#DancersToo: Is The Dance World Ready To Address Sexual Harassment?
When an anonymous letter accused former New York City Ballet leader Peter Martins of sexual harassment last year, it felt like what had long been an open secret—the prevalence of harassment in the dance world—was finally coming to the surface. But the momentum of the #MeToo movement, at least in dance, has since died down.
Martins has retired, though an investigation did not corroborate any of the claims against him. He and former American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes, who suddenly resigned in December, were the only cases to make national headlines in the U.S. We've barely scratched the surface of the dance world's harassment problem.
One reason why: The same culture that makes harassment possible in dance makes it uniquely difficult for artists to speak up.
Where It Begins
The problem starts with the way we train dancers: "The dance world has held on to a pedagogical method that disempowers the dancer before sexual abuse would even occur," says Robin Lakes, a University of North Texas professor whose research focuses on dance pedagogy.
Dancers are taught not to question those in roles of authority. Photo by Jon Tyson/Unsplash
Dance training can create an environment where students depend on teachers for validation and are taught to accept any rules or roles they're given without questioning them. The extreme power differential that often exists in the classroom usually doesn't change much once dancers reach the professional level, where directors can single-handedly decide a dancer's fate and powerful choreographers can get away with inappropriate behavior.
While it's easy to blame the physical intimacy of dance jobs for sexual harassment, power dynamics and working environments are the bigger culprits.
What Harassment Looks Like Today
Although, so far, the dance world's most prominent examples have come from large ballet companies, harassment can happen within any genre and at every scale. In fact, the increasingly freelance nature of the field makes artists especially vulnerable.
Catherine Drury, a licensed clinical social worker for The Dancers' Resource at The Actors Fund, points out that having multiple employers or sporadic work can leave dancers unclear about what their rights are, who they should report to and what protections are in place. Institutions are responsible for providing a safe and harassment-free workplace; however, some might not take freelance artists fully into account when developing policies.
For instance, an anonymous New York City–based performer and choreographer told Dance Magazine that she was sexually harassed during her time as an artist in residence at a prominent dance theater. The photographer who shot her piece, an independent contractor hired for the season, asked her to come to his apartment to review and purchase photos, where he touched her without her consent and verbally harassed her. Because there was no procedure for how freelance artists should purchase photos, the harassment occurred off-site and without witnesses. At the time, the institution's sexual harassment policy did not apply to independent contractors.
Immersive shows like Sleep No More should establish clear guidelines for audience behavior
As dance evolves into new spaces and contexts, action around sexual harassment needs to evolve with it. A recent BuzzFeed News story reported 17 incidents of groping or sexual misconduct by patrons of the immersive show Sleep No More. Audiences, who are masked for the entirety of the performance, are encouraged to buy alcoholic drinks, but have traditionally not been told to refrain from touching performers or given parameters regarding acceptable behavior. Cast members are sometimes naked and at other points are alone with a single audience member.
Sleep No More isn't the only immersive production that's dealt with harassment. Contemporary dancer and choreographer Kate Ladenheim performed in an immersive show where she was physically and verbally harassed by audience members. When she spoke to her artistic team about the incidents, they took her feedback and worked together to address the situation so performers felt safer in the role.
"I think that immersive theater as a genre thrives largely on exoticism and heightened sensuality," she says. "This expectation can lead audience members to think they have permission to play around with performers." Today, when Ladenheim produces her own immersive-like events, she makes it clear to audiences that they will be removed without a refund should they touch a performer.
Kate Landenheim has written agreements with her dancers that cover safe rehearsal practices. Photo by Keira Chang, courtesy Landenheim.
What's Onstage Matters
The content we see onstage can perpetuate—or reflect—a culture of sexual harassment. Last May, Siobhan Burke wrote a story in The New York Times titled "No More Gang Rape Scenes in Ballets, Please," in response to Alexei Ratmansky's Odessa for New York City Ballet. Many responded with similar reactions, while others—including Odessa cast members—argued that there was no such scene. The debate also touched on the issue of censorship: Is there a way to depict sexual violence onstage that isn't problematic?
As often as women are oversexualized and their characters abused onstage, few choreographers intend to normalize sexual harassment in their work. Still, that doesn't make their depictions any less harmful.
Contemporary choreographer Brendan Drake works hard to make art that reflects his values. But at a showing of his work, someone pointed out that one of his pieces—which featured women in red lipstick, tight vintage dresses and thigh-slapping—could be interpreted as misogynist. He changed the piece, then eventually decided to scrap it altogether. To avoid putting unintentionally sexist or unnecessarily violent work onstage, he suggests that dancemakers continually question how each of their choreographic choices serves the work, and get feedback multiple times before formally presenting it.
Brendan Drake evaluates his work for unintentionally sexist themes. Photo by Theo Cote, courtesy Drake.
We Can Do Better
Much of what are considered best practices in other fields don't easily apply to the dance world: Corporate sexual harassment training may instruct employees to avoid touching one another and to wear modest clothing. Standard policies don't take into account the unique demands of dance. And creating rules around affirmative verbal consent in the studio can feel at odds with dancers' ability to communicate through their bodies with intention and nuance.
So what would dance-specific policies look like? As Boglárka Simon-Hatala, a physiotherapist and health sciences teacher who works with dancers, points out, we need more research around how sexual harassment plays out in the dance world to thoroughly answer this question.
But we do know some of the factors that make dance artists vulnerable: The extreme competition in the field can lead to a culture where harassment is tolerated for fear of losing a job or being black-balled. The importance of informal networking, the irregular working hours and the frequency that dancers travel with co-workers can lead to blurred lines. Dancers are often relatively young, and their short careers create added pressure to tolerate poor treatment or stay in an unsafe environment. We need strategies that address these challenges head-on.
Extreme competition can drive dancers to settle for poor treatment. Photo by Kate Williams/Unsplash
The real onus for preventing sexual harassment lies with institutions and their leaders. Clear policies that encourage reporting inappropriate interactions should be widely distributed. Everyone—especially those in leadership positions—should undergo harassment training that is specific to their role. Response to claims of harassment should be proactive, not reactionary; compassionate, not defensive.
Finding chains of accountability—even within small companies or projects—is also key. Since being harassed by the photographer, the anonymous NYC-based artist has considered implementing a system through which all collaborators would be held accountable via the institution they're working with. Contracts with all parties would stipulate that the collaborators could go to the institution should any issue arise, and it would then investigate and mediate the situation.
Ladenheim has carefully crafted written agreements with all her dancers that discuss their safety and encourage them to express their discomfort if any explorations in rehearsals go too far. Similarly, performer and choreographer Ricarrdo Valentine has daily check-ins, both one-on-one and in groups, with his dancers about their physical and emotional boundaries. He emphasizes that these can shift daily—what's okay one day may not be the next—and that even as dancers, having a practice of verbal consent around physical contact is essential.
Ricarrdo Valentine checks in with his dancers daily. Photo courtesy Valentine.
Another strategy for institutions could be decentralizing power. For example, NYCB's appointment of four interim leaders to replace Peter Martins means they must at least be held accountable to each other. While it's unclear how long this setup will remain, there have been outside suggestions of breaking down the ballet master in chief position into multiple roles.
Of course, who is filling these roles is what matters most. We need leaders dedicated to equity and accountability. We also need more women in positions of power: Researchers have found that male-dominated organizations are more prone to sexual harassment.
Though it can feel like a daunting challenge, numerous studies show that companies whose leaders believe that harassment is wrong and convey a sense of urgency in preventing it have less harassment. Yes, organizations should have clear and specific policies, safe working environments and thorough training. But they also need leaders who care. It's not going to be an easy fix, but it's what the dance community needs.
Where to Turn
Resources for preventing and reporting sexual harassment in dance:
- For educators: Youth Protection Advocates in Dance's certification program includes topics like sexual abuse and sexualization in dance.
- For help reporting harassment: Better Brave provides a template and guidelines for taking action.
- For counseling: The Actors Fund has social workers on staff who can speak with you about your experience and help you explore your options.
- For legal assistance: Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts provides pro bono legal work for qualified artists.
- For additional resources: Visit Dance/NYC or Dance/USA online.
Online video game Fortnite is involved in serious controversy over its "emotes" dance feature. Even if you're not a gamer, this is a case choreographers should keep close tabs on. Here's why.
Let us quickly introduce you to Fortnite Battle Royale: The video game sprung up in September 2017 and has grown to insane levels of popularity. It's free to play and features 100 users duking it out to be the last person standing. But here's the catch: If you want to get ahead, you have to make in-game purchases, trading real money for V-Bucks, which you use to redeem things like weapons.
So what's it got to do with dance? A whole lot. One of Fortnite's most popular—and lucrative—features is its emotes, animated dances that users can purchase to perform on the battlefield. Many are taken directly from pop culture, and Fortnite's developer, Epic Games, is in the midst of a heated lawsuit regarding its Swipe It emote. After much public debate, rapper 2 Milly filed a suit last week claiming that Epic Games stole—and is now largely profiting from—the Milly Rock, a dance move he created and popularized, without his permission. Take a look:
It's the 60th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and their season at New York City Center is going strong with more than 20 works—including world premieres and company premieres.
Ronald K. Brown, who just received a Dance Magazine Award, has made his seventh work for Ailey, The Call. It's a gorgeous pastiche of three different types of music: Bach, jazz by singer Mary Lou Williams and Malian music by Asase Yaa Entertainment Group.
If a teacher or choreographer has ever commented that your dancing looks stiff, the problem could be that you aren't breathing effectively. "When dancers aren't breathing, their shoulders are up and there's no length in their movement. They start to look like they're just waiting to get to the next thing," says Maria Bai, artistic director of Central Park Dance in New York.
It may seem like a no-brainer—of course you can't move without breathing. But beginning dancers often hold their breath because they are so focused on picking up choreography, says Sarah Skaggs, director of dance at Dickinson College. Even advanced dancers can benefit from focusing more on their breath. "Sometimes they are paying so much attention to what their limbs are doing that they forget about the lungs, the chest, the trunk. Breath is the last thing they're thinking about, but really it should be the first," says Skaggs. The more integrated your breathing is, the more relaxed and present you will feel.
I've been a fan of Jordan Isadore's for about a decade. His gorgeous, spine-contorting renditions of Christopher Williams' repertory are legendary, and for many years I had the privilege of making dances with him and producing his works through DanceNOW[NYC].
Over the last year or so, as he began winding down his performance career, Isadore began making odd, phenomenal objects: dribs of Labanotation scores rendered as hung mobiles, gorgeously crafted in stained glass and metal. The designs are stunning, imbued simultaneously with a hipster-nonsense contemporaneousness and reverence for dance history.
I spoke with Isadore about his retirement from the stage, and transition to crafting full time.
There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
If the news about the upcoming CATS movie has your head spinning, we're right there with you. It seems like every week we have a bit more to share about the new film adaptation, which is set to release in December 2019. So, in order to keep it all straight, we present you with our master list of everything we know—our version of "The Naming of Cats," if you will. We'll add updates as they emerge.
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks: