The concrete floors and booming music of parking lot dance practices are major sources of stress relief for Justine Banal.
The fourth-year Asian American studies student, who has danced competitively since high school, said her rehearsals are a therapeutic outlet for her depression. At UCLA, Banal began dancing with NSU Modern, before co-founding an exhibition team for LGBTQ dancers and joining Samahang Modern.
“Dance is a temporary escape from what’s wrong,” she said. “It helps me be around great people, do something physical and exercise, do something healthy for myself so I can go back to the real world … and attack my problems with a new energy.”
Banal said she’s dealt with the stress of competitive academic environments and a desire to achieve since high school. Switching from community college to a large public university her third year continued to be a source of stress, Banal said.
“Transitioning from community college to university at a place as rigorous as UCLA was difficult and dance kept me grounded,” she said. “I could be having the worst day, I’d step into the parking lot … and it’s almost like stepping into that threshold made me leave the day behind.”
Banal said that embracing dance has also allowed her to embrace her LGBTQ identity. Banal came out publicly her first quarter at UCLA and then went on to co-found Taste The Rainbow, an exhibition team of LGBTQ dancers, which she performed with last year at Venice Beach Pride and Battle Royale, a dance competition hosted by Omega Sigma Tau.
“When I came to UCLA and I started dancing and I met more LGBTQ individuals, I became more comfortable in being myself,” she said. “It’s another thing I can express through my movement.”
Banal said she also used dance not only as self-care but as an indicator of her mental health. When she could no longer motivate herself to attend practice she knew it was time to seek counseling from UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services and support from friends.
Banal added her cultural identity has played a role in how she handles her mental illness. She has engaged with many aspects of her Filipino culture on campus, serving as a resident advisor in the [email protected] Living Learning Community and hosting dance workshops inspired by Filipino culture. However, she also found that Filipino cultural norms didn’t always provide the support she needed.
“The conversation on mental health is pretty much nonexistent because of cultural barriers and also generation gaps,” she said. “It was really hard to talk to my family about this.”
Fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student Andrew Dionson serves as Banal’s co-resident assistant in the [email protected] Living Learning Community. Dionson can often hear EDM pulsing from her room late at night when she practices her dance routines – a testament to her dedication to dance, he said.
“With mental health, when you’re dedicated to something it allows you to be focused on getting better at that particular skill and allows you to be proud of yourself and the end product,” he said. “When (Banal) dances, she dances because she knows where it comes from: her heart.”
One of Banal’s teammates on Samahang Modern, Matt Evangelista, a fourth-year linguistics and psychology student, said he also sees dance as a pathway to growth and positivity. Evangelista added he saw the dance community as highly accessible to all backgrounds and abilities. After dancing on the team with Banal since the summer, Evangelista said he knows she has found her home within it.
“(Banal) always performs from the heart,” he said. “Any stress or complication she may be experiencing, she leaves it all on the dance floor.”
Banal said dance has allowed her to be more open about her struggles and find the strength to ask for help from friends like Evangelista and Dionson. While working with them, she has enjoyed welcoming new people into the hip-hop community and sharing her mental health journey with her residents, family and friends, she said.
“My friends and teammates give me such a great support system but sometimes I still find it challenging to be alone with my thoughts. When I freestyle, I’m still alone but music keeps me company,” Banal said. “The music can guide me away from negative feelings and toward constructive and creative thought.”