Dance education

It’s time to tackle sexual misconduct in dance education

In 2001, the young Chanel, a determined, ambitious, fiery and stubborn teenager, was about to start her sophomore year at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, also known as the very “Fame” school. acclaimed. I was an excellent student, a promising young dancer and appreciated by my teachers and my peers. On paper, everything seemed to be in order. In reality, that perfect image was fractured. There was a crack that I tried to hide, cover and bury for almost 20 years.

Now I am sharing the truth to call our community to action. As many know, cases of sexual misconduct involving students plague dance establishments year after year. Reports of those in leadership positions abusing their power have become commonplace. Sometimes the stories go back decades.

For 32 of my nearly 35 years, I had the honor of dedicating my life to dance. And now, in my role as teacher, mentor and co-founder of MOVE | NYC |, I feel the weight of keeping my students out of harm’s way. The thought that one of them could possibly fall victim to the manipulation that has so dramatically impacted my life frightens and infuriates me.

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, we’ve heard of countless cases of survivors of sexual misconduct being ignored, fired, humiliated by victims or, worse yet, punished for speaking out. How can it be that we too, a community that believe in the healing power of sharing our stories, are complicit in silencing the abused? How is it that we, a community that promotes the enrichment and empowerment of young people, turn a blind eye when they need safety and protection? How come after decades of intercourse, sexual misconduct continues to be an open secret in dance?

While attending LaGuardia, I also studied in a private dance studio, where I received excellent training in several genres. There, I also experienced the magic of mentoring. Our teachers weren’t just our teachers; they have become our village. Our family. They challenged us artistically and made a point of developing personal relationships with us.

Not only did the students trust these teachers, but so did our parents. It was common for teachers to take us home after rehearsal. They mentored us outside of the studio in a relaxed setting, inviting us to their home and having one-on-one sessions during dinner. Most of the time, these experiences have been productive and rewarding. However, one of my teachers took advantage of these opportunities to sexually abuse me.

It first started on what I assumed was a Friday night after the usual rehearsal. We were in his car, discussing the dance and my continued journey as a dancer, and as I was about to step out he leaned over and kissed me.

Looking back, I now recognize that despite all my self-confidence at 15, I was so naive. I was a child with an understanding of the world of a child, oblivious to the extreme power dynamics that underlie the culture of teaching dance. Like many who find themselves in this situation, I believed that I had no power. A belief that was reinforced by my attacker. I thought if I said anything I would be blacklisted from the dance community that I desperately wanted to be a part of.

For two years, I was the victim of continuous sexual abuse by this teacher. Even though it never seemed right to me, I kept thinking: If I said no, wouldn’t my teacher love me anymore? Would all my performance opportunities be taken away from me? Will anyone believe me if I speak?

It has become a shameful secret. I was afraid to tell anyone. In a strange and complex turn of emotions, I had been manipulated into believing that this man loved me. He was my teacher, my mentor, an accomplished artist. A trusted member of our village. I was worried that if I said something he would go to jail. At 15, it terrified and paralyzed me!

Therapy in my mid-twenties helped me see and understand some key truths that were essential to my recovery.

First, that at the time of this abuse, I was a minor-a child-that has been exploited.

Second, my trusted teacher, recognizing my vulnerability and inexperience, used his power of position and maturity to manipulate me.

Finally, what happened to me was not my fault. This insight helped me let go of the shame I had carried for almost two decades.

It wasn’t until 2018, at the age of 32, that I had the courage to finally speak up. I had a make-up lunch with another of my former teachers who had been part of my dance training “village”. He was now in business with my attacker, having founded a new dance school. Struck by the realization that this man, my abuser, was now in an even more powerful position and still had a hold over impressionable young dancers, I began to share my story. I needed my old teacher to know the character of his business partner and what he might be capable of.

He was stunned. After much discussion, we agreed that this needs to be resolved. Even though I was afraid of the potential damage to my reputation, I decided it was time for my experience to come to light so that, hopefully, other students did not share my plight.

In the fall of 2019, I relayed my story privately to the board of directors of his new dance school. My intention was to offer my testimony of what happened so that they take preventative measures. Yet, to my surprise and disappointment, as of this writing, my abuser remains in his position.

Unfortunately, my story is not unusual. A Google search for “sexual misconduct in dance” shows that I was not the first in the dance community to experience sexual misconduct and indeed was not the last. Now in a position where young people look to me for advice, I believe it is my job to create a safe environment for them to thrive.

Our students deserve to be educated, to grow and to evolve without damage. They should never be afraid of being rejected for not succumbing to immoral actions. And when their rights have been violated, there should be a system of protection where the rulers remove the threat and bring healing. It shouldn’t take another dance education class action lawsuit to take this seriously.

Recalibrating the culture of teaching dance would be a good place to start. Teachers and leaders often position themselves as gatekeepers to be revered and even feared. Young dancers are led to believe that they do not have the power to question themselves, to disagree or to defend themselves. It’s intimidating to find the confidence to speak up, thinking that you might be putting your “place” at risk, so you stay silent and comply just to stay in the good graces of your leaders. This must change.

Chanel DaSilva works with a MOVE | NYC | raised.

Rachel Papo

Second, we need to improve prevention and correction systems. The consequences of sexual misconduct must be clear and applied consistently. Over the past five years, through the public institutions where I have taught, I have participated in a multitude of mandatory workshops and trainings in which issues such as sexual harassment and sexual misconduct are explored in depth. and the explicit repercussions are mixed. Public institutions, while not perfect, have higher standards of accountability. Private institutions must adopt and strengthen similar standards.

As the co-founder of MOVE | NYC |, an organization dedicated to empowering and enriching young dancers, I know I have the power to create change. We implement programs to protect and empower students and parents and to educate them about warning signs and remedies, if necessary. We believe it is essential to be vigilant about preventive measures, the implementation of policies that govern behaviors and define the expectations of teachers, administrators and partners, and that clarify the consequences.

It is time for us to learn from other communities with similar histories – gymnastics, sports, religious institutions – to begin the uncomfortable and difficult work of improving our culture. Now is the time for us to speak out, put protections in place, and educate students, parents, teachers and leaders to create accountability and catalyze change.

Sharing this story is my personal commitment to continue this conversation. I come from a place of truth and love. I like to dance. And it is this love, and this feeling of responsibility, that prompts me to ask that we come together in conversation and action. For the sake of our future dancers and future leaders, we need to do better. For the good of our community and our humanity, we must do better. Will you join me?

To accompany the history of Chanel DaSilva,
Dance magazine also spoke with various experts to get their opinion on what could be done to better protect young dancers. Read it here.