Substance Abuse

From earliest times up to at least the late 50's dancers where categorised as "VAGABONDS and THIEVES" in the British Isles; it was in the statutes

It is not unusual that dancers had a bad reputation for drinking, carousing, being sexually free, and altogether behaving very badly.

Gelsey Kirkland in the United States was quite open in admitting that she used HEROIN freely. This I fear did not help the reputation that has been tainted for a long time.

There are grounds for some of this suspicion.

During the 40s and 50s in Europe it was quite common for the French dancers when appearing as guest artists , to expect the company who had hired them, to provide drugs.

In the Metropolitan Ballet of London ,England, which made a brief foray into the British Ballet scene during the 40’s hired Alexandre Kalioujny from the Paris Opera France, to dance with the company. He appeared in some of the new repertoire but also danced in Swan Lake and Prince Igor.

Before each performance of Prince Igor he would take some substance, no idea what. When he arrived on the stage before the overture he would be pounding his chest, very hard. We knew he had taken some drug.

The actual performance was incredible. Such power, such strength. He was the only dancer that I have seen do multiple pirouettes, like that. We all counted 24 in one performance. After the final curtain call, he would collapse, and had to be carried back to his dressing room. Whatever he had taken, only lasted for the duration of the performance, then left him useless.

The drugs were taken by dancers to give them that extra boost while they were dancing. The career which operated in this manner, did not last very long.

Substance abuse outside the theatre has been common for as long I am sure as there has been theatrical dance. What a pity. It did not help the reputation of the already suspect dancers, but also it cut short a potentially long career.

During the 60’s the fashion was to smoke grass, and the dancers did it. Usually on train journeys between cities.

In the 70s I was witness to a new breed of smokers. In New York with the Royal Ballet , I was told by someone giving a party for the company, that parties were now much more expensive when the drugs were added to the cost.

I was offered , and refused, what they were calling BRAND X cigarettes.

One party ended up with a group sitting around talking gibberish. The next day, after having refused BRAND X, I was chastised for not joining that group. I was told that the conversation had been really good, highly intellectual. I said nothing.

Another form of what could be deemed substance abuse, has been common amongst dancers for a very long time. Smoking tobacco.

I suppose because it is fashionable, more dancers are quitting, but there were times when all dancers smoked tobacco.

It has amused and amazed the medical profession for years, that people who are so physically active should smoke tobacco. After all, athletes do not smoke, because it is supposed to harm them. Why then, the dancers?? We do not have an answer. It has been suggested by some people that dancers somehow actually use that substance to help them, but of course, that has been frowned upon by the medical profession.

Perhaps one day a solution to this question will be discovered.

Alcohol has also been abused by dancers. In most cases, because of the fact that they are so active, all trace of the substance has been dispersed through perspiring. It has been used as a relaxing agent in most cases. Unfortunately, in some cases it has become a disease instead of a relaxant. There are many cases of dancers becoming alcoholics and dying as a result.

Depending upon the stress of the situation, the dancer can relax, with a drink, or go overboard and end up like alcoholics do.

If you asked a dancer in an American touring company during the 30’s and 40’s what the standard equipment for the train journey on tour was.,you would have been told ìa case of beer and a deck of cardsî

The standard announcement by the company manager in The National Ballet of Canada in the 50’s while on a tour of one night stands would have been ìthe beer is to the left out the stage door, the food is to the right–or the food and the beer are to the left out the stage doorî

Receptions after performances with the National Ballet were always a problem. In the early years of touring, the receptions consisted of booze. This became a problem in towns where restaurants were scarce. Eventually the dancers announced ìfood at the receptions, or we do not attendî. Those who complied were welcomed, others, were turned down.

Did dancers survive this kind of life? Ask the survivors, we did, and went on for many years.

Were these people healthy? Again, ask the survivors.

Those who didn’t survive? They went on to lead ordinary normal lives, civilians we call them.