Kayla McClellan is an artist who wears many hats. They gave us insight into their experience of being a dancer with long Covid and told us how art feeds the part of health that often gets forgotten.

Kayla McClellan. Photo by Gaby Conn.

Firstly, could you tell me about your practice? And why do you do it?

Like most artists, I wear quite a few hats. I'm a pilates instructor. I teach a movement class called Double Skin/Double Mind, which is a method created by Pieter C. Scholton and Emio Greco from ICK Amsterdam in the Netherlands. It's sometimes called a dance method, but I try to stay away from the word “dance” because that can scare people if they're not dancers! It's a guided improvisational movement method meant to bring people into their bodies, into the present moment, to practice feeling how their body exists in space. I pick up projects as much as I can. I do movement direction and choreography. I also act.

I do it because the arts are the only thing that's ever really made me completely whole. Both my parents are artists. They really encouraged learning and being curious about things. I'm one of those weirdos who really loves school, but I'm better at everything else in my life if I'm dancing. It helps me contextualise everything.

I can't really explain it, but since I was a child, movement has been my place to understand my life.

Kayla McClellan. Kiss Her (Play). Photo by Rachel Elizabeth Coleman.

That’s really powerful. How do you see the relationship between art, your practice, and health?

There’s a huge connection. I did my Master’s in Dance Science, so I could talk about the physiology, the psychology, the biomechanics of it. Art increases our mental wellbeing. Anything movement-based can boost our physical health. Something that doesn't really get talked about is the indirect impact it can have. Improvisation, which is the kind of work that I do both in my dance and acting, opens up people's minds in a way that affects their mood and their emotions.

I think there's a really powerful place for the arts in terms of health. Health is contextual. It's about where you grow up, what socioeconomic level you may be on. Are you close to hospitals? Do you feel seen? Do you feel like you have a community? You can find community in the arts. The arts feed the parts of health that get forgotten.

As an American, could you give an idea of how healthcare and wellbeing, and how they relate to art, is different here in the UK?

One of the reasons I wanted to stay in the UK was that by the time I finished my Master’s I was 25. That means in the US, I would have aged out of my parents’ health insurance that year. While I did have to pay the National Health surcharge here, which was a lot of money, it's still much less than what I’d have to pay for private insurance in the US. It’s very difficult to navigate if you don't have health care or your health care is not very good. I grew up with the mentality that anytime I was ill, anytime I was injured, I would be adamant: ‘everything is fine’. I would wait until it got really, really bad, and by that time it would be an astronomical bill. People put things off because of the health care in the US.

So much of health insurance is tied to your occupation. Businesses provide it, not the government. The implication is that most artists and freelancers don't have health care they're not connected, or if they do have health care, they're paying loads of money for very little coverage. You might qualify for either Medicaid or Medicare, but you still might have to pay a premium, or, you might not be provided certain medical care until you get to a health point that they deem bad enough. It really impacts the arts because it perpetuates other unhealthy structures. I can speak for dance: the power dynamic between the choreographer, the artistic director versus the dancers becomes much more complicated. If you don't dance, you won't get paid. 

I love the NHS. I know you sometimes wait a long time, but you will get taken care of. I'm so, so grateful to have access to it. It takes so much stress off to know that if something happens to me, I'll be OK. My mental health is much better here in this country than it is in the US, and that's not just to do with health care.

How would you say the pandemic, as a global health crisis, has affected your work as an artist and your understanding of how the arts can help?

The global pandemic should have shown everyone that health is public and needs to be social. The US still hasn't gotten that memo, nor have a lot of other countries, including the UK. It's affected the arts because we haven’t been able to be communal in the same way. It's affected me personally because I have long COVID. I've had to change the way that I work. While that breaks my heart, it has shown me that the way we work in the arts can be toxic. There is a positive to that. Learning that pacing yourself, not staying in uncomfortable situations, and making sure you’re actually paid are so very important. It’s been a crazy two years of isolation. Both good and bad conversations have come out of it.

To me it's obvious how the arts can help. People are more together and simultaneously more apart than I've ever experienced in my lifetime. By creating artistic experiences, sharing stories through movement or words or painting or music, we can all start to remember that we are going through this together.

We have to find joy in the small and big things. We go to plays, to dance performances, to music concerts or galleries to release emotions or to see things reflected back to us. It's one of the healthiest ways of processing emotions and of being together. The arts will have a huge impact on how we're going to sift through these past few years and all the years to come.

Kayla McClellan. Photo by Becca Hunt.

You mentioned having long COVID. That must be really hard for you as a dancer.

There's a lot of grief, to be honest. I got COVID in October 2020. I was supposed to be fine: I was very fit, I was going out with my mask on, wasn't doing anything other than going shopping once a week. I wasn't even working at that time because of some VISA problems. I got it and it was pretty bad. For a few months, I still couldn’t really taste or smell anything. I still felt really tired. I still had heart palpitations. It was so early on in the pandemic there was a lot of both outward and inward gaslighting. People were saying, “you'll be fine eventually”. I thought, am I just making a big deal out of nothing? In January of 2021, everything still tasted and smelled like garbage. I was still so tired. I’d do one 15-minute cardio session and wouldn’t be able to get out of bed for three or four days. All my joints hurt. I got colds very easily where I used to never get sick. It was really, really hard.

To be honest, I'm only just now starting to feel like I'm at peace with all of it. Not just because some symptoms have gotten better - they have: I'm OK doing Pilates, taste and smell is now good, although my brain perceives that everything tastes and smells different. It's just been a very, very long journey. I fought my way into a COVID clinics, which I started in March 2021. I'm very grateful for the clinic, but it's very experimental. There’s still so much testing to be done and they're gathering data, but we won't know much for years. Probably one of the best parts of that clinic is that they give us a therapist to work with, which is fantastic because the biggest hurdle was mental.

With any chronic disease, you don't know when it's going to end, or if it's ever going to end. I'm in a much better place about it now. While it's been a negative experience, long COVID has forced me to be a better advocate for myself, which I think is something I needed. There is definitely still grief. It really does affect your whole life. As an artist who pulls from their life, it also affects my art. It's not a linear healing process.

The long COVID experience has made me even more passionate about sharing movement with people and working with people who aren't ‘dancers’. While it's been frustrating that I haven't been able to approach movement in the way I used to, movement and dance has really been what has healed me most both physically and mentally.

It's reinforced my want for everyone to understand their bodies more. I think movement is key to that. It doesn't matter what your physical ability is. You can learn so much from your body and its interaction with the world.

Kayla McClellan. Photo by Becca Hunt.