🗣 Locals to Know: Meet Kathleen McGuire Gaines, dancer and mental health advocate

Today’s Local to Know trained at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and danced professionally elsewhere before injuries impacted her mental health. This set her to wondering: why doesn’t the dance world care for brains to the same extent as bodies? Meet Kathleen McGuire Gaines, founder of dance mental health organization Minding the Gap. Read on for more from Kathleen!

Tell us a little bit about Minding the Gap. How’d the organization start?

Minding the Gap is a social good company that seeks to see mental health regarded with the same seriousness as physical health in dance culture. We partner with licensed mental health professionals who specialize in dance to provide mental health skills and education training to dancers and dance teaching artists. I was a professionally trained ballet dancer, but I was never a very confident dancer and struggled with my self-esteem and body image. After my first major injury, I experienced major depressive disorder and was really at a loss about to handle it. In dance settings, we don’t do a great job of talking about mental health. I thought I was just weaker than the other dancers. I didn’t understand that the mental health challenge I was facing was treatable and even preventable. In 2017, I wrote an article for Dance Magazine called Why are we still so bad at addressing dancers’ mental health? The article went viral and the response was one of the things that inspired me to start Minding the Gap. 

What is “the gap,” and how have you used data to inform your work?

There are actually a few gaps, the most obvious being the gap between dance culture and an awareness and inclusion of mental health in dance training. Elite athletes have access to mental health support — you can’t be part of the NCAA without providing mental health professionals to your athletes — but dance hasn’t been as proactive. The other big gap is between the dancers and the mental health professionals who want to support them. I often hear from mental health professionals who want to work with dancers that they struggle to get access to them and that dancers don’t know how to find them. 

I am a big data nerd, and it is at the heart of what we do. Initially, Minding the Gap started collecting data on dancers’ mental health because there just wasn’t very much of it available. Our data on dancer’s mental health was presented at the Performing Arts Medical Association and the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science conferences this year. I hope that by sharing it, we can empower other advocates to get dancers the support they deserve. We also use data when we consult with individual dance institutions like Point Park University’s Department of Dance and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. We create our programs for the dancers around what the data tells us they need, not what we assume they need, because every dance environment is different. 

Speaking of mental health, what are some ways you practice self-care and otherwise unwind?

I think self-care is a concept that has gotten so buzzy that it has almost stopped meaning anything. We think of self-care as spa days and vacations, but when I am having a really tough day, things like eating and drinking water are self-care. Enforcing a strict bedtime to get enough sleep is self-care. I love to read. I try to read every night, even if it is just a few pages to get myself out of my head and whatever I am worrying about.

Two women talk in a dance studio lined with mirrors.
Kathleen works with former PBT artistic director Susan Jaffe (Photo credit: Erica Dietz)

What’s your all-time favorite place(s) to eat in the ’Burgh?

I could eat at DiAnoia’s in the strip morning, noon, and night. Cafe Raymond is another favorite in that neck of the woods. I also LOVE Brassero Grill in Braddock. Mexican food is my favorite, and they seriously have the best mole sauce in town. 

What’s something you’ve observed about our city that doesn’t exist elsewhere?

Pittsburgh is my chosen home. I first moved here when I was 14 to train at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, left to dance in San Francisco, and then came back. So, I am both a transplant and a boomerang. I think Pittsburghers just naturally root for each other. We love to see our own succeed. I have so many incredible mentors in this city, and I try to extend that same generosity of time and belief in other people. I think in Pittsburgh when one of us is winning, we are all feeling that success. 

Lastly, where can our readers find you, and how can they support your work?

You can learn more about Minding the Gap on our website. We are also on Instagram and Facebook where I share all of our upcoming publicly available workshops. Minding the Gap is not a nonprofit, so I won’t be asking you for money, but if you are connected with a dance school or company anywhere in the country, I would love to talk to you about how we can integrate mental health into your dance space. 

Follow Minding the Gap on social media at the links above or learn more about their work at wearemindingthegap.org.

Know of a person or organization that we ought to feature? Email us at hello@theincline.com with your suggestion, and you could see their name in an upcoming newsletter!

Correction: The newsletter version of this interview erroneously stated that Kathleen worked at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre instead of trained there. This version has been updated to more accurately reflect her background.