Misogyny in the Dance World: Are We listening? By Vangeline
Very recently, the outpouring of rage coming from women prompted me to come forward with my experience as a woman making her way through the male-dominated dance world. Week after week, women have had the courage to share their painful experiences, which has caused me to reflect on what I have gone through personally and professionally. These revelations made me realize how much I had covered up by remaining silent all these years. These are my reflections around the subject of power dynamics and gender in dance.
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”.
Since 2017, a tidal wave of accusations against men in positions of power has swept across America.
As women know only too well, abuse does not have to be necessarily sexual in nature - misogyny and sexism can manifest in a myriad of ways. Men in power can resort to various tactics to intimidate, belittle and ultimately - protect their position of power.
As a society, we tend to worship at the altar of patriarchy. Men dominate every area of society, while women learn at an early age to internalize oppression. As a result, even women can be dismissive of the word of other women when they come forward to share their stories.
The dance world is still ripe with misogyny; as a result, a woman teacher, director or choreographer may face serious problems throughout her career. For example, women are still held to an impossible double standard and are often expected to “nurture” and not “lead” by both sexes. A successful female choreographer or teacher may be labeled as "aggressive," while her male counterpart will be merely perceived as confident. This implicit bias against female leaders makes it extremely challenging for women to navigate the pitfalls of a career in the dance world.
Gender inequality is particularly apparent when it comes to the teacher/ student relationship in dance. When a woman starts teaching, her male students will not think twice about asking her out on a date, advising her on how to teach, or making demands on her time. Men seem entirely 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; for example, male students have called me “lovely” or “pretty”, when they would never dare openly comment on the looks of their male teachers. Some have offered advice on what type of music I should play in my class, while others have demanded to meet with me before or after class.
Men often cover up their insecurities by engaging in "mansplaining", aka condescending to the female teacher when in fact their “own knowledge of the subject she teaches is materially incomplete” (Psychology Today). One day, an inexperienced male student came up to me right after I had given a public lecture and proceeded to lecture me back (using concepts I had just shared). I have often wondered why it seems so incredibly difficult for some men to receive any form of instruction from a woman, or why it is so hard for them to simply listen. It is as though, in our patriarchal society, a woman in a position of authority is automatically perceived as a threat.
When the roles are reversed, women are rising through the ranks can encounter serious problems with male teachers. Young female students can be traumatized, and these early experiences may greatly impact their ability to succeed later in life. A friend of mine was raped by her male dance teacher when she was still in college; when she reported the sexual assault, the woman was blamed, and no action was taken.
Unfortunately, men's needs are still socially sanctioned. It is not uncommon for female students to be harassed by their teachers, having to ward off unwanted sexual advances. Women go through life 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.
I too brushed up with abusive power dynamics while I was studying dance. 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, some of the dynamics in his workshops started to make me feel uncomfortable. This man was very charismatic and had a “following”; he was regarded as much as a "guru" as a dance teacher. Yet, his methods felt violent and unsafe.
The exercises were often punishing: Ankles and arms were broken; and on one occasion, I blacked out after violently hitting my head against another student. Instead of being taken to a doctor or a hospital, I was told to dance in front of the other students after regaining consciousness. Even though injuries were common, no one in the student pool batted an eyelid. The degree of violence was proportional to the level of respect these risky exercises commanded.
When I expressed my mixed feelings to other students (including female students), they told me that my feelings were merely a reflection of my lack of commitment or lack of understanding of the practice. For a very long time, I interpreted my resistance to his autocratic and violent teaching practices as my own failing. I was reminded often that if I did not feel comfortable, it was for my own good; according to him, these feelings had to be surmounted to proceed with my training.
Older students often reminded me that this teacher was a "spiritual Master who knew best". In fact, this teacher was not respected, but revered by his older students or "devotees”, who attributed him semi-magical qualities. As a result, violence in training was rationalized, minimized and normalized.
Psychotherapist Rob Preece, the author of Our Teachers, are Not God, defined this type of dysfunctional dynamic as "a kind of masochistic intoxication with a teacher’s abusive behavior, with the devotee justifying it as something that is all part of his or her path” (Preece).
The male teacher in question held absolute authority and 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 or criticism was met with agitated and angry outbursts, and we were told that our egos were in need of “submission”.
This type of abusive behavior is not uncommon when teachers end up in a position of uncontested power. In his article Abuse of Power, Alan Mc Evoy noted that "almost without exception, offending teachers mask their mistreatment of students as part of a legitimate role function, using the rhetoric of “motivation” or “discipline” to justify their actions".
Rob Preece added:
“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”.
Because this art form was so new to me, it never occurred to me that these exercises had little to do with the dance itself but perhaps satisfied the teachers’ unconscious need to dominate. I had no reason to question this man, who was unanimously respected professionally. Instead, I questioned myself.
We know today that there can be severe consequences to gender unbalances. As expert Mary Crawford points out in her book "Talking Difference: On Gender and Language", a lifetime of unequal power relationships conditions women to trust men in positions of authority (and second-guess themselves). When a group of female students is led by one man, more often than not, women may end up disempowered.
In the context of a student/ teacher relationship, these power constructs are often predicated on an assumption of female inferiority, with an implicit belief in women's deficiency (which can only be remedied by masculine intervention). In the process, masculinity becomes imposed on women. However, as studies have shown, gender-based violence often lurks behind toxic masculine constructs.
It is quite problematic that masculine violence should be presented as a tool for female empowerment. Women, who are statistically victims of various forms of violence from men, may initially be seduced by the argument and convince themselves that by engaging with violent partnering exercises, they too can become empowered. In fact, discharging violent impulses can initially be freeing.
However, when such exercises take place in a male-dominated context, with one man is a position of absolute power, women ultimately end up lacking ownership of their own process. Instead of challenging gender roles, such dynamics are often in place to maintain existing power relations.
In her book, "Women and Dance. Sylphs and Sirens", feminist writer Christy Adair identified this specific phenomenon as "recuperation":
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