THE dancing shoes are firmly on her feet, the beaming smile has returned to her face, and ballroom belle Gemma Maillard is back on the winners’ list at top-level competitions.
The talented Bendigo performer recently teamed with her partner in life and dance, Sheldon Gilbert, to take out the B-grade new vogue section at the Victorian Open dancesport competition, then followed up with third place at a national event in Canberra.
But it wasn’t long ago that Gemma felt she had nothing positive in her life, despite a supportive family, loving boyfriend and long history of dance-floor success.
The dark clouds of depression shrouded her every waking moment, casting an uncertain shadow over her future.
“It has been a rollercoaster journey,” the 21-year-old says as she opens up on her battle to show that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and can strike anyone, from any background, at any time.
“I’d been up and down for many years but things escalated last Christmas and everything was looking so bleak. It is really hard to explain to someone unless they have been through it or had someone they know go through it.
“It doesn’t matter how much you realistically have going for you - you feel like you have nothing.
“Looking back now it seems strange, but when you get to those dark places, it feels so real.”
Gemma credits Bendigo’s public health system - and dancing - with helping turn her life around.
She recently completed her therapy program, emerging with a positive outlook, a pledge to be less self-critical, and a new belief that the sky is the limit in terms of what she can achieve.
She has also realised that her future lies in the world of dance.
“Dancing means everything to me and I have now decided that I want it to be my career.
“I don’t think I really had a purpose before - I tried to go to uni and TAFE and I can do the academics, but it’s not where my passion lies. Now I know I am a dancer.
“It is a miracle to be back on track - I feel so different to how I was even a couple of months ago.”
During the worst of her illness, Gemma continued to dance but took a break from competing.
“I just couldn’t keep out of the studio though, and was in there pretty much every day, sitting in front of the mirror, working on my flexibility and my strength.”
She took up contemporary dancing and joined the Belle Etudes dance studio, run by former ballet dancer and rhythmic gymnast Erin Hokin. She now teaches Thursday ballroom classes there with partner Gilbert.
The pair also started ballet lessons together as cross training for their ballroom discipline.
“Sheldon doesn’t do anything by half measures, so now we are doing our intermediate ballet exam, skipping the first five levels because we are not 12 years old!
“I have to be on pointe for it so I do about six hours of ballet a week, plus two hours strength and conditioning to back it up, and I’m pretty seriously into it now.
“I’m going to compete in Bendigo in September and enter a contemporary dance competition in Swan Hill with a friend.”
Her eventual aim is to get an agent and audition for professional dance work and Gemma isn’t fazed at the prospect of being judged by others.
“I can handle being judged on the dance floor,” she laughs. “It seems like dance is in a different box for me, as I have a lot of confidence with dancing.
“I can put up with a lot of criticism and still keep on going.”
On top of her other dance commitments, Gemma spends about 10 hours a week practising her ballroom routines.
This includes new vogue with Gilbert and latin with a partner from Jason Coleman’s Ministry of Dance in Melbourne, who she recently just joined forces with.
She had danced almost exclusively with Gilbert for more than six years before stepping away from competition, but was happy for him to move on with new partners while she recovered.
The 29-year-old accountant won the adult rising star standard ballroom at the National Capital Dancesport Championships with Sonja Budisa in June and competed with latin partner Yumiko Nishiyama at the event.
Gilbert and Budisa trained and danced in the UK early this year and are in China this month to strut their stuff at the Shenzhen China Open Championships.
“I’ve never met anyone with that much determination - he is such a hard worker,” Gemma says of the man ranked in the top 10 standard ballroom dancers in Australia.
She is thrilled to be back dancing new vogue with him competitively, and well pleased with their recent results.
“At the Victorian Open, we finally stopped our curse of coming second and we won that one (adult B-grade new vogue).
“We have finished second at least four times in major competitions, which is still a good result but it means we just missed out on points towards going up to the next level.”
Their third place in Canberra on June 29 was another creditable performance.
Gemma says she feels lucky to have a supportive family that stuck by her side through thick and thin over the past few years.
She now looks forward to a bright future where dance is central to her plans.
“I want it to be my career,” she reiterates, “and before, when I was feeling so down, I never considered that a possibility because I never thought I was good enough. The Bendigo Health system saved me, to be honest. And meeting Erin at Belle Etudes has given me so much hope about what I can do.
“She recognises my potential and she’s an important person, which means a lot to me.”
Gemma has no regrets about her journey and says she has come through a stronger person.
“Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. Anyone can be mentally ill - and from the most well-off to the worst-off, everyone is legitimately allowed to be.
“Don’t underestimate how much it can affect you - there’s nothing wrong with getting help. You have to learn from your experiences and if other people can see I’ve been through it and come through okay, that can only be a good thing.”