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Healthy Dancer

Big Little Secrets: Part II

By Jo-Anne La Flèche
  • Photo by Gaelle Marcel / Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Editor’s note: This version has been amended from the original to include steps to prevent abuse and trauma in dance.

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In 2018, Jo-Anne La Flèche was asked by Dr. Bonnie Robson, a retired psychiatrist who specializes in performing arts psychology, to write a paper on psychological trauma in dance for Dance USA/Task Force on Dancer Health. During her research she realized to what extent dancers’ experiences of emotional, physical and sexual abuse were common but rarely disclosed. 

La Flèche writes about her research in the January/February 2020 issue. She notes that according to scholars Paula Thomson and Victoria Jaque, around twenty-five percent of dancers in the United States suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to thirteen per cent of athletes and seven per cent of the general population. La Flèche identifies the types of abuse that dancers can experience: self-directed abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse. This is part two. 

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Risk factors of dancer abuse and silencing are multiple and interconnected. They involve all members of the dance community: institutions, dancers, educators, directors, health practitioners, as well as parents.

1. The dance culture 

In dance, the pursuit of aesthetic ideals of perfection and virtuosity gives the impression of never being/doing enough. Risk-taking is valued and psychological pressure is culturally accepted. Negative experiences are normalized, minimized or even denied by trainers and dancers alike. From an early age, dancers are exposed to a “culture of pain” in which they are expected to tolerate physical or emotional discomfort and suffer hardship in silence. Power plays out in dance classes and rehearsals, regardless of teachers’ good intentions: mentors have high social status, while dancers are expected to be docile bodies. Because most students enter schools during childhood, it is hard for them to question dance values and abusive practices. Artists may have difficulty recognizing maltreatment and, more so, disclosing it and seeking help. 

2. Dancer vulnerability is heightened by the following factors: 

  • Stoicism: To attain performance goals, dancers often numb body awareness and develop a stoic attitude. Being injured or treated badly is falsely considered as par for the course.
  • Gender imbalance: Since women outnumber men, female dancers compete to obtain mentors’ approval and scarce dance roles. They may fear losing company status or a dance contract if they aren’t perfect or if they displease the person in power. Because they are so easily replaceable, they may be reluctant to voice needs or boundaries. 
  • Fierce competition: This makes dancers very vulnerable to body exploitation, especially females, who may become conditioned to accept sexual harassment as part of their lot. Women and men alike may have sexual/intimate relations with powerful male dancers or authority figures, in exchange for dance roles. 
  • Maladaptive perfectionism: Dancers are prone to chronic dissatisfaction, negative self-talk, rumination over flaws, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor social relations and a great need for approval. Dancers’ impressions of never being “good enough” may estrange them from others and give power to teachers/directors. 
  • Shame and submissiveness: Trauma causes internalized shame (impression of being bad and unlovable) that predisposes dancers to submissive behaviours. Because the female dancing body is subject to deeply rooted notions of submissiveness, women are more vulnerable to misconduct. A female student may freeze and not react to a teacher’s inappropriate touch. Self-blame (“It’s my fault, I ran after it”) is a powerful disincentive to abuse disclosure, which gives more social leverage to the aggressor. 
  • Fear of reprisal: A dancer may silence a teacher, director or peer’s misconduct due to various fears: losing a contract; being blamed, judged or ignored; creating a family crisis; having to leave the dance school or face legal procedures. 
  • Social isolation: As time goes on during adolescence, intense investment in training creates an inevitable separation from non-dancer peer and social groups and the relinquishing of parental control to the coach. The weakening of family bonds or friendships reinforces the emotional tie between mentor and apprentice, leaving the latter highly vulnerable to influence. In schools where students live in residence, dancers living far away from home are even more isolated from loved ones. As they climb the dance hierarchy, they repeatedly lose friends who are excluded, depriving them of trusted peers to confide in if an abnormal situation arises. 
  • Lack of knowledge about dance ethics: Young dancers may not be aware that what is happening to them is wrong, especially if such behaviour has been normalized.

 

3. Abuser omnipotence 

In dance, abusers often exhibit narcissistic tendencies, viewing the dancer as an extension of self and an object of personal gratification. Consequently, they disrespect dancers’ boundaries, without regret or remorse. This is evident in a lack of self-reflective ability and empathy: they deny the impact of their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours on the dancer. Despite harmful practices, coaches report having been well-intentioned but lacking formal training in performance psychology and pedagogy. In response to this teaching, docile students may later reproduce their mentor’s oppressive practices.

4. Abuser-victim dynamics

Dancers are (or perceive themselves as) at the mercy of mentors/teachers who can make or break their careers, which can induce pupils’ submissiveness. It is also common for dancers to idealize their mentor. Abusive teachers may feel resentment towards gifted dancers, humiliating them to maintain hierarchy and alternating with kind remarks or privileges. This double bond prevents dancers from reacting to the abuse and contributes to maintain it. Dancers protect their abusers by excusing violence as going with the territory or viewing a teacher’s attacks as a gift.

5. Context variables 

The above situations can be exacerbated in certain circumstances. For example, social venues or touring a production may provide increased opportunities for intimacy. Abusive practices are also easier to deny or downplay in the presence of silent bystanders. A lack of institutional protections and interventions (e.g., weak recruitment controls, inadequate climates for reporting and discussing abuse) can create an unhealthy climate, and a lack of rules and clear guidelines around mentor/apprentice relationships can lead to transgression.

Given that risk-factors of abuse and maltreatment are systemic, recent sport studies advocate for a multipronged approach, to reduce tolerance and prevent further trauma. This approach involves all members of the dance community, and not only dancers. We can all make a difference by identifying the first warning signals and acting quickly to correct the situation. In order to do so, we must all gain knowledge and openly discuss about violence, its causes and its silencing. Research shows that the following strategies may be helpful.

Dance institutions should:

  • Set up and monitor dancer safety and policies and procedures (e.g., detail violation criteria, consequences, response system for concerns/complaints, adequate support)
  • Raise staff recruitment requirements and make background checks on work and criminal records.
  • Provide safe, non-judgmental and anonymous spaces for dancers to discuss or disclose abuse (e.g., helplines, access to counselling)
  • Provide safe and anonymous spaces for dancers to discuss/disclose abuse (helplines, counselling).
  • Give workshops on safeguarding, work ethics, dancer abuse and prevention measures.
  • Create a close communication with all stakeholders in cases of misconduct. Offer psychological skills training to enhance global wellness for dancers and educators (e.g. self-compassion, effective communication).

 

In addition, teachers are encouraged to: pursue continuing education in pedagogy, safe practices and dancer wellness; become a positive mentors for dancers; use more transparent teaching (studios with windows, supervision); and communicate regularly with students and parents.

In turn, dancers can also cultivate self-awareness, self-care and personal empowerment (e.g., life balance, mindfulness practices, self-compassion); learn more about artists’ rights and responsibilities; express personal needs and discomforts; identify and disclose abuse, as a victim or a witness; reflect on personal traps (e.g., desire to please); build resilience; and cultivate a strong social network inside and outside the dance community.

Health practitioners must be adequately trained in abuse diagnosis and intervention; have access to a multidisciplinary support team; gain knowledge on where and how to refer disclosures or suspicions.

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Read “Big Little Secrets: Part I” in the January/February 2020 issue

 

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