Sydney Magruder Washington was her mother’s last shot. She started dancing when she was 3 years old and grew to become her family’s third-generation ballerina, after her older sisters didn’t care to dance. But Magruder Washington, a professional performer living in New York City, now uses her platform to focus on how her experience can help the next generation of performers.
Magruder Washington is a Black, queer, Catholic, autistic woman who studied dance performance at Skidmore College, spent a summer professional semester at the Broadway Dance Center, and apprenticed with Connecticut Ballet. She is a wife and dachshund mom who built her social media platform to talk about mental health issues (she also calls herself a #MentalHealthWarrior) and her experiences as a performer. She is a self-proclaimed unicorn.
“We as dancers are so married to the idea of pushing through pain and suffering for the sake of our art,” Magruder Washington wrote to the 42,000 followers of her Instagram, @theblackswandiaries. “But is that really productive or sustainable? Instead of just silently trudging through my mental health issues, I sought help and started medicine. In whispered conversations people would ask about it, but no one dared speak up in public. So I did.”
She is hardly the only performer contending with mental health issues, but she is arguably one of the most vocal about them, and her candor has earned her a following. As a preteen, Magruder Washington was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which has been refined to label her experience of neurodiversity as autism spectrum disorder. Diagnoses like major depressive disorder and panic disorder with agoraphobia came later in life.
Magruder Washington’s autism spectrum disorder can sometimes make relating to people difficult, and she credits Instagram with helping her do better in that area. Issues with executive function, like not being able to physically start a task, have forced her to miss school or dance commitments. She sometimes has to reschedule phone calls due to anxiety or plan work shifts for earlier in the day, before her medication wears off.
She is also hyperlexic, meaning she possesses a precocious reading level. Magruder Washington learned to read at age three and by second grade could read at the level of a high school junior. This also relates to her identity as a performer.
“I am, at heart, a storyteller,” said Magruder Washington in a recent phone interview. “I believe the story is enhanced when multiple art forms are combined: Dance, music, writing, and acting come together to paint a compelling portrait of life from any and every angle.”
Performers are team members. But as a young woman, Magruder Washington was a victim of bullying, which often made her feel alone and without company. “I didn’t have anyone,” she said. “That’s literally the fundamental reason I do this [on Instagram], so that no one has to be alone.”
She has dedicated her platform to talk about body dysmorphia, differing levels of cognitive function, being a Black woman in America in a same-sex marriage, and much more.
“This quarantine has me asking all kinds of existential questions of myself,” said Magruder Washington on one Instagram post. “Who am I when I am not moving? This forced slowness, this abrupt stop to the constant rat race towards my dreams—it’s not the worst thing ever. I miss the studio, I miss working, I miss dancing, but I am learning who I am when I am not in motion.”
Magruder Washington was auditioning and in callbacks for multiple projects when everything shut down. “If I look back at the week of March 15th in my calendar, I had either a callback or an audition coming up every day that week,” she said in our interview. “By nature I am a cautiously optimistic person, but my depression and PTSD often prevent me from accessing that core part of my personality. My initial reaction was, ‘Of course this happens to me, stuff like this always happens to me, why me?’ But those thoughts aren’t useful and they aren’t necessarily completely true. I’ve turned my energy and attention to other things, and that has helped me cope.”
Her path to performance, which has included productions of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Anything Goes, Godspell, and The Wiz, was not always the easiest. “The industry, much like other systems in our country, is designed to benefit the privileged,” she said. “We say everyone is welcome, but that isn’t always true. I’m less in favor of ‘learning to play the game’ and more in favor of making the industry a welcoming place where everyone has a fair chance at getting an agent, at becoming Equity, at booking Broadway, and at ultimate success.”
Magruder Washington is also quick to point out that her mental illness, body dysphoria, and neurodivergence follow her from classes and auditions to church to home with her wife, Elena, and their dog, Watson.
“My identity is the doorstep from which I step out into an unjust and often dangerous world,” she said. “It is the home I return to in moments of struggle and pain, a home that contains all the familiarities of my life, where I can recharge and evaluate my choices, my successes, my failures, and my goals. I bear that home on my back and bring my entire self to everything I do.”
It is at the heart of her being and her experience to share the worth of people and performers who defy stereotypes.
“I cannot and will not compartmentalize myself to make anyone else comfortable,” she said. “We should all be getting comfortable with the vastness and complexity of ourselves and of our fellow human beings. When we do that, we’ll be making progress.”
Post-quarantine, Magruder Washington is looking into graduate school in sociocultural anthropology. “I will likely keep dancing as well, because I’m allowed more than one dream,” she said.
And to the young women performers who may not look like a stereotypical ballerina or have exactly the same cognitive profile as others onstage, she says, “Be okay being the only one—but make sure you aren’t the last one.”
Victoria Mescall is a Magazine, Newspaper, and Online Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.