Young adults use dance to help with their mental well-being during the pandemic

Posted at 5:30 PM, Jan 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-20 17:30:25-05

TAMPA, Fla. — After almost two years of this pandemic, many young people have had a difficult time with their mental well-being. ABC Action News spoke with two young adults who are using dance to not only help themselves in difficult times but others too.

Since fourth grade, Hannah Box has struggled with anxiety and had panic attacks during class.

“I was mortified. It was the worst feeling because you feel completely out of control,” said Box, a dance instructor at the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center.

Those panic attacks became so severe that her parents decided to home-school her. But she continued to dance, which helped her find peace within.

She explained that ballet class was the time when those racing thoughts, the sense of the world almost feeling too much would just go away.

Hannah became a pre-professional dance student in the Straz Center’s Next Generation Ballet and is thankful she reached out for help. She now realizes other in her shoes should do the same.

“You will get through it. It might just take some trial and error to find your place and your people,” said Box.

“Even for myself as a child, dance was the world where I always felt fine,” said Phillip Neal, a former New York City ballet dancer for over 23 years.

At a very young age, Neal was picked on and bullied but says it was dance that saved his mental well-being.

“A boy in an all-boys school in the south, 12 years old, you know, 'Twinkle Toes ballet.' You can imagine the amount of bullying that went on. But I loved it so much, it didn't matter. And when I left my bricks-and-mortar school, I went to the ballet studio. I was there all late afternoon, evening, it was sort of the cure-all for everything and it was throughout my life,” explained Neal.

Now retired from performing, Philip is the artistic director at the Next Generation Ballet at the Straz Center. He also is the dance dean at the Patel Conservatory.

Despite his years of teaching, nothing prepared him for the challenges of this pandemic.

He is now protecting his dancer’s physical health and mental health while still allowing them to dance.

“It gave them a place to go, something to do. And of all the things I've accomplished in my career, I think that was one of the most satisfying because in the end, it helped me too,” said Neal.

Phillip also used the pandemic as an opportunity to make his dancers even stronger both physically and emotionally. He tells his students “Don’t get in your own way. The only person getting in your way is you.”

With Covid's uncertainty, Philip tries to relate to all of his dancers every day.

“No two stories are the same. Everyone's life is different, but there's a universal thread through all of our childhood," said Neal.

Meanwhile, Hannah who also is an outreach instructor, teaching children less fortunate says if you’re still feeling anxiety remember this.

“Having the purpose in the community can give you a life that you do have control over. And you can do what your heart desires,” she said.

Hannah graduated from USF and is now on a full scholarship to graduate school pursuing a master's in dance artistry.