Pretty Brown Dancers did not chose Syndey Magruder Washington as Dancer of the Week solely because of her dance pictures and videos. We were intrigued by her posts that show how her courage, compassion and strength, to reveal to the public that she is a ballerina and a warrior against the obstacle affecting 1 in 5 Americans every day…mental health illness. Check out her interview with PrettyBrownDancers.com
When did you began dancing?
I started dancing at age 3 in my hometown in Maryland.
Tell us about your first performance.
It was an in-studio recital, and I did the first 15 seconds of the dance and then got scared and ran offstage! My parents never quite let me live that down. Suffice it to say that my stage fright has gotten considerably more manageable since.
What are your dancing techniques?
I am a professional ballerina, but also excel in musical theater, jazz and tap.
What are your pre-performance rituals?
I’m almost always the first one to arrive. I like to have plenty of time to get ready both physically and mentally, so I’ll be early to get hair, makeup, warm-ups and a light snack in before it’s time to roll. I’m religious about warming up, so I’ll get a nice long warm-up in before the show. I utilize music to narrow in on my intentions for that performance, so I’ll have my headphones on pretty much up until it’s time to go on. Right before I enter, I give it all to God and I ask my late Grandmother (she loved to watch me dance when she was alive!) to be with me onstage.
What gave you the courage to discuss having a mental illness?
To be perfectly honest, it was less courage and more necessity that made me speak out. I knew there was no possible way I was the only person living with these issues – statistics show that 1 in 5 American adults lives with mental health issues. That means in a company of 90 people (roughly the size of our country’s two biggest and best known ballet companies), at least 18 people (give or take) could be struggling with their mental health. Because of the stigma around mental illness, many people don’t feel comfortable talking about it or asking for help, which can leave someone feeling alone and lost where they needn’t. I spoke out because 18 people suffering in silence is 18 people too many.
What is your motivation as a mental health warrior?
I’m motivated by the knowledge that, if I keep speaking out and continuing to dismantle the stigma around mental illness, the dancers who come after me won’t have to suffer in the same way that I did – with feeling lost, alone, ashamed and hurt.
What mentoring/teaching have you done?
I’ve been so focused on performing these last few years that I haven’t gotten around to much teaching (but I do love it!), but I am a Mentor for the Brown Girls Do Ballet Ambassador Program. I have 10 young ballerinas who have trusted me to help guide them on their journeys to becoming professionals. They are each so precious and special to me and I couldn’t imagine life without them.
What changes you will like to see in the Dance community?
I hate to sound cliche, but I’d love to see a move towards diversity in ALL of its forms. Racial and ethnic diversity, of course, but also diversity of technique and body type – I want to see a very tall Kitri, a Black Nikiya, an Indian Giselle, a muscular Sylph…you know?! I’d also love to see more women in leadership roles. Julie Kent at Washington Ballet and Paloma Herrera at Téatro Colon are great starts, and I’m very much attached to the choreographic brilliance of women like Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Crystal Pite and Camille A. Brown, but I know we can do more.
What is your dream dance project?
I can’t pin down just one, but I can say I’d love to dance a full length Sleeping Beauty.
What advice you will give young girls starting in dance and others who are also battling mental illness?
Surround yourself with people who will push you not only to be your best, but encourage you to take care of yourself and preserve your health and sanity whilst doing so. And don’t give up – when you feel the heaviest is usually when you’re closest to (or closer to) your goal.