Fifteen years ago, Lisa, a dance conservatory student, became pregnant. She was told in no uncertain terms by her school’s directors that abortion was recommended, and that she wouldn’t be allowed to continue attending the conservatory otherwise. It was made clear to her that the fact that her pregnancy would be in its seventh month at the time of graduation — that she would be physically capable of fulfilling the curriculum requirements on schedule — did not matter.
Before speaking with the school, Lisa had gone for a dating ultrasound. There, she was shown her baby’s heart, beating on the screen, and fell in love: she instantaneously decided to become a mother, never imagining that her choice, made as a young woman living in the twenty-first century, could preclude her from continuing her education.
But then the conservatory served her their ultimatum. Conflicted about the idea of giving up on a lifetime of dance training, yet growing more and more attached to her baby, Lisa was highly confused by her deeply ingrained need to receive her teachers’ approval and spent weeks feeling torn. On the brink of falling apart, she went through with a rush abortive procedure in a daze, acquiring profound psychological wounds as a result.
Back at the conservatory, she was asked to keep details of her mental struggle and experience to herself because talking about it would “upset her classmates.”
In the March/April issue of The Dance Current, I hosted a conversation, “Creating Safe Spaces,” in which I spoke with Margaret Powell, a mental health professional, two representatives of The Shepherd Group, an insurance brokerage, and members of the academic and residence staff at Canada’s National Ballet School. Prompted by recently confirmed and alleged cases of sexual abuse involving young dancers and professionals in positions of power, the article focused on sharing strategies for identifying and preventing abusive situations. But the participants remained objective and quite distanced from the subject matter: no opinion was given, no precedent was recalled and no anecdote, even anonymously, was shared. In this follow-up, I wanted to delve deeper into the problematic, widespread and systematic experiences that lay at the root of that discussion.
Abusive behaviour is not just a fact of dance training but part of the culture of the discipline. In particular, we adhere to a code of silence, a group mentality that forces us to keep quiet about our own experiences and those we see inflicted on others, both to maintain our positions within the group and to prevent the group from being criticized from outside. One of the ways to break such a code is to open up about the kinds of behaviours we would like to see rooted out of our collective training and professional lives.
Aside from contributing to the magazine once in a while, I am a post-secondary dance educator. I am also an artist whose choreographic research is housed in trauma studies: I investigate the effects of psychological trauma on the body and how they can be applied to performance. That said, it is worth noting that this article’s content is not based on my academic findings, but rather on my interactions within the artistic community over the last twenty years and the conclusions I personally draw from this experience. I am also quite public about the fact that I learned to manage post-traumatic stress disorder myself earlier in life.
All of those things, catalyzed by the human need to normalize one’s experience by uncovering its similarity to another person’s, make me a bit of a magnet for peers, audience members and students looking to voluntarily confide their own narratives of mistreatment. Alternatively put, as an academic and as an artist, I’m told upsetting things of varying nature on a regular basis.
“I need to work on your back,” the osteopath said to Sarah. “Take your leotard off.” Wearing a bareback one-piece suit, Sarah was uncomfortable: her back was already fully exposed; his request was questionable. Various ballet and contemporary dance training institutions routinely referred pre-professional students to the osteopath at the time. In addition to dabbling in choreography and being well integrated into the Montréal dance community, the man was treating Sarah within her school’s facilities that day. She kept her clothes on and the treatment resumed, but the practitioner made it abundantly clear that he was unhappy with her refusal to comply with his request. She kept the incident to herself. Almost twenty years later, Sarah believes that the moment stands out in her memory because it was the one instance when she held her ground to him during her years under his care.
Around the same time, the same osteopath in question was treating Sylvie, a post-secondary contemporary dance student. During a treatment, Sylvie was laying on the exam table, in her bra and underwear at the practitioner’s request. The osteopath placed his hand between her legs in the pelvic area and proceeded to describe a hypothetical woman of Sylvie’s exact age and physical features to whom he would “like to make babies.” Following the incident, the practitioner made repeated late-night phone calls to Sylvie’s home. Instead of reporting his behaviour, Sylvie dodged him until she relocated to another dance city.*
[*We now know that those two incidents were not isolated — the practitioner recently pleaded guilty to a number of similar and more serious wrongdoings, including having sexual relationships with minor female dancers under his care. Neither Sarah nor Sylvie was among the ones who came forward.]
Strong deterrents exist in Canadian society at large that work to prevent victims of abuse from coming forward. In addition to a long history of victim blaming and intransigence from authorities, recent events, like the 2016 trial of Jian Ghomeshi — or the comments of Justice Robin Camp of the Federal Court of Canada, who publically questioned a sexual assault complainant about her ability to keep her knees together — continue to act as cautionary tales.
It is clear to me, however, that aside from those obviously dissuasive social realities, certain dance profession idiosyncrasies augment the pressure placed on victims and witnesses not to expose perpetrators. And, while the general tendency is to think of abusive behaviour as sexual when it comes to young female and male dancers, it just as often and destructively takes verbal and physical forms.
“Is your mother a dog?” Marie-Ève, a fifteen-year-old who tended to raise her shoulders while performing port de bras, was asked in class. “Is your mother a dog?” repeated the internationally celebrated ballet master in her direction, his voice modulated for everyone to hear, exaggerating the teenager’s posture in a pointedly derisive manner. The guest teacher’s disproportional response to the technical error of a highly impressionable dancer at a vulnerable age was received with amused laughter from faculty members observing the class he was invited to teach at this Québec City conservatory.Despite the obvious public shaming unfolding, there was no intervention or subsequent mention of the incident by those responsible for the minor’s education.
“You are so superficial,” whispered an established Toronto-based teacher in Jerome’s ear while passing him, halfway through a plié exercise. After the end of class, the student, a young professional, approached her to inquire about the correction. Despite having just dispensed a profoundly meaningful accusation aimed at Jerome, the teacher could not remember the comment. It eventually came back to her after a long reflection: she explained that Jerome had been initiating his port de bras from the elbow, instead of the wrist. Then, she walked away.
According to Jennifer, now a professional contemporary dance artist, being on the receiving end of mean-spirited and abusive commentary was frequent fare for most of her peers at the well-respected Montréal-based ballet conservatory she used to attend. One example, among so many others, that has stuck with her was being told, after a technical error, that she was “a worthless human being.”
I know — and most of us are aware — that, within the dance world and its peripheries, there are instances of inappropriate and punishable conduct by those in positions of authority. As aspiring or professional dance artists, we know that we should confront and/or report the people responsible. Yet, we repeatedly choose not to.
It is as though, as a community, we foster the existence of an unspoken rule. We live with a code of silence.
Defined as a condition where a person opts to withhold what is believed to be important information voluntarily or involuntarily, a code of silence is usually either kept because of a threat of force, a danger to oneself or the possibility of being branded a traitor or an outcast within the unit. The most common denominator among the stories I’m told is an adherence to such a code in instances of abuse.
Dancers are often conditioned to please from a young age. The power hierarchies of traditional dance training, in which success and opportunities are awarded by a few instructors and administrators, reinforce the need to be liked and encourage most seriously inclined dancers to desperately seek the approval of instructors, or others they perceive as high-placed or influential. As Jerome, now a teacher himself, mentioned during our discussion, pre-professional students and emerging dance professionals will often jeopardize their own health and safety for dance without much hesitation. As they seek professional opportunities, “dance becomes everything,” he says. This paradigm makes them highly vulnerable.
As Andrew landed a particularly challenging jump combination across the floor in modern class, his ankle made a loud cracking sound. His body immediately collapsed as a result, but the teacher kept the class jumping by Andrew at high velocity. She yelled at him to get it together and to keep going, which Andrew did, overlooking what he later learned was a second-degree sprain.
To teach, direct or choreograph is complex business: it often boils down to asking people to transform profoundly — movement patterns run much deeper than the movements themselves; they are integrated to one’s way of life, one’s psychological relationship to space, others and gravity. As Jerome puts it, dance instructors are not psychologists: they are movement specialists and are sometimes required to go out of their depth. We may, as dancers, benefit artistically from being pushed to a fine line’s edge in order to experience a breakthrough; yet, where that line is and what it is made of varies for each of us. In that delicate balance of push-and-pull lies potential for abuse and mistreatment.
Further, dancers are highly physically curious beings. Our definition of what is normal is generally more flexible than that of general population, and our willingness to take physical and emotional risks is much greater. In the wrong hands, this liberality and propensity for pushing boundaries can backfire.
Cynthia was in Vancouver modelling for a dance photographer. The two had talked through the weekend-long shoot: there would be a number of outdoor nudes involved. Cynthia, quite uninhibited by nature, was squarely on board, with one stipulation to which the photographer explicitly agreed: while she was comfortable shooting topless or completely nude, being bare-bottomed while wearing a top made her feel vulnerable. To her the image conjured sexual subordination. About an hour into the session, kilometres away from a vehicle, the photographer, also a psychotherapist, began to press Cynthia to bring her top above her waist, attacking her verbally and gradually coercing her to assume revealing poses. Cynthia never worked with him again after that. But she never came forward either.
Doing as told without question is often normative in dance circles: everybody does it. The resulting culture is one where the person who complains or comes forward about being physically or emotionally targeted risks being labelled by peers as a softie: the one too weak to “take it.” Alternatively, making complaints known can jeopardize employment.
The code of silence has possibly been in place longer, but the scarcity of dance jobs in the current era exacerbates the pressure placed on each of us not to stir controversy. Everywhere, imbalances of employment allow space for people to take advantage of others and prevent it from being reported. The professional Canadian dance community exists in a political, tightly woven web: a nexus that creates numerous connections between dancers, choreographers, administrators, educators, presenters and curators. At a time like ours, when dance artists, even the most established ones, must fight for scraps to survive and keep practising, one’s number of collaborators and who those are become paramount. Denouncing an abusive situation enabled by power imbalances may jeopardize not only one’s future opportunities to work with an abuser but also one’s chances to work with anyone related to the abuser in that web.
Collectively, we as dance artists, live on the fringes of contemporary society. We are communally united in wanting to maintain our dwindling legitimacy in the public eye. As a professional class, keeping up appearances of functionality and health is in our best interest. The one among us who denounces another member of the community as an abuser, on a potentially public platform, threatens this front’s appearance and may eventually be held responsible by the unit for a decline in public opinion, or loss in audience and/or funding.
Whether ultimately valid or not, in practice, these idiosyncrasies remain at the base of prevalent operating rationales deterring mistreated precariously employed dance artists from coming forward. But, having now been on both sides of the instructor-student binary and around the block professionally, I find myself questioning the legitimacy of these assumptions and reservations. As I witness students withdrawing into themselves or dissociating psychologically from their bodies after an assault, becoming incapable of engaging with class material — in extreme cases taking long periods of time off to process what happened to them or dropping out altogether — I realize that, yes, remaining quiet perhaps contributes to keep reputations intact and employment prospects unaltered, but to what experiential cost?
All around me, I see us dancers suffering the effects of pleaser conditioning long after the end of formative training: overcompensating with misplaced confidence, having an impossible time saying no, idealizing the practice of narcissists and accepting degrading working conditions. I see us keeping our mouths shut when we have grounds to demand an apology or compensation.
While abuse does breed abuse over successive generations, I suspect we mainly make excuses for teachers and employers who mistreat others because implicating them would challenge our own estimation of the value of our past efforts and sacrifices, while forcing us to profoundly re-evaluate our artistic and personal values. The bottom line is that responsibility keeps being deflected and that entitlement remains unchallenged. No one should have the privilege to walk away from behaving abusively, unscathed, by default, because they are an expert at what they do.
Indeed, in most cases, perpetrators’ behaviour remains unchanged. Instead, they seek to avoid keeping a loaded gun nearby and, consciously or not, attempt to remove the victim from their milieu. Despite their discretion, therefore, victims’ offered advancement prospects can plateau or decrease.
Certain behaviours are universally unacceptable despite the complexities involved. Educators and professionals in position of power know that their statuses come with responsibilities. Regardless of age or rank, to take advantage of is to take advantage of; to humiliate is to humiliate; to hurt is to hurt.
“You don’t get half-pregnant; you don’t half dance your way across the floor!” shouted the internationally recognized New York-based visiting modern dance teacher in Lisa’s direction during class, a couple of months after her coerced abortion. When, later that day, Lisa brought the incident up with a staff member, she was greeted with a shoulder shrug and a passive-aggressive threat to be removed from a soon-to-be-performed choreographic work at the school’s graduating showcase. So Lisa went back to dancing.
Far be it from me to claim immunity to the behaviour I am prompting you to change: I have certainly witnessed and experienced mistreatment first-hand without reporting it — I thought I was strong enough to take it or was afraid of denouncing’s potential consequences. I am thankful to the dance artists who consented to anonymously share their stories with me for this article, and to those who trusted me with often far more concerning ones as peers off the record, over the years. At their request, pseudonyms have replaced the contributors’ names, somewhat proving that our code of silence’s grasp remains strong.
In the spirit of disclosure, and perhaps to put my hypothesis to test, I would like to share that Lisa’s story is in fact mine. I hesitated long and hard, for years, about making it public. At the time of the incidents I even inquired with the Human Rights Tribunal about my options, but I was terrified that people would retaliate if I did and that I would lose dance jobs, presentation opportunities and ultimately my friends.
In retrospect, I can see that the jobs I have had and the opportunities I’ve been given had little to no connection with my educators of the time. My employment sources could, and likely would, have been related to them had I never been pregnant, but they have not, and I have managed to develop a fulfilling career nonetheless. For many of us dancers, businesses are self-made … why then allow those who are not part of our ventures to walk over us? In a professional environment where there are few professional avenues to begin with, those of us who take the initiative to make our own opportunities, who treat their colleagues with consideration, and who demand respect for themselves are the ones who end up with truly fulfilling careers, personal and artistic integrity and uncompromising lives. A big part of me wishes that I had realized this earlier, that we would communally empower ourselves by more readily understanding this reality in practical terms. As uncomfortable as it may be to make the change, I profoundly believe that truth makes a better artist, that the effort is worth it in the end.
Yes, pleaser conditioning runs deep: to this day I hold my conservatory educators on a pedestal — I want them to approve of me, to notice my accomplishments, to smile and engage with me in passing. Still, to this day, I want to believe that they were motivated by what they thought was my best interest.
But then I look back at the twelve years that separated the incidents from my now two-year-old son’s birth — and the gaping hole I felt the entire time reappears; my throat tightens, my eyes tear up and I start questioning everything all over again.
Like the proverbial ostrich, it may be more comfortable to keep our heads in the sand. I like to trust that we, dancers, will no longer feel that way.