Editor’s note • This article discusses an allegation in language that is sexually explicit.
Dancer Sybley Wozmak was ecstatic when a choreographer with a reputable Salt Lake City company started replying to her direct messages on Instagram. But then, she said, his professional inquiries turned to sexually explicit communication.
She asked the man to keep their exchange focused on dance. When he didn’t, Wozmak said, she blocked him.
Wozmak wrote about the experience on Instagram, including screenshots of the DM conversation in her Feb. 24 post. She tagged regional dance organizations with whom the choreographer had been affiliated.
Within hours, Wozmak said, she received some 250 responses, many from women who said they had been harassed or subjected to other inappropriate behavior by the same choreographer — some as far back as 10 years ago.
The next day, Repertory Dance Theatre announced he was suspended as a principal dancer and choreographer, pending an investigation.
That same day, a Friday, Ballet West announced it had placed him on leave of absence, also pending an investigation. The choreographer also had created works for Ballet West, including one performed at last year’s Utah Arts Festival. Ballet West declined to comment further.
The following Monday, RDT announced (also over Instagram) that “we have terminated [the man’s] contract and severed any other future association with them.” RDT is “not a company that condones or tolerates inappropriate behavior,” it said.
Such a fast response is rare, Wozmak said. “I don’t think that the dance world, in general, really listens when bad things happen to women,” she said.
The choreographer declined to comment to The Salt Lake Tribune about the allegations, on the advice of his lawyer. No criminal charges or civil claims have been filed, and The Tribune is not publishing his name.
The choreographer’s place within RDT was prominent enough that when the company suspended him, it also postponed its annual choreographers’ competition, “Regalia” — which has been set to start that weekend — until May, “due to current circumstances in our community.”
Linda C. Smith, RDT’s executive and artistic director, said in a statement on Feb. 28 that, for legal reasons, the company would not comment further. The company’s dancers and staff also were advised by RDT’s attorney not to speak to the media, she said.
“Frankly, I wish that this matter could have been dealt with in a more private way,” Smith told The Tribune.
A text request to ‘be naughty’
Wozmak had contacted the choreographer over Instagram — a popular way for dancers to get in touch with each other — about auditions for new work he was creating.He started hitting the “like” icon on some of her posts — most of them typical, such as headshots and photos from modeling gigs, and contemporary dance-oriented images, she said.
And he liked some of her videos in which she dances burlesque — something Wozmak does, she said, “because it’s a great outlet for a dancer to actually feel confident.”
After that, they started talking via DMs, she said — and to be in conversation with someone at his professional level was a dream come true for a freelance dancer.
They discussed where Wozmak went to school and her dance experience. About 10 minutes into the conversation, she said, the man talked about how Instagram censors its content too much.
Then, she said, he started sending her messages about her “ass,” saying that he wanted to “feel her,” and asked her whether she would go to another account and “be naughty” there. She included images of those comments, which included his name as the sender, in her Instagram post.
Wozmak said she asked him, repeatedly, to stop. She told him she wasn’t interested, and wanted to keep the conversation professional. At the same time, she said, she was thinking, “I don’t want to judge this person in case I ruin an opportunity.”
She decided to block him and wrote the Instagram post.
‘I felt so violated’
The responses Wozmak received were from dancers from the age of “18 to just about 30,” she said.
Courtney Collins, one of the dancers who replied to Wozmak, told The Tribune in an interview that the choreographer approached her via Instagram in 2016.
Then 19 and a freshman, she had just performed in a senior student’s piece at the University of Utah’s School of Dance, along with other students who also planned to audition for companies like RDT when they graduated. Collins said the choreographer messaged her after that concert and asked her to be part of a piece he was going to put on the following August.
They exchanged phone numbers, she said, and he added her to his Snapchat contacts — not unusual in the dance community, where many dancers are friends with each other on social media. But at the point when rehearsals began for the August show, she said, they had never exchanged anything on Snapchat.
Halfway through the show’s rehearsals, Collins said, the choreographer sent her a video of himself nude, watching pornographic content and masturbating.
“There wasn’t any text or anything, and it immediately was gone, because it was Snapchat,” she said.
Collins was shocked, she recalled, and called her mother, sobbing. Her mother, Michelle, confirmed receiving that call.”I felt so violated,’ Courtney Collins said. “I didn’t know what prompted that. I was 19.”
Collins withdrew from the show the next day, explaining in a text to the choreographer that it was because of what happened online. The man apologized, she said, saying he was “intoxicated” and that it would “never happen again.”
Then, he blocked Collins on social media, she said.
Collins didn’t report what happened to anyone at RDT. She didn’t have any proof, she said, other than the message she sent asking to withdraw from the show. “I felt embarrassed, and I didn’t know if they would believe me,” she said.
Michelle Collins, Courtney’s mother, said reporting such an incident is “a concern, I think, for a lot of girls: ‘If I tell somebody, I won’t ever dance again.’”
After her encounter with the choreographer, Courtney Collins said, dance “didn’t appeal to me.” She changed her major, withdrew from the U.’s modern dance program (for multiple reasons, she said) and continued to perform with the spirit team. Ultimately, she cut herself off from Utah’s modern dance community entirely.
“It made me uncomfortable knowing that he had so much power in the community,” Collins said, “especially after seeing how successful he’s been since then.”
Collins moved back home to southern California, and now is involved in professional dancing there. She said she’s proud to have withdrawn from the choreographer’s production, but such experiences like hers are “not unheard of, unfortunately. … It makes me nervous even still, working back in the dance world.”
The Tribune tried to contact others who responded to Wozmak; only a few replied and none agreed to be interviewed. A few dancers said they avoided working with RDT because of the choreographer’s affiliation with the company.
’They couldn’t prove it’
Wozmak said that among the women in Utah she has spoken to after her Instagram post, most didn’t report their experiences to their organizations, for fear of retaliation.
The nature of social media — particularly platforms like Snapchat and Instagram where content is or can be quickly deleted — makes accountability more difficult.
“I think that’s what’s so frustrating for these women, is that when they came up to people or when they did try to open up about this, they couldn’t prove it,” Wozmak said.
The job market for young women dancers is “oversaturated,” said Kate Mattingly, a former professor in the University of Utah’s School of Dance. Because of that, she said, “the minute that one speaks out because they’re unhappy with treatment, they’re easily replaced. It’s an attitude of disposability.” And it leads to harassment, sexism, discrimination and abuse, she said.
Reporting harassment can be as traumatic as what the person has already experienced, Mattingly said — and that the burden of taking such cases public should fall on institutions, not the dancers who are harassed.
“Why do people in positions of leadership and authority ignore and dismiss violence against women?,” Mattingly said. She added that “white, cis-gender males” not just in Utah, know “they’re in a position of entitlement, consciously or subconsciously, and they get away with a lot of behavior.”
Wozmak commends the swift action of RDT and Ballet West, saying their decisions to sever ties with the man are a “great relief” to some dancers past and present. All of the organizations she tagged in that post responded to it, she said, and she appreciated their acknowledgement of her account.
”I think our community has responded in a really positive way,” she said.
More stories continue to reach Wozmak, and she vows to keep listening to the women who describe their experiences with the choreographer. Another woman has launched an Instagram account for others to anonymously detail their interactions with him.
Wozmak said she doesn’t regret sharing her story — and that in doing so, she hopes she has given other women the courage to come forward and speak their own truths.
“The only reason I honestly felt OK to come out with this [is] because I have no consequences,” because she is a freelance dancer, she said. “I think most dancers always feel like there will be a consequence.”
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