This is something that I have been thinking about for a very long time. There is a great—and terrible—misconception that for dance training to be "good" it must be hard, it must be painful, it must be traumatic. That to create an artist you must break people. A belief that if a teacher once suffered verbal, emotional, physical, or other abuse when they were training, it is what a new generation of dancers must also endure to "make it.” "No pain, no gain."
Continually repeating these cycles of trauma on young students is unacceptable, inexcusable. At best it is LAZY and shows that a teacher has no real skill in pedagogy or understanding of how students learn. These are teachers who have never given a moment's thought to the art of teaching, to their method, to their philosophy, to safety, to best practices. Instead they are obsessed with "the choreography." They GIVE a class, they don’t TEACH it.
And, at worst, this practice is causing real harm to real people. Broken dance teachers are not just creating broken dancers, but broken people.
These are strong words, and maybe you've never associated your or your child's dance class with anything this problematic. But the truth is I don’t know any professional dancers who haven’t encountered this kind of training at some point in their lives. And, heartbreakingly, I’ve encountered far too many young non professional students who have also experienced it.
I tried to read a book about ballet pedagogy—a well circulated book by a “master teacher” that I will not name here. About 2 chapters in, the author implored teachers to occasionally berate and yell at their students without any provocation. This would keep them guessing, keep them “on their toes.” The author considered this to be an essential part of training.
I threw the book away.
It is well documented that trauma impacts a child’s ability to learn. When you do not feel safe, you cannot be ready to grow and take on new information and new tasks. For many students the dance studio stops becoming a safe space. Students come away from dance classes not with enhanced coordination, strength, flexibility, and a pliable creative mind ready to take on problem solving and collaboration—but with self-doubt, fear, body dysmorphia, the inability to trust other people. They become closed off, guarded, and skittish.
This does not create artists. It just hurts people. And it hurts in ways that are very difficult to heal. They carry those coping mechanisms into other parts of their lives for a very long time, if not forever.
I believe there is a great need for dance education programs where there is no trauma. Where teachers respect their students, no matter how young, and work hard to make them feel valued and cared for.
I also believe such a program can still have incredible rigor and can generate good dancers. In fact, I believe it can create great artists who are courageous enough to explore challenging topics and secure enough to share their authentic selves on stage and in the classroom.
Regardless of where you dance, do not let yourself be traumatized. Be empowered to say NO. I will not accept abuse, I will not accept disrespect. Be empowered to walk away and find something better. You can find something better.
And, dance teachers, do better. Your students deserve better.