Rant & Rave

#DancersToo: Is The Dance World Ready To Address Sexual Harassment?​

The power dynamics and working environments in dance can leave women vulnerable. Photo by Soragrit Wongsa/Unsplash

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:

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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.

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