When the #MeToo movement began to sweep the world, the ballet industry, just like many other professional spheres, was rocked with overdue discoveries of abuse. Alexandra Waterbury’s case against Chase Finlay continues (though charges against other defendants have been dropped), and Troy Powell of Alvin Ailey was fired this summer following allegations of sexual harassment. Toxic work cultures that allow higher-ups to abuse their power are no longer unfamiliar stories. The kinds of allegations that have come up in the ballet community, however, seem to unveil an underlying, industry-specific issue regarding power dynamics. In other words, those at the top hold seemingly unchecked influence, while the masses of dancers are mostly powerless, at the mercy of directors.
Part of this is likely due to the fact that the industry is so saturated with dancers all vying for the very small pool of contracts available in any given year. There simply aren’t enough jobs to go around — and not enough money to support more artists, when contracted professionals are already underpaid. As a result, dancers are sometimes seen as disposable and are subject to mistreatment, leading many to feel as though they aren’t respected or valued as artists in their companies. Directors might not be straightforward in communications regarding things like contracts, or they might overwork their dancers, and yet dancers are expected to be grateful that they’re dancing at all.
It’s both impressive and alarming that dancers are able, and almost willing, to endure such mistreatment. It speaks to their level of love and commitment to this art form, but it is also indicative of the twistedness of a system that encourages such harmful mentalities. Students are, early in their training, acquainted with harsh teachers who might overstretch them, hit them, and most likely of all, verbally abuse them with comments about their inadequacy, facility, and more. I can’t say how many times in my ballet career students would leave class in tears after a particularly rough day, and this is a familiar scene at dance studios. Yes, some parts of “Dance Moms” were actually kind of accurate.
As students interact with this kind of language from a young, formative age, mistreatment becomes normalized. Abuse of the magnitude described at the outset of this article — such as sexual harassment — are universally condemned. Yet verbal abuse such as those described in accusations levelled against Paris Opera Ballet’s management may meet with a more lukewarm response, even in personal conversations I had with other students when this situation hit the news. One of my friends, when asked about her thoughts on the matter, simply shrugged and said, “That’s just the way ballet is.” I myself can find it difficult to define where acceptable tough love and harsh coaching veers into abuse and mistreatment.
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the way power is distributed in the ballet industry creates a culture that permits mistreatment at damaging levels. Dance has been found to be the most physically demanding occupation in the country, but the mental and emotional demands of this art arguably far outstrip the physical. Some of it may be inherent to the nature of ballet — it is, after all, an art form, which is necessarily emotionally demanding. But much of it may be due to a flawed system that doesn’t value those who make it what it is: the dancers.
These dual forces of teachers and studios ingraining the idea in young students that abuse of dancers is acceptable, and the pressure on dancers to do whatever it takes to get a job and realize their dreams, create an incredibly imbalanced system. Ballet must, like the rest of the world, grapple with these issues and work to make this occupation a better, safer place for all.
—Sara Komatsu ‘23’s column “Backstage at the Ballet” explores anything and everything ballet-related, from its moments of joy and despair to the broader, systematic issues within it.