I was six years old the first time I heard it.
“No talking,” said the ballet mistress. “Ballet is a silent art.”
It was the first of many phrases that ballet would drill into my mind over the course of 13 years. In reality, ballet is an art form full of language. My ballet teachers often spoke in their own predictable yet highly specific aphorisms. Over time, I was able to anticipate their corrections—heels forward, shoulders down—sometimes even before they said a word out loud. I could hear the phrases in my head and would adjust my body accordingly, so that when my teacher did walk by, I would instead be given a new correction to chew on.
“Ballet is a silent art,” however, was a saying of a different breed. It was my introduction to that other part of ballet—the part that regulates not just your dancing but your behavior inside, and often outside, the studio. Just a first-grader, I was being trained in this system of ballet etiquette, which teaches dancers to be silent, obedient, and pleasant under all circumstances.
There are rules in the ballet studio. For a young person, these laws are deeply ingrained. No leaning on the barre. Never cross your arms; it makes you look angry and thus disrespectful of authority.
Always keep a pleasant expression on your face. Always curtsy at the end of class. Never argue with the teacher, but thank her for any correction you receive. Make your appearance impeccably neat; never come to class with messy hair or the wrong leotard. And always, always tuck your ribbons in. Sew them if you must. Nothing is tackier than a ballerina with her pointe shoe ribbons showing.
Are all of these rules necessary? It’s hard to say. Perhaps some more than others. All I know is that striving to live by them often made the ballet studio a puritanical place.
We all knew the experience of being shamed in front of our peers or of watching it happen to someone else. It was a feeling we’d do anything to avoid. As a result, most of us obeyed. Those who didn’t tended to be the girls who fell out of favor with the teachers or stopped coming to class entirely. They were often the girls whose bodies didn’t fit the ballet “type,” threatening the supposed sanctity of that virginal, waif-like image we were all supposed to embody.
Sex is an unspoken but ever-present entity in the studio. Physical development is feared, as it distorts the body into something softer, more vulgar, and much harder to control. Natalie Portman spoke about this in an interview describing her preparation for her role in Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller, Black Swan: “[Ballet] is really a world that keeps women as little girls.”
Portman noticed that many of the dancers she consulted in preparation for the role still spoke like young girls. She used this “baby voice” when she played Nina, a ballet dancer performing the lead role in the iconic ballet, Swan Lake. The ballet tells the story of a girl who is transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer; the ballerina must learn to embody both the vulnerability of the white swan and the manipulative seduction of the black swan.
Portman’s character and her experiences are no fictional creation. Plenty of former dancers have criticized the hierarchical structure of ballet from outside the walls of the theater. Yet current dancers have remained almost unequivocally silent.
In my own experience, it’s often the girls who “made it” that deny the realities of those who didn’t. This isn’t because they’re inherently spiteful, or ruthless, or mean. Dancers don’t believe other dancers when they speak up about their struggles because they are grateful for their success, and in the ballet world, this gratitude is expressed through undying loyalty to the art.
Vanessa Carlton, a former student at the School of American Ballet, told me she saw this gratitude and loyalty firsthand in her teachers, many of whom were themselves former dancers with the New York City Ballet, the company founded alongside the school. The instructors often perpetuated the same dynamics that they had experienced when they were younger. “Victims and enablers can be the same people,” Carlton said.
“The part that was extremely disturbing to me was witnessing one of the head teachers verbally call out and embarrass some of the girls in my class,” Carlton recalled. “There was one girl in my class who she fixated on. Every single class she would stop and berate this girl. The girl was working her ass off. … I stood in that class and watched it and my blood boiled.”
For some students, the anger of witnessing these public humiliations can begin to outweigh the satisfaction and joy of dance as a potential career. For others, that anger gets dissolved, absorbed, and suppressed for fear of losing their chances as a result of speaking up—that is, until silence is no longer an option.
When Peter Martins retired from his position as ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet in January, after facing allegations of verbal and physical abuse from five dancers, the ballet world seemed to tremble like a studio floor under the weight of twenty pointe shoe-clad women.
It was a shock, to say the least. Martins, who had led the company since the 1983 death of founder George Balanchine, had long been hailed as the unofficial leader of American ballet. His retirement left City Ballet scrambling to find a replacement.
As a student at the School from 1994 to 1998, Carlton’s personal experience with Martins was limited. On the occasions that he did teach class, however, she remembers a heightened feeling of intimidation and an eagerness to please.
“You’re kind of brainwashed into thinking that Martins is king,” Carlton said. Recalling her experience as a student in his class, she said, “He put his hand—he has these big hands—and he just kind of led dancers around at times by the backs of their heads. I guarantee you, not one dancer—because their job is in jeopardy—could ever say to him, ‘That makes me uncomfortable. Please don’t do that.’”
It was this stark imbalance of power which alarmed Carlton the most as a young dancer aspiring to join the company.
At its worst, this culture of silence can serve to maintain an environment of outright violence and exploitation, as in the case of Alexandra Waterbury, a former student at the School of American Ballet. In August, Waterbury came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against multiple New York City Ballet male principal dancers and is now suing both the individual dancers and City Ballet for creating what she calls a “fraternity house environment…that emboldens [male members of the Company] to disregard the law and violate the basic rights of women.”
The lawsuit accuses Chase Finlay, a principal dancer who has since left the company, of taking and sharing explicit photos and videos of Waterbury with other male dancers and company donors. Finlay and the other dancers exchanged lewd and demeaning comments about Waterbury and other female dancers, many of whom were students at the time. In one text message conversation cited in the suit, New York City Ballet donor Jared Longhitano suggests to Finlay that “we could tie some of [the female dancers] up and abuse them like farm animals”—to which Finlay added, “or like the sluts they are.”
Emily Coates, director of the dance studies curriculum at Yale University and a former dancer with New York City Ballet, wrote in an email to me that the company culture at City Ballet “promoted a kind of obedience to authority.” She added, “I had the feeling while in the company that using my voice, having an opinion, and thinking critically were perceived to be somehow un-ballerina-like.”
I have often wondered if the emotion we witness when we watch a ballerina perform is simply an expression of the pain which accumulates from years of being taught to endure at all costs. In every one of my friends who grew up dancing, I can recognize a hint of that dying swan, a deep yearning for freedom after years of being confined to a form which was not authentically theirs.
Perhaps that is why ballet is so beautiful to watch. To me, the best performances were always the ones that felt like small acts of resistance—little earthquakes, silent to the audience, that under the floorboards of the stage rumbled loudly.
But does the ability to express oneself on stage constitute freedom in a practical sense? What good is artistic expression if it doesn’t provide one with a voice to stand up for herself when she is harassed, abused, and exploited offstage?
Dance is a powerful tool of communication, but that does not make up for the ways in which dancers are systematically kept quiet when it comes to concerns about their safety and wellbeing. This culture of suppression creates a population of female dancers who emerge from the ballet world (or stay in it as teachers and, on rare occasions, directors) with a code of silence ingrained in their bodies and minds. This whole demographic of women who, professionally or pre-professionally, have had their identity and agency chipped away, now stands vulnerable to further violations of their autonomy and self-worth.
I do not consider it a coincidence that I spent my first years following my exit from the ballet in the throes of an emotionally abusive relationship with a person who kept me perpetually silent, apologetic, and eager to please. These are qualities that society encourages in women and that ballet serves to enforce, perhaps more harshly than any other art form.
I can only hope that dancers like Waterbury represent the beginning of an avalanche of voices highlighting the changes necessary to make ballet safe for women. It is time that we stop silencing ourselves for the sake of this beautiful art, stop pretending that abuse is necessary to produce great work, and face the truth that perhaps the swan queen was never really a swan at all. Perhaps she was just a woman in a costume, deceived by a man into believing she had no voice—a woman who shouldn’t need to suffer in order to be heard. She is dancing tonight in a yellow spotlight, in a theater in a city in a country in a world. She has thought so many times of it, the blasphemy of breaking that sacred wall of silence. Consider this my call from the audience to her. I dare her to do it. I dare her to speak.