whistle while you work

Register your story. Whistle-blowers welcome. 

Microaggressions, stereotypes, double-standards, discrimination, unwanted come-ons, manipulation, isolation, bad jokes, and pithy comments: ABUSES OF POWER and SEXISM in the ARTS and in DANCE come in all shapes and sizes.

Using art as a backdrop is not an excuse.  Change the names, be anonymous, but don't let little perpetrations go unnoticed, no matter how big or small.

-email your own stories here. Please specify if you'd like to be anonymous, published online, or have your submission PRIVATELY archived for your future reference-

 

    Find Helpful Resources here.     Read about our work here.    Instagram: @whistle_whileyouwork 

 

"This part of your body is always a BIG problem."

- the costume women publicly speaking about my ass


"What is that? Is that your stomach? Suck it in. Do something about it. It's not OK." - being told to lose weight (instantaneously) while standing next to a severely anorexic dancer

"Are you on birth control?" - on why my body was the way that it was

"You want to choreograph? Oh. Really?" - on repeating myself for the umpteenth time

"Humphrey Blowhole has a great idea that I think we should adopt!" - on having an idea that I related to a male collaborator that was then further disseminated as that male collaborator's idea

"Your generation is so difficult."- on wanting more than the narrow identities that dance companies afford their dancers/not being satisfied with the work put in to disassembling existing power structures

"I don't know how else to say this to you, since you just don't get any of the words that I'm saying to you," -being called dumb by a female rehearsal director when I did, in fact, understand the words that she was saying to me

"There were a lot of comments about why we let bodies like that dance on stage in costumes like that. Not necessarily about you, but a lot of comments." -on why I had to fight so hard to be in a piece that the choreographer had clearly asked for me to dance. The costume was a leotard. 

"As a girl in ballet, you just can't really do that." -on trying to be a creative female dancer who sometimes did not wear lipstick to ballet class

"If you want to do that, than go somewhere else" -on, sadly enough, what I did, because institutions are pretty damn resistant to the change.

Not everyone has dealt with a major incident of harassment in the ballet world but I’m willing to bet that everyone has experienced little moments....

Here’s a sampling that have happened to me or my fellow dancers:

A teacher that would constantly tell me to hold in my stomach. My core was engaged in fact, and the teacher realized this when he poked me in the abdomen, however this didn’t stop him from repeatedly yelling “Stomach!” at me throughout class, sometimes multiple times, sometimes along with my name. This continued throughout the whole time he was my teacher.

A friend was told by the artistic director to get a breast reduction if she ever wanted to dance professionally. She was 14 at the time.

The teacher who makes faces at her students because she is so horrified at their lack of technique, then she refuses to correct then or even look at the dancers because they aren’t up to her standard.

A choreographer who created a mature piece for a group of very young girls, and yelled at them when they weren’t “being sexy enough”. Some of the dancers were eleven years old.

A program director who paid careful attention to a young male dancer’s recovery from injury, asking him to take time off until it was healed, and then refusing to discuss a female dancer’s similar injury, saying “it could wait until evaluations”. Evaluations were 5 months away. 

Favoritism of an artistic director towards his son who was in the school. The son would get every principal role and always on opening night when there were certainly other boys who were good enough. The director would only watch those performances and give notes to that cast.

A male teacher commenting about his students breast size in costumes with tight bodices.

A female teacher telling her students all they needed to eat for lunch was “three almonds”.

Complaining to the artistic director that a teacher was repeatedly making students cry in class, and being told “that’s just the way it is”.

A class was told to do push-ups. Then the teacher told the girls to stop, only the body needed to do push-ups, because the girls shouldn’t “look like body builders”. 

An artistic director who told me in a meeting that I would never make it, then told me I should try harder.

Many Stories

#1 The pianist at a renown ballet school in North Carolina started to bring a webcam at some point. Every class he would set it on the piano in plain sight. I think he said it was to help him see what we were doing or to learn how to better accompany us. That's total bullshit. He filmed a class full of women wearing just a leotard and tights every single day. Many of us were uncomfortable with it and questioned it. Nothing was ever really done about it from what I know. And he wasn't exactly the type you wouldn't question... he had a creeper vibe. It still blows my mind that he was actually allowed to do that.

#2 A Balanchine Trust repetiteur once took me aside and told me that I'd be much more successful if I were considerably thinner... and her advice was to eat only breakfast every day, nothing else. I had just recently graduated from school... and my body was still growing.

#3 At a dress rehearsal in the studio the week before the first performances, I was wearing my Swan Lake tutu and was trying to adjust the straps so they'd be more comfortable on my shoulders when the ballet mistress came over and slapped my hand away from the straps saying "stop touching it". Still to this day I don't understand why me moving the straps around was such a huge issue to her. And then in the same rehearsal, I got yelled at for wearing a metal clip in my hair. It was not a "full makeup/hair/costume rehearsal". We were in the studio, simply trying to see if the costumes fit well. And I'm told "I hope you're not gonna wear THAT in your hair." OF COURSE NOT! 

#4 The conductor started the music for my coda during a performance before I had arrived at my spot and prepared to start. After telling him about this mistake afterwards and explaining that this is the choreography and that he has to wait for me to do a certain pose before starting, his answer was "well it's too boring, come on, the audience is gonna fall asleep, I can't wait that long".

#5 Had one rehearsal for a pas de deux, then heard or did nothing else about it for a week. After asking what is the situation, why am I not getting any more rehearsal, getting the answer: "Well, you look good and can definitely do it, but in reality you can't be more than a cover for the role, you can't have any performances because you are new in the company and you are corps de ballet... and there will be a scandal if you get a show of this." ... I'd been dancing professionally for about 8 years already, and had done other good roles in other companies.

#6 Not entirely in the dance world, but related to my dancing... I got contacted by a photographer on twitter to meet and discuss a photoshoot. So we met in a cafe. The project sounded cool until he said I would have to be naked and that he requests that I wax everywhere completely, and that something had to be done about the frizz of my hair of course... and the proceeded to ask to do a "test shoot" that same day... suggesting we do it in my apartment and on my balcony. That's a lot of red flags... I said bye.

Abuse of power has to stop.

"When I sit down to think about it, to really go back to the place in my brain that numbed shit out i realize there are countless situations, manipulations, comments that affected my self worth to such a degree that they affected the men I chose to be with later on. I'm only now at 34 years old dealing with residual build up and acknowledgement in an outspoken way. This platform to express ones abuses subtle or large is important to evacuate to let it be said that " no it's not ok" , however people, especially those in a position of power, will play it down. 

Here is a list of experiences, comments and stories I've dealt with:

Starting at 17yr old a choreographer set a solo on me. I improvised to a track of music where the only words were "silence is sexy" . I had to improvise to this in front of all my peers and alone in the studio with him. At the time it was confusing because I was being given "special attention" and a solo so in some weird way that was supposed to feel like a privilege. I've never written that story down until today.

In ballet school one teacher would always comment if i wore lipstick how pretty it made me look and it would make him happy if i was closer to him at the bar. 

The director at the ballet school told me my body was better suited for the beach than ballet.

i was doing the nutcracker one year and the director saw me backstage he looked at my face and said, "wow you should be in my nutcracker", I told him I already was....

After landing my first professional contract the director took me rock climbing . As we were hanging out he brought up the rumours of me dating a particular guy. It made me feel uncomfortable and made me question why was this any of his business...?

There was specific psychological trauma from one director in particular. I was living in a foreign country and 21yrs at the time. I got the job after a cattle call 300ppl audition. He told me I had got the job but that I had serious work to do if i wanted to stay. He made me give myself a number to rate myself. I gave myself a 7 (as if we can rate ourselves with numbers!) and he told me I was more like a 3. Over a two year period of time my self worth diminished with every day. I remember him asking me if i was pregnant because i looked bigger. He told me to do push ups and always told me how weak I was. I was his downstairs tenant so he would come into the apartment whenever he pleased . On one of our tours our rooms were right next to each other and i heard him jerking off real loudly, it felt intentional. He had a way of making women feel special one second then being a total asshole the next. 

It's sad to say but I really do feel like the feelings of belittlement i endured in that company lead me to be with the father of my first child who, though im no longer with today, I still have to deal with on going verbal abuse. Very recently he told me to shut up in front of my child. I explained to my child how this kind of behaviour is not ok calmly but in the moment i feel such rage and injustice at the situation it makes me want to scream. Makes me feel for all the women and men who are in abusive and manipulative relationships. Even when you are out of them the trauma is still there and can take a long time to heal. It helps to share and write these stories out. I still feel like I have a lot of healing to do but it empowers me to share and to hear others stories." 

Choreographic competition favouritism

At a choreographic competition for professional choreographers, the rules were changed when the male favourite for the major prize (the chance to make a work on a major international ballet company outside of the country of the competition) was beaten in his area heat by a woman. The rules originally stated that the winner of each of the four heats would go on to compete in the final for the major prize and the opportunity to choreograph for minor companies or secondments. After the man in question was beaten, the rules were changed to first place getters and selected second place getters. He was the only second place getter to get to move to the final. He then went on to get the major prize. The majority of the choreographers in the competition were women. Two made it to the finals. One was married to a man who was friends with the judging panel. The other was probably the rightful winner.

Abuse at Ballet Victoria, Canada

I have been hesitant to share my experiences at Ballet Victoria. The current director, ______, is a classic narcissistic, abusive and manipulative person. He left me walking on eggshells by constantly gaslighting me (telling me one thing in private, then saying another in front of the company to make me look forgetful or stupid)... He would sometimes call me after working hours to further control my emotions and gaslight. He insulted me on a regular basis ("Tuna-belly", "Cheese on the back of your legs", "Obtuse mind", "Blind"). He would often blow up with anger and yell frequently in rehearsals. He would walk into dressing rooms while the women were changing and naked, our youngest company member being 18 years old at the time and only an aspirant/apprentice. He would purposely shove, push, or drop me and other girls if we had to do any pas de deux with him. He would also say horrible things about our bodies, say phrases like "Nothing is sexier than a hollow stomach," and "Eating lunch makes your body and muscles cold, so it's better not to eat at all," and encouraged extreme weight loss/vegetarianism (if you weren't a vegetarian, he would constantly criticize your food choices... to avoid this I ate lunch outside everyday). He hated when anyone was happy, for example on a company member's birthday, he noticed her celebratory mood and purposely put her down until she broke down crying, and continued to text her after rehearsals to criticize her.

He began a sexual and romantic relationship with another aspirant/apprentice in the company (in doing so, cheating on his partner and company dancer of 10 years) which created a horrible working environment for everyone. When their affair became apparent he called us into his office one by one under the guise of a performance review, but it was really damage control to try and calm everyone's emotions about the situation and manipulate us.

The constant yelling, stress, and gaslighting left me unable to face dance at all for six months, and it took me years to finally let go of the negative feelings I had. I have always been afraid that he will come after me if I spoke publicly about what happened, so I made sure to refer to my experience in neutral terms. But I shouldn't have to be afraid to speak honestly about the horrid working conditions of Ballet Victoria. Even now I can't bring myself to submit this with my name... I hope one day, with the increasing amount of dancers speaking up and sharing their stories, that I will gain the courage to reveal myself, unafraid of the consequences.

The most interesting part is this... _____ ____ choreographed one of our pieces to be performed at the end of the season. He set this piece in September 2014, then his allegations of photographing nude, underage girls of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School came to light in 2015. We were instructed to not speak publicly of the matter because the allegations were "all lies", "Those girls were 18 and made their choice,"... Then ____ was hired to work for the company, and this news broke in late 2017. [the director] justified this to news outlets by saying the allegations have yet to be proven, therefore there's no reason he couldn't work, and that he himself has had photoshoots with [the choreographer] and they went fine. I'm not surprised they stand by each other.

-ANONYMOUS DANCER

Mental breakdowns don't always mean she's "crazy"

I'm a Black male that was asked to cut his hair (I had long locks at the time) as a condition for whether I would get hired or not by a Contemporary Dance company I auditioned for in Europe. I was told by the then director that he himself did not have a problem with my hair but that it might be seen as something that would give the audience and other guest choreographers the wrong impression of who I was and what I was capable doing as a performer. He did not want me to enter the situation at a disadvantage because he thought I was talented and he wanted to work with me. So as awkward as it made him feel, he thought he should request that I cut my hair. Very fucked up indeed, but I was actually on the verge of deciding to cut my hair anyway, so I did. Once I started working for him, one of his main corrections for me the first 6 months of employment was that I was not dancing manly enough. Be more masculine. Make it look more masculine. He even suggested that I watch two of my male colleagues and try to imitate the way they were executing the choreography because that was the masculinity he was looking for. So this is just a little background info.

My story is that this director was consistently having inappropriate sexually motivated encounters with several of the women in the company. But none of the women felt comfortable talking about what had happened to them so most of them kept the stories to themselves or just amongst the girls and that was that. To add insult to injury, his wife was a dancer in the company at the time. So it was sensitive. The people that knew what was going on had no idea how much she knew or if she knew anything at all and no one I guess wanted to be the person to stir the pot. So, silence.
My third season in the company a female colleague and friend went through a very emotionally troubling time and ultimately had a nervous breakdown. She had to leave work for awhile. It wasn't really clear what had happened to her but there started to be speculation that it may have some small part to do with work. So some of the stories started to come out and were shared and it became clear there was a pattern and that many women in the company had experienced the same thing. Then another female member of the company experienced a sort of mental breakdown and she also revealed that among other things, what was troubling her was an experience she'd had with the director. She felt guilty and like somehow she had brought this on herself even though she could not quite identify what she'd done wrong. When these stories started to surface it was like a lightbulb turned on and all of his weird behaviors that we'd seen and questioned in rehearsals all started to make sense. All the random aggressive tones and snarky corrections and casting changes etc. It was the last straw and a decision was made by the company members to try and hold him accountable and ultimately to have him removed. We had a meeting with the executive director who was shocked by what we told her and by the number of occurrences. She said something certainly would be done because this was not tolerable behavior. What did happen was that he kept his job and it was decided that he would not be fired but that an associate director (female) would be hired to kinda keep an eye on the situation and be a sort of mediator between him and the company.

9 people including myself left the company that season.

Quotes from a female choreographer to a female dancer

“You don’t look powerful on stage next to men.” 

“You look weak dancing with him.”

“Don’t forget he is your competition on stage.”

“Make your legs look more like his.”

“Just embody him and his presence.”

“Your solo isn’t working so I’m going to dim the lights.”

“You need to be more butch.”

“Don’t do your normal walk when you are in rehearsal, I need you to walk around the studio like you have more power.”

A Montreal Osteopath and the sole resource for dancers attending Springboard Montreal told me to undress to address an ankle sprain. He treated the sprain while I laid prone and yes that hospital gown was wide fucking open. 
I came to know just recently that the Doctor had previously had his license revoked due to taking indecent pictures of minors, impregnating a 14-year-old at Canada's National Ballet School, and still using the same tactic he was described as using in the article with the other women and children. What upsets me the most about this memory is that I deeply trusted and looked for guidance from the Springboard Direction and Staff. I have no doubt that they knew his history of abuse, and continued to use his services regardless.

-dancer, Springboard Montreal
 

Bursting into the dressing room

While changing in the women's dressing room backstage, very suddenly Marley Springbreak, a well-known choreographer, (who, although not working with us, was in-residency in a studio at the same Tanzhaus at the same time my group was performing onstage) opened the door and walked in.  All the women present froze, surprised by his uninvited presence in our supposedly private space.  He trained his eyes on one woman who was seated in front of a mirror, and said "My goodness, you look incredible today!" She looked at him through the mirror, with wide eyes, nervously laughing responded, "Who, me? Oh, um, thank you."  I turned to him and said "Excuse me, can I help you?".  He looked at me coldly, making it known I was interrupting his interaction with the other woman and said, "Oh don't worry, you look good too," before he walked over to her to continue his conversation.  His presence was so imposed and authoritative, I silently questioned whether or not I was even in my designated dressing room.  No longer comfortable changing there, I hurried out of my own assigned space. 

 

-Francesca Chiaveri, dancer, astonished by the practiced swagger of a man who evidently regularly uses his authority to assume power over women

The male ballet teacher who needlessly encompassed my thigh with both his thumbs and pointer fingers very near the base of my pubic area and dragged both hands down my entire leg to remind me to lengthen. 

The dance partner whose package always finds its way directly between the cheeks of my ass unnecessarily. Tried placing my hips further away, multiple times. Did NOT feel comfortable enough to bring it up. 

The man on the creative team of a show reminding me why people are bowing lower for a penis than for me..."They respect it more."

The male General Manager not protecting his full-time female employees who are required to undress/change backstage against a part-time male crew member who was arrested for taking photos of woman changing in a department store dressing room. 

No follow-up on a rogue phone seen taking pictures of the women's changing booth over-top roadboxes and curtains. 

The man in my cast who changed his blocking in order to whisper shit in my ear, touch my hand or linger close behind me while I danced in skin tight pants. 

The male stitcher who poked at my arm pit in a costume fitting and called my skin "extra flesh" who also told me he hoped I "wasn't sitting outside rehearsal getting fat"...as I sat there speaking with my friends with zero food in my hand or mouth, but a communal table of treats next to me. 

The male ballet teacher when complimenting me on losing weight, being informed I'd had food poisoning, followed up with, "Isn't being sick great?"

The male Artistic Director who called me overweight in front of a guest artist and my dance partner. 

The gay male cast member who walks into a female dressing room and says "Ew" when seeing naked women. 

The male General Manager who threatens arbitration against my team's hard work over one thing we are asking for for a woman...that woman was me. The only woman on the team. 

Being the only woman in a room of creatives and managers discussing cast safety and morale. 

The boyfriend who tells me my male dresser is obviously going home and jerking it to images he's seen of me topless backstage. 

The male director who gives all four Russian thug characters (who speak) to men as myself and the other female thug stand in the back, silent. 

The male director who gives the lines of the "maiden" to a man, because "it doesn't really matter."

All the "compliments" from men about how good I look in _______________ costume. I didn't ask. Nor was my discomfort in said costume a request for a compliment. 

The costume designers who fully clothe the men while the women are scantily clad/in skin tight clothing. Yes, sometimes the story calls for it...sometimes it doesn't. 

It was after summer break, the first month in my last year of Contemporary dance BA. It was during a ballet class, the teacher asked me and a female friend to come outside for some minutes to talk. The teacher told us that she feels offended to see hairy armpits on women. We had then two options (that became an informal rule for women in the university): to have shaved armpits or to wear long sleeves in her ballet class. 
So I try to ask for gender equality to other teachers and to the director of the university. And the help was the following : "it's disgusting", no-one would like to dance with me if I have hairy armpits and that it's like this in the dance world. 
So I spent my entire last year of university having to cover my body and sweating much more than my male colleagues, who were of course allowed to present their body as they wish.

I once worked with a guest choreographer while I was in school. He would harass many of my female classmates in front of everyone. He would go up to someone, get very close to her, and whisper things in her ear as he stroked her arms or back. Usually, he would whisper things about her talent or how attractive she was. No one else knew this in the moment because we couldn't hear what was being said. All we saw was that a big man was too close and acting too comfortable; I could see that my friends were evidently uncomfortable. He even bit one of my friends on the arm and bruised her. He would do weird things like this in front of everyone. One day, he told us that North American women are strong but, our backsides and thighs are two big, and that we should consider skipping lunch everyday.  Everyone hated the situation, but no one felt like they had the power to say anything. Once, we got the courage to speak with our director about it and she said, "Sometimes you have to put up with people like that, but you just need to focus on the work".  So, we just grinned and bared it and kept our heads down.

As a choreographer, I found out after a young choreographers evening that the male choreographer on the program had figured out a way to get paid more than me, because -as the producer said- “he’s very smart”. He is now a very successful choreographer promoted by many European dance institutions and Tanzhauses. The assumption is that he is more talented, but how much of his current success has to do with his earning more money at an early stage, having more freedoms, being given more respect, and being considered automatically “smarter” than his female counterparts?

A contemporary teacher at a summer dance school in London took me out (with a few other teachers and students) one night after the program was coming to an end and of course, proceeded to stick his tongue down my throat after a few drinks. It was unwanted, but he was my teacher so I just waited till it was over and said nothing to the school or anyone about it. I was 19 years old.

A choreographer chewed me out for 15 minutes in front of my entire cast because I missed a few hours of one of his rehearsals. He blatantly threatened to blackball me in the NYC dance scene by telling fellow choreographers and directors that I was unprofessional and unreliable. Meanwhile, the 5 boys in the piece had ALL missed MULTIPLE rehearsals and he never said a single word about it.