This teacher, for example, presented his work as a form of “liberation” from the chains of social conditioning; he talked about gender inequality and dreamed of creating a new generation of female amazons.
Yet, a double standard was often at play: For example, women were often admonished to be more supportive of male students (essentially, reinforcing the prevalent message that women should be nurturers), while facing several forms of violence and psychological manipulation in training; verbally, in the form of a constant barrage of criticism, and psychologically and physically, through a continuous violation of their personal boundaries. The teacher also expected women organizers to take care of his professional needs.
To give the reader an example of the type of methods used in these workshops: under the guise of teaching students loosen inhibitions, this teacher coerced students to engage in sexual exercises in front of each other. In one exercise, blindfolded students were instructed to have frenzied sex with a tree or a bottle in front of the entire group.
Alternatively, students were paired up in dangerous wrestling matches in a sand pit, pressing on each other violently. In another type of exercise, one student was groped and pushed by the entire group, resulting in a violation of personal boundaries. A female student broke her ankle in front of me during this type of exercise.
In a context where students are under the thumb of one autocratic male teacher, pushed to the limit into frenzied states from morning until evening, exhausted and pressured to conform, the question of consent is highly ambiguous.
Further, when a dialogue with teachers is not permitted, and when there is no system of check and balance in place, over time, ethical boundaries are bound to erode. This erosion, in this instance, manifested as inappropriate personal comments, which constitute another form of violence against women.
Female students were, on one occasion, called "angry wombs" and "empty wombs." This teacher told us that women are "programmed" to have children, and that when we failed to fulfill our biological destiny, our wombs were "angry", which, he claimed, affected the quality of our dance.
Although these sexist comments may seem laughable, in the context of a teacher/student relationship, one cannot underestimate the impact of these male-centered messages on the female psyche. One the one hand, women were encouraged to emulate men and engage in forms of normative masculine violence to achieve mastery within the art form, and, on the other hand, they were reminded of the inescapability of their biological destiny.
In fact, this teacher did not just teach dance; he dispensed personal and spiritual advice as though he were an authority on the subject of life itself. Whenever dance teachers pose as spiritual masters and feel justified to publicly put students on the spot, shame them, or criticize aspects of their personal life in front of other students during class, a serious ethical boundary has been breached.
Yet perhaps the most confounding aspect of this phenomenon is that, in many cases, once a power structure has been established in a group context, it is unlikely to be challenged. Psychologists call this propensity for denial "cognitive dissonance". When we experience conflicted thoughts, we tend to eliminate the most troubling thought to protect the integrity of our experience. Rationalizing and justifying aberrant behavior is less stressful than facing conflict.
Rob Preece described the enormous 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.
Unfortunately, collective denial tends to lead to a general lack of accountability, which, in turn, almost always translates into a further breaking down of ethical boundaries. For example, studies have shown that valorizing violence also results in the strengthening of a rape culture. Not surprisingly, the misogyny and sexism so embedded in the teachings I received also led to inappropriate behavior from fellow male students, who modeled after the male teacher.
As a result of a mixture of violence and sexual exercises, it was not uncommon to see in these workshops male students who used the physical proximity to their advantage and abused the situation, further violating women's personal boundaries.
However, the idea of “female empowerment”, or the myth of a “wise elder” are so appealing to us that we try to protect them at all cost. However, while protecting our own delusions and projections, we also protect the patriarchy and patterns of oppression. As Preece pointed out: “it is therefore necessary for us to wake up and not be beguiled by charismatic teachers and our own need to idealize."
Dysfunctional male teachers can indeed be extremely charismatic and charming. The adoring female student enthralled by a male teacher may seem like a cliche, but it is nonetheless commonplace in the classroom. Students may, without realizing it, form a deep attachment to their teachers, in the exact same way that victims of intimate partner violence form a bond with their abusers, a phenomenon more commonly known as traumatic bonding.
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.
In my case, I rationalized that I could endure the many violations of boundaries. I only realized later on that there were serious consequences to these repetitive boundary violations and put-downs. As long as I stayed embroiled in the dynamic, I was not able to acknowledge the severity of the problem - it took a clean break for me to begin to come to terms with the issue.
When testimonials of abuse, sexism, and misogyny come out, they elicit strong emotional reactions and are very divisive, proportional to the level of cognitive dissonance and attachment to the male mystique. Unfortunately, no one is immune to this phenomenon - anyone can become a victim of denial.
These patterns of denial are not individual, but they are collective patterns embedded in the very fabric of our society. Today, a younger generation is developing an awareness of various forms of gender-based violence. The concepts of consent and toxic masculinity have entered our consciousness, and we are making headway.
In recent years, a clear link has also been established between gender-based violence and the lack of advancement of women in the world. It has become evident that misogyny is deeply embedded in our economic structures.
In this particular instance, over the course of several years, not surprisingly, other female organizers and I were expected to perform unpaid labor for this teacher, who was adamant that a student, who took on the role of producer, should not get paid.
Under the guise of receiving "private teaching," I spent hours working with no remuneration, 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. Produced events.
Never received any private teaching. I was told that money was not important and that it was a great honor to support him. Yet, if money was not deemed “important” for the women in this equation, the male teacher made sure that he was paid in full. This is emblematic of the gender divide: at a time where men and women still have no equal pay, women’s work is routinely devalued, and women are expected to pave the way for "great" men.
Unfortunately, men's great achievements often come at significant 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.
The exploitation of women is not a rare occurrence in the dance world. 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 or not, is always about power, and power held by men represents economic opportunities denied to women. Yet disrespect and abuse of women are 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 accept the situation as status quo.
Today, we need to acknowledge that the dance world has its fair share of male “gurus” or untouchable men who often cross ethical lines. This phenomenon, by the way, is hardly unique to the dance world. 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.
It is our undiscerning deference, which contributes to these teachers' narcissism. Without room for criticism or oversight, we end up creating monsters instead of teachers.
Learning from this experience, I have developed a system of checks and balances for my work. My classes are audited; my work with the community is evaluated by separate organizations. I also seek professional feedback to ensure that I work within ethical boundaries.
Since breaking from oppressive educational models, I have educated myself on the scope of trauma research. As a result, I have learned to identify risky pedagogical practices. Like many dance professionals today, I now advocate a trauma-informed approach to learning.
In the end, an important lesson that I learned is to identify the harmful patterns surrounding the abuse of power. 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.
Misogynists are not aware that they hate women. But many of us, women included, need to confront our tendency to put men first. Women need to reckon with the harmful consequences of their own misogyny.
In our dance communities, we had better learn to cultivate appropriate boundaries and set guidelines that protect women who are consistently the victims of abusive power dynamics. We also need to learn to confront dangerous power imbalances.
It may be important to point out that dancers may be particularly vulnerable to abuse. From an early age, we are taught to follow discipline. Like soldiers, we obey our teachers, whatever the cost may be. This is why I believe that 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 to self-examine and be beyond reproach, we leave the door wide open to an endemic and self-perpetuating abuse of women.
While 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 the patriarchy. A normalized, hegemonic masculine culture of violence has infiltrated every aspect of our societies, and the sad legacy of abuse often perpetuates from one generation to the next. If we want change, we had better give women a voice and a platform to share their experiences. 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)
Adair, Christy. Women and Dance. Sylphs and Sirens. 1992. New York University Press.
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. https://www.dancemagazine.com/can-we-all-please-acknowledge-ballets-sexism-problem-already-2376775181.html
Mc.Evoy, Alan. Abuse of Power. Teaching Tolerance. Issue 48, Fall 2014. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2014/abuse-of-power
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.
Tierney, John. Go Ahead, Rationalize. Monkeys Do It, Too. New York Times. Nov 6, 2007. Web. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/06/science/06tier.html
Krauss Whitbourne, Susan Ph.D. This Is How Men Irritate Women the Most. Psychology Today. Web. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201704/is-how-men-irritate-women-the-most
First released Nov 27, 2017 - edited January 14, 2019