Skip to content

Border crossing in the dance world: excellent research leaves out elephant in the room

Dancing, from super amateur to world-class professional, involves boundary crossing, abuse of power, physical assaults and sexual misconduct perpetuated by a stubborn culture of silence. The long-awaited investigation by Marjan Olfers, 'Shadow Dancing', into boundary violation in the dance world, had even more shocking results than anyone feared beforehand.

The figures are now well enough known: a majority of dancers have experienced transgressive behaviour, in 40 per cent of cases also sexual in nature. And: the more professional, the worse. Here is the link to the full study, which is well worth reading: Shadow dancing.

I read it, and at some point the thought occurred to me that - even in all the media coverage - something was not mentioned. That non-mentioning does not diminish the investigation at all, but it does obstruct the view of where and how we should look for a solution.

Top sport

Before I mention the word, let me quote something else, and that is in this quote:

"Dancing is like top sport; you will have to cross certain physical limits. This is an area of tension: when are you pushed and it's okay because you want to reach a certain level, and when is it to the point where it's not okay anymore. This depends on personal characteristics. There should be attention to healthy boundaries, and these should be made discussable."

So it took until page 90 in the study before the word dropped: 'Just like in top sport'. Does that phrase sound familiar to you? It also resonated with the publications about abuse of power on DWDD, NOS Sport, The Voice. The top sport argument resounds wherever boundaries are crossed. It seems to be an excuse: whoever wants to be the best has to cross borders, and the environment has to help him/her/it cross those borders too, where that 'helping' is apparently allowed to be accompanied by emotional, social and physical violence.

The Public, that's Us

So now I'm not going to blame elite sport, however tempting that would be, and dance is largely also elite sport. Indeed, dance is partly Olympic. And ballet is mostly royal, so that's also top. I don't do such easy whataboutisms. No. because top sport, like top art and top TV, exists by the grace of an audience. And that audience, that's us.

So that 'we' is the word that is a bit underplayed in the study, even though that is what we need to talk about if we want to do something about the wrongs in the arts. 'We' that is a whole Music Theatre full of elephants in the room. People, often also in good spirits, who only want to pull out their wallets for the 'very best'.

And that best, that is partly described by the other us, art criticism, as something that must cross borders, that must 'chafe', that must be made with effort, a lot of effort, that must make sweat invisible but palpable, that must excite without becoming pornographic, that may be pornographic, but is still called art, because so called by gatekeepers and performers (Jan Fabre, anyone?).

Appetite

'How will you make an entire corps de ballet move splashily, without cadaver discipline?' a dance expert said to me the other day, and he had a point: none of us wants to live as an anonymous cog in a mighty work in our day-to-day work, but expect a classical orchestra to have no one playing out of tune, and Riverdance must be performed like a machine. We have boundless admiration for people who turn off everything we as humans cannot and will not turn off: our individualism, our laziness, our personal thinking skills, our appetites.

Art must come out of suffering; a painter who can't pay his rent is not doing something right, even if we swoon when he can afford an expensive villa plus Ferrari. How many times will a critic, when it was still allowed, have said something about a ballerina's too full body shape?

Impunity

The reason that dancers suffer is the same reason why we admire top footballers who work a lesser opponent to the grass with impunity: we want to see boundaries crossed, and check via juice channels whether it is still just on the good side of morally acceptable. And we like to raise that boundary a little ourselves. Out of boredom, or to boast to those around us.

Can it be done differently? Of course it can be different. There was a time when we thought sport was unhealthy (rightly), and we did not like looking at graceless people on a stage. The current border-crossing cult is not genetic, it is not the natural course of things: it is culturally determined, and this has unfortunately been amplified a bit lately by social media.

Time for a Hallmark

So: before we condemn the dance world, before we wish TV personalities to hell, it might be good to realise what our own wish list is like. Ask yourself how animal-friendly that cultural piece of meat on your plate was produced.

Years ago I argued for a 'slave-free art' label. We got the rather toothless fair practice code in its place. Let me make a new attempt and add a human-friendliness label: like the meat in the supermarket 0, 1, 2, or 3 stars. Or, if necessary, 'The Wise Choice'. And that artworks, performances and TV shows with such labels become transparent about how they came about. Can you decide for yourself whether to go to a show for which people have been abused and mistreated, entirely of their own free will.

Read the research here.

Appreciate this article!

Happy with this story? Show your appreciation with a small contribution! That's how you help keep independent cultural journalism alive. (If you don't see a button below, use this link: donation!)

Donate smoothly
Donate

Why donate?

We are convinced that good investigative journalism and expert background information are essential for a healthy cultural sector. There is not always space and time for that. Culture Press does want to provide that space and time, and keep it accessible to everyone for FREE! Whether you are rich, or poor. Thanks to donations From readers like you, we can continue to exist. This is how Culture Press has existed since 2009!

You can also become a member, then turn your one-off donation into lasting support!

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

Small Membership
175 / 12 Maanden
Especially for organisations with a turnover or grant of less than 250,000 per year.
No annoying banners
A premium newsletter
5 trial newsletter subscriptions
All our podcasts
Have your say on our policies
Insight into finances
Exclusive archives
Posting press releases yourself
Own mastodon account on our instance
Cultural Membership
360 / Jaar
For cultural organisations
No annoying banners
A premium newsletter
10 trial newsletter subscriptions
All our podcasts
Participate
Insight into finances
Exclusive archives
Posting press releases yourself
Own mastodon account on our instance
Collaboration
Private Membership
50 / Jaar
For natural persons and self-employed persons.
No annoying banners
A premium newsletter
All our podcasts
Have your say on our policies
Insight into finances
Exclusive archives
Own mastodon account on our instance
en_GBEnglish (UK)