On Pointe

Azara Ballet Folds Mental and Physical Well-Being Into the Art of Dance

Founders and dancers Kate Flowers and Martin Roosaare lead with a trauma-informed approach in a world often fraught with unrealistic expectations.

By Kim Doleatto April 5, 2024

Kate Flowers and Martin Roosaare, the founders of Azara Ballet
Kate Flowers and Martin Roosaare, the founders of Azara Ballet

Belly button in!" 

"Be able to fit in a toaster!"

"We don’t want to see your lunch!"

From as early as age 7, commands like that are common in the competitive, highly disciplined world of ballet—one of great beauty, but also one that's rife with unforgiving standards that push physical and mental boundaries.

Martin Roosaare and Kate Flowers, the founders of Azara Ballet in Sarasota, came from that world. Now they're building a new one. At the new dance company and nonprofit, dancers aren’t pushed to be “obsessed with what’s in the mirror,” but rather driven by "the joy of the applause and outcome for working your butt off—the grit and grind and then the celebration,” says Avery Held, 23, a ballerina who joined Azara Ballet in 2022.

Roosaare and Flowers bring that perspective to the stage, where a troupe of 12 professional ballerinas—including Roosaare and Flowers, the company's co-directors—are revolutionizing the ancient craft under their tutelage.

Both Roosaare, 31, and Flowers, 36, have danced since childhood. They entered the world of professional ballet early, and have first-hand experience of the expectations required to satisfy a certain aesthetic. 

Martin Roosaare and Kate Flowers, co-founders of Azara Ballet.

As a 16-year-old poised to become a trainee at the famous Joffrey Ballet School in New York City, Flowers was derailed by eating disorders and drug addiction to suppress her appetite. 

“I kept telling myself, 'Once I get to the trainee program, I'll stop'—but by that time my brain was hooked and it was easy to continue," Flowers says. 

Although eating disorders are a little less prevalent among men in the industry, Roosaare developed binge eating habits, too. Diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in 2020, he was also bullied through high school. Those experiences all inform his choreography and story lines, which often touch on being misunderstood but eventually finding empowerment and strength.

"[Eating disorders are] fairly common, but dancers are terrified of speaking out," Flowers says. "We get indoctrinated. We're told we have to sacrifice our bodies to the art form." 

Avery Held
Avery Held

Held had a similar experience. 

“Going into the pro ballet world, certain directors told me that if I didn't lose weight I couldn't perform," she says. "Being 5'4" and 120 lbs. and told I needed to lose even more weight at 18..." She trails off.  "You have to do it. There’s no choice. That's when eating disorders start, because you're pressured to lose weight fast.

"I would dance eight hours a day, eat a salad, go to the gym for 2.5 hours, eat a small meal and wake up starving, which led to binging," she recalls. "I was never admitted [to a hospital] for it, but a lot of dancers should be. It's not cohesive. You have to be healthy to perform. But it's that psychological warfare of being watched and having to deliver perfection to keep your spot in the company." 

The behavior led to a spinal stress fracture injury. Held couldn’t move for four months—and once she was better, the cycle repeated itself. 

"Coming [to Azara Ballet], I realize the damage that trying to reach unrealistic expectations does to your mental health," she says. "It’s all about approach." 

At Azara, that approach is trauma-informed. 

Dr. Andrea Blanch, the founder and director of Sarasota Strong, a community effort to prevent and address trauma, boils the idea of trauma down to one question: "Instead of asking 'what's wrong with that person?' ask "What happened to them?'" she says. “It gives a compassionate lens to view other people.”

So where does trauma come from?

"It happens anytime you face an event or circumstance that overwhelms the ability to cope," Blanch says. "You can pretty much assume everyone has some level of trauma, it manifests in so many ways." 

Those include difficulty regulating emotion, rage, difficulty trusting and building stable relationships, self-shaming and blaming, a need to be in control, a lack of boundaries, and more.

But there’s healing to be had once that's understood. Values that emerge from a trauma-informed approach include establishing feelings of safety, trust and empowerment. 

“They're good things for everyone, but essential to those with trauma history. Those with it won't thrive without those items,” Blanch says. "And it's not just for mental health—they're concepts that improve every environment."

Roosaare and Flowers are proponents of that. "We don't talk about bodies. Ever," Flowers says. "We're careful about our words and celebrate uniqueness. All our dancers have trauma from ballet. I think it's hard to even admit it to ourselves."

Azara Ballet's approach is gaining traction as the need for more trauma-informed spaces surfaces. On top of producing and performing relevant, contemporary stories that resonate with today's audiences, the company also spearheads area dance programming.

Roosaare and Flowers teach 3 to 5-year-olds ballet at The Haven, which offers programs and services for adults and children with disabilities and is expanding to Easterseals Southwest Florida this month. They also teach a dance class for those with movement disorders like Parkinson's disease, and they've also started a ballet-focused healing movement class for trauma survivors at Resilient Retreat. Additionally, they're bringing their performances to other area nonprofits like ALSO Youth and Senior Friendship Centers

Blanch likens the trauma-informed movement to how our understanding of germs revolutionized physical health.

"Before our understanding of germs, people just thought that illnesses were a fact of life because no one knew what caused them," she explains. "Then they learned about germs and how they spread and did something about it. Within 50 or 75 years the life span went from 33 to close to 70 years old. It was a revolution.

"The social epidemics of today are in a way similar: suicide, drug addiction, and mental health challenges are directly tied to trauma," she continues. "It's the common denomination of epidemics today, just like germs were the common denomination for infectious disease."

Of trauma-informed approaches like Azara's, Blanch says, "This will be the next revolution."

To learn more about Azara Ballet or to attend its second annual gala on Sunday, April 21, click here

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