The Bobby Knights of Ballet

No question about it. Bobby Knight was a brilliant basketball coach who brought championships and glory to Indiana University.

He was also a bully who regularly screamed at his players, manhandled them, and threw chairs on the court. It’s not surprising that he’s a big supporter of Donald Trump. They have a lot in common.

Unfortunately, Knight also has a lot in common with a segment of the ballet world. Some of the most knowledgeable, skilled pedagogues in the field are products of old school, harsh methods of training. These ballet masters survived, many became accomplished dancers, and are now passing on their expertise to the next generation.  Unfortunately, they’re also passing on the same emotionally abusive treatment they experienced as students. That’s the way to do it, isn’t it?  Look at the results—they made it in a hyper-competitive field, and now they’re producing beautifully trained students.

But what I can’t help but wonder is whether their students would perform with even more assurance and joyful abandon in an environment that combined warmth and encouragement with high standards. And I mourn the loss of students with a passion for dance who wilt under this kind of treatment and drop out.

I was reminded of all this when I spoke with a dear friend whose daughter is a serious ballet student in an excellent school. Her daughter has made great progress since enrolling. But there are many days when she wonders whether she can bear to walk up the stairs and into the studio. Her teacher’s criticisms are unrelenting, and they are often personal: “I can’t stand to look at you,” “If you dance like that on stage, you will embarrass the entire school,” etc.  This renowned teacher roughly shoves my friend’s daughter or smacks her leg when he is displeased with her in class. He is rarely pleased.

This seems incalculably sad to me. As a former modern dancer, I have my own war stories of teachers and company directors who played psychological games and seemed to get their kicks out of infantilizing and shaking the self-confidence of dancers under their direction. But there was always that part of me that was taking mental notes of what I did, and did not, want to do when it was my turn to teach.

All I can say is that I strongly believe in combining high standards with supportive encouragement and caring.  I’m proud that I had a hand in training a number of students who went on to successful careers in dance, as well as in other fields.

You don’t have to be a Bobby Knight of Ballet to get results. And you might be surprised to discover that when you treat aspiring dancers humanely, they soar to new heights.

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