An Open Letter to Dance Educators
My name is Emma Alley. I am here to share my reflections on the promises and pitfalls of the western dance education system.
I am 27 years old, and have spent the majority of my life dancing. I grew up in studios, spending Saturdays rehearsing for spring recitals, getting classical ballet music stuck in my head at school, gossiping about cast lists -- the whole enchilada.
During my formative teen years, I danced every day at a performing arts high school, and each afternoon at a private studio. After graduating, I continued my training, and ended up with a BFA in dance from Florida State University. My time in the competitive dance department there, whose motto was “do it with love,” was a gorgeous, intense, and harrowing experience. While, like most BFA programs, it did nothing to prepare me for navigating the business aspect of surviving as an artist, it did give me tools that I still draw from. In the years post grad, I have reflected on how those countless hours in the studio have shaped my creativity, character, body, and self-image. In these reflections, I keep coming back to the ways I hope to see other young dancers be cared for and encouraged by the educators and directors they put their bodies (literally) in the hands of.
First and foremost, I want to urge torch-bearers to take care of their dancers. An individual cannot thrive if they do not feel safe. Those in power have a responsibility to respect their dancers as whole human beings, not merely instruments. This should be a given, but I have found, time and time again, that it is not.
Some students will continue on to be professional dancers, but many will not. Can we, as a collective community, acknowledge that basically 0.01% of us are going end up seriously auditioning for ABT? The fallacy of the education I received is that so much of it was geared to prepare me for a moment that never came. I trained for hours on end for an imagined audition that would demand technical perfection, when in fact, most of the professional projects I have landed came much more organically, through connection, collaborative ideas, and general chemistry. I wonder how it would have changed my relationship with myself and dance if the emphasis laid more on creativity and self-expression than cultivating immaculate technique (which, by the way, deteriorates rapidly unless a post grad dancer miraculously finds the time and money to take regular class.) Would I be such a crippling perfectionist if I had not grown up feeling that my validity lay in my ability to make my body as close to an impossible ideal as I could, and that anything less equaled failure? I wonder what it would it be like for a dancer to enter classes and rehearsals that focused more on process than product - on the experience itself rather than what it was preparing them for. This devotion to output reflects the american values that are sucking the joy and creativity out of our lives. What if the studio was a place that challenged this product-oriented approach rather than reinforced it?
I found that a certain self-sacrificial quality was valued and even glorified in dance spaces, particularly in the ballet world. Injuries were ignored by both teacher and student, and when push came to shove, “power through it,” was often the motivational mantra. The show must go on. Now, as an adult, this is a pattern I am constantly working to unlearn. It lead me to be detached from my instincts, emotions, and physical self. Living from such a disembodied state is dangerous for anyone, but certainly for a dancer. Presently, coming home to myself and my body is a constant practice. Most of the adult dancers I know report similar experiences, their bodies working through the echoes of past neglect. This, to me, points to a system in need of repair.
Now, I’m not diminishing the merit of healthy discipline. One of the character traits dance gave me that I’m most grateful for is resilience. What I do not agree with is how those in power are, in many cases, abusing their dancers, whether it be emotionally or physically. So often yelling, finger-wagging, shaming, and manipulation are common ways teachers and directors “pull a good performance” out of their dancers. There’s a dynamic of dictatorship that needs to die.
I have observed that the leaders of today’s dance world are emerging from those whose creative practice is rooted in authenticity and self-exploration. Similarly, the educators who have impacted me most were not the ones who drilled me past exhaustion and pain, but those who helped me discover my individual gifts. As someone who has seen a LOT of dance, the performers who stand out are not those with the most perfect technique, but those that dance from a strong sense of self, from a place of vulnerability and truth. Similarly, ensembles with movers who celebrate each other’s strengths, who regard one another as collaborators rather than competitors, are the ones making relevant, compelling, and exciting work. In the studio, curtains are closing over the mirrors that used to keep us bound to a world where our outsides mattered more than our insides.
I want to make this clear: my relationship with dance has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my life. Moving creatively still makes my imagination soar and enables me to discover and express the deepest nuances of my being. My love affair with this art is ongoing and never-ending, and I will not dismiss the guides that helped get me here. These are simply my curiosities as I reflect on what has lead me to this point and consider what updates I feel it’s time the dance community underwent.
What is more sacred and pure than a body dancing for the sheer pleasure of it? What if we remembered how to move from that space? Can we encourage limits to be pushed joyfully instead of forcibly? Can we empower dancers to experience technique as a means and not an end? In non-performance spaces, creative movement can heal and transform. In performance spaces, it can uplift, activate, and inspire. This is how art creates change. Let’s harness that capacity, take it up a notch, shed the old system, and invite a new way.
Do it with love,