Representation of Mental Health Issues: Confronting Social Codes Through Dance – Anne-Marie Santerre

Dance is a valuable site for exploring and disrupting the place of disability in contemporary society (McGrath, Garland-Thomson). Many scholars agree on the power of dance to transmit knowledge and establish awareness of disability. Their research argues that dance performance, which is inclusive of dancers with differing corporeality, has the potential to generate positive change—for audiences, dancers, and potentially the wider society.

AXIS-Dance-Company-2015-photo-by-David-DeSilva AXIS-Dance-Company-2015-photo-by-David-DeSilva

Disabling conditions can also include mental health problems, learning difficulties, chronic illnesses, and other physical conditions. They can range from mild challenges to severe limitations and vary from person to person. Some examples are depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and schizophrenia. Disclosure of an invisible disability can raise questions about whether it is legitimate. Invisible disabilities are generally overlooked. Unfortunately, people often judge others by what they see and conclude that a person can or cannot do something by the way they look. How can dance confront these problematic social codes?

The Power of Dance

This essay explores the placing of the disabled body within a dance context and examines how this placement can be formulated inclusively in terms of mental health issues. To do so, it uses a framework based on concepts derived from critical disability theory, particularly the idea of visible and invisible disabilities as well as the normalization of the body based on its productivity. This essay is also part of a bigger study made with the collaboration of  AXIS Dance Company in San Francisco, California.

Social norms relating to disability are extremely connected to the body, as a person with a disability is mostly identified by their body: its productivity and its normalization. The definition of disability is not based only on the impairment itself but on the social vision of the impairment. Therefore, if your body differs from the social norm, you are quickly considered disabled, even despite your own assertion to the contrary. However, if you have a “normal-looking” body, you will not be considered disabled, despite your assertion to the contrary.

Regardless of this lack of physical signs obvious to the outside world, an invisible disability can be as connected to the body as a physical one. Even if mental health issues begin in the mind, it would be wrong to believe they have no repercussions on the body, as poor mental health can negatively impact physical health. This association of mind and body is one of the reasons why dance is such an apt medium to illustrate mental health issues and experiences. The effect of mental health on chronic physical conditions has been shown to significantly impact people’s quality of life. For example, the body after a panic attack is extremely sore and tired. A panic attack puts the body in survival mode, which can create extreme exhaustion. Anxiety also creates muscle nodules, chest pain, and heart palpitations.

From another angle, any discussion of subjectivity, as implicated in mental health, cannot be divorced from wider sociocultural and political factors nor issues of embodiment. Therefore, talking about the body integrates many discourses, including the socio-cultural understanding of the invisible disability that is a mental health issue            To see dance as an effective way to deconstruct how disability is perceived, I argue that: (1) any disabled person is already a ‘social performer’ because of people’s gaze; (2) when disabled artists use their bodies to talk about their realities, it brings empowerment to not only the artists, but the entire community; (3) disabled artists can take control back and bring empowerment to their community through their use of space, raising broad awareness about mental health issues; and (4) dance and its social impact highlight why dance is a good medium to assist in reframing the social understanding of mental health issues.

Disabled People as Social Performers

Although people with mental health issues are not defined by their physical impairment, once mental health issues have been disclosed, they solely define that person to the outside world. People with mental health issues are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from social misconceptions about mental illness. They receive negative attention, largely due to fear and prejudice. As a result, people with mental illness often cannot enjoy opportunities that define a quality of life. People may expect a person with serious mental illness to look visibly different from others, and they may tell someone who doesn’t “look ill” to “get over it” through willpower. These misperceptions add to the challenges of living with a mental health condition.

Although stigmatizing attitudes are not limited to mental illness, western society seems to disapprove of people with mental disabilities significantly more than people with related conditions such as physical disability. On this issue, World Psychiatry says: “unlike physical disabilities, people with mental illness and issues are perceived by the public to be in control of their disabilities and responsible for causing them” (World Psychiatry, 34). Such prejudices, misconceptions, and misunderstandings are all stigmas that emerge from problematic social constructions.

Taking Back Control of the Body

Dance allows us to confront the stigmatization connected to mental health issues by allowing people with these issues to regain control of their body. This kind of embodied experience is, as Hadley states, “a positioning of the disabled body and a personal, political and ethical issue not just for themselves, but for their spectators and for society at large” (Hadley, 7). Dance allows people with mental health issues to gain back control of their body by using their body to talk about their reality. This way, they can inspire other people with invisible disabilities to do the same and present a new reality to non-disabled people.

Gaining Control Back of Spaces

The relation of the body within the space is as important as the body itself. Dance assists in reframing the understanding of mental health issues through the intricate relation of disability with stage space, public space, or private space. In various ways, all these different spaces are interconnected as they influence each other. Working in a specific space is to work in an environment that signifies differently for all involved. The uses and rules of the space imprint the conventions of architectural meaning on the performers and their audiences. As every space comes with meaning, the involvement of any one body with its own meaning in space creates a new story to share (Kuppers, 47).

Everybody evolves in a physical space/environment. With the notion of space comes the concept of sharing it as different people exchange, share, and collaborate in public and private spaces. Relations are created by the way spaces are organized. The possible actions and relations in a space are made visible in dance performances. In this specific context, sharing space between performers and audiences can be conceptualized in terms of responses to movement, most prominently in terms of “kinesthetic empathy.” This concept is based on our understanding of social interaction across creative and cultural practices, where kinesthetic empathy describes the ability to experience empathy merely by observing the movements of another human being. While sharing space, the audience can experience this kinesthetic empathy for a dance performance about mental health issues. They can therefore learn about another’s reality through a shared artistic experience. Using a theatre location, which is the space most often used in dance, can be seen as demanding the right to be on stage and also to have a disability. Using theatre space can be seen as demanding the right to be an artist, while being able to confront the spectators’ gaze directly by performing.

Dance practices could work to reconcile this relation between disabled and non-disabled people by bringing them together to share the stage and execute the same movements, or by bringing them together in a relation of performers and audience. Even though their renditions may be different, disabled and non-disabled dancers can still execute the same movements. These differences in rendition can allow dance to play a role of reconciliation and help remind the audience that disabled and non-disabled people can easily share the same space.

Dance and Its Social Impacts

For dance companies, presenting disability is a political act in itself. When disabled artists use dance, it is a conscious attempt to both deconstruct representational codes of dance and communicate an ‘other’ bodily reality (Cooper Albright, 57). Dance’s social power to rethink the notion of difference thus provides a socio-cultural experience that includes diverse corporeality (McGrath, 144). As McGrath suggests:

Dance provides a window into the very heart of a culture, highlighting the beliefs and perceptions that shape the everyday lives of people; dance also provides a means of critical evaluation and exploration of the possibilities for change within that culture. It follows that dance performance can be understood as both an expression of societal values and as a vehicle for initiating change. These apparently contradictory roles make dance in an intriguing site for exploring the placement of the physically disabled body in contemporary society, and for disrupting existing perceptions of physical disability as transgressive. (McGrath, 143)

Western society tends to use standardized perceptions of the body to systematically assign certain labels and employ them as a relevant reasons for exclusion and stigmatization: the overweight cannot be healthy, while the athlete is automatically so; successful people cannot be seen as suffering from mental health issues, while someone openly identifying themselves with mental health issues is hardly seen as being able to succeed. As powerful as these images and perceptions can be, they remain social constructions which are often debunked. Therefore, the same body that can transmit so many different images can provide a great tool to reframe this deeply anchored social knowledge. In our specific case, the body is used in an artistic context further supported by its components.

Works Citied

AXIS Dance Company. (2016). “Repertory.” AXIS Dance Company. Web. 12 Oct.

Cooper Albright, Ann. (2001). “Strategic Abilities: Negotiating the Disabled Body in Dance”. In Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader (pp.56-66). Middletown; Wesleyan University Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1975). Surveiller et punir naissance de la prison. Paris; Gallimard.

Garland Thomson, Rosemarie. (2005). “Disability and Representation.” In Modern Language Association Mar. (pp.522-527). Print.

Garland Thomson, Rosemarie. (1997). Extraordinary Bodies. New York; Columbia University Press.

Goodley, D., B. Hughes and L. Davis. (2012). Disability and Social Theory: New Developments and Directions. New York; Palgrave Macmillan.

Hadley, Bree. (2014). Disability, Public Space Performance and Spectatorship; Unconscious Performers. London; Palgrave Macmillan.

Invisible Disabilities Association. (2016). What Is An Invisible Disability?

Kuppers, Petra. (2003). Disability and Contemporary Performance. New York; Routledge.

Lawlor, C. (2012). From Melancholia To Prozac; A History of Depression. Oxford; Oxford University Press.

McGrath, Eimir. (2012). “Dancing with Disability: An Intersubjective Approach”. In Disability and Social Theory: New Developments and Directions (pp.143-158). New York; Palgrave Macmillan. Press.

Scope. (2016). The Social Model of Disability.

Thomas Couser, G. (2005). “Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation.” In Modern Language Association Mar. (pp.602-606) Print.


Anne-Marie Santerre is a recent graduate of York University, Toronto. She completed an MA in the Communication and Culture program. Her research is concerned with the representation of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and eating disorder in dance, with the goal of creating a common understanding about the sociological and epistemological status of those issues surrounding by stigmas. With her backgrounds in Philosophy, Art History and Dance, Anne-Marie uses dance to negotiate and create opportunities for interactions between disabled and non-disabled communities. Career wise, Anne-Marie likes experimenting. This is why, in addition of her academic work, she is the author of a « chick-lit » novel called 27 mai, celebrating smart, funny and adventurous strong women. Also, she advocates for mental health issues on many platforms.