top of page
  • Writer's pictureLinnea Swarting

What Would You Do- Reflecting on America's "Mass Shooting PTSD"

*Content warning- mention of gun violence*

After devastating shootings in Atlanta, Virginia Beach, and Boulder, Colorado, of course I am sitting with victims of senseless gun violence and mass shootings on my heart and mind. I watched all of the news outlets, politicians, and gun reform advocates talk, but I was also interested in a description that Trevor Noah gave on his show about how as a society we have shared PTSD from the frequency of mass shootings. He described a scene in Times Square where a motorcycle backfired a few times in a row and masses of people started running, mistaking the noise for gunshots. Some of the crowd ran into a Broadway show, where the audience members and performers then also began to panic, thinking that there was an active shooter entering the theater.

First of all, the fact that we literally run at the sound of a motorcycle backfiring is alarming, but of course understandable. Second, the part that caught my attention was that Noah pointed out that the actors onstage in the show also began to run offstage, and he commented on how extreme the situation has to be for a performer to really break character and stop the show.

Instantly I thought of a dream I’ve had a few times now- I’m in the corps of Swan Lake and we’re in the middle of the act 2 pas de deux. I’m standing on the side of the stage in line with the rest of the corps when a shooter comes in and opens fire. About half of the dancers leave the stage and the audience starts running, but some performers stay, including myself, since we’ve been drilled to ignore whatever happens in the audience and commit- “The show must go on.”

I posted on my Instagram story to see if other dancers or performers had either had a similar nightmare or maybe just even thought about this situation. At least 10 people out of 160 responded saying yes in my dms, and several people mentioned to me in person that they’ve had that nightmare. Additionally, most people agreed that they would run off stage, although it does confuse them because that reaction is against the instinct we have to keep going no matter what, and also they didn’t know to where they would run or what they would do next.

This is an unbearably heartbreaking to imagine- which is probably why it’s still on my mind. I talked to some young dancers recounting active shooter drills in school, their own trauma from school shootings, and the sheer terror that it is to be a high-schooler in America in this reality. Older friends of mine maybe didn’t have to endure that but are old enough to vividly remember 9/11 and have been on high alert ever since. Even some dancers and teachers I know can think back to Columbine. There isn’t anyone in this country that isn’t fully aware of the dismal and dangerous lack of gun control. At this point even many people who own guns and support the second amendment also realize the need for stricter background checks.

As the Atlanta spa shootings reminded us, gun violence and racism go hand in hand. The shooters are usually white males, and often times white supremacy plays a role in their motivation. In response to my story, a former dancer at Nashville Ballet reminded me of when the company first performed “Lucy Negro Redux,” a ballet by director Paul Vasterling starring a black female lead. The company received enough threats/ backlash to the production that they increased security- and she was truly afraid while dancing the titular role. Other dancers agreed that when performing more “political” work or something that could be “controversial,” they feel extra aware of the possibility for danger, even though we often all agree that art should be political and reflective of the challenges we face in society today.

Several dancers said that they felt extra fear around an attack in a theater because it’s a “safe place” for us as artists. That is the place that we work so hard to get to, the moments onstage are so fleeting, that the thought of something tarnishing that sacred space is just the most gut wrenching. Usually, dancers get a safety briefing from the production crew or theater crew in relation to emergency procedures for fires or other safety concerns- maybe now we will start discussing the plan if there is an active shooter.

All of these thoughts came to me again when our director at LA Ballet, Colleen Neary, was reminiscing on the ballet by Maurice Béjart, “Le Concours.” The plot revolves around a ballet competition, with judges from different countries- Ms. Neary was the American judge- watching on when one of the competitors gets shot on stage. Then the ballet shifts into a “whodunnit,” involving several suspects related to the competitor and lots of character comedy along the way. I made a comment to another dancer that as great as the choreography and concept of that ballet is- in traditional Béjart fashion utilizing the talents of the individuals in the company to the fullest- we probably would never present it in America at this point in time because of the depiction of gun violence. Yes, many shows still show gun violence and have a disclaimer, but I was just being mindful of the last week and the current state of gun- violence PTSD in American society. After class, I drove home considering Colleen’s recounting of the ballet. In the final scene of the ballet, the dancer is lying dead on the ground, and the American judge walks up to the corpse and says, “The show must go on!”

Maybe Béjart was ahead of his time in depicting how America, and especially our politicians, are dealing with these non-stop mass shootings, or maybe that’s how I’m choosing to interpret it for this moment. Art imitates life again, even though we are at a point when “the show” really needs to stop and make some changes before it “goes on.”

(photo: Béjart Ballet in "Le Concours")

[If this is a topic that you would like to take action on, Every Town for Gun Safety ( or Moms Demand Action ( are just two of several organizations fighting for gun safety legislation. I am also not by any means an expert on this topic, this is just me expressing some thoughts and relaying conversations I have had with other dancers.]

11 views0 comments


bottom of page