Bullying in the Ballet Studio…By the Teacher

As of this week, I have a new student in my open classes. He is a working actor with an actual career (not one of the myriad of aspiring young hopefuls who call themselves actors). He is quite a good dancer, although perhaps not dancing a a first-rate professional level – not yet. He is what many would consider a “dream come true” student: dedicated, hard working, serious, open minded, willing to take corrections, and LOVES the process of learning to dance. When I thanked him and told him it was a pleasure to have him in class, he replied that he could no longer “take the abuse and humiliation” he was receiving from his previous teacher.

I know that these teachers exist. I, myself, am the product of one of these teachers. I know that there are students that are drawn to these teachers. What I do not understand is WHY.

When I began my training so late in life, there was nothing I wanted more than to dance. When I found a ballet teacher that was famous, respected, known for getting excellent results, and was willing to take an interest in ME, willing to work with ME, willing to guide this adult beginner into a career, I was willing to accept any sort of treatment just to be able to get that training. I, personally, was never the target of the bullying that was dealt out in that studio. I was never singled out and humiliated. I was never made to question my value as an artist, as a dancer, as a PERSON…but many of my classmates were. One of my colleagues, a stunning young ballet dancer, was told by this teacher in front of forty students that she would NEVER have a career. And this was not the only dance teacher in New York who was dealing out this form of abuse. And dancers simply “took it”. Many have told me that they believe that this sort of relentless targeting by the person they were trusting with their career left deep emotional scars. Some once very promising dancers that I know believe that their lack of confidence and subsequent lack of success was the direct result of this form of teaching.

I know a working professional dancer who currently takes his daily class with one of these teachers. This dancer has MAJOR companies on his resume. He has danced in some of the world’s great theaters. He has had the kind of career thus far that most students can only dream of. He tells me about these classes and how he LOVES this teacher. He LOVES when this teacher screams, humiliates and singles out students. He LOVES when this teacher treats the pianist with disdain simply because the pianist can’t read his mind. This dancer believes that he is in the presence of great teaching. He believes that this is great teaching because this teacher is famous. I have seen this dancer dance. Yes, he has a great resume. But as a dancer, as an artist…he is…well…”perfectly fine”.

I am not sure what these teachers are trying to achieve. Do they believe that this is the best way to get a result? Are they simply passing on the abuse that they received from their teachers to the next generation of dancers? Are they just mean and unhappy bullies?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record I would like to, once again, reference my time spent studying under Luigi. Many people in our industry cavalierly toss around the title “Master Teacher”. If these people had ever actually been in the presence of a TRUE Master Teacher we wouldn’t be hearing that term nearly as often. But Luigi was the real thing. He changed the way dance was taught all over the world. He created a completely new technique and created a virtually endless list of brilliant dancers and choreographers who credit him with their success (Liza Minnelli, Donna McKechnie, Ben Vereen, Charlotte D’Amboise, Susan Stroman, Twyla Tharp…). Never, not once, did I see Luigi berate or humiliate a student. He taught his classes from a place of love and he always believed that a dancer had to be nurtured. The results of his brilliant teaching are unquestionable.

There is much that I have taken from the Luigi Technique into the ballet studio. I learned musicality from Luigi. I learned port de bras from Luigi. I learned epaulment, phrasing and personal style from Luigi. And I have brought these lessons into my ballet classes and I am passing on the philosophy of this jazz technique to my ballet students. But the most two important things that I learned from this truly great Master Teacher are the love of the process and the need to nurture and cultivate students.

I have heard from young dancers that these bullying teachers “light a fire under them”. If a dancer needs to have a “fire lit under them” to get them to work, then they are, in my opinion, in the wrong business. Because if you don’t love the work; if the endless, repetitious, relentless training is not the most important thing in your life, then you probably will never be good enough anyway. So why would the abuse of a teacher have any positive impact at all?

And so my young friend with the great resume will continue to study with his famous teacher that he loves. He will continue to take the abuse. And he will continue to dance…and he will, I’m sure, continue to be “perfectly fine”. And I will continue to search for the artist in each of my students. I will continue to nurture the seeds of greatness that might or might not be lying dormant at the core of their being. I may never produce a truly great dancer; that sort of greatness is very rare. But I certainly don’t want my students to settle for “perfectly fine”. I will try to treat every student that walks into my room with love and respect and I will, to the best of my ability, nurture the gifts that they have deep inside. I will try to help them dance from the inside, to feel the work from a very deep place, to respond to the music and to love the process. And if I’ve done my job right, each of them, on their own terms, will soar.

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