A Memo to Private Teachers/A Thank You to My Dance Instructors
TW: sexual assault
My parents enrolled me in dance classes when I was three years old. My mom claims it was because I was clumsy (I believe her, as I’m still clumsy), but integrating myself into a world of high buns, leotards, pink tights, and hairspray taught me innumerable lessons that have affected my musical training from the beginning. Dancing was where music got to be fun, where I got out all the energy I’d never be able to project through a horn or a piano. But there were hidden benefits, too—chief among them, the safety net that helped me as a young victim of sexual assault.
Unlike the majority of women, my assault wasn’t committed by someone I knew, but claiming and using my body as my own, as something I could use to create amazing things, was and is a key part of my recovery. Dance has always been key to that. And the most affirming things I’ve ever heard from a teacher were spoken in dance class: “Is it okay if I fix your posture?” “Can I lift your leg to help you stretch?” “Will you come up here to show the class?” “I’m going to shape your foot, okay?”
Did you catch the commonality running through these questions? Each one asked my permission for an act that required my body. Further, not a single teacher touched us outside of those corrective moments, except for high fives or holding hands (you try herding twelve kindergarteners onto a dark stage and let me know how that works out). I knew as early as elementary school that people should ask before touching me, and I owe that to my dance teachers past and present.
Dance has its fair share of systemic problems. Not all teachers are like that. But in music, most teachers aren’t.
That’s not always a bad thing—I’d guess that the vast majority of them use their powers only for good, and most students do understand when a hand on their back is meant to remind them of their posture—but as The Washington Post reported this week, classical music is full of students whose teachers have taken things too far. Students report that teachers and mentors make unwanted advances in meetings and coffee chats. Instrumentalists allege assault against prominent figures in orchestras, and those institutions do nothing about it for years or decades. Singers recount moments when dressing rooms hosted trauma.
Each person who perpetrates these acts should be held accountable. That’s a given. What we don’t consider, though, is that it is increasingly clear the ethics of teaching and working in nontraditional spaces must be addressed with each generation of music professionals. I hear a lot of men who are of the age to be well-established teachers say things like, “things were different back then.” Really, though? Were they? Were women or men or enby folks any more okay with being harassed, assaulted, and silenced twenty or forty years ago than we are now? Isn’t it possible that the biggest difference is the internet, thanks to which we now know that thousands of people will support us if we speak up? Isn’t the fundamental change that we now know we exist in numbers amounting to armies, not soloists?
Or, put another way: people often tell rape victims that they should have known better. What about the teachers and stage managers and soloists and conductors who perpetrate these acts? Shouldn’t they?
These teachers of well-established age say other things too. They say, “I was always so worried someone would spread these stories about me.” For those of you who don’t speak bullshit, that translates to, “I was more worried about my personal reputation than the comfort and wellbeing of the students whose care I was entrusted with.” They say, “You need to be careful in this day and age.” That means, “I’m not commenting on whether or not these things are okay, but be sure you don’t get caught.” They say, “You need to think long and hard if there are skeletons in your closet that should perhaps stay there.” That means, “Cover your tracks.”
And you know what? I am SO. FREAKING. TIRED OF IT.
Every male teacher who has female or enby (or male) students and every teacher who teaches men to be teachers of instruments or music or composing needs to sit down and consider that our industry is dominated by largely-male professionals who don’t seem to understand the difference between maintaining one’s reputation and doing good things that benefit (or at least don’t permanently traumatize) the people around them. Professors and private teachers and band directors and marching band techs need to start explicitly stating that they will not harass or coerce or assault or rape their students. Individuals in power need to make it clear to the children, teenagers, and adults in their care that they have a right not to be victimized.
We are your students, not your prey. Remember that. ♦
Thanks so much for reading! I write a lot (of words and music) about sexual assault and rape culture. If you appreciated what you read above and want to read more, explore below:
Letters from the Aftermath is my body of work re: the above. Includes Don’t Tell, He Probably Just Likes You, and Take What You Want (and there’s more coming soon!).
I’ve also got blog posts on #MeToo and politics, concertgoing while femme, the (neutral-to-femme) transition from high school to college, the difference between celebrating modesty and slut-shaming, the dangers of sexual respect training, artists preying on young girls, and bringing sexual assault into the concert hall.