Former University Of Utah Ballet Students Call For Accountability From School Of Dance
Ballet students from the University of Utah’s School of Dance shuffle into the studio, dropping their duffle bags by the door.
The class of mostly women are dressed in an array of colorful leotards with their hair pinned up in tight buns. They spread across the room, stretching their bodies as they wait for the instructor.
It’s a scene that’s very familiar to Tori Johnson from her time as a student at the U’s School of Dance. Johnson always knew she wanted to be a ballerina. She’d been dancing since she was three years old and spent most of her summers at ballet camps across the country.
“It felt right,” she said, remembering the feeling of being on stage. “I know that it sounds kind of cliché, but when I was there in that world with those people, I just felt like that’s where I wanted to be.”
But back in 2015 during her second semester at the U, Johnson said she was diagnosed with a stress fracture. For six weeks, her foot was locked at a 90 degree angle in a medical boot.
She returned to the studio, ready to slowly get back into training.
“I made a point at the beginning of class to say [to my dance professor], ‘Hey this is my very first class. I’m going to do a few combinations and then I’m going to sit down,’” she said.
They started the second dance combination — a tendu. It’s a foundational movement where dancers fully extend their foot, pointing it in front of them, curling their toes.
Johnson said that’s when the instructor clapped at the pianist to stop the music.
“He went over to me and pointed and he said: ‘Why aren’t you pointing your feet? The fact that you aren’t pointing your foot in your tendu shows me and your classmates that you don’t care about your dancing,’” Johnson recalled.
She said this type of behavior has long reinforced a culture where dancers are silenced and don’t feel comfortable coming forward about issues or injuries.
Johnson graduated from the University of Utah in 2019 with an Honors Bachelor of Fine Arts in Ballet. Then last year during the pandemic, she started virtually reconnecting with her classmates.
Johnson quickly learned she wasn’t alone.
“We were getting together and talking and kind of put pieces together that a lot of us were experiencing the same things when we were students,” she said.
Johnson and another alumna, Jamie Greco, gathered 13 written testimonials from students and faculty members about what they see as the harmful culture at the U’s ballet program.
They detailed their experiences being forced to work through injuries, being body shamed, verbally abused and facing microaggressions.
In March, Johnson and Greco reached out to the College of Fine Arts to set up a meeting to discuss changes they’d like to see from the school to create accountability and transparency.
The effort comes at a time when women are challenging the way they’ve been treated in the performing arts and in sports like gymnastics — where they say they’re often pushed past the breaking point.
“We have the gift of perspective,” Johnson said. “Once you're out of the world, you can kind of look back with 20/20 hindsight and say: ‘Hey, that wasn't really ok, but I didn't know it at the time and now I want to say something.”
Many students also said there's no clear system for lodging complaints with the department and described fear of retaliation if they reported directly to an instructor or another faculty member.
“Ballet training has been traditionally quiet,” he said. “You listen to what the teacher tells you to do, and this often translates into a culture of 'you' complain on the side but you never bring your complaints forward. And then when you don't get results, you get defeated a little bit.”Luc Vanier
When students tried to bring these concerns to the student advisory committee, or directly to the director of dance — they said it felt like their reports were going into a vacuum.
Kate Mattingly, a former assistant professor at the School of Dance, said during her time at the school she witnessed many of the behaviors detailed in the testimonies.
“Unfortunately this treatment is not unique, that was something I observed as a pervasive element in the school,” Mattingly said. “And I’m only concerned — as the students are — about their well-being and ways to improve the school.”
Mattingly submitted her own story along with the testimonials. She wrote about how she faced some of the same issues when she tried to report an alleged ‘hostile work environment.’
But she said these types of behaviors aren’t something new or exclusive to the U’s dance program. Mattingly said there are conversations about culture happening across the ballet world.
Last year, for example, Utah’s Ballet West revamped their policies to create a better environment for dancers of color.
Luc Vanier, director of the U’s School of Dance, said he’s heard the student's concerns and it’s something the administration is trying to address.
He said these cultural issues have to do with changes in mindsets — like professors who maintain certain expectations about how the body is supposed to look and how that conflicts with new values students have around body diversity.
“The field struggles honestly because the body is reflecting the work,” he said. “Many of the faculty in the building were raised and trained in the system,” he said. “And it is quite difficult at times to reorganize the habits that are the core of what we think form is.”
Vanier said there is a power structure in ballet that can affect communication between an instructor and a dancer.
“Ballet training has been traditionally quiet,” he said. “You listen to what the teacher tells you to do, and this often translates into a culture of 'you' complain on the side but you never bring your complaints forward. And then when you don't get results, you get defeated a little bit.”
Vanier said the school has taken student feedback in town halls and created an online reporting form this fall. It allows people to report incidents to selected faculty members. He said they’ve also introduced an athletic trainer in classrooms to help students and faculty assess injuries.
He also pointed to other efforts the school has done like bringing in facilitators to work on best practices for training and pedagogy.
“Honestly, I think that is what the ballet faculty have been trying to do as a group,” Vanier said. “To become people who are able to listen and to put forth shared values so that people can be held accountable.”
He said it takes time to implement lasting change in a school though, and that’s still in its “formative years.”
Johnson and Greco said the moves are a step in the right direction but more work needs to be done. They’re still coordinating with school officials about setting up a meeting to address their concerns.
Johnson is still in the world of ballet. She works as an art administrator in Texas and occasionally teaches.
She said she hopes to make things better for the next generation of dancers.