Hannah Friebel once had a ballet teacher tell her, “Hannah, if you applied the same work ethic you did to ballet, to anything else, you would be unstoppable.”
In interviewing Hannah, it’s easy to see why her teacher said this. Hannah’s intelligence, passion, and determination is clear. She is not only a professionally trained and experienced dancer, she’s transformed her life by applying her strong work ethic to other areas too.
It was after Hannah’s own experience of mental health problems and the mental health and hospital system in 2015 that things really changed for Hannah. Since then, Hannah has integrated advocacy for mental health and wellbeing into her practice, completing her Bachelor of Arts and Psychology in 2019. It was during her own recovery period that Hannah reflected on mental health literacy and awareness in the performing arts, particularly in the dance industry. She also considered what she had seen others go through in the industry, many of whom had struggled with mental health problems without getting the support they needed, often for fear it would impact their next opportunity.
Entertainment Assist and Victoria University’s report: Working in the Australian Entertainment Industry: Final Report
(van den Eynde, Fisher & Sonn, 2016) put numbers to what Hannah had been seeing and experiencing. This report showed higher prevalence of common mental health problems across the entertainment industry, including the dance industry, than what is seen in the general population.
Hannah believes in the value and necessity of mental health education, and was struck that discussions of mental health was not a normal part of dance education.
As a highly physical art form, Hannah shares that the use of the body and the, “complications that come with that” in dance are not always fully realised by those outside of the industry.
“You are using your body and emotions and being so vulnerable and putting yourself on the line on stage day after day after day – that has an impact.”
In June 2020, Ausdance released the findings from research that was conducted earlier in the year to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the dance community. As of June 2020, 1693 dance workers were impacted, 44 professional projects lost and a total of approximately $2 million dollars of income. When you combine the existing mental health challenges of working in the dance industry with the impact of something as disruptive and devastating as COVID-19, it’s clear that positive, cultural, systemic change is needed to ensure our dance community can thrive.
Hannah has absolute clarity on this challenge. She says that as long as the priorities of dance companies is on what the audiences see, rather than what is happening behind the stage, “we’re never going to be able to give duty of care to the dancers who are creating works. I’m of the opinion that the way we care for our artists in society actually measures the health of our society.”
The capability, interest and engagement with creating mentally healthy workplaces varies greatly across the performing arts industry. Some companies are at the forefront of best practice, while others proceed without considering the needs of the team members involved, and many companies falling somewhere between the two extremes.
As the conversation around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace intensifies, and a shift in legislation may be on the horizon, the need for designing creative work and workplaces with mental health and wellbeing front of mind is critical.
“[Currently], there is very little independent regulation around these things and very little way to hold people accountable to mental health best practice, and what I call psychological safe dance practice:”
Hannah is actively contributing to moving this conversation forward in a positive meaningful way. Through the creation Grace Dance Company, she aims to help bridge the gap between dancers and mental health practitioners, and ensure conversations about mental health are at the centre of creative practice.