A recent article in the NY Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/13/arts/dance/intimacy-directors-ballet.html tells us that there is a trend in the dance world to encourage dancers to speak up when they are asked to dance choreography that makes them feel physically or emotionally unsafe. It reveals that dancers can feel physically abused or psychologically traumatised from acting out behaviours they would never choose in real life.
Intimacy Directors, or Intimacy Coordinators as they are called in the film industry (see https://key-intimate-scenes.ts.r.appspot.com/) are being asked to step into rehearsals to help participants with their emotional well-being.
One unfortunate result of the type of training we perpetuate in the dance sector is young people often do not know their personal boundaries - the ones that make them feel uncomfortable and make them want to yell “stop” in any other situation, but they feel they “must comply” when it happens in the studio or under direction of a choreographer or other superior who has their future success in their hands.
This element of ballet's culture starts in the studio when dancers are very young. Their physical and technical prowess grows, but their emotional maturity often lags behind. As serious students, the requirement to do as they are told, push their bodies beyond physical and personal boundaries, and generally put their minds and bodies in someone else’s hands in order to progress, has an effect on their personal development. Often, dancers do not know how they feel about their work and are willing to participate in abusive choreography or intimate situations, only realising their discomfort when it is too late. That is, after it has already happened and they are left hurt and confused, not knowing why they feel this way. Afterall, their teachers and directors must have thought it was OK to dance this way. Young people can conclude that there must be something wrong with them, so they comply, denying that these feelings exist. This can cause dancers to shut down their feelings and force them to behave in ways that are against their values and authentic selves - and against their better judgement - paving the way for further emotional and mental anguish. How does anyone dance their best under these circumstances?
The importance of dancers’ emotional well-being is becoming well-known and some professional dancers and educators are speaking out about the lack of attention to dancers’ mental health. Psychological skills for ballet (PROPS for ballet) offer dancers tools to gain the self-knowledge necessary to understand where their personal boundaries lie, while learning how they fit in with their cherished art. Changing the way ballet is trained so that there are opportunities for dance students to discover how they feel about their work while they are learning, gives students time to explore, ask questions, evaluate, and trial alternatives under the guidance of experts. Psychological skills practised in the studio can develop the self knowledge needed to confidently speak up with a full understanding of ballet requirements. Under the tutelage of a ballet teacher who incorporates psychological skills into classes, where it is safe - and normal - to express themselves authentically, students can gain the confidence to grow the skills they need for personal well being. Their teacher becomes an ally, listens to their concerns, pain, and insecurities respectfully and aids students to find alternatives that fit the ballet aesthetic.
With training like this, ballet students can become adults and professional dancers who are aware and confident in their feelings and emotional needs. They can speak up with assuredness, because they know themselves and have practised considered and appropriate actions in line with their needs throughout their training. They can weigh the choreographer’s intent with knowing how far they are willing to allow someone else to tell them how to behave - they can make informed decisions about their participation in this environment for the greater benefit of all - themselves, most importantly - and also to the quality of artistry they produce.
The NY Times article points out the need for someone who will listen and act on the information they are given by dancers - someone who gives dancers a voice, respects their needs, and has the power to negotiate a suitable solution. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if dancers could come to this negotiation with practised, informed knowledge about who they are as people and artists, and how they fit into their ballet world.