Simone Biles, widely acknowledged as the greatest female gymnast ever, arrived at Tokyo 2020 with the highest expectation. But she wasn’t on form. After receiving the lowest score of Team USA, she briefly talked to her trainer, then returned wearing her sweatsuit, indicating that she was done for the day. Her decision to withdraw from the competition citing mental health reasons, for an athlete of her calibre, after training for years for this once in a lifetime event, was probably even braver than attempting her famous gravity defying Yurchenko double pike – and just as record breaking.
Simone Biles is another example of a new generation of high profile athletes publicly talking about the pressures they face and deciding to put their mental health first. Tennis star Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open and Wimbledon this year to focus on her mental wellbeing. Both sportswomen have been widely celebrated for their brave decisions which symbolise a shift in perception of what success means and how a successful career is defined.
Sports and dance have some significant differences and some very obvious similarities. Dancers are not Olympians but being a performers comes with similar pressures of an often fleetingly short career and the need to perform at our best at very specific times. At London Contemporary Dance School, we work hard to prepare student for lifelong and sustainable careers, leading the sector with periodisation – a training schedule directly influenced by elite sports that helps prevent injury and aims to understand the cycles of the body and how it is linked to mental health and stress. In our theatre programme and our recreational classes, we support artists of all ages and the conviction that dance is for life. Yet all too often within the wider industry, the pressure of pushing through pain and injury comes due to a perceived sense of scarcity of opportunities to perform and a need to make every moment count. The dance world is still all too often plagued by traditional expectations of sacrifice and masochistic heroism.
A recent article in Dance Spirit magazine points out that in gymnastics, no matter how hard the fall, it is required that the athlete will stand back up and salute the judges as a final gesture of respect and composure, or risk losing points. Similarly, some may find that discipline and tradition are woven deeply into the fabric of dance culture, particularly ballet where performed gestures of humbleness and a certain muteness still reign. By promoting and exploring other practices of dance encourage our students to find and use their physical voice to advocate for themselves, their colleagues and for the art form itself.
Seeing athletes becoming public spokespeople makes them fantastic role models for the dance world as well. And there is even more to learn from elite sports. Simone Biles was able to follow through on her decision with the full support of an expert team. For dancers, who are increasingly freelancing, independent one-person-businesses, a decision to prioritise self-care and health can have wide reaching financial and career development repercussions. We need to make a better effort to cultivate care as an industry, rather than placing the responsibility and the consequences on the shoulders of individual artists. The onus is on the people who hold power in the dance world to create a culture where dancers can feel seen and heard and can trust that appropriate action will be taken on their behalf.
Simone Biles showed that there is no shame in needing and asking for support. After a week of cheering on her team mates from the sides, she went on to win a single Bronze medal, showing remarkable resilience and mental strength, redefining what success looks like for her. And she is just one example in a whole summer of inspiring young athletes demonstrating strength and character like never before, from Tom Daley speaking out for LGBT athletes (while knitting between competitions to relax), to high jumpers Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi opting to share a gold medal rather than fight it out between them, to of course Marcus Rashford simply being Marcus Rashford.
These young athletes showed us that mental and physical health are connected – and that there is no shame in quitting, losing or prioritising your wellbeing. If we can support each other's access and health needs in the dance world, we can elevate each other as well as the artform.
Suzanne Frost is the Press and PR Manager at The Place