Dancers and Cocaine Use

            "Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to paradise of the achievement is not easier than any other." - Martha Graham

          Dancers – they accomplish supernatural feats with their bodies, they have an extremely strong work ethic, and audiences applaud their efforts.  However, those supernatural feats take their toll on the body, the strong work ethic leads to hours and hours of class and rehearsals, and when the applause dies down, the performance high fades along with it.

            Dance is a difficult pursuit, and the stress of it can lead to eating disorders, which I have written about at length here, or substance abuse.   Cocaine abuse has been a problem within the dance community since the 1980’s.  Ballerina Gelsey Kirkland wrote candidly about it in her autobiography, Dancing On My Grave, and American Ballet Theater dancer, Patrick Bissell died of a cocaine overdose in 1987.

            Originally used as a painkiller, cocaine is made from coca leaves and usually mixed with cornstarch, talcum powder, sugar, or other drugs.  It is normally either snorted in through the nose or smoked.

            Cocaine creates a hyper vigilant state that increases alertness, creates high energy levels, decreases appetite, and creates a euphoric state.  All of these effects would seem to be advantageous for dancers.  Being alert means learning combinations quickly, lots of energy means the ability to dance at peak levels for a longer time, appetite suppression means that the dancers can control their weight without thinking so much about it, and the euphoric state replicates the high created during a performance and prevents feelings of post-performance letdown.

            Unfortunately, like most substances, cocaine also has a downside.  All of these “benefits” occur because cocaine blocks neurotransmitters from being absorbed.  Neurotransmitters are substances that line the pathways between different nerves so that impulses, or messages, can travel from the body to the brain and back again.  When absorption is blocked, a chemical build-up occurs in the body, and the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine accumulate. 

            Norepinephrine and serotonin increase heart rate and constrict blood vessels.  The increased heart rate causes breathing to increase and puts a strain on both the heart muscle and the lungs.  The constricted blood vessels increase blood pressure and limit the amount of blood that can flow to the heart, brain and digestive system.  The lack of blood flow to the heart can lead to heart attacks or irregular heartbeats, the lack of blood flow to the brain can cause a stroke, and low blood flow to the digestive system can cause ulcers.

            Additionally, cocaine use causes a breakdown in muscle tissue that is released into the bloodstream and breaks down into a substance that causes kidney damage.  If cocaine is snorted, there will be sinus tissue damage, and it if is smoked, it can result in lung tissue irritation and/or damage.

            Cocaine is a highly addictive drug and is a definite problem in the dance community.  Dance educators, directors, and dancers need to acknowledge this issue and help dancers find help if they are using it and raise awareness to prevent other dancers from following this path.

            A new short film, Ballon, seeks to do just that.  It follows a ballerina through a cocaine addiction and her journey to become healthy once again.  More information on this film can be found here.

            Any effort to keep dancers healthy needs to start with awareness and education.  By arming dancers with the knowledge of what cocaine does physiologically, we can hopefully help decrease the problem and keep them dancing longer, stronger and healthier.