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Up, up and away…to Norway! A PhD Researcher's travel diary.


Image description: A photo of Michelle in Oslo, Norway.


Earlier this month, SPRINT Project PhD Researcher Michelle Schachtler Dwarika travelled to Oslo, Norway to conduct a series of guest lectures. Read on to find out all about her work and adventures, and reflections along the way!


 

As a dance researcher, I enjoy making research available for dancers in the hope that certain findings might help to improve dancers’ mental well-being. However, I often felt that it was difficult to “get a foot in” with dance institutions that could enable dance researchers, psychologists and other professionals to talk to dancers about their mental health. After graduating from my dance science degree especially, I was concerned how and where my expertise was needed and wanted. Little did I know that meeting Dr. Heidi Haraldsen at a cafe in Oslo (Norway) in 2019 to talk about a scoping review, would lead to a job as a research assistant and program coordinator and, eventually, guest lecturing opportunities in dance psychology at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts.


The Oslo National Academy of the Arts is not only the home of the Norwegian National Ballet’s Upper School but also offers a Contemporary and Jazz dance route, houses the National Drama School, Opera School and Fine Arts School and has a renowned dance, theatre and opera educator’s program. Needless to say, the students’ timetables are often very full, which makes piloting new additions to the existing curriculum challenging. However, in 2021 the leadership of the dance bachelor programs voiced an interest in exploring a series of evidence-based dance psychology lectures for the bachelor students in classical ballet, contemporary and jazz dance. Upon that, Heidi and I created a series of 5 whistlestop dance psychology courses, covering topics such as motivation, cognitive reappraisal, and PERMA strength based training. It was not perfect, but certainly a beginning.


After moving to Birmingham to pursue my PhD, I dedicated my MA in Social Research (which is part of the 1+3 PhD program) to gaining a deeper understanding of mental health. How can mental health be conceptualized in dance? What risk and protective factors are dancers dealing with on a regular basis? What mental skills might help to alleviate the stressors they experience?


In the midst of examining these questions, the Oslo National Academy of the Arts asked me, whether I would be willing to return as a guest lecturer to the bachelor program in classical ballet in November 2023. While being excited to return, I also felt that the original whistlestop series needed an overhaul. Inspired by the work undertaken during the MA, I slowly but steadily transformed the whistlestop series into 4 courses focusing on mental health in dance. The two first courses offer a basic understanding of mental health and what can make us languish and flourish. Building on this understanding, the two last courses introduce the students to basic Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and cognitive reappraisal principles, growth mindset and strength based training (PERMA). But would the students like it? There was only one way to find out.


 


Image description: A photo of Oslo, Norway.



Session 1: Introduction to mental health


After having spent my Sunday at the newly renovated Ibsen museum and feeling a little lost in a town I used to know intimately, I started the day by meeting up with Dr. Heidi Haraldsen. Getting much needed encouragement from her, I organized my access pass to the venue and showed up to the lecture fuelled with more than enough coffee to keep me going. Lecture 1 presents an overview of Keyes’ two continuum model, the three symptoms of mental health as well as the three most common mental illnesses experienced by vocational dancers. Despite a big, intimidating space, initial technical hiccups and that the students had had a long day, we are off to a good start. The students engaged in discussions around topics such as how to help others that might show signs of languishing, and how they could take care of others while taking care of themselves. I am reminded that gaining a group’s trust takes time and that talking about mental health might be perceived as delicate and difficult. Nevertheless, we were off and going!


Image description: A visualisation of the Two Continuum Model of Mental Health.



 


Session 2: Risk and protective factors associated with mental health and mental illness


The next day, we gathered in a more intimate space for session 2. Building on session 1, this course takes an ecological approach to exploring risk and protective factors that might lead to mental illness or mental health respectively. This particular perspective acknowledges that an individual’s mental health and illness must be seen in relation to a broader social and cultural context in which the person is embedded. Hence, the course presents the different risk and protective factors on an individual, interrelational or cultural level. On the individual level, we talked about why perfectionism, obsessiveness and basic need frustration might lead to dancers languishing and why a positive personality, harmonious passion and basic need satisfaction might positively impact our mental health. We also discussed how teachers, parents, peers (interrelational), an audience, and dance culture in general (cultural) can have a negative or positive impact on our mental well-being. The more intimate space allowed for some animated discussions in which the students raised the importance of acknowledging healthier body types, sufficient rest and that dance teaching might be (slowly but steadily) changing for the better. Thus concluding the foundation of the course, the students were ready to move onto the mental skill’s training part of the series.



 


Session 3: Thoughts and thought patterns


And just like that, the last day of in-person lectures had arrived. The fact that this particular session was crammed with information but also slotted in as the last session of the day made me a bit nervous. What will they take away from it? Will they be overwhelmed? Can I make it interesting and relevant for them? After a quick recap of the last two sessions, we dived into the basic ABC principle of CBT and why seeing a situation (i.e. an audition) as a challenge might be more beneficial than seeing this occurrence as a threat. We then raised our self-awareness by exploring our thought traps, and learned how to practice the 4Cs to challenge and change unhelpful thoughts. However, because unhelpful thoughts might appear at times when there is little time to practice the 4Cs, the students were also introduced to three principles psychological flexibility (open up, be present, do what matters). To enhance this understanding, we finished the session by talking about what we can and cannot control, and doing an exercise I like to call “the bus of thoughts”.



Image description: A visual representation of the ABC Principle in CBT.



Feeling a bit dazed but hopeful that this session would give food for thought, it was time to return back to the UK.



 


Session 4: Self-care and mental strengths


If the COVID-19 pandemic has showed us something, it is that we can get certain things done online. Since I needed to get back to the UK, we made use of this possibility and concluded the course series on Zoom a few days later. Building on the previous session, this lecture aimed to introduce the students to the benefits of a growth mindset, and using their individual strengths to enhance the protective factors from session 2 and change negative thought patterns from session 3. For this purpose, the students received a link to the VIA strength test (see the test here) which they needed to complete prior to the session. After discussing the benefits of a growth mindset and the downfalls of a fixed mindset, the students were introduced to PERMA and how its principles can offer valuable suggestions to enhance their mental well-being. We then moved onto examining the top three strengths we have identified in the VIA strength test and discussed how these strengths can be used, enhanced and explored. To further promote their learning, each student received a booklet containing a more in-depth version of the lectures and all the exercises they have been introduced to.



Image description: Image used to supplement learning in session 4.



The session concluded with an excerpt from a poem by William Ernest Henley which reads:


“It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll; I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”

It was a true privilege to be working with the students, and I hope that these sessions could be but a small beginning to them eventually becoming the master of their fate, and the captain of their soul.


 

Image credit: Michelle Schachtler Dwarika

Written by Michelle Schachtler Dwarika, PhD Researcher in the SPRINT Project.


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