Health & Body

OpEd: Are You Ready to Step Up Your Game When It Comes to Student Safety?

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It's time to talk seriously about safety in dance education. As the physical and psychological demands put on student dancers escalates—thanks to competitions, social media and ever-evolving choreography—there is a pressing need to consider how we can successfully safeguard young dancers.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we've heard numerous accounts of unethical, dangerous and appalling practices at dance institutions around the world. Stories of abuse at major dance schools draw media attention and they shake our community to its core.

Old enough to remember less-sensitive times, I'm not surprised to learn that dancers somewhere are being treated badly by people in power. When I was a young child, a dance teacher once threw a chair in rehearsal—not really at anyone, but at the floor in utter frustration with our inability to meet her expectations. Other teachers slapped legs, dragged children by the arm, yelled, shamed or ignored their charges. Fortunately, most of the young people I now teach could not imagine such outbursts or indignities in the studio. Most teachers these days hold themselves to the high standards of discipline and professionalism that the dance world generally values, though there are still those who have not embraced the culture shift.

However, the dangers for young people in dance are not limited to outright abuse. Dance is inherently a high-risk activity because in pushing the boundaries of our human capacity, physically and emotionally, we sometimes discover rewarding artistic results. This reality can encourage students, teachers and even parents to engage in dangerous behaviors in the name of excellence, or more so lately, winning.

From my niche in dance science, I am regularly both impressed by the ways that dance training has improved and horrified by the stories I still hear—stories of students jumping all day on cement floors, being physically pressed into over-splits, dancing for 20-plus hours in one weekend, only to return on Monday to a full week of stressful school days followed by nightly dance classes. For the record, from a health perspective, none of these examples are safe or appropriate for young people, no matter how common they are. If they seem worth it in the short term, know that in the long run, these strategies render young dancers vulnerable to serious injury, illness, burnout and a range of mental health issues.

So who is the driving force behind these and other persistent, unsafe practices? I believe it varies depending on the situation. I am aware that students see things on Instagram and they want it, now! I know that many teachers sense that young dancers are not generally interested in the slow steady progress that past generations sweated through. I know that parents, too, can contribute to the pressure. And I certainly know that competitions and conventions profit from an industry that pushes young people beyond their reasonable limits. But as a dance educator, it is the motivation of my colleagues that interests me.

What can be done to ensure that dance teachers keep students safe while simultaneously challenging them to reach new heights in their dancing? Is it an issue of information? Do we need more resources devoted to clarifying safe practice? Do we need standards and regulations, which both assure that all teachers have a basic knowledge of safe practice and help teachers defend these strategies when parents and students pressure them to do more? Do we need to take an ethical oath to do no harm so that in the heat of our artistic and competitive passions, we don't forget that compromising a student's safety is NEVER worth it? I'm inclined to think that all of these are important, but there are currently no industry-wide safety regulations, no governing authorities for dance and no certifying exams required to become a dance studio owner or teacher. Perhaps it's time for that to change.

I am quick to defend dance teachers to my students and peers. I understand that teaching dance is an imperfect, challenging craft. I know that dance cannot be taught perfectly from A to Z; that students need to sometimes make mistakes and find their own way out of them in order to grow. I want dance to be an exciting and rigorous experience for young people, and I believe that most teachers genuinely care deeply about their students and want all the best experiences and outcomes for them. But I hear too many stories of unreasonable training practices to turn a blind eye. We all need to have a meaningful talk about maintaining student safety in dance training, and I'm eager to get the conversation started.

For more information about safe dance practice:

International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS)

Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health

Safe in Dance International (SiDI)

Healthy Dancer Canada

National Dance Society

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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