Ellie Bresler’s freshman year in the University of Utah’s ballet program didn’t get off to a promising start.
“I had a teacher come up to me and say that they didn’t think I was going to be successful in the program, and suggested that I drop,” Bresler recalls of her first week at the U., in fall 2016.
“They clearly didn’t think that I had the gumption to stick with it and work really hard,” said Bresler, now 23. “They insinuated that the easier, more passive, less technical option, if I still wanted to dance, was to switch to modern. And then the other option they gave me was theater.”
She stayed with the program — but felt the teacher’s opinion had betrayed a common bias against ballet dancers who aren’t taller, with longer and leaner bodies.
Bresler is one of a dozen alumni of the U.’s School of Dance who wrote letters to its leaders earlier this year about a range of problems they see in the ballet program — instances of body shaming, racist comments or treatment and abusive language, as well as intimidating tactics and authoritarian attitudes among instructors. Some alumni also said complaints to the school’s administration, or to the College of Fine Arts that oversees the school, often were dismissed or ignored.
“I feel that they have some identity crisis going on, because they view themselves as experimental and woke and exciting and pushing boundaries — and that’s not the experience of the students,” said Tori Johnson, another School of Dance graduate and one of the organizers of the alumni project that collected the letters.
Luc Vanier, the school’s director, said reading the alumni letters earlier this year was “disheartening,” but also “encouraging” because “former students, and even current students, are feeling more emboldened to tell us what’s going on. They’re wanting to get us to a place of accountability.”
He and eight professors released a letter to alumni in September, thanking them for speaking out and acknowledging “we, along with the broader discipline of dance, have deeply ingrained issues surrounding equity.” The faculty members vowed to continue “our burgeoning commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
They also listed changes made over the past three years, including continuing education for department leaders, a new gender-neutral dress code, surveys of students about their experiences, town halls to hear their feedback, and an anonymous online form for students to report problems.
During his tenure, Vanier added, he has reinforced the school’s student advisory committee, with whom he meets twice a month.
Jamie Greco, who helped Johnson launch the letter project in March, said their aim is to urge the School of Dance faculty and administrators to continue to improve.
The U.’s school holds “social capital in the industry, and they have an obligation — to current students, to alumni, and especially to future students — to have those moments of introspection,” Johnson added, and “to take our project seriously and make the necessary changes in their curricula, their culture, their teaching methods, to make progress across the industry.”
Some of the alumni who wrote letters spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune about their experiences.
Challenging ‘the ideal body type’
In ballet, Bresler said, “the ideal body type is tall, long, lanky, skinny. There’s a specific curvature of the legs and feet, where you want to have hyperextended legs, but then a really high arch so that it makes this nice, elongated line when you point your toe. And you want to have a really flexible back and a long neck.”
Ballet West’s women dancers have an average height of 5 feet, 8 inches, a company spokeswoman said. Artistic director Adam Sklute told The New York Times in 2015, “I won’t deny it, I like tall dancers.”
Bresler — who started dancing when she was 2, growing up in Denver — was never going to be that type. She is 5 feet, 2 inches tall, and describes herself as “on the stocky side, and I have muscular thighs, and I don’t have the perfect arch to my feet at all.”
Savanna Hunter, another School of Dance alumna, is also 5 feet, 2 inches tall, and she said she heard sharp critiques because of her height. With a few professors, Hunter said, “your grades were a reflection more of your size and maybe muscle shape than your actual ability to complete the class and execute things well.”
Hunter, who now teaches at a nonprofit dance school in the Salt Lake Valley, recalled one critique in which she “was told that my thighs were ruining my line, they were shortening it. And I needed to figure out how to lengthen them,” she said.
That’s coded language, Hunter said, “because they’re not allowed to tell us to lose weight any more.”
At the time, Hunter said, she weighed between 115 and 120 pounds — in the healthy range for her height, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s body mass index calculator.
Vanier — who said he danced for 12 years in a ballet company even though “I don’t have a ballet body, in that traditional way” — said stereotypes “have always been a problem in ballet.”
Such judgments, he said, “bypass the work, and go towards the shape of a dancer, rather than being able to look at the coordination and the movement and capacity and expressivity of that body.”
Vanier said that when he became the School of Dance’s first director in 2016 — when the U.’s ballet and modern dance programs were brought under one umbrella, the year Johnson was a sophomore — he was the person who threw out the dance studio’s scales.
“These two scales were still left there from the days where they would weigh everyone as they walked in,” Vanier said. Some faculty members, he said, were “raised in that period, and still traumatized by that period.”
What’s encouraging, Vanier said, is he sees in his faculty “a willingness to learn and to understand, and to ask yourself: What is a body that dances? And who is successful in dance? And how does that success come about?”
Confronting racial bias
Senior Hannah Huang said that as a freshman, she had one teacher who constantly mispronounced her last name — which rhymes with “song” — during roll call in the first weeks of class.
“Every single day I had her, she just could not grasp the name,” said Huang, whose parents moved to the United States from China. “It got to the point where my classmates were just correcting her instead of me, because I was, like, ‘I cannot deal with this.’”
Three years later, in her senior year, Huang had the same teacher — and, again, the teacher couldn’t pronounce her name. ”It did impact the environment for me,” Huang said. “It seems so small. But, yeah, it’s so small, and yet [the teacher] can’t do it.”
In one letter, a Black alum wrote she felt “like a museum piece” and “a literal poster child,” when she was featured in the advertising for one of the school’s performances even though her role was a minor one. (The Tribune received copies of the alumni letters with writers’ names redacted.)
Education and representation are key to unpacking bias, Vanier said. For the new academic year, he noted, the school has brought on four new faculty members — all women, and three of them women of color.
The school, Vanier noted in the September letter, recently has implemented a gender-neutral dress code, and allows dancers of color to wear tights and shoes that match their skin tone, a change that is happening internationally in ballet.
Vanier pointed out that he and two other Utah faculty members contributed essays to “(Re:) Claiming Ballet,” a book released in May that looks “beyond the mainstream white, patriarchal, Eurocentric, heterosexual constructs of gender, race and class,” according to the British publisher Intellect Ltd.
The essays, like the U. faculty’s other research, Vanier said, are “an attempt at looking deeply into the trauma, the pedagogy, the patriarchy inside ballet, but how to then support what is ballet, and not throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
‘A blurring of teaching and abuse’
Since the merger of the ballet and modern dance schools, Vanier said, he’s been working to bridge the disparate teaching philosophies of the two disciplines.
“Modern dance, in general, there’s a tendency to work more as a team, more collaboratively, so feedback can flow back and forth,” Vanier said. “Ballet is always an isolated form, where there’s a balletmaster in charge, telling everybody what to do. It has a tendency to lag, in terms of understanding more current pedagogy.”
Johnson said she encountered that authoritarian mindset during the spring semester of her freshman year, just before the merger. She was recovering from a stress fracture in her left foot and had worn a walking boot for six weeks.
On her “very first day back in tights,” Johnson told her professor she planned to be cautious. “I’m going to do a few combinations, and then I’m going to sit down and observe the rest of class,” she remembers saying.
But when she extended her left leg and gingerly pointed her toe, a common ballet move called a tendu, the professor called a halt.
“He clapped, and stopped the pianist,” and yelled at her, Johnson said. “He told me that I needed to point [my foot] more in my tendu, and shape my foot more, or shape my foot better.”
Johnson felt too intimidated by the public shaming to bring up her injury and defend herself. “I was still a young freshman,” she said, “with this powerful teacher in front of me.”
Kate Mattingly, who until this year taught dance history and criticism at the school, said, there “is a long history of authoritarian teaching in ballet. That means there’s a blurring of teaching and abuse.”
Mattingly — who, as a School of Dance faculty member, supported the alumni project and contributed a letter to it — said many of her former colleagues at the U. were brought up in the conservatory system of teaching, “cultures of what I describe as fear and intimidation.”
In an ideal academic setting, such as a university, Mattingly said, “there is far more accountability and transparency. There are conversations that happen when people feel as if there’s some kind of transgression or mistreatment, and there’s a conversation had about what’s going on.”
Mattingly opted to leave the U. in June — because, she said, of negative evaluations from Vanier. “I was punished for asking questions about gender and race,” Mattingly, now a visiting assistant professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia, said. A College of Fine Arts spokeswoman said Vanier could not discuss individual personnel cases, citing privacy issues.
An exclusive focus on dance
Johnson, who had danced since age 3 in her hometown of Houston, had a clear goal when she started at the U.: “Like a lot of people, I was going to be the next principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre and no one was going to stop me.”
The broken bone in her foot, she said, “opened my eyes to all that dance has to offer.” She started digging into dance academia and developed a love of arts administration. She now is a marketing coordinator for an arts venue in Austin, Texas.
The idea that an aspiring dancer could also study something else was one reason Bresler chose the U. And during her senior year, she said, she felt ignored after she told teachers and other students that she planned to go into marketing.
Some teachers would mentally dismiss “anyone who is not cookie-cutter bunhead, 100% dedicated to ballet,” said Bresler, who now works for a marketing company in Chicago. “Whenever I would raise my hand, they would let me answer, but my answers were brushed off because they weren’t valuable to the ballet conversation.”
Greco, 24, who lives in Chicago, said she also felt a cold shoulder from some faculty members when she neared graduation. She told her professors she was considering going to grad school, with an eye toward becoming a professor herself.
“I felt like I had to put that on hold so that I could still receive support from the faculty in helping me with my post-grad plans,” Greco said. “There was a bias toward people auditioning for dance companies.”
Greco now dances and is a freelance choreographer in Chicago, performing in a collective called Little Fire.
Vanier acknowledged that some faculty were trained in the conservatory model, which focused only on dance.
They “were faced with a lot of discrimination themselves if they were even interested, let’s say, in modern dance — never mind a double major,” Vanier said. “If they were interested in something that was not classical ballet, there was derision there.”
The U. has been working to adjust that mindset, he said, noting that “all of our ballet students are double majors, and a large majority of them graduate on time. We’re not doing too badly.”
Not feeling heard
In her junior year, Johnson took her first course in dance pedagogy, learning about the methods of teaching dance. Other students asked her to request a change to an assignment from the professor — the same man who had embarrassed her as a freshman. Johnson sent an email with the request and he replied “absolutely, yes,” she said.
The next day, though, the professor asked Johnson to step outside the studio alone with him. In a mud room, she said, he “positioned himself in front of the door,” and “yelled at me, and said that this was his class, and I had no right to tell him how to run his class and that I was disrespectful.”
Johnson said she found the encounter “intimidating” and verbally reported it to the head of the U.’s ballet program, who reports to Vanier. But that person tried to pass her along and told her to go talk to him, she said.
Ultimately, Johnson didn’t. “I was emotionally tired from the experience, and I didn’t feel like it was worth it,” she said.
Bresler said she tried “just once” to appeal a grade from the teacher who told her she wouldn’t last in the program.
“I can clearly show my transcripts, and show that this teacher is grading me not based off of the same criteria that all the other teachers are,” Bresler said. “The dean’s response was literally, ‘That doesn’t happen here,’” she said.
Vanier, noting the ways the school now seeks feedback from students, said that he has “been a very student-focused advocate” as director. He said he urges students to speak up. “Nothing’s too small,” Vanier said. “Just let us know. We want to hear.”
The overall work to improve the School of Dance, he added, is ongoing. Still, he said, “I can’t imagine people even being able to fully see the work that we’ve done so far.”
Huang, who has shifted her studies from ballet to contemporary dance and is set to graduate next spring, said administrators frequently talk about following the U.’s guidelines for diversity, equity and inclusivity, but some of the efforts so far look better in theory than they work in practice.
Take, for example, the updated gender-neutral dress code, she said. “It’s simply ‘pick a gender.’ They simply removed the gendered language,” she said.
Ballet remains “super binary,” she said. Women typically wear pink or nude tights, leotards and pointe shoes, while men usually wear black tights and white shirts — and the shoes are either white, black or nude. “If you’re not cis-, or fully transitioned, even, that’s pretty uncomfortable,” Huang said.
The new dress code “has had a non-zero effect,” she said, “but it isn’t this huge breakthrough in queer student acceptance that they seem to be thinking it is.”
In compiling the letters from alumni, Johnson stressed that she and her former classmates want the School of Dance to thrive. “I’m a little worried that they’re going to say, ‘Well, this is how ballet is,’” she said. “It doesn’t have to be.”
Correction • Nov. 16, 2021, 11:15 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct the description of Kate Mattingly’s departure from the university.