Your eyes lock in a laser-hot gaze. Sparks fly across the room. You give a slight, inviting smile, and nonchalantly turn away to talk to a friend. But you’re not out partying at a club or bar. You’re in a dance studio, gearing up for rehearsal, and the person you’re lusting after is a fellow dancer. While you can’t deny how steamy your attraction is, you’re secretly harboring the disturbingly realistic thought that hooking up might not be the best idea ever.
But physical attraction can override logic, and hormones often tend to get the best of us. The intimacy brought on by working with each other’s bodies day in and day out seems to create a natural path from initial attraction to sexual involvement. But is romantic entanglement with fellow professionals productive—for you, for the work, or for the rest of the group? Read on for the pros and cons of dancing duets—offstage.
Love, treachery, and the threat of murder were part of a real-life scenario for one New York-based dance company in the 1980s. When “Louise,” the artistic director, recalls the situation, she says, “It was dreadful.”
Louise’s company was growing, and they were on the verge of performing at larger, more visible venues. But late one night, she received an alarming phone message. “One of my dancers was threatening to quit the company and was cursing another dancer,” Louise says. “She screamed, ‘If I see her I’ll kill her!’ ”
Louise had no idea what was going on until the next day, when she learned from other company members that there had been an adulterous sexual encounter between two dancers in the group. “One of the guilty parties had written about the experience in his journal, and his fiery girlfriend (also in the company) had read the entries,” says Louise. “When I found out about all this, I lay down on my bed and sobbed,” she says. “I felt like all my hard work was falling apart.”
Louise believes that while dancing can spark something that feels like romance or erotic attraction, real sex is too volatile to bring into a work situation. She thinks you should separate your feelings in a studio from real life. “If you’re going to open yourself up sexually to everyone you have a good dancing relationship with,” she says, “you’d be having sex with a lot of people!”
And while she eventually managed to get the two warring dancers to commit to the scheduled performances, “They totally ignored each other in rehearsal and it was horrible for everyone,” she says. “At the time I vowed that I’d never put any gig over the dancers.”
Fast forward to today: Brenda Way, artistic director of ODC/ San Francisco, is against starting a relationship with a fellow company member. But she believes “total discretion is the better part of valor” if you do decide to date a fellow dancer. “We deal with this a lot,” she says, “but we try to maintain privacy.” Way advises keeping the affair as far from the company as you can, as protection for the future. “The reason you don’t want people to know what’s going on is because they end up taking sides, leading to a division in the company’s ranks.” She’s arrived at this point of view through many difficult circumstances, having lost talented dancers because they couldn’t deal with the fallout of breaking up. “You want to have room to end the relationship and keep going, to stay working with the company,” she says, “but it’s not easy if others are aware of the situation.”
Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan has firsthand experience as a dance company couple. “I was very young, he was my first boyfriend, and we dated for about 10 years on and off,” she recalls. “We split up lots of times, and we were both uncomfortable in the studio when that happened.”
Morgan remembers times when it was difficult to concentrate and detach emotionally during rehearsal. “Then you might make an unwise decision to leave a place where you’re liked, and you make that choice based on your discomfort rather than what’s best for your career,” she says.
Another disadvantage to offstage partnerships is that they can interfere with a professional demeanor. “When making casting decisions,” Morgan says, “I think it’s healthy to separate people who are together in their personal life, or else a sense of formality and courtesy breaks down in the studio.”
Susan Jaffe, former American Ballet Theatre ballerina, says the nature of rehearsing, performing, and touring together brings company members close. Bad breakups, she says, demoralize not only those directly involved, but the entire company. “I’d never want to get involved with someone in the same ballet company, because I’m very private,” she says. “Basically, if you’re involved with someone at work, everyone knows everything about you.”
Jaffe has witnessed some horrible breakups. The company sees the fights, the heartbreak, and then sees the “winner” going off with someone else. “Who wants 80 people to know about your business?” says Jaffe. “My recommendation is: Don’t go there!” She’s not sure however, that the quality of the work is affected. “Dancers are temperamental, but not in the studio,” she says. “Work is a refuge and a place to be free, no matter what’s going on in your personal life.”
Choreographer and former Merce Cunningham dancer Neil Greenberg says, “When I was very young, I was a bit promiscuous. It was pre-AIDS, and I had a sexual history back then.” But after a couple of short-lived affairs with fellow company members, Greenberg swore off in-house dating. Both times the work situations became difficult. And since work and romantic relationships are intrinsically complex, the extra complication was more than he could tolerate. “As a dancer it didn’t work for me.”
Nevertheless, Greenberg refrains from making blanket recommendations against company affairs. “I’ve known of relationships among teachers and students, choreographers and company members, that have been strong and enduring,” he says. “It’s just not for the faint of heart.”
Greenberg, who teaches and runs his own company, says he has never had an affair with one of his students or dancers. “I’m in a position of power as a teacher and choreographer, and there are potential abuses of that power,” he says. “I don’t trust myself to be able to judge what’s an abuse, and what isn’t.” So Greenberg establishes strong boundaries in subtle ways, and his rule remains intact. “These are human relationships, and there are sexual components to all human interactions; pheromones are present. Nevertheless, my personal restrictions are made very clear,” he says.
“Everyone thinks dancers are wild, but they’re actually more monk-like than people would imagine,” says choreographer Jane Comfort. “Because we work with our bodies and we’re so sensuous, people think we’re having sex all the time. But even as we know each other’s bodies intimately, our goal is creating art together, and we do—go dancers!” she says. “A lot of people have sparks flying between them, and that attraction can add an exciting element to the work.”
And Comfort agrees with Greenberg that directors must not underestimate the power they wield. “As a director, I see that people bring their familial issues to the group, and that the process of making art creates intense situations. Performers look to the director for approval, and some commingle their expression of love with a sexual need. It’s crucial for the director to be able to validate and offer love back in a professional manner.”
But dating a dance colleague isn’t necessarily all doom and gloom. Morgan thinks the advantage of going out with a fellow company member is that it’s an opportunity for people with overburdened schedules to actually have a relationship. She thinks it’s easier for another dancer to understand time devoted to rehearsal and performance, and to experience the same drive as their partner. Outsiders have a more difficult time grasping it all. “The art form is so obsessive,” she says, “there’s a tendency to feel more comfortable with others who are experiencing the same quest.” In the end, it’s up to you to choose your affair-mates wisely!
Nancy Alfaro, a New York City-based writer, has danced with Meredith Monk, Jane Comfort, and Elizabeth Streb.