When commercial dancer and choreographer Jojo Gomez posted a video captioned "No More Abuse”, calling for a peaceful protest at a Southern California dance studio whose director was recently arrested for inappropriate relationships with students, the call to action joined the ranks of many recent social media posts by dancers speaking out about an array of injustices, from sexual abuse, to use of racist language and other micro-agressions, to unfair working conditions and pay. These abuses of power have spared no part of the industry, from commercial dance, to small studios, to revered companies like Ailey II. Since the pandemic began last year, it seems that the space and time to reflect during quarantine has led the dance industry into a reckoning with the systems that have kept its wheels turning, and dancers silent, for so long. Now that so many breaches of power have been exposed, it’s time for the dance industry as a collective to turn its attention to creating safer environments and practices for all dancers.
It is crucial to consistently hold those around you accountable to the standards we all want for the industry as a whole.
The good news is that we've come to the first step of making a real change in the industry and breaking a harmful cycle - when influential dancers like Gomez, who has over 1 million followers on Instagram, continue to share their stories and fight for justice, what once was a whisper can now transform into a public conversation about how to move forward as an industry. To ensure instances like those exposed this year are addressed appropriately and swiftly, the dance industry is going to need a collective culture change, with those that have the largest platforms taking responsibility for making it a more supportive place, and every other player holding one another to account. Here are a few ways we can work toward that shift now:
Start from the top down
The dance industry as a whole has been slow to become a more equitable, safe place in some part because of its inherent power structure: the art form’s ‘gatekeepers’ (teachers, company directors, choreographers, etc.) have traditionally held a large amount of power over a dancer, controlling the dancer’s ability to do what they want - from getting the solo in the performance, to booking a tour for a music artist. For many dancers in environments like studios, commercial jobs, or companies, this ingrained lack of control and the need to please gatekeepers to reach their goals is a recipe for power abuses.
The dance industry needs to guard against these abuses starting at the top, with organizations and governing bodies that can provide training, resources, and support to create more equitable, safe environments. The Youth Protection Advocates in Dance is an example of one organization working towards this, providing courses and training for dance professionals who work with young dancers that include “background checks and CPR/First Aid, abuse awareness & prevention, injury prevention & response, and safety & emergency preparedness.” To address racial issues and fight for justice, Dance/USA has partnered with Dance Theatre of Harlem and the International Association of Blacks in Dance to create The Equity Project, aiming to help ballet companies confront the lack of diversity and inclusion in the genre.
These types of programs and training should become industry standards across all styles of dance and permeate to even more spaces, like dance conventions and college dance programs, so the industry can better regulate the practices with which dancers are taught in all environments.
Learn about resources and avenues for support
To make a lasting change, dancers need to feel supported to come forward when someone is making them feel unsafe or treating them otherwise unfairly.
Dancers in larger companies may be lucky enough to have a Human Resources department to go to with any issues. In any contractual dance job a dancer takes, they should familiarize themselves with the process and policies regarding harassment and unfair treatment, to know where to get support if they need.
Commercial dancers are particularly vulnerable because they may feel like they have to look out for themselves without a company hierarchy to rely on. Instead, dancers should consider agents their personal Human Resources department. The traditional hierarchy of a commercial job is to approach the choreographer or their assistants with any issues, but a dancer’s agent should be their next resource if not receiving the support they need from the choreographer. Whether it’s an instance on a project that a dancer feels is dangerous to their safety, or if they have experienced any type of harassment, the dancer’s agent should know what’s happening so they can intervene on their behalf.
Another important line of defense in these instances are unions like SAG-AFTRA or AGMA, and local dance advocacy groups such as Dancers Alliance. These are the organizations that set industry standards for working conditions and rates, and can advocate on a dancer’s behalf to whoever they’re working for.
Understanding the chain of command in various situations will help a dancer know exactly where to go if they need support, helping to mitigate risks and address issues when they happen. Studios, conventions, and college programs should look to partner with support organizations like Dance/USA and Dancers Alliance to present this kind of information and resources to their students. If dance educators make it a priority to teach dancers the value of speaking up for themselves and how to do so, the next generations of dancers will be more protected and knowledgeable about how to respond to instances of abuse both during training and as they begin their careers.
Continue to speak up and hold each other accountable
Using our collective voices throughout the industry can help us take the power back from the few who are not supporting the rest. Whether you are at the top of the dance industry food chain or still working for your big break, it is crucial to consistently hold those around you accountable to the standards we all want for the industry as a whole. It will take every player within the dance industry to make sure we report instances of abuse and not continue to tolerate unjust behavior because that person seems to hold the key to our dance goals or career.
More dancers than ever are speaking up about the inequities and injustices they are experiencing in the dance industry, and more people than ever are listening, hopefully influencing the next generation of dancers to accept nothing less than safe and equitable standards. To shift into this culture from the systemic power structure that has held true for so long, exposed like so many others this year in Instagram Live’s and TikTok’s, it will take a collective sea of change across the dance industry at all levels.
What once was a whisper can now transform into a public conversation about how to move forward as an industry.
Further resources for support:
- Task Force on Dancer Health, Dance/USA
- Resources about harassment in the workplace, Dance/USA
- The International Association of Blacks in Dance
- Okay, Let’s Unpack This
- Speak Your Truth Worldwide
- Safe in Dance International
- International Association for Dance Medicine and Science
- Safe in Dance
- Doctors for Dancers