Working to Prevent Abuse in Dance

An Interview with Frances Chiaverini, Steven Karageanes, Maggie Morris, Karine Rathle, and Erin Sanchez

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATIONS BY VIDA VILJOEN

For many dance professionals, stories of abuse (or experience of it firsthand) is commonplace in the fabric of dance culture, whether it’s emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual in nature. Because so many professional and training environments are hierarchical and the field is built around discipline and youth, conditions are ripe for abuses to happen, often without victims even understanding it is happening.

That’s why an international partnership of artists, healthcare professionals, researchers, and educators was formed in 2017 to work collectively to address abuse in dance and to work towards developing a more open, supportive, and non-abusive environment for all people in dance. Supporters include One Dance UK, the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Mental Health, the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, Healthy Dancer Canada, Safe in Dance International, the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, and Youth Protection Advocates in Dance.

Here, members of the Personal Safety for Dance (PSD) International Working Group – Frances Chiaverini, Dr. Steven Karageanes, Karine Rathle, Maggie Morris, and Erin Sanchez – share some of the biggest obstacles to raising awareness of abuse, how they are disseminating information about abuse in dance settings, and how they are hoping to make lasting changes in dance culture.

Skeleton with lemons

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Can you each share with me a little bit about yourselves and your entry point into this project?

Frances Chiaverini: I’m interested in this project because of the powerful people contributing to it, what they have already accomplished in the field, and what they are envisioning for its future. There are some incredible voices in the field represented here and this project gives their perspectives a megaphone.  Their ideas about change in culture can be heard louder through this project and, because of the organizations affiliated, the audience becomes much wider. I’m also of course excited to see my own ideas with Whistle While You Work get a larger platform.

Dr. Steven Karageanes: I’ve been doing sports medicine for more than 20 years and focusing on dance medicine for the past 12. Unfortunately, I saw the USA Gymnastics scandal up close, and the real tragedy, other than the reprehensible behavior of the doctor himself, was that so many different layers of protection failed these gymnasts. Many other coaches and gymnastics personnel created an abusive environment that fed on the dreams of young women, yet was excused by others due to their success and accomplishments. That’s when I noticed similar issues rearing their heads in the dance world. But since no single governing body regulates the dance world, these issues can lie out of sight much longer. So my goal was to be an agent of change, and not be that guy who says, “That’s too bad,” and continues onward with my head in the sand. I wanted to help make meaningful change. Because of my colleagues in our group, I have an opportunity to do so.

Karine Rathle: This project is of the utmost importance to me, my colleagues, and the dance world. I have been involved in the dance environment for most of my life and I have seen firsthand the abuse that is ingrained in our culture. Dance is such a beautiful art form, with so many benefits for people participating in it, the dark side needs to change, and it starts by showing dancers, teachers, choreographers, directors, and all involved that there is another way to train, dance, and treat people. Dancers have been putting up with this and normalizing it for too long. Many dancers I have spoken to didn’t even realize the abuse they endured and only many years later they notice the impact it has had on other aspects of their lives. I feel strongly that with this strong international group, we can work together to help change a culture to step away from abuse and embrace the art form for all it has to offer.

Maggie Morris: Since retiring from being a dancer myself, I have focused on finding healthier ways for dancers to work. My focus through Safe in Dance International has been about finding ways to resolve personal safety issues. It is something that is molded to my ex-dancer’s being. Though such a glorious art form, dance is so transient for dancers. We find our passion and career and can only hold it close for a few years before moving on to other challenges, perhaps still in the profession that we love, but rarely still dancing and performing. It is essential that the beauty that Karine talks of should be crafted from love and respect for that personal identity that is the dancer and not from abuse. My colleagues and I are working to find ways forward so that future generations of dancers, dance students, and all those involved in dance can know with confidence that they do not have to cope with abuse in any form. I consider this both a great privilege and responsibility.

How did your work on abuse prevention begin? Was there a particular impetus?

Erin Sanchez: Our group commenced its work following a great deal of individual work in our own areas of research, mental health support, and advocacy. Diverse, passionate, and experienced group members include clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, dance teachers, dancers’ mental health advocates, dance scientists, and professional dancers. The motive we all share is that connection and collaboration was needed to develop a dance environment that is free from abuse, open, and supportive for all.

Karine: Individually, each member of the group has done some form of work in the area. We felt it was time for a strong international voice to speak up. Momentum is key; people are starting to speak, people are starting to listen, and it’s a good time to get together to bring positive change.

Maggie: As Karine said, this moment is the zeitgeist. A group of people from a range of areas of expertise and experience are all equally focused on the issue and passionate to do something about it. After a dinner together talking honestly and openly about concerns with phenomenal experts in the field, including Bonnie Robson and Jo-Anne LaFleche, an international working group was formed.

Since the group was initiated, what are some of the biggest ways the project has raised awareness of abuse in dance settings?

Erin: Our work in the past year has focused on building international connection and action among leading healthcare professionals, advocates, and researchers. To raise awareness of abuse in dance settings, we have disseminated key information including types of abuse reported, risk factors, and prevention and management strategies reported in peer-reviewed literature. This information was gathered by group members Jo-Anne LaFleche and Bonnie Robson in 2017 as a part of their scoping review of abuse in dance, which was published firstly by the Dance/USA Taskforce on Dancer Health, and then by the Canadian magazine The Dance Current. It is a seminal resource shining a light on abuse in dance contexts.

Skeleton with lemons

What are some of the biggest obstacles to raising awareness of abuse in dance settings?

Frances: Dance culture has gotten this far with normalized abuse because of the accepted and perpetuated code of silence. Dancers are trained from a young age not to speak in training or ask questions. It is very clear that the ultimate authority is a teacher or an adult or a director and the dancer is only in control of her body to apply the corrections, observations, and impressions made by an external source. They are even trained to see themselves through someone else’s eyes. This is where body dysmorphia can sometimes find its origin, and how grooming can also find a hold in a young dancer. Autonomy is taken away from the artist – a trait actually necessary for creativity and confidence to flourish – at a young age and twisted to suit a one-size-fits all ideal that is clearly only attainable or natural to very few. For example, dancers must show initiative to step forward in class, show their willingness to push through pain and injury and adversity to rise to the top, but what exactly is the source of that gumption? What is the motivation? Discipline in dance has a strange face and, in some cases, this is how the culture of silence stays in place. To be silent is to be disciplined and a dancer with good discipline is the one everyone wants to choreograph on. Once in professional situations, dancers are very good at showing how disciplined they are, and complaining is the opposite of discipline.

Dancers need advocates for their wellness and safety. It’s tough out there and the protections are slim to none. As it is now, unfortunately a lot of the responsibility has fallen on the dancers’ shoulders: In order for abuse to be exposed, dancers have to expose them, this means they have to tell someone, they have to file a complaint or report an incident. The word “complaint” has a really bad connotation everywhere but especially in virtuosic art forms like dance (and gymnastics, sports, etc.).

On top of that, the majority of authority figures in leadership roles in dance (a field largely filled with women) are held by men, who are often but not always the harm-doers in sexual abuse cases in dance. They control the narrative. They control the power. The patriarchy is everywhere and lives well in dance. Men also cannot wholly understand the position and experience of women or non-cis men in dance. Their needs are not understood. There are glaring voids in representation and experiences from women, POC, the disabled, trans people, and other marginalized voices who are often the survivors of the abuse.

Karine: The code of silence is the harder to break along with the normalization of abuse, to the point where dancers can be insulted, abused by a power figure, but dancers will not perceive it as abuse, but just the way it is. They will not complain because they don’t think there’s anything to complain about. This normalization has the effect to silence them even more. Between the power dynamics, where dancers’ careers are in the hands of people who have the potential to abuse them, the normalization of abusive behavior, and the discipline required in dance, there’s very little chance a dancer will step forward and complain.

Steven: I echo what my colleagues say. Dancers have been trained to be pieces or objects that the choreographers and teachers use to create their work. The focus, in many situations, is on the authority figure, not the dancer. This culture discourages dissent and collaboration, for fear of being cast out of the company or role. Like US Gymnastics, the success of the end product can end up justifying the means by how the company or program achieves it. The culture should shift more toward a dancer-centric approach, whereby the dancer has a stronger voice in what they are doing, how it’s being done, and most importantly, concern about how the dancer honestly feels.

Erin: The culture of dance presents many challenges, and the individuals in dance need both internal and environmental support to ensure their mental health and development as successful dancers. Abusive narratives can be internalized and limit people speaking out, seeking help, or standing up against abuse. If someone learns that anything less than perfection is failure, perhaps punishment or abuse is warranted when they do not meet the standard. The methods to reach a standard of perfection could also negatively impact self-worth. The constant process of identifying mistakes and ‘correcting’ them might lead to forgetting strengths, progress, or abilities. It may also lead to actively avoiding making mistakes. If you never fall down, you have fewer opportunities to learn how to pick yourself up again. Training practices don’t prioritize rest and recovery and, in some cases, an identity outside of dance is minimized in favor of a devotion to being a dancer. Anyone, including leaders, experienced professionals, and students, can fall prey to these challenges whether because of the dance culture, or because of other experiences individuals may have outside dance, particularly when they are striving for a high standard of excellence. Culture is also perpetuated through traditions, and the experiences leaders had in their formative years may impact their leadership choices, even unintentionally.

Maggie: I echo the comments of my colleagues. The dancer lives to dance and is taught from a very young age that they have to sacrifice much for their art form. What we do not teach and educate young dancers to understand is that their strength and identity as a dancing artist is precious and unique. They do not have to give up themselves to be a dancer and they do not have to be abused. This is not what is meant by sacrifice. Abuse is not acceptable or supportable, yet it is still accepted and supported.  We do not encourage dancers to question and stand up for what they believe and who they are. We as a profession do not give dancers the respect they deserve. The dancer in almost every case is seen as just the instrument of the choreographer or director and is replaceable. Bessie Schonburg once said that as a dancer you should treat your instrument, your body, like a Stradivarius violin: carefully looked after, rested, cared for, fed, and treated well. The dance profession needs to honor and respect dancers as we would Stradivarius violins. Dancers also do not have the example and support of the older practitioners as actors and musicians might; they do not have those dancers who are bold, old, and confident enough to fight these battles. It is vital that there are others who can support them in doing this and that there should be no penalties.

Has the pandemic shifted the ways your group is thinking about its goals and approaches?

Karine: I don’t think the pandemic changed our thinking or process. In the past year, there have been a lot of events in the world of gymnastics, dance, and sports where people are speaking up. This is allowing for more exposure of the problem at its core and its impact on the dancers and athletes who had to go through it.

Steven: The pandemic has shown us how fragile mental health can be for performers, and how little of a safety net many performers have. I hope this time offstage gave everyone time to think about the dance environment, reconsider overall priorities, and seriously consider health and wellness as a priority for everyone.

What has the group most recently been focused on?

Erin: Members of our group are working to update the scoping review described above with materials from the past four years, as well as a review of the grey literature (magazine articles, case studies, etc.). We have also been focused on gaining a greater understanding of the current knowledge and barriers to implementing abuse prevention in dance organizations, including both training and professional contexts. We’re asking dance schools and companies what supports and protections they offer for abuse prevention and safeguarding. Prevention of abuse/safeguarding activities help everyone to take responsibility for these goals. We need to understand more about the physical, mental, and practical challenges those in dance settings may be facing, as well as what organizations and individuals currently feel able to help with. We also want to know what support is needed to enhance wellbeing, health, and performance. Research in the UK is in association with Prof Jennifer Cumming at the University of Birmingham Institute of Mental Health. This research is also being developed to be carried out across other national contexts. All of us want to support the wellbeing, health, and best outcomes of every person who dances.

Maggie: We are also discussing the writing of guidance and support for those in dance in this area. We are working to develop a statement of human/dancer rights, or rights of all those in dance, for abuse is not solely of the dancer. We would like to be able to link all the good work that is being done in this area by so many organizations and ensure that it is accessible to those who need it.

How do you see this work impacting the dance field in the future?

Frances:  If anything, the goals of this group will demonstrate to young dancers/the next generations that the landscape of the dance field is ready to change in support of their needs, desires, and goals. The artform can be seen for the work that it actually is and be treated as such. Dance is a job, dancers are workers, so why can’t they have the same protections and benefits at their training and working environments as others?

Practically speaking, I believe the work this group can accomplish will make lasting change in the form of enacting policy to protect dancers in as many ways as possible. That way the dance studio, company, or school functions will change, for the better. Dance and dancers need so much more than what we have to continue to progress and thrive. If all sorts of dancers and dance-adjacent workers feel safe and valued for the people they are and the art they contribute to, the artform is bound to morph into something unknown. A lot of important, wealthy, powerful, and influential gatekeepers in dance don’t want that and are afraid of that, but that’s exactly what I’m here for.

Karine: I am hoping that the work we are doing will enable dancers to have a safer environment to work in. I would like to see policies being not only put in place, but also followed to protect dancers and students. I would also like to see that all dancers have a place to go, without any fear of being reprimanded when they want to speak up about an abusive situation, person, or event. I would like to see dancers feel like they can stick together and support one another. I also feel strongly that we need to implement training in all levels of dance, sports, etc. in terms of abuse prevention and safe environment.

Erin: Dance can be such a powerful form of human expression, and working as a professional in dance can be a transcendent, fulfilling, and a positively challenging pursuit. By addressing abuse, reducing stigma, and working together to make change, I hope everyone who dances will be supported to have these experiences.

Maggie: Joining with my colleagues, I hope that in some way we can help create a future which includes a dance profession that is as beautiful and inspiring to be part of as it is to watch.

Skeleton with lemons

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To learn more about the Personal Safety for Dance International Working Group, visit www.personalsafetyfordance.com.

2 Responses to “Working to Prevent Abuse in Dance”

  1. Victoria Rodrigues

    Well-done article on a delicate topic!

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