Dance Training

Is Your Teacher A Bully Or Just Strict? 10 Ways to Tell The Difference

Bullies sometimes excuse their own behavior by saying they're just strict. But there's a difference. Photo by Thinkstock

A few months ago, your teacher snapped at you for smiling too much. Today, you're keeping your expression neutral when your teacher abruptly cuts the music and walks over to you, pretending to knock on your forehead. "Hello? Is anyone in there? Your face is always blank." Your classmates look just as frozen as you feel, their eyes darting back and forth between you and your teacher until the music resumes and class goes on.

Being bullied by a dance teacher can be painful—and confusing. You may have more questions than answers. What's happening? Am I just too sensitive? Is this really bullying?


Teachers who bully often handwave their behavior as "strict teaching." However, there is a difference: Strict teachers build students up, while bullying teachers tear students down.

bullying teachers Strict teachers build students up; bullying teachers tear them down. Photo by Natalia Figueredo/Unsplash

"Teaching is about imparting skills, technique and knowledge to students. Some teachers do that with an open and relaxed manner, while others prefer structure and strictness," says psychologist Dr. Deborah Serani. "Benign strict teaching can be an effective way to instruct. However, when teaching becomes more aggressive, demeaning and hurtful, that is not teaching—it's bullying."

Physical abuse is always inappropriate, but bullying doesn't have to be physical to be damaging. Helena Wulff, a professor and the deputy head of the department of social anthropology at Stockholm University, has witnessed many student-teacher interactions while researching the international culture of dance. She identifies "negative tone and wording, slapping, or picking on one student in particular" as behaviors that cross the line.

Not sure where your teacher's behavior falls? These signs can help you recognize whether they've gone too far.

Red Flag: Your teacher’s behavior benefits them, not you.

Bullies hurt others in order to gain something. Students afraid their teacher will call them "quitters" are more likely to continue paying for classes. A choreographer who screams at dancers will receive prompt and frightened obedience. A studio director who publicly humiliates students attains a feeling of power over their community.

Responsible authority figures help students gain skill and discipline; bullying authority figures hurt and manipulate students to benefit themselves.

Strict teachers have high standards, but the behavior is for the benefit of the student. Photo by Vadim Fomenok/Unsplash

Red Flag: Your teacher repeatedly targets specific students.

Teachers are only human, and may occasionally snap at a student or berate the class. Bullying, on the other hand, is an ongoing pattern of behavior that targets a specific student or group of students by manipulating, mocking, excluding, humiliating, controlling, ignoring or lying to them.

Red Flag: Rules and consequences are unofficial or unreasonable.

A healthy studio environment has established rules—and reasonable consequences for breaking them. A bullying teacher may have irrational penalties for poorly-defined transgressions like "disrespect," or give informal punishments like public humiliation or the silent treatment.

Red Flag: Reprimands are used to attack rather than educate.

"Good teaching is a pattern of 'caring' with encouragement and kindness, but allows for a teacher's specific reactions to the work of students who are repeatedly not doing what they are capable of," says Myron Howard Nadel, a professor of dance at the University of Texas at El Paso. If a teacher needs to reprimand a student, their words should be "meted out judiciously, not out of anger, but love; certainly not for a teacher's misplaced self-gratification."

Red Flag: Your teacher is preventing you from learning.

Some bullying teachers target students by giving them less rehearsal time, fewer corrections or no chance to finish class combinations. Since dance skill grows primarily through practice, consistently preventing students from practicing is a powerful way of harming their dance training.

If punishments hurt your ability to learn, a teacher's behavior has crossed the line into bullying. Photo by Ahmed Odeh/Unsplash

Red Flag: When other adults are in the room, your teacher behaves differently.

Strict teachers have nothing to hide: There's no reason they can't assign students sit-ups or remind them to point their feet in front of other adults. Bullies tend to conceal the extent of their bullying by using their most abusive behaviors when no other adults are present.

Red Flag: There’s pressure to remain at the studio.

The most effective way to protect yourself from a bullying situation is to leave it. Implying that students who leave the studio are "quitters" or "traitors" discourages targeted students from walking away, and helps teachers maintain enrollment through fear rather than solid teaching.

Red Flag: You’re struggling with body image issues or disordered eating.

In dance, bullying is often combined with body type judgement. While dancers and teachers may need to talk about structural characteristics like musculature or range of extension, pressuring students about weight or eating is never appropriate. "As an arts administrator in a college, I've had to scold a ballet teacher more than once for forcing female students to lose weight," says Nadel. "Several of those students had been in counseling for anorexia."

Red Flag: Confronting your teacher makes the problem worse.

A bully who feels they are being "questioned"—no matter how respectful your approach—is likely to retaliate. This doesn't mean no one should address their behavior, but it's safer to tell another teacher or studio administrator rather than confront the teacher yourself.

"Know that if you're being bullied, it's likely other students receive this kind of abusive behavior, too," says Serani. "Seek them out and share your experiences. Talking about your victimization can help you feel less alone about the abuse. It's important to report any bullying to others, be it a friend or a loved one—and to administration."

Red Flag: You feel anxious, ashamed, or constantly “on guard” outside of class.

Bullying authority figures may dismiss their behavior as "how the real world works," but they're actually undermining students' professionalism. An abusive studio environment trains students to use submissive body language, feel ashamed of their appearance and abilities, and remain on guard against the constant threat of mistreatment—all behaviors that make it harder to navigate school, relationships and the professional world.

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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