No bullying in dance, please!

by Chris Jannides 

It goes without saying: the workplace for a dancer must be safe. We know this well when it comes to physical safety, but don’t think it matters when it comes to psychological wellbeing and care.

As dancers we often think that the tougher we are treated, the better the outcomes are likely to be. However, the borderline here can slip too quickly into aggression, psychological or emotional abuse and bullying. What is bullying? The Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) website simply explains: ‘Bullying is ongoing unreasonable behaviour which is often intended to humiliate or undermine…’

But this is tricky territory. As bullyonline.org points out: ‘Bullying happens under the noses of those who should care enough to stop it but who don’t, either because they simply cannot believe it could happen, or because they fear the consequences (for them) of doing something about it.’ (http://bullyonline.org). So let’s look at what can or should be done about psychological, physical and sexual harassment or intimidation in our dance workplaces and environments.

A story … and an appeal

In a social situation recently, a very angry dancer told me about their experience with a well-known choreographer whose behaviour and actions, along with physical mistreatment, consisted primarily of intimidating, put-down tactics and considerable verbal abuse and aggression.

The disillusioned, upset dancer saw this behaviour as resulting from the choreographer’s “very controlling personality” and need for “a massive power trip,”  but also as coming from “the culture they got from their forefathers in dance.”

The dancer asked: “How can we work with awesome, amazing, creative people who also happen to be dysfunctional, and not get treated like s*** at the end of the day?”

My informant felt strongly that this kind of behaviour has to end, and not continue to be swept under the carpet or walked away from. “We all need to be proactive in this area, otherwise they’re destroying people and killing the beauty of dance in this country. We need to shift our culture and it needs to happen at both levels – dancers and choreographers alike.”

The majority of our leading practitioners achieve the highest results possible when working with dancers without ever having to resort to humiliation, sarcasm or insult. Bullying is not needed in the studio, on the stage, on the road. Mutual respect must be the foundation between working adults. So let’s remove infantile and demeaning practices from dance whenever and if-ever they occur.

Hence my reason for writing this article. I have no interest in a witch-hunt, I simply want to post a reminder: bullying, whenever and wherever it occurs in our profession, should not be tolerated.

There are laws in this country that prohibit abusive behaviour in the workplace. There is no justification of any kind that condones bullying by choreographers, teachers or any others in our art form, no matter how privileged we are to work with or be taught by highly regarded practitioners, or feel ourselves lucky to be in one of those rare and highly contested ‘paid’ jobs.

What is bullying from a legal point of view?

The kind of behaviour we are examining here is called ‘vertical bullying’ by Employment Law, which is what might occur, for instance, between an artistic director or choreographer towards a dancer. NZ’s Employment Courts indicate, however, that there is a fine line separating ‘firm management’, which is acceptable, from ‘bullying’, which is not. So what exactly is the difference?

‘Unprofessional’, ‘uncompromising’, ‘confrontational’ and ‘resentful’ are some of the words used to describe behaviours that breach employment law. ‘Threat’, ‘constant humiliation’ and ‘unrestrained intimidation’ also qualify. Yet ‘brusque, insensitive behaviour’ on the part of a person in charge, as well as ‘firm directions or rebukes’ may be viewed as indicating an efficient, robust workplace and leadership style, and not bullying, regardless of whether these create unhappiness or resentment in the person to whom they’re directed. (see MBIE website below)

Under common law and the Employment Relations Act 2000, an employer must not ‘destroy or seriously damage’ a relationship of ‘trust, confidence and fair dealing’ towards employees, and is required ‘to take reasonable steps to protect employees from harm’. The Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 refers to ‘harm’ inflicted on an employee as including ‘illness, injury, and physical or mental harm caused by workplace stress’. According to the MBIE website, personality clashes and/or physical harm are not necessarily enough to constitute ‘bullying’. Bullying behaviour, instead, often involves a person’s ‘repeated actions combined with their intention and desire to cause fear or distress and gain power or exert dominance’.

There is a good deal of readily available literature on the internet from government and other official sources concerning bullying in the workplace. This literature is easy to read and provides many case studies of successful and unsuccessful court cases involving employment law. I have listed a few of the essential websites at the end of this article. However, the best one to start with is the NZ Government’s, Worksafe New Zealand website (see below). Not only does it provide a clear definition of workplace bullying, it offers a number of flowcharts and questionnaires with titles such as ‘Am I being bullied?’ and ‘What can I do about bullying?’. These offer practical steps and guidance.

What steps can a dancer take if they feel they are the victim of bullying?

Worksafe New Zealand suggests that once you’ve thought carefully about your circumstance and considered such things as: what you want the outcome to be; the power balance between you and the person concerned; whether you’ve contributed to the situation in some way; the likely reaction from the other person, etc., and you still wish to proceed, the next step is try what they call a ‘low key solution’.

They give a comprehensive list of what low key solutions entail. A couple of examples include talking to the person directly or, failing that, getting advice from someone you trust. If this doesn’t work, you might then seek help from experts – such as Citizens Advice Bureau – or even from a lawyer. These procedures can lead to more formal processes of mediation and grievance undertaken by employment relations authorities and by the government’s Worksafe NZ Health and Safety department.

It is always best to deal with bullying as early as possible. The consequences of long-term emotional and psychological damage are not worth it. If things don’t improve after talking to the person concerned, keep a clear record of dates, places and circumstances in case this information needs to be produced at a future date. In the long run, choreographers, directors, teachers, whoever, must be made aware that they are walking a fine line, legally, and that if they do nothing, they face the prospect of further, more serious repercussions.

Let’s all continue to support, nurture and publicly fund the creative skills and talents of leading practitioners in dance, but let’s also make them aware of the employment requirements around their professional relationships and obligations towards dancers. Afterall, this is not only about codes of behaviour and best practice, it is about the law. The ‘genius of artistic temperament’ is no excuse and should not be grounds for exclusion.

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The laws covering safe employment conditions and obligations in our country are these:

  • Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, the Employment Relations Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1993.

Relevant websites are these:

DANZ doesn’t mention bullying at all in its website under ‘safe dance practice’, but does make some helpful suggestions in:

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3 thoughts on “No bullying in dance, please!

  1. It seems especially in dance although I have never been one myself but having a partner who played music for many dancers and having lived with several. That it is not uncommon to hear them all talk of the toughness from choreographers and a brutality…so I guess there is a line that can be crossed and that is what you’re talking about Chris. When does it become bullying and just a toughness. It seems so many come very close to crossing that line at least.

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  2. Great article Chris and great that DANZ wishes to continue the discussion – mutual respect for the creation of art and of the artist delivering the creation is the most proactive way to get the best outcome for all….

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