Sunday, January 15, 2017

Being the Authority of your own Body: Pedagogy and Agency

Long overdue post. Ever since the Society of Dance History Scholars/Congress on Research on Dance conference in Pomona that I attended (Nov. 3 – 6, 2016) I’ve been thinking about the legacy of authoritarian pedagogical practices in the dance studio. I met at the conference an incredible professor from Arizona State, Naomi Jackson, who writes about dance and human rights. In her presentation she brought up something I think is hard wired into dancer psychology - what she termed the dance world’s “call for self-sacrifice.” This is how dancers are asked to sacrifice themselves, physically, emotionally, spiritually, for an aesthetic ideal or for a choreographer’s vision. Naomi asked us to consider the possibility that this “self-sacrifice” might at some level be emotionally or physically coerced through the myths established around authorship, creativity, and training in dance. She pointed me toward an article by Robin Lakes, “The Message behind the Methods: The Authoritarian Pedagogical Legacy in Western Concert Dance Technique Training and Rehearsals” (Arts Education Policy Review, Vol. 106, No. 5, May/June 2005), which seeks to understand “why so many artists who create revolutionary works onstage conduct their classes and rehearsals as demagogues” (3). Citing memoirs and oral histories by prominent choreographers and dancers in both ballet and modern dance, Lakes analyzes the logic behind abusive but normative pedagogical practices in dance. It’s pretty damning, but the sad thing is, it’s not at all surprising. For some reason, it still seems normal and even desirable in dance to have very harsh and even abusive teachers.

Naomi also told me about this amazing “dark play” exercise she does with her students at Arizona State that is kind of like the Stanley Milgram experiment in aim. The students follow her lead in some group exercises that ought to have sent off some warning bells (goose stepping with the heil Hitler hands, separating white students from students of color into separate hierarchic formations, asking partners to throw one another around recklessly). Apparently no one objects to any of this during the class. At the end of the class, the class together deconstructs the lesson, and everyone has an “ah-ha” moment. At that point it becomes clear in a visceral way to students how authoritarian power operates insidiously. Naomi said this exercise was incredibly transformative for her students. (She also acknowledged that it had some ethical gray areas; two students were upset about the deception). In the end, though, she and most of the students thought the deception served a really important pedagogical purpose: to show how extremely vulnerable we all are to following an authority figure without reflecting or questioning his or her practices. No one thinks of themselves as the unreflecting follower, but this exercise shows that when it comes down to it, if we’re not aware of it, that’s exactly what many dancers, not to mention people, default to.

And for me the importance of applying this notion of the coercive power of the authority figure to the ballet studio is so paramount, for my own experiences personally and because this exercise speaks to the vulnerability of young people who are taught to do whatever the teacher says. What if that teacher abuses his or her power? This happens, make no mistake. And it is devastating. Boundary violations by an authority figure occur in slow, incremental stages, and by the time you realize it, it’s too late.  I'm talking about everything from verbal abuse to sexual misconduct. At the same time, while students need to develop critical capacities to recognize coercive practices, ultimately I don’t think it’s fair to put all of the burden on young people to call out an abusive authority figure; that is primarily the job of the institution and the adults responsible for its mission.

So here’s why I think rejecting this idea of self-sacrifice is so important. You don’t stop being a person when you walk into a dance studio. Dance is a process that is never completed; it is not a final product of “perfect technique” – because that simply does not exist. No one has perfect technique, not anyone. (Well, maybe Sarah Lamb of Royal Ballet, but anyway, for everyone else...). The teacher’s job is not to single mindedly try to force you into a preconceived mold, but to help you learn how to think for yourself, to use your body creatively to accomplish your goals, to learn how to adapt a technique to your body (not the other way around). The teacher should be giving you the freedom to respect your body and its limits, and the inspiration to grow and push intelligently in new directions. And I really think that is possible in a ballet studio (I had a wonderful teacher who taught this way). That doesn’t mean you can’t learn to do movements given to you by someone else in the style they ask for; but you have to make them yours somehow, you have to make them breathe. Now that translation is some hard work. Hard but rewarding.

I’m not saying that ballet training will ever be easy or that we shouldn’t push ourselves physically. There is joy in that, too. But I think that ultimately if ballet training, even at the elite levels, is going to produce artists and continue to evolve, it’s got to continue to let go of the authoritarian harshness in the studio. Let the students have some agency! Let the students analyze a movement sequence and offer corrections to one another from time to time. Sometimes the teacher needs to let go of “the way it’s supposed to be” and put the development of young artists front and center.

If we’re serious about moving the art form of ballet forward, we need to realize that teachers who ask students to obey them unquestioningly, and who verbally and emotionally abuse young people to achieve training goals, do not foster the creative and divergent thinking that is required of a true artist.


  1. I am currently researching further into ballet teaching methods in order to further myself as a teacher but also in how I go about my practice in the studio as an artist. This has been a very interesting read - particularly about the 'dark play' exercise. I can completely believe that ballet students would follow this without question, if they had been (as I often was) taught by authoritarian teaching methods. It is awful that they would do this unquestionably, but a good lesson learnt at the end. Thank you, this has been of great help to me.

    1. I am so glad this was helpful to you! There is a growing body of work on alternative pedagogy in ballet, and it is so invigorating to read and put into practice. Thanks for your comment!

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