Professional dancer Ali Deucher on Mental Health in the Dance Community: Body Dysmorphia, Eating Disorders, and Perfectionism

Name: Ali Deucher  
Role: Professional dancer
Based in: Orem, UT
Age: 20
Ali Deucher, 20 / Illustration, ATEM

Ali Deucher is a professional dancer and choreographer based out of Orem, UT and Los Angeles, CA. She has worked with some of the top dancers in the industry and is part of the Radiance Dance Company in Los Angeles. Outspoken about fighting mental health stigma in the dancers’ community and the mental illnesses particular to the culture such as body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and perfectionism, Ali inspires young dancers to power their pursuit of professional success first through an empowering of their wellbeing. We reached out to Ali to get her thoughts on wellness and mental health specific to the dance community.

1. In your own words, describe who you are

I am a 20 year old artist just trying to find myself while helping others do the same.

2. How did you start dancing? What are your dreams for your dance career? 

My childhood best friend started taking dance at 3 years old and because we loved to do everything together, I joined her. A year later I switched studios and I grew up at Dance Club studio in Orem, UT until I graduated in 2018. 

My dreams for my dance career are to choreograph for a recording artist, continue dance because I love it, and create a pathway to a professional career for younger generations by showing them that you can do anything despite the trials in their life.

3. How has dance helped you to find purpose amidst mental health struggles? 

Dance has helped me figure out that my mental health struggles can become something that makes me “me”, instead of pushing me away from the person I thought I was. The discipline and work ethic that is crucial to succeeding in dance helps get your mind off of other things inside of your head; yet the creativity and vulnerability helps you get those thoughts on the tip of your tongue and allow you to use that urge to work through your struggle.

4. What inspired you to use your platform to become an advocate for mental health? Who are some role models online that you look to for mental health related help or content? 

When I started struggling, I didn’t find anyone online that I could look to. As a teenager, you live your life on social media and that can lead youth to believe everyone is perfect. If I couldn’t find anyone, why shouldn’t I be the one? 

Now that talking about mental health is a little bit more common, I look to Victoria Grimes who has shared her journey and has been very transparent for years. It’s made me realize I’m not alone, even if the darkest hours of the night tell me I am.

5. How do you use social media to spread awareness about mental health? 

I spread awareness by being a little more open when I feel that I’m struggling. I use hashtags, I post on my physical and mental health account as an outlet, and I choreograph phrases with captions to describe the emotion that drove me to create what I did. If I walk the walk, talking the talk is so much easier.

6. The professional dancer community today would be considered a high-risk demographic for mental illnesses such as body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders, but things are changing. There is a lot of competition amongst dancers given the limited amount of opportunities for elite professional dancers, and the cultures of many dance forms by nature is about perfection. Why do you think dysmorphia and perfectionism are some of the most common mental illnesses that dancers especially struggle with? 

I feel that dysmorphia and perfectionism is so common because dancers around the world live and train based on the opinions of others, specifically teachers, and those who’ve come before us. Since the beginning of time, the body type of a dancer is known to be long and slender. Why? Because that is the most “aesthetic” look.

I never had that look. I have a muscular build, I’m short, and my legs don’t look like they’re 5 miles long. At 12 years old, I was told by a teacher that my legs were too big. Of course I believed this person. I struggled. I tried eating less, I tried working out more, etc. It hurt me at such a young age, but after about 6 years I finally got over it. (Mostly.) That same year I was told once again by a different teacher that my legs were too big. It stung a little, but I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “Why am I paying so much attention to someone else’s opinion when mine is the most important?” I love lifting weights, and that definitely adds to my muscularity in my thighs specifically. But instead of getting down on myself for it, I thought about how strong I am and how I can move because of it. And since then, I’ve learned to love my body the way it is. 

I don’t want this to make teachers sound bad at all. That’s not my intention. But I feel that because the culture of dance many years before us is so different, it is still trickling into our day to day lives.

7. Can you share a conversation you experienced personally or heard of that has influenced a dancer into developing a disorder such as dysmorphia, perfectionism, or anxiety? 

 Besides my own experience, I know of many others who feel pressured to look differently.  When I was younger, I watched a dance show. I remember the dancers having to step on the scale and being evaluated based on a number. This made dance feel like they had to be a certain weight, and attached a number to dance, which should never be the case. That has stuck with me and made me realize I’m more than what I look like.

8. How do you see the mental health conversation changing in the dance community? How has this progressed over the years? 

Because it’s 2020 and all aspects of diversity have been brought to the surface, I have seen it become more normalized over the past year or so. I think people are more willing to talk about it in person rather than post it for thousands to see. Even though social media is a good way to share, having conversations are just as important, if not more.

9. As a teacher, what are some coping strategies you teach your students who are dealing with these mental health issues, but want to professionally succeed? 

I teach them to learn to accept them. If we cannot accept ourselves, we cannot grow. I open up conversation for them to feel like they can tell me anything (because it’s confidential), and they find that just talking and accepting the trial is so crucial to their progress.

10. What advice would you give on how to cope with mental health relapses

To be honest I am still struggling with this one. Something that helps me is recognizing that once you have a mental health disorder, it will never go away. It’s kind of a sad realization, but once I remind myself of that, it makes me feel like I can normalize the emotions that were once overwhelming me. It takes serious practice.. but don’t give up.

11. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give your younger self, what would it be? 

You’re going to experience heartbreak. You’re going to feel torn apart. That is inevitable. This does not mean you are broken. You are complete the way you are. You will find this by helping others see that they’re complete, too. Don’t be afraid to be the only one. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to speak up.

12. What would you say to someone who struggles with beauty standards or how their skin or appearance looks? 

The only person that can make you feel truly good about yourself is you. A part of that is coming to terms that you are you for a reason! You are made up of so many things, but the most important thing is the thoughts you give into. Manifest your life. Tell yourself how you want to feel about you and let the world show you who you really are. You’re more than a body, you’re more than your skin, you’re the person you are inside. The more positive the thoughts, the better the results. 

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

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