The Royal Ballet School’s psychologist and designated safeguarding lead on supporting young Dancers’ mental health


Becoming a professional ballet dancer isn’t easy. Dancers first complete years of comprehensive training to hone their performance skills. The Royal Ballet School recognises that full-time vocational training can challenge students physically and mentally. To keep these challenges at bay, the School’s priority is always its students’ health and well-being.

To support its students’ holistic health, the School has developed an outstanding health care provision: the Healthy Dancer Programme. 20 health care professionals, including counsellors and mental health experts, oversee this programme.

As The Royal Ballet School’s Psychologist and Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL), Christian Uitzinger plays a central role in this health care team. Here, he shares insights into the importance of supporting young dancers’ mental health.

Championing Mental Health in Schools

Uitzinger joined The Royal Ballet School in May 2023. He has worked in many schools and specialises in school psychology and psychotherapy.

Positive experiences with his own school counsellors led Uitzinger to pursue a career in psychology. During his career, he has championed mental health in schools, focusing on making mental health understandable and accessible to children and adolescents. Now, he shares his expertise with the staff and students of The Royal Ballet School.

“It is fascinating to work with students who are extremely determined and passionate about what they do,” Uitzinger says of the School’s young dancers. He explains that students form an attachment to the art form that can sometimes seem “as strong as an attachment that one has to a primary caregiver.”

Normalising Seeking Mental Health Support

While this strong attachment to ballet is a driving force for students, it can present challenges. For example, students who can’t dance for a while due to an injury may struggle to adjust.

The Royal Ballet School continually reminds students and staff that there is always support available for anyone struggling with their mental health. Uitzinger adds that it’s normal to experience mental health difficulties and seek support.

“If you’re struggling, it doesn’t mean that you’re not strong enough as a person,” he notes.

Some young dancers may worry that getting mental health support suggests they’re not suitable for a career in professional ballet. But Uitzinger emphasises that this isn’t true: “That’s a complete misperception. Any student at the School could injure themselves, any student could encounter mental health difficulty. And there is always support available.”

The School reassures students that accessing support will not negatively impact their training or count against them. Uitzinger adds that normalising getting help and treating mental health problems “as you would a physical one” is an important lesson for people in general.

Uitzinger also helps the School promote the message that counselling or therapy is normal.

“One doesn’t have to be in a mental health crisis to benefit from that support,” he explains. Students should feel comfortable accessing support regardless of what they’re dealing with, even if it’s just to improve their functioning in daily life.

Debunking Mental Health Misconceptions

As a psychologist, Uitzinger comes across many misconceptions about mental health. For instance, some people feel ashamed about experiencing mental health difficulties. They may see these difficulties as a character flaw or sign of weakness.

This misconception can make people reluctant to access support when they need it. Uitzinger adds that this misunderstanding pathologises “a normal part of the human experience.”

Many people believe mental health is about “trying to be as happy as you possibly can.” However, Uitzinger explains that prioritising your mental health doesn’t mean you’re always going to feel happy. Similarly, looking after your physical health doesn’t mean that you’re never going to fall ill or become injured.

The Royal Ballet School emphasises the importance of being aware of your mental health needs and accepting that everyone’s needs are different. Uitzinger uses sleep as an example of a mental health component that is more important to some than others.

“For some people, it’s not a big deal if they lose a couple of hours of sleep,” Uitzinger explains. “For other people, losing an hour or two of sleep can be quite detrimental to their functioning.”

In the same way, some people need regular social connections to look after their mental health, but others need more time alone. Uitzinger repeats: “Everybody has different needs, and that’s okay. That’s normal.”

World Mental Health Day 2023

World Mental Health Day takes place every year on 10 October. This year, The Royal Ballet School organised activities to raise awareness of mental health and help strengthen the School community.

Uitzinger says awareness is an important first step in helping people understand their mental health and why they might need to access mental health care. Events like World Mental Health Day encourage society, schools, organisations, and individuals to learn more about the subject.

Uitzinger hopes observing World Mental Health Day will help Royal Ballet School students and staff learn something new about mental health.

Tea And Talk

The theme for World Mental Health Day 2023 was “tea and talk.” The World Mental Health Foundation asked people to come together and discuss well-being to celebrate the occasion.

To suit this year’s theme, The Royal Ballet School served cupcakes at lunchtime to encourage conversation and social connection between students and staff. In particular, they discussed interoceptive awareness and the importance of identifying personal mental health needs.

Interoceptive Awareness

Interoception is an important part of understanding our basic needs. Uitzinger describes interoception as “the sense of what you feel inside your body.” We might sense feelings of hunger, tiredness, or illness. We might also sense emotions.

Uitzinger adds that we tend to ignore these feelings and emotions when we’re stressed or busy and our interoceptive sense diminishes.

“The more in touch you can be with your body, the better a level of awareness around your emotions you’ll have as well,” he says.

The Royal Ballet School’s aDvANCE Conference

In addition to its Healthy Dancer Programme and observing events like World Mental Health Day, The Royal Ballet School supports students’ mental health by fostering a positive studio culture.

The School also strives for excellence in ballet education for students everywhere and continuously innovates in the global dance sector.

As part of its commitment to advancing ballet education worldwide, the School hosted the aDvANCE conference from 28 September to 1 October 2023. The subject of the conference was understanding modern students’ experience of elite training. The conference also highlighted the importance of creating nurturing studio environments and organisational cultures.

Dance Education Leaders Discuss Support for Students

17 CEOs, directors, and principals from prestigious ballet schools and junior companies around the world attended the conference at White Lodge in Richmond Park, London. Delegates included:

  • Mavis Staines, Artistic Director and CEO of Canada’s National Ballet School.
  • Élisabeth Platel, Director of Paris Opera Ballet School.
  • Jennifer Sommers, Director of Houston Ballet Academy.
  • Christian Tàtchev, Director of Queensland Ballet Academy.
  • Kathleen Mitchell, Graduate Rehearsal Director at Boston Ballet School.
  • Gigi Hyatt, Pedagogical Principal and Deputy Director at The School of Hamburg Ballet.
  • Kevin Durwael, Artistic Director of Koninklijk Balletschool Antwerpen.
  • Ernst Meisner, Artistic Director of Dutch National Ballet Academy. Meisner is also the Coordinator and Choreographer of the Junior Company at the Dutch National Ballet.
  • Robert Parker, Artistic Director of Elmhurst Ballet School.
  • Nena Gilreath, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of Ballethnic Dance Company and Ballethnic Academy of Dance.

The event gave delegates the opportunity to identify existing and future challenges for their organisations and the international dance industry. Delegates explored and developed solutions and best practices for dance pedagogy.

One outcome of the conference was the creation of more established ways for industry members to forge mutually beneficial partnerships. The Royal Ballet Schools hopes these industry ties will inspire further open conversation and continued improvement in the ballet world.

Working Together to Find Solutions

The Royal Ballet School’s Artistic Director and CEO Christopher Powney conceived the aDvANCE conference with the support of Jaimie Tapper, a retired Royal Ballet Principal Dancer. Powney says it’s essential for leaders in dance education to build a community and work together to respond to challenges in a “fast-paced, rapidly changing world.”

“As educators entrusted with the nurturing of young people and leaders of elite performance environments, our shared focus is the needs of our students and their carers and how we can shape the future of training for our evolving industry with those needs in mind.”

About The Royal Ballet School

The Royal Ballet School is the UK’s foremost classical ballet training centre. Based in London, the School trains talented young dancers in various dance forms, including classical ballet, contemporary, and character. Full-time students train for up to eight years, following the White Lodge (for dancers aged 11-16) and Upper School (for dancers aged 16-19) curricula.

On average, 88% of students receive financial support to attend The Royal Ballet School. The School’s admissions process evaluates a young dancer’s talent and potential only, not their personal circumstances or academic ability.

Many students go on to enjoy professional careers with leading UK and international dance companies, including The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Famous Royal Ballet School alumni include Margot Fonteyn, Anthony Dowell, Darcey Bussell, and Jonathan Cope. Former students currently making their mark on the world stage include Marcelino Sambé, Francesca Hayward, Steven McRae, and Anna Rose O’Sullivan.

Learn more about The Royal Ballet School.


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