Haha, did you click to read this because you were wondering if your ballet school was on the list? This post isn’t the Top 10 Toxic Ballet Schools, but it is going to talk about whether or not you are in a toxic environment and what contributes to it. This is conversation is already happening behind closed doors and amongst moms, but it is time to talk about it out in the open.
All schools are not created equally. There are different schools for different purposes, different schools have different resources. Resources can include everything from financial aid to connections to community programs to performing opportunities. These schools around the world are sometimes overwhelming to navigate or there is a very large amount of pressure to make it into one of these schools. But not everything about these schools are great and glamourous. Sure, the allure of the opera house, the excitement of going away, the inspiration of being around other dancers and seeing company members, even the possibility of potentially joining the company makes it worth while. But behind the beautiful Marley, the floor to ceiling mirrors, the historic halls and the tradition and passion that stood at the very same barres, behind all of that there is the ugly side of ballet schools.
From manipulation, to pressure, to sex scandals — ballet schools are infamously known for their toxic environments. Movies have portrayed these hidden truths, and probably exaggerated them to extremes, but regardless there is some truth to the toxicity of ballet schools. From over involved stage moms, to gossiping, to favors, bribing teachers for roles and solos, the list goes on and on. So let’s take a look at some of these things. How do you know if you are in a toxic environment? What can you do about it?
I think one of the biggest issues in a lot of ballet schools is the influence of a director or head teacher on a child’s life. Obviously, they know a lot about ballet, but they are not the parent. I think one of the biggest things is making sure the parent is making decisions in a child’s life, and not the director dictating the life of the child/family. These choices can range from encouraging or discouraging a summer intensive, or pushing/holding back a child for financial gain. To be honest, no director wants their student to leave their school, that is money walking out of the door. So there is that factor. I think that there has to be a healthy balance, and healthy trust with a director. But, one of the biggest things that is needed is transparency.
Another thing that is toxic are the students. Don’t get me wrong, every environment can be toxic, but in ballet schools and dance studios, a lot of the times just one bad apple spoils the bunch. One student gossiping out of jealousy or insecurities can quickly turn a school’s environment into a negative spiral, especially if the director continues to show a lot of support of the toxic student and rewards his or her behavior, or doesn’t believe it, or wants to ignore it and doesn’t want to get involved at all.
Finally, another big thing that contributes to an environment going bad is parents. A lot of schools have banned parents from sitting in the lobby anymore because of the gossip. Parents tend to get over involved, over calculated, and overly ambitious. Parents gossiping about other kids is the worst, because they are grown adults attacking small children. One of these problems is parents not having a realistic sense of whether their own child is strong or weak. I am not saying all kids out there are terrible, but you do have to have a sense of reality when it comes to dance, and specifically ballet.
As you can see, there is no right or wrong answer to fix the problem. But, I think one of the biggest things is not realizing if you are in a toxic environment or being unaware if you are contributing to a bad environment.
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you are probably in a toxic environment or contributing to it:
Is your child miserable either before or after dance class?
Does you director or teacher ignore your kid in class, meaning no corrections?
Do you talk about other kids, and follow their career trajectories?
Do you start sentences with, “Don’t repeat this, but…”
Does the director punish or reward students with parts?
Do families who donate money or volunteer more get better parts?
Is your child unhappy with their current dancing abilities?
Does your coach constantly yell?
Has a director ever yelled at a parent?
Have you expressed concern for your child, and you were brushed off?
These are just some of the questions that we have to ask ourselves, because the problems are real. Toxic environments are real, and unfortunately, very few things are done to correct the behavior. I remember working at one school and the director opened the beginning of the year talk with, “You shouldn’t question me, because I know what I am doing. I care about your kids.”
This was followed by a long talk about trust, loyalty and commitment — all things that I agree are needed in ballet. The amount of work that it takes to be a dancer truly is quite a burden. These opening lines were delivered in sincerity and conviction, but the problem is that the director didn’t live up to those things. Ignoring kids, encouraging kids to not go away, telling kids that they weren’t talented when in reality they are very talented, punishing kids with their level placement, judging kids by height and weight and the list went on and on. These things are all just examples of issues in toxic environments. And these problems aren’t just at elite schools or small schools. It is everywhere.
Finally, one of the biggest concerns I have about toxic environments, is that the right environment for a ballet student can make all the difference. A student in the right environment will soar and progress quickly, while a student who isn’t at the right school might be ignored or get injured. Someone who doesn’t have a pliable body obviously needs extra attention so they don’t get injured, and someone with an overly flexible body will need attention in strengthening and supplementing with pilates. All of these things, including a supportive, mentally healthy environment are contributing factors to finding the right environment for your student.
“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” – Alexander Den Heijer
What does that mean? It means that if your school’s environment is not for you, leave. I know there is the financial obligation or even the friendships, or even the convenience factor. But the reality is, if the environment isn’t right for the student, remove the student. Even at the Ballet Clinic, we do not accept everyone because we also care about the environment. Someone who has anxiety might not be the best fit at my school as the pressure is quite high. Someone who doesn’t want to pursue ballet as a career wouldn’t be the right fit either. Sure, I could flood the classes with 20+ kids in the room, but I believe that 8-12 kids in a class is enough, as each kid needs individual corrections so they can excel. I am not saying this is the right model, or the only model, I am saying what works for me. We also eliminated the jealousy factor as we do not emphasis competition. If the student/family wants to compete that’s on them. We will coach and prepare you, but we could care less about competing or winning. What matters for us is that you get into a top professional school on a scholarship. Remember, I don’t accept kids over the age of 16.
Toxicity in dance and the arts is really a big thing, and we do not put enough emphasis on correcting the behavior and eliminating bad apples.