Setting Boundaries: What To Do When Your Relationship with a Dance Teacher Becomes Unhealthy

July 23, 2020

A few years ago, friends Laney* and Kate,* along with two other fellow dancers, were called into a meeting with their studio’s owner and manager. “They started yelling at us, saying they were going to take away our solos,” Laney recalls. “They said we didn’t deserve what we’d been given, and that we needed to change who we saw in the mirror.”

After a talk with their parents, Laney and Kate realized that they’d been treated poorly for some time—they’d just been too dedicated to their competition team to notice. They’d been punished for taking vacations and expressing interest in nondance activities. They’d been negatively compared to their peers. Kate was even singled out for not having a crazy enough hairstyle on “crazy hair day.” Burned out and broken down, both teens ended up taking time off from dance.

They’re now at a new studio, and they’re thriving. “I never knew how much your mental health can affect your dancing,” Laney says. “Because the environment here is positive, I’ve grown so much. I’m not being put down. I’m being lifted up.”

As a dance student, you rely on your teachers to guide and mold you. Personal attention and rigorous instruction are necessary for improvement. Still, there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed. If you’re being targeted or manipulated, or if you’re being spoken to or touched in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it’s time to speak up.

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Spotting Red Flags

“There’s an inherent power inequality between teacher and student,” says psychologist Linda Hamilton, who works with performing artists in NYC. How can you tell if a teacher or director is abusing their power? “For a start, you should feel free to say no, without worrying about repercussions,” Hamilton says. Those repercussions can take many forms. At Kate’s old studio, her request to drop a few classes in order to focus on schoolwork was met with a threat to pull her from competition numbers. This dynamic can also play out at a more intimate level, with roles, promotions, or other perks tied to establishing some kind of personal relationship.

Another behavior to watch out for: “A teacher shouldn’t take you into a room alone,” Hamilton says. “Whatever’s happening should be able to be interrupted.” For private lessons and office hours, doors should remain open or a parent or another teacher should be present. The same rules apply to texts, emails, social media, and remote class sessions. You and your teacher shouldn’t be interacting one-on-one without anyone else’s knowledge.

Study how the teacher acts around others. Does she berate you until another teacher enters the room, at which point she’s suddenly supportive and kind? Is he physically affectionate, offering hugs and friendly touches, until your parent appears? “If behavior changes completely in front of other adults, that’s a sign something’s off,” Hamilton says.

Handling Crossed Lines

When it comes to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, it is not your responsibility to avoid being targeted. “Creating a safe environment starts from the top,” Hamilton says. “The school administration must set clear guidelines for student-teacher interactions that outline what is and is not permitted.”

At The Dance Zone in Henderson, NV, the faculty handbook cautions teachers against creating personal relationships with students, either in person or online. “I do my best to watch interactions,” says co-owner Jami Artiga. “I also encourage students to talk openly with myself or my business partner, if they ever feel like they’re put in a bad position or if someone says something they’re unsure about. It’s my job to listen.”

If the perpetrator is the person in charge, enlist a trusted adult to intervene. Laney and Kate went to their parents after their devastating meeting, and their parents’ outside perspective helped them realize it wasn’t a one-time issue. That validation gave them the courage to leave.

It’s not always easy to see when a line has been crossed—and the line between constructive and destructive may be different for different people. That’s where Hamilton says you have to follow your instincts. If you don’t want to be touched or spoken to in a certain way, “you should feel safe to say, ‘I don’t want this to happen,’ ” she says. A teacher who won’t respect your boundaries is not the right teacher for you.

When Touch Becomes Toxic

As the tide of awareness surrounding sexual misconduct rises, many dance schools are evaluating how much touch is truly needed in order for training to be effective. At the very least, “dancers should be informed that they can request not to be touched,” says Hamilton. You should have control over your own body and personal space in the classroom.

If a situation has already moved past what’s professional and safe, talk to someone you trust: a parent, another teacher, an administrator, or even a peer. That person can help get your story to the necessary authorities and provide support as you move forward.

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Finding a Safe Space

“I didn’t realize how stressed I’d been until I left that studio,” Kate says. After a dance-free summer, she felt ready to try again. A former teacher had just launched her own school, and there, Kate found a loving dance home. A few months later, she invited Laney to join her.

It’s no surprise that both girls feel like they’re experiencing new growth in their new setting. “Research shows that when you’re being targeted or bullied, you’re less likely to excel,” Hamilton says. “You’re more likely to work injured, to experience stage fright, and to self-sabotage.”

Leaving a school isn’t easy, especially if you have friends there who aren’t leaving with you. But it’s vital to find a space where you feel nurtured and safe. “You have to go with what your gut’s telling you,” Kate says.

*Names have been changed