A few months ago, your teacher snapped at you for smiling too much. Today, you're keeping your expression neutral when your teacher abruptly cuts the music and walks over to you, pretending to knock on your forehead. "Hello? Is anyone in there? Your face is always blank." Your classmates look just as frozen as you feel, their eyes darting back and forth between you and your teacher until the music resumes and class goes on.

Being bullied by a dance teacher can be painful—and confusing. You may have more questions than answers. What's happening? Am I just too sensitive? Is this really bullying?


Teachers who bully often handwave their behavior as "strict teaching." However, there is a difference: Strict teachers build students up, while bullying teachers tear students down.

bullying teachersStrict teachers build students up; bullying teachers tear them down. Photo by Natalia Figueredo/Unsplash


"Teaching is about imparting skills, technique and knowledge to students. Some teachers do that with an open and relaxed manner, while others prefer structure and strictness," says psychologist Dr. Deborah Serani. "Benign strict teaching can be an effective way to instruct. However, when teaching becomes more aggressive, demeaning and hurtful, that is not teaching—it's bullying."

Physical abuse is always inappropriate, but bullying doesn't have to be physical to be damaging. Helena Wulff, a professor and the deputy head of the department of social anthropology at Stockholm University, has witnessed many student-teacher interactions while researching the international culture of dance. She identifies "negative tone and wording, slapping, or picking on one student in particular" as behaviors that cross the line.

Not sure where your teacher's behavior falls? These signs can help you recognize whether they've gone too far.

Red Flag: Your teacher's behavior benefits them, not you.

Bullies hurt others in order to gain something. Students afraid their teacher will call them "quitters" are more likely to continue paying for classes. A choreographer who screams at dancers will receive prompt and frightened obedience. A studio director who publicly humiliates students attains a feeling of power over their community.

Responsible authority figures help students gain skill and discipline; bullying authority figures hurt and manipulate students to benefit themselves.

Strict teachers have high standards, but the behavior is for the benefit of the student. Photo by Vadim Fomenok/Unsplash

Red Flag: Your teacher repeatedly targets specific students.

Teachers are only human, and may occasionally snap at a student or berate the class. Bullying, on the other hand, is an ongoing pattern of behavior that targets a specific student or group of students by manipulating, mocking, excluding, humiliating, controlling, ignoring or lying to them.

Red Flag: Rules and consequences are unofficial or unreasonable.

A healthy studio environment has established rules—and reasonable consequences for breaking them. A bullying teacher may have irrational penalties for poorly-defined transgressions like "disrespect," or give informal punishments like public humiliation or the silent treatment.

Red Flag: Reprimands are used to attack rather than educate.

"Good teaching is a pattern of 'caring' with encouragement and kindness, but allows for a teacher's specific reactions to the work of students who are repeatedly not doing what they are capable of," says Myron Howard Nadel, a professor of dance at the University of Texas at El Paso. If a teacher needs to reprimand a student, their words should be "meted out judiciously, not out of anger, but love; certainly not for a teacher's misplaced self-gratification."

Red Flag: Your teacher is preventing you from learning.

Some bullying teachers target students by giving them less rehearsal time, fewer corrections or no chance to finish class combinations. Since dance skill grows primarily through practice, consistently preventing students from practicing is a powerful way of harming their dance training.

If punishments hurt your ability to learn, a teacher's behavior has crossed the line into bullying. Photo by Ahmed Odeh/Unsplash

Red Flag: When other adults are in the room, your teacher behaves differently.

Strict teachers have nothing to hide: There's no reason they can't assign students sit-ups or remind them to point their feet in front of other adults. Bullies tend to conceal the extent of their bullying by using their most abusive behaviors when no other adults are present.

Red Flag: There's pressure to remain at the studio.

The most effective way to protect yourself from a bullying situation is to leave it. Implying that students who leave the studio are "quitters" or "traitors" discourages targeted students from walking away, and helps teachers maintain enrollment through fear rather than solid teaching.

Red Flag: You're struggling with body image issues or disordered eating.

In dance, bullying is often combined with body type judgement. While dancers and teachers may need to talk about structural characteristics like musculature or range of extension, pressuring students about weight or eating is never appropriate. "As an arts administrator in a college, I've had to scold a ballet teacher more than once for forcing female students to lose weight," says Nadel. "Several of those students had been in counseling for anorexia."

Red Flag: Confronting your teacher makes the problem worse.

A bully who feels they are being "questioned"—no matter how respectful your approach—is likely to retaliate. This doesn't mean no one should address their behavior, but it's safer to tell another teacher or studio administrator rather than confront the teacher yourself.

"Know that if you're being bullied, it's likely other students receive this kind of abusive behavior, too," says Serani. "Seek them out and share your experiences. Talking about your victimization can help you feel less alone about the abuse. It's important to report any bullying to others, be it a friend or a loved one—and to administration."

Red Flag: You feel anxious, ashamed, or constantly "on guard" outside of class.

Bullying authority figures may dismiss their behavior as "how the real world works," but they're actually undermining students' professionalism. An abusive studio environment trains students to use submissive body language, feel ashamed of their appearance and abilities, and remain on guard against the constant threat of mistreatment—all behaviors that make it harder to navigate school, relationships and the professional world.

Dance Teachers Trending
Rising Waters, by Gianna Reisen. Photo by Josh Rose, courtesy of L.A. Dance Project

For Gianna Reisen, a classically trained ballet dancer who now performs with L.A. Dance Project, the process of finding music for her choreography is everything. "If I'm not 100 percent inspired by the music, the movement just doesn't come out," she says. Following this natural creative spirit, though, wasn't always the driving force behind her artistry.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

2019 has been rife with fantastic holiday songs that are simply BEGGING to be choreographed to. From Pentatonix to Kacey Musgraves, these bangers are the perfect match for your upcoming holiday-themed jazz class. Use each song for different elements of class (warm-up, across the floor, combo, etc.), or have your students get in groups and assign each one a different song from the list to choreograph to. The options are endless, but the general feeling of joy will be the same.

YOU'RE WELCOME! And happy holidays, everyone!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Alvin Ailey surrounded by the Company, 1978. Photography by Jack Mitchell, © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, all rights reserved

From 1961 to 1994, legendary photographer Jack Mitchell captured thousands of moments with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Now, this treasure trove of dance history is available to the public for viewing via the online archives of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The collection includes both color and black-and-white images of Ailey's repertoire, as well as private photo sessions with company members and Ailey himself. Altogether, the archive tracks the career development of many beloved Ailey dancers, including Masazumi Chaya, Judith Jamison, Sylvia Waters, Donna Wood and Dudley Williams—and even a young Desmond Richardson. And there's no shortage of photos of iconic pieces like Blues Suite (Ailey's first piece of choreography), Cry and Revelations.

We couldn't resist sharing a few of our favorites below. Search the collection for more gems here.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by CJ Harris, courtesy of PHILADANCO

Each anniversary celebration of a dance company might also be considered a lesson in dance history and a study of endurance and perseverance. Thus the 50th anniversary of PHILADANCO is an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable legacy of founder and artistic director Joan Myers Brown as a source of inspiration for students, dancers and colleagues nationwide.

PHILADANCO is a resident company at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and kicked off its 50th season on October 5. Brown and the company will participate in the International Association of Blacks in Dance's 32nd annual conference, January 14–19, in Philadelphia. And you can catch the company throughout the U.S. in 2020, including February performances in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

Q: My 13-year-old daughter has always been flexible, but last year she suffered an acute injury to her hip flexor from an overstretch position. Since then I have told her not to participate in over-splits or other extreme positions. Is that the right thing to do?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jacqueline Chang, courtesy of Ailey Extension

Marshall Davis Jr.'s introduction to tap dance began at 10 years old at African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, where his father is director, in Miami, Florida. Training began in sneakers and dress shoes that Davis Jr. did his best to get sound out of. "My father was reluctant to invest in tap shoes, because he thought it was likely I would change my mind about dancing," he says. But it didn't take long before Davis Jr.'s passion for tap became undeniable, and his father bought him his first pair of tap shoes. Just one year later, Davis Jr. became the 1989 Florida winner for the Tri-Star Pictures Tap Day contest, a promotion for the movie Tap, starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. Through that experience, a new tap-dancing future was opened.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Are there good sources to find replacement dance teachers? When I go through standard employment services, I get people who are not properly trained or lack experience.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Courtesy of Susan Jaffe

Throughout Susan Jaffe's performance career at American Ballet Theatre, there was something special, even magical, about her dancing. Lauded as "America's quintessential American ballerina" by The New York Times, Jaffe has continued to shine in her postperformance career, most recently as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She credits the "magic" to her meditation practice, which she began in the 1990s at the height of her career. We sat down with Jaffe to learn more about her practice and how it has helped her both on and off the stage.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Reviewing a simple recording of your voice when you're teaching can help you hear how you sound to your students. Taking the time to play back your instructions, corrections and compliments throughout class will help you find any weak spots as well as recognize some of your strengths. It's a great technique to help you evaluate your instructional ability and make improvements, and pat yourself on the back for things you are doing well. Plus, it's super-easy to do!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Including ballet competition standout Alina Taratorin (photo by Oliver Endahl, courtesy Taratorin)

Congratulations to the 39 talented dancers just named 2020 YoungArts award winners! This year's group of awardees includes several familiar faces from the competition scene.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Brian Babineau, courtesy Burghardt

When Alicia Burghardt entered Dean College in Massachusetts as a freshman dance major, it hadn't occurred to her that the Boston Celtics had a dance team. A competition kid with aspirations for Broadway, Burghardt never imagined herself as an NBA dancer. But by the time she was finishing her senior year, she'd not only joined the Celtics Dancers, she was choreographing a number for a major playoff game. And after finishing her rookie year, surrounded on that TD Garden parquet floor by uproarious fans, she couldn't help but stay for another. "It's unbelievable performing for Boston fans," she says. "They're so loyal to their team. It could be third quarter, down 20 points, and they're still cheering."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
"The Greatest Show on Earth." Photo by Brenda Rueb, courtesy of Vona Dance

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox