Dallas — I feel it necessary to note that I am, in no way, trying to speak as the voice of the dance community about sexual harassment. However, I do feel it necessary to bring our attention to some shared trauma. I don’t want you to feel that you are alone or that you are wrong or weak for wanting to speak up. The history of dance is densely packed with abuse, and in the same way that we grow to accept our battle-worn feet, we have too readily accepted the bruises we bear from our experiences.
Considering the revelations of harassment and misconduct across the creative industries, and the recent investigation into sexual harassment claims again Peter Martins, New York City Ballet artistic director and chairmen of the faculty at the School of American Ballet, I would be remiss not to begin a discussion about the culture of harassment in the dance community. The list of sexual harassment allegations against men in positions of power continues to grow, and this timely investigation of a significant figure in the dance world is a clear sign that we can no longer speak of this in private.
The dance world has long suffered from incidents of sexual, physical, and verbal harassment in the form of body shaming, casting couch promotions, and inappropriate sexual relationships, but these acts have always been romanticized and justified as “par for the course,” or “paying your dues.” If you want to be a professional dancer, you are told to keep your mouth shut and do your job. You are made to believe that all you are good for is your body, and that body must be young, thin, and nubile. If a director asks you to lose weight, you do it. You are told to wear clothes that show off our bodies and to look “sexy” in an audition so that you stand out. You bear physical and verbal abuse in class because it will make you into better dancers.
This way of life has been passed down from generation to generation and promoted through the media as the truth. We have seen it illustrated in films, like Center Stage, Black Swan, The Red Shoes, and even Grease, where men in positions of power charm and manipulate the female characters. We are made to think that this behavior is standard and that questioning it will lead to consequences. Because of the generations who came before us, our first instinct is to allow these acts to occur and to deny our impulse to speak up.
The levels of abuse varied, and dancers were readily aware of working conditions as they pursued their careers. George Balanchine was known to wield tremendous power over the lives of the dancers in the New York City Ballet. He discouraged female dancers from marriage and from having children. He insisted that the female dancers wear different perfumes so that he could quickly identify them. He did not allow any of the boyfriends of female dancers to enter the theater or backstage.
Peter Martins is known for using his position to influence casting decisions and promotions and has had documented romantic relationships with employees (which is against NYCB policy). In 1992, he was charged with third-degree assault against his wife, Darci Kistler, who was a principal dancer in the company. Kistler dropped the charges, and she continued to work for the company. The School of American Ballet even publicly stated that this incident would not affect their belief in Martins, their support of his career, or his interactions with dancers.
In the modern dance world, sexual terms have historically been used to describe specific movements, and some teachers still believe such terminology is essential to the art form. However, personal space in the world of dance is a fuzzy concept because we are regularly touching one another through choreography and instruction. The line between what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior is often blurred. And this murky situation is usually the very goal of a piece—to test our limits, our audiences, and our dance forms. As more people come forward and more incidents are revealed, it is time that we stand up and declare to the world our boundaries. Our bodies are autonomous—our craft does not own them, and we do not need to sell them for a job. Nevertheless, this is a sensitive issue and only by bringing awareness to it can we hope to correct and put an end to this kind of behavior.
Awareness comes in many forms, and one is education. We need to inform dancers—younger and older—about the rights that they have, how to report harassment, and what is harassment. And it should be made clear that male dancers also experience sexual, physical, and verbal harassment. All vulnerable parties in dance are at risk. There needs to be more of an understanding that harassment comes in many forms, and often, it has very little to do with sex itself. Instead, we need to become more attuned to recognizing incidents of expressed hostility, anger, and sexuality as a way of showing power or compensating for a deficiency in power. There is a difference between leadership and narcissistic manipulation.
We need to empower dancers to stand up and speak up to their teachers and directors. Dancers should know that they have the right to speak with their teachers when their teachers are putting them in a compromising position, physically or mentally. It is time to update and modernize the vocabulary and policy used in teaching. Furthermore, we need to provide context for the “hands-on” approach that is inherent in dance. Many teachers use it to correct alignment—and I am one of them—but we need to be more aware of how different students experience that approach. As teachers, we have the responsibility to provide a safe and welcoming environment for learning and to protect our students while also teaching them how to have sovereign rule over their bodies. We should provide opportunities for open discussions about what they find disturbing and when they do not want to be touched.
It is starting to happen. Nearly two years ago, the swing dance community faced a sexual assault charge when dancer Sarah Sullivan accused Steven Mitchell, a legend in the community, of using his position to prey on women. In October of this year, a group of professional dancers gathered at the Pineapple Dance Studios in London to share their own stories with a local news channel. Dance Magazine has created a survey to gather information on incidents within the dance world as a whole.
Could these revelations cause “chaos” in the studio? Would we be disrupting a form that we have been instilled to proliferate? Maybe. But maybe it’s time.
No, now is the time that we reevaluate the culture of the dance community. A part of me wants to be naïve enough to believe that my safe space is safe for all. But, I know that is not true, and if we continue to turn a blind eye to situations that we deem to be “a part of the process,” we will forever be “paying our dues” with extreme consequences. Harassment is a pervasive problem in our culture, and the dance industry is no exception.
It’s time to stop living in this culture of fear.
» This weekend Danielle Georgiou Dance Group presents four free performances of her latest work, Things Missing/Missed, at the Dallas Public Library in downtown. More info here.
» Danielle Georgiou is a dance educator, critic and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) and is a working dancer and performance artist. Her column Sixth Position appears on the third Friday of the month on TheaterJones.com.
- February 2014: Cash Choreography
- March 2014: Make the Fringe Your Future
- April 2014: Don't Freak Out, It's Just an Audition
- May 2014: You Love Dance. You're Not Alone
- June 2014: Persevering Through Movement
- July 2014: Sharing in Success
- August 2014: To the Barre
- September 2014: Method Act
- October 2014: Fear of Flying
- December 2014: The Editor Dance
- January 2015: Community Relations
- February 2015: The Fabric of Movement
- March 2015: State of the Dance
- April 2015: The Dance Mom Complex
- May 2015: Who Wants to Date a Dancer?
- June 2015: Figuring How Men Fit In
- August 2015: Creative Economy
- September 2015: Dancing to Learn
- October 2015: Whose Idea Is It Anyway?
- December 2015: '15 Going on '16
- January 2016: In Memoriam
- Februrary 2016: The Politics of Dancing
- March 2016: No column
- April 2016: Defining Dance Theatre
- May 2016: No column
- June 2016: Dancing for Change
- July/August 2016: No column
- September 2016: Sweat the Details, Not the Consequences
- October/November 2016: No column
- December 2016: Louder Than Tweets
- January 2017: Making and Moving
- February 2017: Don't Fudge the Truth
- March 2017: The Collective Unconsciousness of Creating
- April 2017: Professionally Speaking
- May 2017: Dancer Depictions
- June 2017: No column (Danielle was busy preparing for Donkey Beach)
- July 2017: Where Have all the Critics Gone?
- August 2017: Rain Dance
- September 2017: The Theory of Taking Risks
- October 2017: Get in Line!
- November 2017: No column