How do West End dancers who perform eight shows a week stay healthy and well? Well… it takes work. And sometimes some outside help.
Barbados-born, London-based Crystal Nicholls is a wellness coach who specialises in working with West End dancers – and she knows what they need because she was one of them. Nicholls danced in the ensemble of The Lion King for six years (also covering the role of Sarabi), and has worked cruise ships, film, TV and commercials.
Of her West End days, she recounts, “Performing eight shows a week was unforgiving and relentless. I felt like even though I went through all that training, I was unprepared for the realities of the industry. In my first couple of years in the show, I got injured quite a lot, and felt like I was always exhausted and overwhelmed. It felt like I was on a hamster wheel and couldn’t get off.” Add the guilt of feeling ungrateful for a career so many dancers covet, and it can lead to a full blown spiral.
Sick of the ‘suffer for your art, but do it in silence’ narrative, she looked to learn a better way. “This led me down the rabbit hole of health and wellness. I was constantly reading books or listening to podcasts. I was so excited about what I was learning that I would share it with the girls in my dressing room. I couldn’t believe I had never been taught this stuff.”
When the lockdowns started in 2020, she decided to get her qualifications in nutrition coaching and holistic health. “When we are training, we only focus on vocational skills. But there is an entire side of skills we are missing – the skills that help us thrive. I say this a lot to my clients: ‘Talent gets you through the door; knowing the skills necessary to take care of yourself keeps you there.’”
The more Nicholls learned, the more she felt compelled to share, because she knew what a difference it could make. “I’ve seen it – in myself, and in my clients.”
And she’s seen many clients. Some are one-on-one consults, some are through the work she does with Applause For Thought (a community interest company that provides free and lower-cost mental health support for arts and entertainment workers), and some through other companies and organisations. It’s not only West End dancers, either. Nicholls sees commercial dancers, TV actors, entire dance companies and even ex-performers who’ve moved on to other industries. All in all? “Probably hundreds,” she estimates.
She coaches nutrition, sleep, rest, cross-training, stress management, mental health, confidence… there’s an endless list they could cover, so she always starts by having them identify their goals and values. “We need to know where we’re going before we do anything. This isn’t one-size-fits-all. Everything I do is led by the person in front of me. It is all flexible and personalised for what they are struggling with, and what they want to achieve.”
While the coaching is always individualised, a recurring theme for dancers is nutrition. “This isn’t about deprivation, but about food freedom. We look at what this person has been doing that might not be working for them (which is usually restriction) and how we can add more foods into their diet that will give them the energy, stamina and recovery they need, while encouraging them to have fun with their choices.”
Offering such an extensive, holistic approach to health and wellness is a huge resource for dancers, who are asked to perform at professional athlete levels but often aren’t given the same tools to do so. When they’re ‘supposed’ to feel like they’re at the top of their career, but on the inside they feel like they’re barely keeping up, Nicholls helps them take a look at the big picture and reimagine what it could look like, and what they need to get there.
“There are so many things we’re told we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to make it to the West End, or a Hollywood film, Netflix show, whatever it is, and if we haven’t, it means we haven’t ‘made it.’ What I’ve realised when working with my clients is that performers have been told for so long what they are ‘supposed’ to want, that most of them don’t actually know what they want. They’ve just been following this programme that was dictated to them by someone else. And when they achieve that, they’re still not happy and they don’t understand why.”
Think of other high skill careers that take years of training, like medicine or law. Just getting your medical license or passing the bar are recognised as big accomplishments. While those doctors or lawyers might have goals to work certain positions at certain hospitals or firms once they enter the workforce, no matter where they end up practising, they’re respected as esteemed professionals. And granted, the entertainment sector isn’t as socially valued as medicine or law, and performers may not take a standardized test before we’re considered professionals, but dancers all know the intensity of training it takes to get there. Wherever we do or don’t end up dancing, we should hold ourselves with the same respect and regard. With that mindset, your worth doesn’t hang on booking a West End production – it’s inherent. That frees you up to explore what you actually want to do with your skill.
And that’s just the starting point. Once you realize that you deserve the life you want, Nicholls helps guide you toward it. “Coaching is such a fun process of discovery,” she says. “Most of my clients come to me because they think they want one thing, and then halfway through the process realise they want something else. A huge part of this is helping my clients understand what their values are. If you know your values, you can start to filter every action through them.”
So what does Nicholls wish the West End industry knew about performer health? “When you look at all the advances made in sports science, you see how behind our industry is. I wish they understood that looking after performers’ health is the key to peak performance. That there are so many tools to help performers optimise their energy, stamina and recovery, and that it can coexist with the tradition and artistry of the performing arts. I would love to see our industry evolve into one that sees our performers healthier, happier and stronger.”
By Holly LaRoche of Dance Informa.