Dancing with Danger

Why cocaine continues to haunt the ballet world.
Published in the June/July 2012 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers

By phone from Europe, where she now performs with a major ballet company, a 24-year-old dancer we’ll call “Claire” recalls the moment she realized cocaine would ruin her life if she kept doing it. She was 19 and training at a renowned ballet academy in New York City. “I’d been living on my own for four years and had met some interesting characters. I knew a dealer who would deliver cocaine to my apartment, like it was pizza.”

Claire had recently checked into a drug-treatment center, prompted by roommates who’d had enough of her mood swings and self-destructive behavior. It had been three years since she’d first experimented with the drug. Her habit began the way many addictions do: Friends were trying cocaine for fun, and she joined in. “We saw professional dancers doing it and we wanted to be cool like they were.”

But she was only able to get through a couple of days of rehab. Back home, feeling defeated, she called in a rush order. The dealer arrived in 20 minutes, and Claire started snorting right away. Something wasn’t right. “Usually, when you use cocaine, you don’t get tired,” Claire explains, “but I was so messed up I couldn’t walk.” She fell asleep—and awoke to the sound of one of her roommates screaming. “My nose was gushing blood. My sinus had basically collapsed on one side.” The cocaine Claire’s dealer brought had been cut with dry bleach cleaner, possibly Ajax.“That was the turning point,” she says. “It wasn’t an overdose, technically, but it was a realization for me.”

Cocaine has a long history in the ballet world that started in the drug’s heyday in the 1980s. Most famously, Gelsey Kirkland wrote about her addiction in her memoir Dancing on My Grave. Many in the dance community got a wake-up call when American Ballet Theatre dancer Patrick Bissell died from an overdose in 1987. Yet cocaine remains a chronic problem, a seemingly easy “solution” to many of the pressures dancers face. Last summer, Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe fought allegations in Danish newspapers that he had used the drug with company dancers. Pointe spoke with dancers, addiction specialists and psychologists to explore why this problem seems to periodically step back into the spotlight.

It’s an urgent question because cocaine abuse comes with serious consequences: Long-term users can experience heart and respiratory problems, headaches, irritability, even paranoid psychosis. And at upwards of $100 per gram, it can quickly drain a bank account.

Despite these risks, ballet’s high-pressure environment can make the drug’s effects—temporary feelings of euphoria, increased alertness and energy, a stifled appetite—seem appealing. A dancer’s job demands sustained focus at levels far beyond the 9-to-5 norm. The job also lends itself to waves of emotion: The rush of a performance may be followed by a crash.

Ballet dancers begin their careers in an addiction-friendly age range as well. “About 70 to 80 percent of people who have a serious problem start using cocaine in their teenage years, definitely a vulnerable time,” says Dr. Andrew Saxon, who directs the Addiction Psychiatry Residency Program at the University of Washington and has researched cocaine use for 26 years. Compounding matters, many dancers leave home at an early age to train or join a company, and have little contact with people outside of the dance world. Claire, for example, lived unsupervised in New York while she trained. Few adults were paying attention to anything other than her technique. “I was throwing parties at 17 that people still ask me about.”

At midsized ballet companies like the one with which “David,” 21, performs, members get few if any performances off. A run of The Nutcracker might require an entire month in the theater. The resulting stress can drive some dancers to see cocaine as an escape, despite its detrimental consequnces, says Dr. Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist in private practice who is also New York City Ballet’s wellness consultant. The harder a dancer works and the heavier his workload, the easier it is to justify partying hard. “There’s less guilt,” says David. “If you’re doing fine at work, you might feel you can burn the candle at both ends.”

Losing weight as a result of cocaine use can be a side effect. It can also be the point. Claire didn’t develop her habit trying to stay thin and, initially, she never got high during work hours. But she became close with a dancer who used cocaine as an appetite suppressant. They began getting high together to replace meals. “I saw muscles I’d never seen before and started to get obsessive about it,” Claire remembers. “Everyone, my whole life, had told me I needed to lose weight. I got a very positive response from all of my teachers.” Within a year, cocaine became a staple of Claire’s “diet,” as she calls it. “I’d do a couple of lines every few hours, all day, and at night I smoked weed and drank to come down.”

Many dancers interviewed said if drug use isn’t directly affecting classes, rehearsals or performances, directors tend to turn a blind eye. Often, however, the artistic staff doesn’t ever see any symptoms. Dancers are trained to conceal flaws and problems, and the field attracts people who have high standards and are self-critical. These same qualities that help them succeed in ballet can be used to keep problems like drug abuse a secret.

The danger escalates when an after-show party habit leads to getting high more frequently and needing more of the drug to experience the same effects. Many dancers feel trapped, too scared or embarrassed to seek help. Claire’s parents still don’t know that she ever had a problem. It’s possible to find treatment and support, however. There are even resources that addicts can contact anonymously. (See the sidebar below.)

Not everyone who tries the drug will get hooked. But “the people who are genetically primed for addiction can’t get over that sense of how good it makes them feel,” says Saxon. “They want to experience it again and again, and will keep using even after the body and brain develop a tolerance to its effects.” Saxon identifies two main risk factors for addiction. The first is genetic predisposition: Some people’s genes have multiple mutations which, when combined, increase the likelihood that the first line they snort won’t be their last. The second factor is circumstantial, “meaning your environment, your day-to-day life and the things that happen to you,” Saxon explains. For addicts, everything from a drug’s alleged benefits to working in an exceptionally stressful environment can be used to justify their habit.

Hamilton says that the ballet world has come a long way toward embracing all-around dancer wellness, but she would like to see it go further. Abuse of cocaine and other hard drugs, as well as eating disorders, raise red flags that the industry should not ignore. “The bigger issue is, how do we help dancers deal with stress?” she asks. Artists, administrators, choreographers and teachers “should all be on the same page. We may inadvertently give dancers mixed messages: ‘We’ll provide this wellness workshop but we won’t give you an easier day before an opening-night performance.’ We’re neglecting to give any TLC.”

Claire—like half of all addicts in the rehabilitation program that Saxon directs—beat her cocaine habit. Another 30 percent gain some control but don’t stop using the drug. The rest, says Saxon, become mentally and/or physically disabled, or even die as a result of their drug abuse.

“I had to find my love for dance again after quitting cocaine,” Claire says. “It can give you energy like nothing else except for your own motivation. I had to go back to when I first saw Swan Lake. I had to make myself love myself and my dancing.”


Where To Find Help

Cocaine Anonymous

Ca.org
Take a self-test for cocaine addiction and find local meetings.
800-347-8998

Cocaine Helpline
Cocainehelp.com
866-535-7050
Connect with a counselor 24/7 for free help with your own addiction and to get referrals for local rehab centers, or to learn about the warning signs in others.

National Cocaine Hotline

800-COCAINE (262-2463)
Connect with a trained professional 24/7 for free information, help with crisis intervention and referrals for local rehab centers.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Findtreatment.samhsa.gov
Search for a list of local treatment programs based on your needs.