Feature

For Linda Hamilton, PhD, the leap from professional ballet dancer to clinical psychologist seemed logical after her 19 years with the prestigious New York City Ballet (NYCB).

The challenges in her personal and professional life--including an ankle injury that forced her to accept the fact that her dance career wouldn't last forever--made Hamilton want to help others enduring the same ordeals. Now that she's a performing arts psychologist, her clients--mostly dancers and other performers--are being counseled by someone who understands their issues firsthand. For example, she's been in the shoes of a client facing a career crisis because she hasn't found a dancing job since the end of a European tour with "Cats."

"I know how scared they are," says Hamilton, who has been the advice columnist for Dance Magazine since 1992. "A dance career is over so soon, usually by the time you're 30. All of a sudden you have to look at life in a different way."

Hamilton aims to give clients hope that they too can find fulfillment not only during their arts careers, but after them as well. Her practice in New York City also lets her keep a foot in the world she's loved since age 2, when she saw England's Royal Ballet on television. Through her research on the occupational stresses of dance, her consulting work with major dance troupes and her writing, she's stoking a quiet revolution.

Her message: Dancers don't have to torture their bodies or souls to have a career or stay competitive.

Her mission: to teach them a better way.

Tools of the trade

For the past five years, Hamilton has driven home her message to students at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, where she runs a weekly workshop helping dancers cope with occupational stress. Session topics include nutrition, injury prevention and stress management--tools to help them preserve their mental and physical health and possibly extend their careers.

"The workshops have given our dance students a forum to discuss their concerns with her as a mental health professional and with their peers," says Denise Jefferson, director of the Ailey school. "She has an intimate knowledge of the world our students inhabit--with its challenges and rewards--and can communicate that clearly to them."

Such workshops didn't exist in the 1960s when Hamilton was a student at the New York City Ballet's School of American Ballet. If one had, she might have been able to prevent an ankle injury that would cause her to rethink her future.

Becoming a psychologist

Becoming a professional ballet dancer had been an all-consuming passion for Hamilton, who began dancing at the age of 8. She dropped out of high school to join the NYCB at age 16--a common practice among elite dancers. She'd also pushed her body beyond its limits, regardless of fatigue or pain, by squeezing three 90-minute ballet classes between three to six hours of daily rehearsals and performances, six days a week.

Then in 1980, Hamilton was laid up for three months after a chipped bone inflamed her left ankle--an injury probably left over from multiple ankle sprains over the years. That injury--along with a divorce from her musician husband--was a wake-up call for Hamilton: "I realized that one day I was going to be out in the real world on my own, and I'd better do something," she says.

Hamilton's first order of business was to get her GED. For the next eight years, she continued to dance full time while pursuing her studies full time. She decided to become a psychologist because she liked helping people and, as a dancer who struggled with injuries, she had always been interested in the mind-body connection. But her experience seeing a therapist during her failing marriage also inspired her decision.

"My former husband [asked] me to see a psychologist before seeking a divorce," Hamilton says. "I remember being struck by the intensity of the sessions, with their focus on self-expression and personal growth, which reminded me of the stage. I also discovered that therapy offered solutions to many of my problems, although not my marriage."

In 1984, she received her BA in psychology from Fordham University in New York. She received her MA in psychology in 1986 and her PhD in clinical/research psychology in 1989 from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.

Hamilton--who has published 45 professional articles in psychology, medical, dance and sports medicine journals and written two books on performers--discovered her love for research during graduate school. Her first research experience was with Michelle Warren, MD, and social psychologist Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, who wanted to study eating disorders and dancers. Hamilton offered them her time and experience--and gave them access to the closed dance world. Their collaboration resulted in six published articles, including one in the New England Journal of Medicine. Hamilton's research credentials came in handy when Peter Martins, the New York City Ballet's artistic director, asked her to help the company develop a wellness program to reduce dancers' injuries.

"We wanted to be attentive to their health needs," says Ann Parsons, manager of the New York City Ballet. "These are personal things in many cases--how people work out, what they do in their free time and how they eat. We wanted to provide them with information and tools, so people could be as aware as possible about their own bodies as they develop as dancers."

Hamilton developed the program--launched in 2001--with a team of health professionals, including her husband William Hamilton, MD, the company's orthopedist. To design the program, Hamilton and colleagues did a four-month study of the dancers.

"Not surprisingly, my own experience with injuries had a significant impact on the research protocol and the ultimate design of the program," Hamilton says. "Many of my injuries, including the bone chip, had been due to overuse.... I later discovered through my research at NYCB that stress management plays a significant role in injury prevention.

"If I had had access to mental skills training and relaxation exercises as a performer, I believe that I would have been better able to 'listen' to my body and back off when I experienced pain, rather than creating a chronic problem."

The program she co-designed--which features orthopedic screening, bone density monitoring, stress management seminars, injury prevention techniques and a staff nutritionist--appears to be working.

According to Hamilton, after the program's first year, workers' compensation claims due to injury dropped by half.

Mission accomplished.