The New York Times reports this morning that Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy financier accused of sex trafficking dozens of teenage girls and young women, and who died by suicide in prison on August 10 while awaiting trial, preyed on dancers in New York City. The article tells the accounts of four women, two referenced in court papers and two who were interviewed by the newspaper. All were approached by a recruiter—and in half the cases, that person was another dancer.
For two of the reported victims, years of sexual abuse followed. One, known only as Lisa in a lawsuit filed against Epstein's estate, was only 17 when another dancer approached her after ballet class in 2002 and asked if she'd be interested in giving private exercise classes to Epstein for money, the Times reports. But once she met with him, Epstein first asked her about her career goals, then asked her to engage in sexually inappropriate stretching exercises. On later visits, he asked her to give him massages. Another dancer, known in her lawsuit as Priscilla Doe, was recruited to give what she thought would be massages to Epstein in 2006 and was flown to his Florida mansion.
Both lawsuits claim Epstein sexually assaulted the women during their visits. He then coerced them into sexual activity for years, under the implication that he would help advance their dance careers if they did what he wanted—and ruin their careers if they refused. (When Lisa started to look too old, the lawsuit claims, he asked her to recruit younger dancers from the studio she attended.)
Two other dancers gave accounts to the Times describing uncomfortably close calls with Epstein. Marlo Fisken, a dance instructor now based in Colorado, was in her early 20s and had just moved to New York City in 2006 when a woman she met in a bar asked if she'd like to be the wealthy financier's personal trainer. As in Lisa's case, Epstein started making sexual stretching requests after a few sessions. Fisken, who says she also taught a class to two teenage girls living in one of his apartments, refused his advances and stopped working for him.
And in 2013, Nadia Vostrikov had just finished class when a dancer approached her and asked if she could take over teaching classes to her private client. She agreed to speak with him first via Skype, she tells the Times, at which time he offered to fly her to his Florida home. But she ended contact once he told her he was a registered sex offender and suggested that she Google his name. She learned Epstein had served a controversially short 13 months in jail for soliciting prostitution from a minor.
"I was in disbelief," Vostrikov told Pointe in an interview this afternoon. "He had his exact script, because he had gotten in trouble before. He found a way to still do what he was doing, within the confines of the dance world."
These deeply disturbing revelations suggest that Epstein sensed vulnerability within the dance community and specifically targeted it. Sadly, I'm not surprised. I learned early in my career that dancers are often fetishized because of the physical nature of our job.
"Both in and out of the dance industry, there's a perception that dancers are willing to do 'whatever it takes,' so to speak," says Vostrikov. "They are often over-sexualized on television, in photographs. Companies encourage dancers to mingle with wealthy patrons—there's definitely a perception that dancers are a selling point."
And unless you are contracted with a major company in New York City, it can be very difficult to make a living, much less pay for daily class and pointe shoes. I know because I freelanced in New York for 10 years and I was frequently broke. Most of my gigs came from word of mouth, and if someone had approached me with a lucrative side job, especially if that person was a fellow dancer, I would have at least looked into it.
But I believe Epstein was preying on more than our financial desperation—dancers are so young and eager when they start out in this very competitive profession. And it's no secret that this career, with its wall-to-wall mirrors, lack of jobs and near-constant critical feedback, can exacerbate low self-esteem.
Vostrikov is disheartened by New York Times commenters who blame the two dancers who continued to be abused by Epstein after their initial assaults. "He created this whole web of intricacies and scripts and connections to create a false sense of trust, which is what he abused to get what he wanted," she says. "I may have said no, but the fact is that he still found me. and he still found the girl who recruited me. That is the sick part. He manipulated the whole inner-family feeling we have as dancers."
One thing is clear: The dance community must be more watchful of potential predators. Vostrikov advises students to take a trusted friend with them to meetings and photo shoots. "It's okay to say no to requests that don't feel right," she says. And with all of the recent #MeToo scandals coming to light in our profession, we have to do more to educate, support and protect our young dancers to prevent this from happening again.