may then enable us to invest in other people, our artistic practice and making a difference (if that is indeed one of our values!).

Muddling ethics and values:
I’m also very interested in how the values and ethics of our culture and the dance sector in which we operate regularly, can often be inseparable from our own personal values and ethics. I don’t believe the values and ethics of the dance culture; from training through to professional practice, currently supports the health and wellbeing of the individual. Because we are conditioned from a young age within a specific construct of dance ethics and values, it can be very challenging for people to see the difference between the work ethic of dancing practice and the ethics that should inform our daily living. 

A few statements came up this week that highlight this, for example when describing the enormity of workload oe artist stated; ‘well we’re just used to doing all this’. The expectation is that we can just manage / cope with the sheer volume of work that we all carry out and that this is supposed to be acceptable. If we carry on this same culture there will be more burnout, stress, and ill health physically, mentally and emotionally. This is only until we can start to look for our own ways of working that supports our own needs. 

Another discussion topic led us to share the working demands placed upon us by larger organisations who don’t necessarily support our needs to reinforce our resilience. We talk about supportive infrastructures or supervision as a pipedream idea, rather than a necessity to support the sustainability of the artist. This included conversations around the psychological support that may be needed in challenging projects or to support the wellbeing of artists through processes. 

The question is; if we as artists can start to put clear and rigorous parameters in place for our working conditions both in our personal practice and also be met by partnering organisations then will the culture and values of the sector start to shift? 

(Words by Sarah Lewis)