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Neurodivergence in dance

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

By Hollie Johnston.

Today I will be introducing you to neurodivergence, and what impact being neurodivergent can have in the dance industry. My name is Hollie Johnston. I am a professional dancer and am diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I am passionate about sharing my knowledge of neurodivergence, especially in the dance world. There is an obvious lack of understanding in general society, however in dance (especially the professional dance industry) this misunderstanding is even more profound. Neurodiversity is the term that represents the diverse nature of our entire population’s neurotypes, including both Neurodivergent individuals and Neurotypicals. Neurodivergent is the term used to describe people whose brains work differently to what is deemed “normal”. This includes an umbrella of conditions, for example Autism, ADHD/ADD, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Tic Disorders, OCD, Epilepsy and many more. Neurotypical is a term used to describe the rest of the population without

any conditions that affect how their brain works (what is deemed “normal”).

As I went through my dance journey, starting at local dance schools then moving on to professional training, I always felt different. I never felt seen or understood because I struggled socially and wasn’t one of those kids that stood out in class, despite working exceptionally hard. Like many other neurodivergent people (especially females) I wasn’t diagnosed until a bit later in life (I was 18). This meant I grew up without a reason as to why I felt so different. Even from a young age, I was denied opportunities, because it was perceived that I “couldn’t cope” or “wasn’t fast enough”. That being said, I was always in a higher grade to my peers of the same age. No matter of all of this, I still carried on dancing because I just loved it. It was my passion, my release, my expression (it still is!). Dancing is a form of expression that doesn’t involve speaking or writing, which is why so many neurodivergent individuals are drawn to it.

Being neurodivergent as a dancer can be a strength for many reasons. Once passionate about something, we can hyper focus and work extremely hard on that passion. The perfectionism of dancing and the continuous opportunity to improve provides the perfect setting. Additionally, dance classes have clear rules of how to behave, unlike in wider life, where many rules are unwritten and difficult to understand. This gives comfort and confidence for neurodivergent individuals to flourish.

Personally, my sensitivity to music gives me good musicality and timing, which allows me to really hear the nuances of the music to fit to choreography and its details. Neurodivergent people are often detail orientated, meaning important corrections and information are picked up on. I am also able to really perform and use my face and artistry, especially on stage. For me, whilst being in character and performing, all my usual anxieties and difficulties disappear. This is how dance is such an amazing outlet for expression for me, as I get so immersed in my (or other’s) dancing.

Neurodivergent individuals can also be highly creative, and have a lot to give an industry such as dance. However, neurodivergent dancers can face many challenges in addition to the already high levels of stress and pressure that all dancers face. A common difficulty is sensory sensitivities. This can be with loud noises, bright or flashing lights, tight costumes, certain textures, or strong smells. Sensory sensitivities can result in overstimulation, where the brain gets overwhelmed with all of the sensory input and will struggle to process anything. This can lead to what is called a meltdown, where the individual either starts crying, screaming, covering their eyes/ears, stamping, etc, or will completely shut down and disassociate. This an extremely scary experience, as you can lose complete control of your body. Meltdowns are very misunderstood, and people’s reactions can leave the individual feeling ashamed, embarrassed and upset.

Sensory sensitivities can cause great discomfort and can even stop the individual from achieving what they want to or know they are otherwise able to. Sometimes I can even get pain from my senses being overloaded. These are things that can easily be adapted if needed, to be more accommodating. Some neurodivergent dancers can struggle with co-ordination or slower processing speeds, and may take a little longer to pick up choreography and get it into their body. In an environment where it is all about survival of the fittest, this could leave many behind. Neurodivergent dancers may also feel left behind socially, struggling to make connections and contacts because of difficulties with communication and social cues. I feel that it is important to mention that personal experiences will differ between every neurodivergent individual. Even two people with exactly the same diagnoses will struggle with different things to different degrees. Some’s strengths may be other’s weaknesses. For those who are Neurotypical, there are ways you can help.

The first step is awareness: doing your best to educate yourself about neurodivergent conditions, and not just go by your pre-perceived stereotypes. If someone is openly neurodivergent, listen to them, ask questions (if they are comfortable with that), respect any needs and accommodations they request and be patient if someone is struggling. If you see signs of a meltdown, I would recommend taking the individual to a quiet place, allow them to feel what they need to feel without judgement, and reassure them that they are safe. Showing support without infantilizing the individual makes all the difference. If you are neurodivergent and a dancer, or want to dance, please don’t let anything stop you! I hope in the near (fingers crossed!) future, more awareness, acceptance and understanding will be achieved, so we will no longer have to suffer purely because the dance world has adapted to be non-inclusive. Creative outlets like dance are perfect for neurodivergent individuals, but the environment in which they exist isn’t there yet. It’s our generation’s task to change that!

Hollie Johnston

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