Dancers tackle themes of mental health at competition


Arts - Carms and students

Yana Sigurdson, 45, anxiously sits in the audience at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. She is waiting for her daughter Sarah, 18, to take the stage for the sixth annual Thunderstruck Canada Dance competition.

“Sarah finally has a ‘happy’ solo,” said Sigurdson.

Sarah’s competitive dance team has been portraying themes of sadness for more than a decade. Sigurdson says it’s common for lyrical, contemporary and modern dance forms to be more sad and gloomy than other forms.

“Dance is supposed to make you feel something,” said Sigurdson. “It seems to be easier to make an audience feel sad than happy.”

Dancing the part doesn’t come easy. Sigurdson says sadness isn’t natural for Sarah.

“She hasn’t had real sadness in her life,” said Sigurdson. “She is portraying what she thinks is sadness from what she sees on TV and social media.”

Mental health isn’t just expressed onstage—it’s expressed in the classroom too.

Carmelle Hearn, 27, sits in the wings backstage. She watches her students perform pieces they have spent hours perfecting. Hearn has been teaching at Marquis Dance Academy for ten years, and says dance is a good way to deal with depression and anxiety.

For Hearn, there are three things that influence her choreography: the music, a relatable experience and a student with a story.

“Sometimes I have a beautiful student who is very soft and outspoken,” said Hearn. “They inspire me to demonstrate their words through movement. It puts them in a different light.”

Downstairs in the dressing rooms, Katie Wilson, 19, touches up her makeup and adjusts her costume. Wilson dances more than ten hours a week. She says choreographers recreate an experience by transmitting their feelings into a piece of choreography. It’s the dancer’s job to make the image come to life.

“We need to put them in the situation,” Wilson said. “That’s how the audience will be able to connect.”

But sometimes all it comes down to is a choice in music.

“We dance to artists who have a tendency to sing more sombre songs with depressing story lines,” Wilson said.

This year, Wilson’s dance is about cancer.

“I usually just try my best to understand the story I am telling through dance,” said Wilson. “Once I’m on stage and the music starts playing, it’s very easy to get in the mood.”

Wilson lifts her chin and smiles to the audience for the first time in her performance. She unties the bandana around her head and lets her hair flow down. She has defeated cancer.