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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments with the National Ballet of Canada

How Canada’s premier ballet company created a one-of-a-kind health and wellness program for its dancers—and what the rest of us can learn from it.

Hannah Galway is a second soloist at the National Ballet of Canada. On the outside she comes off as the epitome of grace and professionalism, as one might expect from an elite dancer in a globally recognized dance company. Inside, though, she acknowledges moments when she might not feel her mental best—which can, in turn, affect her ability to perform.

“It’s something I have to constantly negotiate when I’m in a studio,” she says. “Sometimes I might be at my absolute fittest… But if mentally, and emotionally, I’m not strong, and I’m not healthy, and I’m not fit there… then it’s sort of irrelevant.”

Hannah shared this with me during my recent visit to the National Ballet of Canada, which put itself at the forefront of dancer care in North America when it created the Dancer Health and Wellness Program. The initiative was a long-time dream of then-artistic director Karen Kain. The program was designed to be a proactive, holistic safeguard to a high-performing athlete’s overall wellbeing.

I’m a former member of the Ballet’s board of directors, and Medcan is instrumental in caring for dancer wellness as the company’s official health and wellness provider. Seeing the dancer wellness program in action today, it’s apparent it contains lessons for other professionals seeking to perform at a high level under stressful conditions.

Ballet dancers are required to have only one mode: “Go.” They need to be able to achieve perfection on a consistent basis—every time they rehearse or perform. That’s one way that their jobs resemble those of high-performing business professionals. During a conversation with Galway, first soloist Spencer Hack and the Ballet’s director of dancer wellness, Marla Pichler, I asked how an individual can carve out space for self-care, despite all the demands on one’s time.

“What works best for me is just listening to my body,” said Hack. “When I was a younger dancer, I would try and get ahead of stress by coming up with a strict schedule. But I realized that it didn’t work for me; trying to follow this schedule became like another job. So I’ve learned that, especially when I’m at my busiest, it’s really important to listen to what I need and go with that. And if that means I need to sleep in for ten extra minutes, then I sleep in.”

Galway thought that it was important to trust yourself and remember that not every day is going to be perfect, regardless of how much you plan and prepare. “I like to give myself the grace to say, ‘okay, that was just one day, and tomorrow will be better.’”

Pichler described epiphanies she encountered running the dancer wellness program through the pandemic. While urban professionals were setting up laptops in living rooms, professional dancers like Hack and Galway needed to learn how to take a ballet class over Zoom and rehearse in the few square feet of their condo apartments. Soon after things shut down in March 2020, Pichler found her dancers were struggling. “They couldn’t do what they love to do,” she told me. “And it’s not only what they love to do, but it’s also who they are and how they identify themselves. So the hit they took was substantial.”

To help their performers cope, Pichler started regular video calls with small groups of dancers so that they could chat and decompress. She also set up virtual calls with sports medicine doctors and psychologists. And when the world reopened and the Ballet resumed its rehearsals, each dancer began a “return to jump” protocol (an easing-back-in regimen common for an injured dancer), with the company physiotherapist sitting in on morning classes every day to ensure nobody sustained an injury after more than a year of being off-stage.

I asked the dancers what advice they would give to anyone, whether in the arts or the corporate world, about how to perform at your best amid uncertainty and in less-than-ideal conditions. “Practicing gratitude,” Hannah responded immediately. “Recognizing the moments of levity.” Spencer added that adjusting to a new, challenging environment doesn’t happen in a day: “It was really hard for me, and I had to take a bit of a break at first and just come to terms with the [COVID] situation.”

Pichler’s tip for working professionals was especially helpful for non-dancers. “What’s always helped me a lot is regular exercise,” said Pichler. “For [dancers], it’s normal to exercise. But for the average individual, sometimes we do put exercise second to other priorities. And I’m not necessarily talking about heavy lifting or anything like that: just a good, solid amount of exercise each and every day. Try getting outside.”

Half the battle when it comes to seeking care is knowing it’s out there and how to access it. Part of Marla’s job as director of the health and wellness program is maintaining open lines of communication with her dancers. “We have regular check-ins with the dancers and ask, is the program working? Is there something we’re missing?” Pichler also works hard to promote a positive atmosphere, while also balancing the fact that “dancers know that when they are at their absolute fittest, they can perform their absolute best.”

It’s part of why she advises seeking out the care you need when you need it. Whether that’s mental health counselling or physiotherapy, dedicated professionals can help you approach your wellbeing from a holistic perspective. Medcan is a key part of that process for the National Ballet of Canada. We provide all the dancers with our Year Round Care membership program. When a dancer has an urgent but non-emergency need for medical guidance from a nurse practitioner or medical doctor, we’re there to provide it.

When something doesn’t feel right in one area of your mind or body, it can lead to difficulties in others. That’s as true for ballet dancers as it is for working professionals. Not all of us have a wellness program to help us maintain our performance in stressful conditions. Luckily, we can learn a lot from the dancers—and seek the help of professionals when necessary.

Are you interested in developing strategies to help you thrive in high-stress situations? Reach out to us at bookingteam@medcan.com to discuss how Medcan can help you live well, for life.

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