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Disrupting Harm in Dance

In her 1951 autobiography Dance to the Piper, Agnes de Mille spends seven pages describing in colorful detail what it was like to be on the road with the Ballets Russes. With a searing eye for indignities and her characteristic wit, the scene also captures the plight of the dancer. She begins:

“What does the Russian Ballet look like on tour? Different from what you have been led to believe. Most of the girls and boys are simply, even poorly, dressed. They have no money. In fact, they have borrowed months ahead on next season’s contract in order to get through their two months' vacation. They live like indentured servants.”

Whistle at Tanz im August. Photograph by Dajana_Lothert/ HAU Hebbel am Ufer

She parses the differences afforded to the “stars” versus the corps de ballet, and divulges that the $45 per week salary of the corps is less than a tenth of what a couple of the highest paid star makes, and less than a third of what the average musician makes. She also observes their mental health as she continues to tease apart the glamorous image of the dancer against the hardscrabble reality:

“Hard working they are to the point of slavery…. But healthy? Not very. Raddled with sexual insecurity, financial instability, ambition, jealousy and terror, they are herded from one engagement to another locked in the confines of their group for ten months at a stretch…. Occasionally there is a nervous breakdown and a girl is unloaded at some station and left behind in a Midwestern hospital. Occasionally someone has a temper tantrum and beats up his girlfriend or wife, forcing her to seek succor in adjacent bedrooms. Next morning they are all doing pliés in a row in perfect decorum.”

While so much has changed since the mid-twentieth-century tour de Mille describes, professional dancers still find that their careers, and much of their training, are riddled with the same ills. 

My ballet teacher had many memorable one-liners and sayings, from the hilarious to the humiliating, but somewhere in the middle, among them, was a sort of prophetic analogy: “If you think hard work is fun, then yes, ballet can be fun.” The qualifier may have been meant to root out the unserious students and send them running to a more recreational class; but now I think the phrase was also a little reminder, to even the most serious among us, that we were in that studio busting ourselves, not just in service of a frivolous dream, but in pursuit of a demanding, and sometimes thankless, profession. Though the transmission of this concept may vary, many dancers absorb an idea of “what it takes” to become a professional at an early age—usually something along the lines of everything you’ve got and more, the proverbial 110% as de Mille captures—and along with it, a sense of the scarcity of professional opportunities. This type of fear lives on to cover all manner of abusive and discriminatory practices that remain in the industry, from low pay to harassment to unsafe working conditions and worse. 

Recent books like Alice Robb’s reported memoir Don’t Think Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet and Lola Lafon’s gripping novel Reeling, along with the podcast “The Turning: Room of Mirrors,” seem to confirm that no matter how far you proceed into the field, pre-professional dance education and its prospect of a grinding but magical career, leaves an outsized imprint on the practitioner. In another new book, Dance and Ethics: Moving Towards a More Humane Dance Culture, author Naomi M. Jackson questions whether the results-based values of the Western dance world can continue to justify the means employed offstage. Using the field of ethics “to challenge such problematic assumptions and actions,” she calls for an end to the kind of compartmentalization that enables the performance product to be more important than process. 

They are not alone in interrogating the accepted behaviors and narratives surrounding the field. Many new advocates for equity and transparency have emerged in the last few years, including but not limited to: Creating New Futures (Phase 1 facilitated by Yanira Castro in collaboration with a diverse group of working artists), a living document challenging funders and presenters to tackle, head on, the lack of equity and sustainability for freelance dance artists; Dancers & Motherhood, an online community of dancer mothers, founded by Xin Ying, Ingrid Silva, Allison DeBona, and Grace Whitworth, drawing attention to the kinds of discrimination and challenges inherent in being both a parent and dance artist and seeking a more inclusive, supportive dance world; and Dance/NYC’s new Dance. Workforce. Resilience. hub that offers useful research, including findings from the 2023 dance industry census, and a variety of resources aimed at strengthening the dance ecology of New York City. 

And in the last few weeks, the union representing concert dancers, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), has seen a lot of action, from the vote by American Ballet Theatre dancers to authorize a strike that ended up producing a new, more favorable contract with ABT’s management to the history-making vote by the teachers of School of American Ballet to join the union many of them once belonged to as dancers. Dance Theatre of Harlem also rejoined AGMA last week.

One thing is clear: in this post #metoo, post-pandemic, post-George Floyd moment, where none of the problems that ail us as a culture seem to be fully in the past, more dance artists are speaking out, using their online networks to build awareness and gather strength in numbers, and taking action to realize the changes they want to see.

Whistle with Elisabeth Clarke-Hasters and Brenda Dixon Gottschild on a “#MeToo continued” panel at Tanz im August 2019. Photograph by Camille Blake 

For those seeking to clarify their own values in the dance workplace and organize for change, there is a new interactive curriculum now available from the duo behind Whistle, Frances Chiaverini and Robyn Doty. Coming together with Crip Movement Lab, The Dance Union, J. Bouey, and OFEN Co-Arts, they have created the online toolkit Disrupting Harm in Dance “to navigate {dysfunctional culture] while feeling safe, connected, and empowered.”

Whistle was born out of a friendship between Chiaverini and Doty, and a newfound realization that some of Chiaverini’s complaints about her job might qualify as abuse. 

“I’ve just been experiencing abuse my whole career, my whole training, and I didn't always know that that's what it was. Meeting Robin kind of helped identify some of that stuff,” said Chiaverini, a performer, artist, and director who has been a member of The Forsythe Company and currently works with BRUCH at Theater Neumarkt and Trajal Harrell at Schauspielhaus Zürich. “I needed to vent about my job and all the shitty conditions that are naturally built into it, that no one wanted to address. And I felt really alone in it. Robin made this space for letting me complain, hearing it and validating it, and offering solutions.”

“I wasn't very familiar with dance as a workplace,” said Doty, an activist, dramaturge, and project manager. “It was easy for me to be like, yes, that is abuse. I think sometimes when people grow up with it, especially since you start as such a young child, it can be harder to deconstruct what is happening. But since I didn’t have that, it felt pretty simple.”

Frances Chiaverini, co-founder of Whistle. Photograph by Monica Liguoro

Robyn Doty, co-founder of Whistle. Photograph courtesy of Doty

They began by posting a series of call outs, largely focused on misogyny and sexual harassment, sharing damaging anecdotes from dancers who wanted to tell their stories. A few memorable phrases: “Girls you need to do something about your muffin tops. No one wants to see that onstage”; “the reason you can jump so high is because you have boy legs” said to a seven-year-old; and “the dance partner whose package always finds its way directly between the cheeks of my ass unnecessarily.” This was in 2017 when the headlines were full of stories about the abuse of powerful men like Larry Nasser, Geraldo Rivera, Woody Allen, and Harvey Weinstein. From there, they began hosting workshops. 

Seven years and several residencies later, Whistle has taken their own massive collection of resources—including their outline for facilitating a “Messy Talk” as a first step to incite change—and combined it with an intersectional series of invitations for undoing ableism, dismantling white supremacy and hierarchy, and embodying anti-capitalist processes. There is even a guide to somatic astrology to help liberate dancers from the impact oppression can have on the body.  

“The curriculum is not only our work, our work is just a part of it. It's the work of all the people that we learned from and that we continue to learn from,” said Chiaverini. 

“There's a lot of vulnerability and unlearning,” said Doty. “I think a lot of the materials that we have collected together—like Sydnie L. Mosley's Eight Ways to Decolonize the Classroom, inside of The Dance Union’s Town Hall—put a lot of emphasis on examining the ways that you grew up, your relationship to authority and the way that you think, for example, that discipline gets done. It is very vulnerable to realize that the things that you've done, have been potentially incorrect and hurt people. Something that was really important to me in making these resources is realizing that there is a real reality of harm. And we do it to each other. It's not something one directional, where we are receiving harm. All of us have the ability to also impact others harmfully. Not only do you have to unlearn a lot of your relationship to the way that you were taught, but then you have to understand that there's a whole accountability process involved.” 

The questionnaires and journaling prompts on the website are opportunities for self-reflection and exploration intent on helping all members of the dance industry navigate these tricky waters of vulnerability and accountability, including setting boundaries, talking about consent and appropriation, imagining new ways of working, and managing self-care. There are glossaries with words that can help define experiences that seem inappropriate or unwanted but feel hard to categorize, guides for speaking up, and the support of other artists’ stories and advice. 

Unfortunately, this toolkit cannot solve the ungenerous math that belies the unsustainable nature of America’s nonprofit arts sector. But it does put forward a path of transparency that may have more people asking questions about who bears the brunt of such shortfalls. 

While Chiaverini and Doty saw university dance programs as a likely place for putting this curriculum into practice, they say so far the response has been chilly. Likewise, it remains unclear whether these resources will find their way to the leaders of arts organizations. 

“It’s about responsible working structures,” said Chiaverini. “And that's why the curriculum is not just for dancers but dancer adjacent, performance adjacent, because it's meant to talk to all the admin people, all the grant writing people, all the budget making people.” 

“It's a lot easier to have a checklist than it is to deeply unlearn racist behaviors, or sexist ideas, or things that are transphobic or ableist,” added Doty. “It’s just so much easier to be like…and now we have ramps. (Please, have ramps.) In reality, everything has to change. So regardless of whether it's an individual dancer versus someone who's leading an institution, everyone has to, to some degree, be on board.”

Ultimately, Whistle doesn’t claim to know what making these wholesale changes will result in. Will it mean less dance is produced if more people insist on equitable protocols and remuneration? And always, the question: can the rigorous aesthetic values of dance, as so many of us have known them for so long, remain if training tilts toward the individual, and the humane?  

For a field that has long fed itself on chains of command and obedience, and the firm answers of a hierarchy, this lack of certainty may be the ultimate provocation. There is no sure way of knowing what a corps de ballet or ensemble might look like if more dancers begin to explore the fertile ground of their own experience, expertise, and desire for equity. I, for one, am eager to follow wherever this leads.

Candice Thompson

Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.



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