Survivors of sexual assault and harassment are pulling back the curtain on a pernicious problem in the dance world.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, several have come forward in the past few years to share their stories. Now, there are two major cases in the mainstream news: In a federal lawsuit filed September 27, former Boston Ballet principal Dusty Button and her husband Mitchell Taylor Button are accused of raping and sexually abusing dancers, including minors, for years. Another lawsuit filed this week alleges that dance faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts perpetrated sexual abuse and exploitation of minors in the 1970s and '80s.
Meanwhile, on the heels of Liam Scarlett's death in April, a recent piece by former dance critic Luke Jennings published in the London Review of Books examines the toxic culture within the Royal Ballet School, where young male students allege the late choreographer sexually abused them in exchange for roles.
The dance world is not exempt from the systemic imbalances of power and control that exist in all industries—from film and TV to food services—and enable sexual abuse to happen. Sharing stories like these is crucial to shedding light on the scope of the problem and ultimately enacting change.
But taken together, the media coverage can be jarring, upsetting and even triggering to hear about, whether you're a survivor or just reading about the industry. Here are strategies that can help you cope.
Recognize when you feel triggered.
When someone is triggered, it typically feels like a more intense, abrupt or heightened response to something than usual, says Rachel Coats, LMHC, a former professional dancer and therapist who specializes in trauma.
"You might experience it mentally, like flashbacks or racing thoughts, or sometimes there's just an emotion without thoughts, like intense sadness or anger," Coats says. Physiologically, your heart can race, you may have difficulty breathing, or there can be almost an opposite reaction when you just feel out of your body, she says.
Dancers are both extremely attuned to their bodies and skilled at ignoring negative emotions or dismissing "things that don't serve us," says Josh Spell, MSW, LICSW, consulting therapist at Pacific Northwest Ballet. If you are feeling triggered by the news or social media, taking note of how your body feels can ground you and help you feel calm in the moment, Coats says.
"Tune in to feeling your feet on the floor, and use your senses to look around," she suggests. "Remind yourself that you're safe right here, right now. Even though your system is telling you that everything is not okay, you're actually physically okay."
Be mindful of your media intake.
Scrolling Twitter and other social media can often feel like you're drinking from a firehose, and it can also have an acute effect on your mental health. Studies suggest that reading or watching news reports about a traumatic event can be re-traumatizing.
"While it's important to know what's going on in your industry, if you focus only on the things that are falling apart, it can be even disillusioning," Spell says. If you're prone to doom-scrolling, he suggests asking yourself: Is this curiosity helping me stay present? If not, then it's a sign you should set boundaries on how much news or social media you're going to engage with in a day.
Have a tool kit of calming tactics.
Certain strategies work well when you're overwhelmed with anxiety, like taking deep breaths while practicing self-compassion, Coats says. Breathe from your diaphragm, not your chest, and watch your belly rise and fall, she says. "Access an inner voice that's like 'Hey, it's okay. I know you're having a reaction right now,'" she says.
Another surprising tool that can help you reconnect to your senses: Keep an orange in your freezer, and bring it out to hold and smell when you're feeling anxious, Spell suggests. "I always give this to dancers, because you can have the smell of the essential oil of the orange, but then you're also feeling that sort of cold sensation, so you're shocking your system physiologically into coming back to the present moment," he says.
Talk to a therapist or mental health clinician.
If you feel ready, talking to a mental health professional is a great option, because there are experts who are trained to address trauma and can help you heal and cope with the effects, Coats says. (Not sure where to start? Coats and Spell recommend Psychology Today, which lets you search for providers based on their specialty.)
If seeing a therapist feels intimidating, there are also anonymous hotlines that allow you to text or talk to someone and get feedback about your situation and what to do next. For example, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) for free confidential support. Or if you're in crisis, you can text the word "HOME" to 741741, and the Crisis Text Line will connect you with a counselor who can help you immediately.
Write down your thoughts or talk to a friend.
Spending some time journaling can help you quietly and privately organize your thoughts and work through what you're experiencing, or you might want to find a trusted friend to talk to. If somebody tries to minimize your pain, place blame on you or give you feedback that suggests you deserved mistreatment, "that's not a safe person," Coats says.
If a friend approaches you, know that during these difficult conversations, the messages that people need to hear most are things like: "I believe you," "Thank you for trusting me," "I support whatever you decide to do." Remember: The pace at which someone decides to seek emotional support or even come forward publicly about abuse is very individual. What works for someone may not work for another person. "Honor that everybody has their own timing," Coats says.
Call on leadership to acknowledge these issues.
"Dancers often internalize," Coats says, and tend to take everything on as their own responsibility. With sexual abuse and assault in particular, survivors often feel isolated and riddled with shame and guilt. "This is one area where it can be important to reach out, get support, and have this reminder that it's not all on your shoulders," she says.
There's a massive responsibility on directors, teachers and organizations to take these issues to heart from the top down. Leadership should think about how they're supporting dancers and what they can do to create safe environments and open channels of communication, Coats says.
"It's difficult for dancers to use their voice, because we're so used to using our bodies," Spell says. "When things like this come up, it's almost like we don't have a channel to express it."