Is this the turning point when we'll finally see an end to dancer mistreatment? Photo by Gez Xavier Mansfield/Unsplash

Is the Dance World Ready to Truly Change Its Company Culture?

Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:

If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.

The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.

Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:


I have...witnessed dancers humiliated, harassed and threatened, sometimes overtly, but often covertly. This conduct is despicable and belongs in the past....
Those that consistently shout at people or deprive them of guidance to gain respect should know this is the fools' way. It may deliver a short, burst of focus to some dancers, but it evaporates shortly thereafter. This type of behaviour guarantees resentment, perpetuates mistrust, generates fear and compliance; it is uncreative and it is damaging.

His admirable statement is especially powerful coming from an artistic director.

But what will it take for more dance leaders to take action? Ideals are fantastic, but we have to be realistic. When there are hordes of young dancers waiting to take the place of anyone who complains or cracks under the pressure, will public shaming be enough to inspire real change?

If the bad PR scares away ticket buyers or donors, it just might.

Aside from sheer decency—and living up to 21st-century HR standards—there are many reasons why treating dancers fairly is actually in companies' best interest, both artistically and financially.

Don't We Want to Develop Mature Artists?

According to research conducted by Dance Magazine's own advice columnist, psychologist Linda Hamilton, screaming at dancers comes with a whole host of negative consequences: It encourages them to dance injured, it can cause stage fright and it can thwart their career aspirations. That doesn't exactly sound like a setup for a thriving dance company.

Just because dance is physically challenging doesn't mean that making the environment mentally challenging creates better dancers. True discipline doesn't come from fear; it comes from drive.

Some older dancers might complain that today's generation is "weak" for not wanting to deal with shouting and demanding directors. But there are some traditions that don't need to be passed down from generation to generation. Sure, some personalities may thrive under demoralizing threats. But most dancers will never feel safe enough to take creative risks or confident enough to develop into mature artists under those conditions.

True discipline doesn't come from fear; it comes from drive. Photo by Matthew Murphy for Pointe.

A Healthy Dancer Performs Better Than An Injured One

In my opinion, the most serious allegations raised against Tamara Rojo were that she ignored the staff's medical advice and pressured her dancers to perform while injured. Rojo clearly invested a lot in her dancer's health. But if these accusations were in fact true, this kind of behavior is not only foolishly dangerous and abusive, but also a terrible business plan.

Any medical professional will tell you that treating injury and resting early are key to healing quickly. Sure, it's annoying to re-cast dancers or have someone miss rehearsal, but letting dancers take the time they need to heal will get them back to full health sooner. Wouldn't it be more strategic in the long-term to encourage injured dancers not to perform when they can't do it to the best of their ability? Risking dancers' health risks their career.

The Fat Phobia Needs To Stop

Speaking of health, it's time to ditch the idea that dancers—particularly female ballet dancers—need to be stick thin.

There is no reason that a dancer has to look prepubescent in order to do her job. Having a healthy level of body fat does not make it dangerous to dance on pointe. Nor does it mean that a woman can't be partnered—her strength and skill are more important for that.

We all know the dangers involved when you pressure dancers to strive for extreme thinness. Just this week in The Huffington Post, Miami City Ballet's Lauren Fadeley details how frequent "fat talks" led her to obsessive dieting and, eventually, to quit New York City Ballet. In the same article, another dancer, formerly with Pennsylvania Ballet (under a previous director), shared that she was ordered to go off birth control in order to lose weight—which ended just as badly as you could imagine.

Lauren Fadeley in rehearsal at Pennsylvania Ballet. Photo by Alexander Izilaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

How much stronger could dancers be if we made room for more than one body type? And could having more diverse shapes onstage actually make dance more relatable to a mainstream audience?

Obviously, this conversation about how we treat dancers is a wide-ranging one that needs to encompass everything from dancer pay to sexual harassment. Tell me: What issues do you feel need to be addressed first? Share your thoughts in the comments or shoot me a note at jstahl@dancemedia.com. It's time to have an honest conversation.

Latest Posts


Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021