We're used to seeing Maddie Ziegler own the room whenever she steps on the dance floor. So the idea of her learning a dance routine from Instagram star, Everleigh Soutas initially seemed a little backwards. Then we found out that Everleigh's original performance of this solo earned her first place in her division, at Revolution Talent Competition—and that it's garnered over 12 million views on YouTube—and the pair's duet makes a lot more sense. Maddie even compliments the pint-size dancer's energy and facial expressions. High praise coming from the queen of dance prodigies!
In 2001, young Chanel, a determined, ambitious, fiery, headstrong teenager, was about to begin her sophomore year at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, also known as the highly acclaimed "Fame" school. I was a great student, a promising young dancer and well-liked by my teachers and my peers. On paper, everything seemed in order. In reality, this picture-perfect image was fractured. There was a crack that I've attempted to hide, cover up and bury for nearly 20 years.
Chanel DaSilva working with a MOVE|NYC| student.
Though the #MeToo movement has spurred many dancers to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, the dance world has yet to have a full reckoning on the subject. Few institutions have made true cultural changes, and many alleged predators continue to work in the industry.
As Chanel DaSilva's story shows, young dancers are particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the power differential between teacher and student. We spoke with eight experts in dance, education and psychology about steps that dance schools could take to protect their students from sexual abuse.
Make Basic Safety Measures Standard<p><strong>Peter Flew, director of the </strong><strong>School of Education at University of Roehampton in London, trustee of the Royal Academy of Dance, and chair of Safer Dance</strong></p><p>"When I joined the RAD Board of Trustees, I couldn't believe how little regulation there was around dance schools. When a school is hiring a teacher, they need to do a background check. Does that person have a conviction for sexual abuse or child abuse, for example? Are there gaps in their CV that they don't want to explain?</p><p>"Another important issue is data protection. Does the dance teacher have the cell phone number of the student? This is a common and really bad practice. Teachers should be talking to parents, not the children. And this is an issue with social media, as well.</p><p>"We also need to empower children, so they know that they can say no when they're uncomfortable. And we need to empower parents. If you're looking at a school and you don't see their safeguarding procedures written on their website or in their brochure, you should question them as to what they're going to do to keep your child safe."</p>
David Tett, Courtesy Flew
Create a Trauma-Informed Classroom<p><strong>Dr. Paula Thomson, clinical psychologist and professor at California State University, Northridge</strong></p><p>"Administrative staff and teachers need to learn the signs that there may be some kind of emotional, physical or sexual abuse going on, and learn how to approach a child to check in. In dance schools, kids are socialized to keep their mouths shut. And that's a perfect predatory environment, because abusers will groom a child and make them feel very special. Children need a line of safety. Ideally they should have more than one person they can go to if something is wrong."</p>
Shawn Flint Blair, Courtesy Thomson
Self-Regulate Through Education<p><strong>Leslie Scott Zanovitch, founder of Youth Protection Advocates in Dance (YPAD)</strong></p><p><span></span>"A lot of people use this word 'complicit.' And I believe that some people are complicit. But I also believe there are people who are just ill-equipped. They've never been trained about what the red flags are, so they never saw the red flags. We have to train people to be advocates for children. And then we have to normalize these conversations, because, otherwise, what will happen is what happened to me when I spoke up about the commodification and exploitation of children in Hollywood. I was blackballed. I was shamed. I was told by my colleagues that I was messing with their money."</p>
Michael King, Courtesy Zanovitch
Let Kids Be Kids<p><strong><span style="background-color: initial;">Dr. Christina Donaldson, clinical psychologist and YPAD </span><span style="background-color: initial;">advisor</span></strong></p><p>"Dancers are constantly being told how to use their body as a tool. This can lead them to feel separated from their bodies, and that can actually lead to grooming and abuse. The same is true of dancing in a way that is really sexual, or to music with sexual lyrics. That is a form of inadvertent grooming. You're desensitizing them to sexually explicit material they don't necessarily understand. We need to let kids be kids."</p>
Fritz Olenberger, Courtesy Donaldson
Encourage Accountability<p><strong>Cat Cogliandro, teacher and co-founder of <a href="https://www.instagram.com/thedancesafe/?hl=en" target="_blank">@thedancesafe</a></strong></p><p>"We can all stand up together as a field and say that abusive behavior is not appropriate, and that if you hurt someone, you need to be held accountable. If we can empower people to come forward, it's going to be a chain reaction. On The Dance Safe Instagram, we have a link you can click on and report abuse. And if you disclose to us, the first thing I'm going to do is respond and make sure you're safe, and ask how I can further support you. We connect people with mental health professionals, doctors, social workers and people who can help them navigate the legal system if that's what they want. And if people want to go public and tell their story, we're supportive of that, too."</p>
Use Touch Appropriately<p><strong>Sydney Skybetter, choreographer and lecturer at Brown University<br></strong></p><p>"I focus a great deal of classroom time on establishing a practice of consent. This means letting students know at the beginning of class that touch can be used as an instructional device, and should they prefer not to be touched, to let the instructor know at any time. Then, an instructor should ask and receive consent before any touch happens. Students are empowered to opt in or out of physical contact on their own terms."</p>
Liza Voll, Courtesy Skybetter
Take Action<p><strong>Sarah Arnold, ballet teacher in the San Francisco Bay area<br></strong></p><p>"A few years ago, two young women came forward to say that a male teacher at the school I was working at had sexually assaulted them. The directors did nothing until a group of parents came together to demand they take action. Finally, they asked the teacher to resign, but he continues to teach elsewhere. I and several other teachers left the school over it.</p><p>"He should have been immediately fired, and the reason should have been public knowledge. I also think the directors should have sent a letter out to all the parents to let them know what happened, so they could talk to their children in case there was any abuse their kids weren't telling them about. We should make it as easy as possible for children to come forward."</p>
Peter Young, Courtesy Arnold
Build Boundaries<p><strong><span style="background-color: initial;">Emily Bufferd, jazz teacher at Broadway Dance Center, Steps on Broadway and the Joffrey Ballet School</span><br></strong></p><p>"Teachers should never be inviting assistants or students to their homes or hotel rooms alone. It's important to protect your students and yourself by maintaining boundaries, no matter how good your intentions. And students should know that if a teacher says they need to be alone with you, you can question that. When I teach privates, I always have an open-door policy. Parents are always welcome.</p><p>"Ever since I did my YPAD certification, I feel much more prepared to handle it if a student comes to me with a problem. I think dance studios should consider having someone on staff, or several people, who are trained advocates that dancers know they can go to for help."</p>
Jaqlin Medlock, Courtesy Bufferd
Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.
Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.
"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.
To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.
Stand Connected<p>Before a dancer begins to move, Genn stresses the importance of standing correctly, without unnecessary gripping. "If you clench your hips, knees, ankles or toes, your tendons and ligaments won't function, and you can't move," she says.</p><p>She encourages dancers to feel with their fingers that the hip flexor stays soft, and uses the image of a duck's feet, wide and spread out on the floor, to help visualize release in the ankles and toes. Dancers should also avoid shoes that confine their feet too tightly and restrict movement, however good they may look—"the clench," as she calls it, can be imposed from outside, as well.</p>
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn
The Truth About Tendus<p>"Down to go out" is another teacher phrase frequently applied to tendus and dégagés. But if you've ever watched a dancer struggle to move a foot that is digging down into the floor—it lurches out by inches, as the working knee bends and the heel pops up—you know that this doesn't always quite work.</p><p>Genn's idea, instead, might be phrased as "Turn out to go out." She teaches that the action of tendu begins at the tops of the legs, instead of with the feet. "Lift your abdomen up, and then rotate both thighs, deep in the hip joints, before initiating tendu." Genn often uses the word "flower" for the combined blooming action, up and open, of the lower abdomen and inner thighs. This shorthand is crucial to movement quality: Cueing multiple actions with one simple construct keeps dancers from getting bogged down in the details.</p><p>As for the articulation of the foot itself, Genn clarifies: "It's not pushing down. With the lift and the shift of the weight onto the supporting leg, there should be no pressure on the tendu leg. It's just the feeling of the heel gliding along the floor until it has to come off." Keeping the heel down helps prevent dancers from crunching their toes too soon instead of pointing them long at the very end of the tendu. Consciously engaging the adductor to bring the leg back in helps the toes relax early in the reversal of that process.</p><p>Genn tells younger students to imagine they are cleaning the floor with their feet. "What dancers don't understand is that using the feet this way, going through all the intrinsic muscles to point and come back—<em>that</em> is what gives you better feet."</p>
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn
The Schloop<p>Genn has been known to create words for actions that have no official name in the ballet lexicon. Foremost among these is the<em> </em>"schloop": simultaneously a slide, a scoop and a peeling action of the foot. "From fifth position, when you're going to do a passé or a développé, your toe goes across the floor to where your heel was, and then up to the side of the knee," she says. "This action, this use of the floor, helps prevent the hip from lifting."</p><p>It also helps the dancer transfer their weight, from two legs to one and even in a relevé or pirouette, with less conscious effort. If a dancer is struggling with the schloop, Genn will place a ping-pong ball by their front heel as they stand in fifth position. When that foot schloops correctly, the toes will knock the ball out of the way as they point.</p>
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn