Misogyny in the Dance World: Are We listening?
Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci, Ph.D, writes for Psychology Today that: “in most cases, misogynists do not even know that they hate women. Misogyny is typically an unconscious hatred that men form early in life”. Recently, women started coming out and speaking up against misogyny and sexual abuse, and what seems like a tidal wave of accusations against men in positions of power has swept across America. But as women know only too well, abuse does not have to be necessarily sexual in nature - abuse and misogyny can manifest in a number of ways. Men in power can resort to a variety of tactics to intimidate, belittle and ultimately - protect their position of power.
As a society, we have a tendency to worship at the altar of patriarchy. Men always come before women and tend to be trusted first, while women learn at an early age to internalize the patriarchy. As a result, even women can be dismissive of the word of other women when they come forward to share their stories.
Unfortunately, the dance world is still ripe with misogyny. A woman teacher, director or choreographer may face a number of problems in her field. Still today, women are held to an impossible double standard and subconsciously expected to “nurture” and not “lead” by both sexes. For example, a successful female choreographer or teacher may be labeled “aggressive”, while her male counterpart will be merely perceived as confident. This resistance to women in leadership roles makes it challenging to navigate the pitfalls of a career in the professional dance world.
Gender inequality is particularly obvious when it comes to the teacher/ student relationship in dance. When a woman becomes a teacher, her male students will not think twice about asking her out on a date, advising her on how to teach, or demanding to meet with her to “talk” before or after class. Men seem completely unaware that they would never treat a male teacher the same way. The male privilege is never more apparent than in this type of situation; some of these men may subconsciously compensate the blow inflicted on their narcissism by calling her “lovely“, “pretty”, or commenting on her looks.
On the other hand, when the role is reversed and women are rising through the ranks, they can face serious problems with male teachers. Female students can be traumatized or their self-esteem may be greatly impaired by unscrupulous teachers. These early experiences may greatly impact their ability to succeed later in life.
We still live in a culture where men’s needs come first and some male teachers seem to think that women students are merely there to fulfill their own needs. It is not uncommon for female students to be harassed by their teachers, having to ward off unwanted sexual advances. Someone I know was raped by her dance teacher when she was still in college. When the behavior was reported, the woman was blamed and no action was taken.
Women go through learning experiences with the expectation that this state of affairs cannot be helped and we learn to endure. This is because there are so few consequences to men’s misconduct and women have such limited options. Very recently, the outpouring of rage coming from women in Hollywood gave me pause and also prompted me to come forward with one of my stories as a woman making her way through the male-dominated dance world.
In the early 2000’s, I started to train in a form of dance, which originated in Japan. My first teacher in that discipline was a man from Mexico. He came highly recommended in an unconventional, avant-garde field called Butoh.
As my studies with this man furthered, I started noticing that some of the dynamics in his workshops made me uncomfortable. This man was regarded more as a “guru” than a dance teacher, yet would use methods that felt unsafe. We were sometimes pushed to the limit, and asked to take part in unconventional “exercises” such as flagellating each other with branches. The exercises were often punishing and violent. Ankles and arms were broken. I got a severe concussion during one exercise and blacked out. Instead of being taken to a doctor or a hospital, I was told immediately to dance after regaining consciousness.
This teacher was very convincing when he said that he had learned these techniques in Japan. If one wished to attain mastery in this art form, one needed to comply with his demands and “submit” to him. Any dissent was met with the ultimate pronouncement that our egos were in need of submission. Because this art form was so new to me, it never occurred to me that these exercises had little to do with the dance and perhaps satisfied his unconscious need to dominate. I had no reason to question this man, who was unanimously respected professionally.
On average, these workshops were comprised of 80% women. Very early on, I started to notice that this teacher tended to publicly humiliate the women in the workshop, never the men. Gradually, I started noticing the misogyny. Angry tirades and inappropriate personal comments were not uncommon. Women were called “angry wombs” and “empty wombs”. Women were told to be supportive of male students while they were often yelled at and humiliated by this teacher.
Inappropriate, angry personal comments towards me reoccurred over the course of years. I was chastised for being “invisible”, while being told that I reminded him of his sister, and mother. Dating advice was yelled at me during group exercises; I was called “self indulgent” publicly for being in severe pain from menstrual cramps. My volunteer work, which, according to him, was only for my ego’s benefit, was belittled. Our ego was always a target, but the teacher’s ego was never in question.
We were asked to clean the teacher’s yard, even build shelves for him. Under the guise of receiving “private teaching”, I spent hundreds of hours working for free for this man, either building his student base or facilitating his work in the United States. I supported his green card application. Built his press kits. Left him my apartment on occasion. Counted his money. Recruited students. Yet never received any private teaching. I was told that money was not important, and that it was a great honor to support him.
The economic misogyny and paternalism continued when, after years of hosting him as a teacher and supporting his work in our community, he underhandedly over saturated our niche market by booking several workshops around the same time with different organizers, without any regard for the conflicts he created. When I reached out to him, he refused to discuss the situation and went unresponsive. Never question the guru.
With distance, I started to realize how toxic and exploitative this relationship was. Perhaps more surprising is how long it took me to stop working with this teacher. But is it really that surprising? As a woman, I had been conditioned to believe that men come first, and for my formative years, I completely lacked positive female role models to identify with. Unfortunately, for most women in the professional world, semi-abusive patterns are the norm.
When a well-known teacher, with all the power, tells his students that their discomfort is for their own good, how are we to know? The teacher is supposed to know best and guide us. More often than not, we end up second-guessing ourselves. Especially if no one around us sees anything wrong with the abuse. Therein lies the problem. Disrespect and abuse of women is so commonplace, so prevalent, that we are desensitized and do not see it anymore. Without an outside voice calling out impropriety, we do not dare to speak up, and/or accept the situation as status quo.
Additionally, abuse, for many students, is difficult to identify; since abusive people are not abusive all the time. A student may have a difficult time separating positive experiences from inappropriate ones, especially when it is reinforced over and over again to them that the teacher knows best.
After severing ties with him, I shared my experience with other workshop coordinators who are still bringing him to the US. My story of abuse was ignored for the most part. Worse, I was blamed for this “rift” with the teacher that “made everyone uncomfortable.”
This is hardly unusual. Cry “misogyny!” and watch the ripple effect. Women are more often than not blamed for the bullying and abuse they have to endure. Even by other women.
Commenting on the sexual abuse so rampant in the Buddhist community, Rob Preece, author of Our Teachers are Not God, explains this phenomenon. He describes the huge emotional investment we make in our teachers that comes with massive psychological projections. Once we idealize a teacher and place them on a pedestal, it is difficult for anyone to dislodge them. We are invested, attached; any crack on the surface and an entire body of meaningful experiences might come tumbling down. As a result, allegations of misconduct are collectively pushed under the rug as they threaten to tear at the very fabric of our emotional investments.
As could be expected, people have gone to great lengths to defend this male teacher to me. One organizer said to me: “ If this is true, it is unacceptable”. “If” is the equivalent of “see no evil, hear no evil”. In such cases, the word if is brandished like a magic wand to prolong the illusion of propriety in the face of impropriety. Unfortunately, the word if also means that the victim is neither believed, nor heard.
Today, we need to acknowledge that the dance world has its fair share of “gurus” or untouchable men who often cross ethical lines. Stephen Batchelor, author of Why I Quit Guru Yoga, asks the very relevant question:
“Does elevating the guru to the same status as the teachings themselves set the stage for teacher-student abuse?” It just might.
Rob Preece adds:
“While there are some extraordinary teachers with great integrity, they are seldom if ever flawless. I am sometimes shocked when I hear students describe the critical, bullying way in which they are treated as a necessary part of the destruction of the ego. So often this reflects the narcissism of the teacher. The status of certain teachers can cause them to become self-centered or narcissistic”.
But it is our blind deference, which contributes to their status, hence their narcissism. Without room for criticism and any oversight, we end up creating monsters instead of teachers.
Learning from this experience, I have developed a system of checks and balances for my own work. My classes are audited; my work with the community is evaluated twice a year by separate organizations. I consult with my peers, and seek professional feedback to ensure that I work within ethical boundaries. The safety of students is a constant priority for me.
In the end, while I can be grateful for all the things I learned from this teacher, his behavior was abusive, plain and simple. Today I am grateful to be able to see it, and say it.
Coming to such conclusions is often painful. When the story about Charlie Rose’s misconduct came out, his co-host, while acknowledging that she was “reeling” from the realization that someone she so greatly admired was capable of such horrible acts, still made this statement for the New York Times:
“This I know is true,” she continued. “Women cannot achieve equality in the workplace or in society until there is a reckoning and a taking of responsibility. This has to end. This behavior is wrong, period.”
No matter how great the contribution or outstanding the achievement, there is no excuse for disrespecting women and misusing one’s power. Female students have a right to study any art form without being used, belittled and disrespected.
Equally important is the fact that women have the right to be heard, and should aspire to achieve as much as men. Unfortunately, men’s great achievements often come at great costs to women. If men in positions of power put down women, it is to ensure that the same women will lack the confidence to compete with them later.
In the end, this is an ethical issue masking a grim economic reality. More often than not, men will consciously or unconsciously misuse their power to protect their status and livelihood. A male teacher who insults, manipulates his female students to exact free labor from them, and shoves them to the side to further his own needs, is not worthy of his position.
Exploitation of women is not a rare occurrence in the dance world unfortunately. In her article for Dance Magazine: Can we please acknowledge ballet’s sexism problem already? Courtney Escoyne points out the fact that men dominate the dance world and that, more often than not, they have built their work on the shoulders of their lesser-paid female counterparts. Three male choreographers dominate ballet today; yet they use almost only female dancers, who are paid a fraction of the men’s salaries.
Abuse of women, whether sexual in nature or not, is always about power, and power held by men represents economic opportunities denied to women. Misogynists are not aware that they hate women. But many of us, women included, need to confront our own tendency to turn a blind eye to abusive behavior. In our dance communities, we had better learn to cultivate appropriate boundaries and set guidelines that protect women who are constantly the victims of misogyny and abusive power dynamics. We need to confront this power imbalance and help women get out of this supporting role.
In conclusion, it may be important to point out that dancers may be very vulnerable to abuse. From an early age, we are taught to follow discipline and to respect and obey our teachers. It is not uncommon for dancers to push through extreme physical pain while training. Lacking perspective and support, female students are even more vulnerable than their male student counterparts.
This is why male teachers should be under scrutiny while working with female students. Ongoing psychological and ethical evaluations should be normal requirements for male dance teachers aspiring to find work. As long as we trust men blindly to self-examine and be beyond reproach, we leave the door wide open to an endemic and self-perpetuating abuse of women.
While pushing and motivating students is a normal part of teaching dance, physical violence, verbal abuse and economic exploitation are not acceptable. But they certainly all go hand in hand with misogyny and the patriarchy.
So what can we do about it?
First, if we really want things to change, we have to give women a voice. More importantly, we must be willing to hear women and give them a platform to be heard. Tell your story today. Or better yet, when a woman comes forward with her story, learn to listen.
Paternalism: the policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates' supposed best interest. (Merriam – Webster)
Economic Exploitation: a relationship in the distribution of economic wealth wherein a worker does not receive the proper amount of income or entitlement. (Oxford)
Abuse: treat (a person or an animal) with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly. (Merriam – Webster)
Misogyny: is the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women or girls. (Merriam – Webster)
Bibliography/ Relevant Articles
Batchelor, Stephen. Why I Quit Guru Yoga. Tricycle. https://tricycle.org/magazine/quit-guru-yoga/
Brogaard, Berit. 12 Ways to Spot a Misogynist. Psychology Today. Feb 18, 2015. Web. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mysteries-love/201502/12-ways-spot-misogynist
Escoyne, Courtney. Can we please acknowledge ballet’s sexism problem already? April 24, 2017. Dance Magazine. http://www.dancemagazine.com/can-we-all-please-acknowledge-ballets-sexism-problem-already-2376775181.html
Preece, Robert. Our teachers are not our Gods. July, 20, 2017. Lion’s Roar. Web. https://www.lionsroar.com/teachers-not-gods/
Koblin, John and Grynbaum, Michael. Charlie Rose Fired by CBS and PBS After Harassment Allegations. Nov 21, 2017. New York Times.