The Psychological Effects of Authoritarianism in Dance

The Psychological Effects of Authoritarianism in Dance

Authoritarian leadership in the dance classroom creates an environment for students to develop psychological issues that affect self-esteem and body image. Many dancers start training at a young age. During this time, children are being influenced by parents, teachers and other authority figures. Dance teachers who teach through authoritarianism can greatly influence and diminish a dance student’s concept of leadership and independence. In situations where an authoritarian leader is present, dance students learn quickly that their role in the dance class is to abide by the teacher's rule. While most children begin to develop their own sense of authority, dancers remain dependent on their dance teachers. Students strive to meet the standards set by authoritarian dance teachers which often effect students psychologically. Teachers demand not only respect and compliance in dance, but also strict demands for a particular aesthetic. A dancer is required to look and move a certain way. The constant scrutiny of the body that the dancer receives communicates to them that they are unsatisfactory at all times. This effect can be diminishing to a dancers' s ense of self, which they are to believe exists solely for the purpose of the teacher to discipline. The act of discipline in the dance classroom is to learn how to f ollow another's instructions. The act of learning technique sometimes seems secondary to understanding the hierarchy in the classroom between the teacher and students. To a dancer , discipline is what they pride themselves on , however many teachers and students confuse discipline with abuse, thus further effecting the dancer's psyche.

An authoritarian leader is one who enforces control through power. The authoritarian has expert knowledge that makes him/her the authority over others . In dance, the authoritarian figure is the dance teacher. In a traditional dance class, there are unspoken rules that students must abide by. If students do not comply with the authority, they are punished or made to feel embarrassed or rejected. The problem with an authoritarian leader in a dance class, especially for young children, is that the teacher assumes the position of the parent in the parent-child relationship, mirroring it so that the child obeys the teacher as if she were her parent. The fact that the teacher has power equivalent to the child's parent suggests that the child will develop the same kind of feelings of trust towards the teacher that she has for her parent. This creates problems when the teacher mistreats the student by giving assertive or negative directives in reference to their body. However , the difference between the authoritarian teacher and the parent is that the teacher lacks the compassion and care that the parent has for the child. When a child misbehaves at home, they know that their mother will always love them even when they are in trouble. When they misbehave in the dance classroom they learn quickly that the dance teacher will not always love and care for them like their parents. So the child learns to trust in someone who is authoritative, yet in some cases lacks the appropriate amount of compassion towards the well-being of the student . As another figure that is parent-like has emerged in the child's life, it has confused the balance of the parent-child relationship. Young children who are still in the role of "child" learn that when directions are not followed in dance class they will be treated unfairly. However to the unknowing child, the unfair treatment is perceived as just part of their intense and disciplined training. The fact that the teacher treats them this way teaches a lesson to the student that they should fear the power of the teacher. Thus, young students are disciplined to follow instructions (Stinson, 27). While part of a child's role is to follow instructions, many times the teacher instills a sense of fear in a child if they do not follow instructions. As the child grows, they misconceive fear as respect. As a dancer progresses through dance they yearn to become better dancers. They want to progress through the various levels of technique or receive featured parts in dances, so they continue to comply because they learn that compliance earns them what they want. When they follow instructions they do not feel the embarrassment or disappointment of rejection.

While most children eventually start to become independent thinkers from their parents, dancers are left behind and late to develop a mature sense of their independence. Since the student has been in an authoritarian atmosphere for so many years where they were taught extreme forms of submission, they do not know how to think or make decisions for themselves. They have become dependent on the teacher. This brings up another point, that since the student is dependent on the teacher for approval, the student can begin to develop a form of dependent personality disorder (Paris, 31). This disorder is can occur when a child feels neglect from a parent and tries to gain attention or affection from them. The same struggle is present with the authoritarian teacher who is correcting and critiquing the student but showing little compassion towards them. The student will try to impress the teacher despite the teacher's actions of ignorance on behalf of the student . It is not a proven fact that dancers develop dependent personality disorder, but the effects of becoming dependent on authority figures can lead to damaging effects in a person’s psychology. In this case, the dancer is susceptible to various forms of personality disorders and other psychological disturbances.

Traditional social structures also play a role in the expectations of the dance class put forth by the authoritarian. Whether the authoritarian is male or female, they enforce behaviors on students that mirror historical gender expectations. For instance, women were traditionally taught to be submissive and silent. Their work was best done at home while the men went to work and made a living for the family. The woman's work was greatly undervalued, and most of the attention was put on the man for having provided the income. These broad gender roles carry over into the dance world as the majority of young dancers are female. Young females in class are taught the same lesson of being submissive. The ideal dancer is thought of as being feminine and sweet, and qualities such as individuality were thought of as masculine (Stinson, 26). This connection between the traditional roles of women that carries into the dance world suggests that some authoritarian dance teachers are harboring young women who do not know how to develop their individuality or think critically about the world .

In many ways, dance is cult-like with a strict set of rules and structures. The hierarchy established in the classroom influences students to comply with one person or face rejection. As in cult atmospheres, outsiders are devalued. When a community is created within a class, outsiders are unwanted and often rejected. However, outsiders are rarely formed because students, especially ones who started dance at an early age, are used to compliance as the norm . Students mask their fear with respect for the authoritarian that it does not occur to them to question the authority or ask questions.
The psychological damage that authoritarian atmospheres cause can affect the way the person copes in the world, not just the environment where that type of leadership is present. Many dancers suffer from body image issues that cause low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. Due to the scrutiny and demands of the dance world put on them by their teachers, many dancers form an unhealthy image of themselves at a young age. Often times the focus of dance is on the body rather than the self. The dancer learns that by getting their bodies to create a particular aesthetic, they will be rewarded. Constant pressure is put on young dancers, especially female to maintain a small, thin frame, and during the formative years of a young girl’s childhood, natural body changes are unwelcome and unwanted in dance. Some dancers find extreme ways to monitor their weight by developing eating disorders or pursuing extreme diets. Typically in the world of ballet, dancers are pressured to maintain a small frame. However, the there is widespread concern to the have a particular body image in all genres of dance, including jazz, musical theatre, and contemporary. Regardless of the genre of dance, dancers’ bodies are the focus of their training in order to get jobs. Dancers present their bodies in a certain way at auditions or in class, in hopes that their bodies have acquired the “look” a choreographer wants. Some auditions require specific attire, as well as some dance classes, where the dancer must show off every curve of her body. This sort of objectification communicates to the dancer that their bodies are useful as objects, which can distort the dancers’ sense and understand of self.

This leads to the subject of personality disorders. Many dancers suffer from issues that could be considered personality disorders due to the pressures put on them and the treatment they receive from authoritarian leaders. In Joel Paris’ book, he explains that factors of personality disorders are derived from social situations. In the case of a dancer, the environment where an authoritarian leader is in power makes the student vulnerable to developing a disorder. Two personality disorders that may develop in dancers are borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. Symptoms of these disorders include fear of abandonment, struggles with identity, instability, self-indulgent behaviors, and neurotic behaviors (Paris, 121-128). Dancers are especially susceptible to these characteristics that can develop after several years of training with a teacher in an abusive situation. For instance, when a teacher enforces power and control over a dancer, the dancer is unable to make decisions of their own or even speak out when they have ideas. In these situations the dancer exists for the purpose of someone else, not themselves. These dancers become dependent on the leader and since they cannot think independently from the leader, they form coping mechanisms such as the ones described above. Having such extreme dependence on someone else at can cause conflicts with being in control. A dancer may feel like she is not in control of her life when she in under the guidance of her teacher, and she may try to find ways to gain control by acting out. She may also feel repressed in the dance class due to the teacher’s strict rules of enforcing obedience and compliance, that the dancer may project these issues on others in personal relationships. This instability can also involve intense emotional mood swings and interactions in relationships (Paris, 122). It is also possible for dancers to develop narcissistic personality traits such as feeling special or important, putting extreme focus on success, and preoccupation with the self (Paris, 128). The structure of a dance class supports the idea that many dancers may develop these thoughts and feelings. Not only is a dancer faced with the complications of being dominated by her teacher, but she is also faced with being one of the main focuses of her teacher. Gaining attention from others is a way that dancers depend on getting jobs and being recognized. This sort of self-centered, attention seeking behavior may lead to extreme forms of narcissism. These traits may be evident when a dancer receives a solo part in a dance, or when a dancer gets the chance to demonstrate or receive positive attention in class. When this happens, it is as though the teacher is finally recognizing the efforts of the student and the student may start to develop feelings of superiority over others. These traits are also evident when the student or dancer becomes the teacher. When the roles shift and the student is now in charge, she is given the opportunity to be in control of herself and others. The dancer is given a chance that they have never experienced before. What they know is what they have learned from their teachers, so the authoritarian habits they were taught may be passed on. In his studies, Paris suggests that “latent variables” may be the leading causes of personality disorders in young children, not a specific event itself (42). For instance, Paris questions whether divorce is the cause of disorders in children, or the consequences that come with divorce. Similarly, being a dancer may not cause a child to develop issues in their personality, but the consequences of being a dancer (being scrutinized, corrected, having authoritarian teachers) can cause disorders and other issues. The fact that the authoritarian teacher has earned the trust of the student , the student, who has become dependent on the teacher, has no first person point of view on their bodies. Not being able to independently analyze their progress and training may be another leading issue in the development of disorders.

Another disorder that occurs in people who have become dependent on an authoritarian or abuser is called Stockholm Syndrome. This can occur when a hostage develops affection or appreciation towards their captor. The captor puts themselves in a position of power when they threaten to kill the hostage. When they do not kill the hostage, the hostage shows great appreciation for not being physically harmed and killed. The idea of Stockholm Syndrome can be related to dancers. For instance, a teacher may put a dancer in a position where they are forced to work in intense physical situations accompanied by abusive language and treatment. The teacher may then threaten the dancer with their part or position. When the teacher does not follow through with the threat, the dancer, despite being treated unfairly, is appreciative. So the dancer continues in a cycle of being threatened and mistreated because they want to please the authoritarian as well as keep their position. This brings up the point of students working to please others. In Stockholm Syndrome, the hostage may be forced to comply with their captor in order to save their lives or prevent physical harm. When the captor is pleased with the hostage’s behavior the hostage is rewarded, and the hostage again develops appreciation for the captor. Authoritarian teachers enforce power and control along with threats and mistreatment, which can make students feel eager to please in order to save their position in a piece or in class. In my experience, I have witnessed first-hand dancers being mistreated in class and rehearsal. While some dancers find ways to reject the negativity, others being to believe that the negative treatment they are receiving is deserved . Out of the need to please the authoritarian, the student starts to believe the authoritarian regardless of how they are being treated. These dancers have experienced anxiety over their abilities and start to question their priorities, further driving the idea that their purpose is to please their leader.

In addition to psychological issues pertaining to personality disorders, other issues dancers may face derive from issues with body image. Dancers often time submit to the pressures of being thin, and when their teachers continue to critique them, their bodies become a major focus. A dancer uses their body to express and as a means to create art. But the problem with this dynamic in dance is that the body is constantly in the spotlight. Dancers spend hours micromanaging their bodies, not just in the way it moves , but in the way it physically looks. If the body can achieve a particular aesthetic, a dancer has reached their goal. So when dancers control factors such as weight, it helps them feel in control of their bodies and even their lives. This is especially true for dancers in authoritarian environments, who experience aggressive and forceful physical and verbal commands. When a teacher forcefully manipulates a dancer’s body by assuming the dancer is okay with it, the teacher assumes that there are no boundaries between them and the student. This can communicate to a young student that it is okay for the teacher to control them in that way, enforcing behaviors and thoughts that their body belongs to someone else. T his further supports the idea that when young dancers are put in harsh environments it can lead to damaging effects. In The Body Myth by Margo Maine and Joe Kelly, it is explained that many some women begin to assume that their physical appearance is their identity. In a society where physical appearance is greatly valued, women believe that they are “maintaining the one good thing about us (Maine & Kelly, 118).” By adopting this idea, women put forth extra efforts to look a certain way in order to justify their identity. The same is true for dancers, who also greatly value their appearance. They too work hard to maintain their physical appearance which they believe is part of their identity. Furthermore, the feelings of never measuring up to their teachers’ expectations develop a drive to create a false identity based off of the appearance of their body (Maine & Kelly, 119).

It is crucial now than ever that teachers create an atmosphere for students where they are allowed to make creative explorations. In Dance, Power and Difference by Sherry Shapiro, Susan Stinson writes that the use of critical pedagogy is way to teach students in dance how to develop their own authoritative voices, to ask questions and to, “reject oppression, injustice, inequality, silencing of marginalized voices, and authoritarian social structures (30).” In an environment where critical pedagogy is enforced, students are treated as subjects rather than objects, implying that they are not for the manipulation of the teacher or under their control, but rather given the opportunity to be creative on their own (Stinson, 30). A way to help young dance students become independent thinkers is by communicating to them that they are in control of their lives and free to make decisions. Many times, students are aware of the problems that exist in an authoritarian system but do not think about how they can actively make changes in their lives (Stinson, 32). A way to help a students overcome this complicated issue is by teaching them that they have options. Students can become empowered to be in control of their lives by taking responsibility, uncovering their authoritative voice and given opportunities to be creative.

Many young dancers suffer from psychological and bodily issues due to authoritarian rule in the dance classroom. Dancers are vulnerable to borderline personality disorders from learning to be dependent on their teachers. Authoritarian teachers find ways to control a student’s life, by enforcing compliance in class. Developing dependence on an authoritarian leader can lead to low self-esteem and instability. Furthermore, the demands and pressure put on dancers to maintain a certain physique, communicates to the dancer that their body is their identity. The objectification that dancers receive diminishes a dancers’ sense of self, making their bodies a major factor in their success. One way to empower students is through critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy gives students an opportunity to make creative explorations and decisions on their own. Through the guidance of a teacher, it allows them to develop independence as dancers and thinkers. It is important for teachers to provide their guidance to students in this way in order to help teach students that they are powerful and strong rather than weak and small. With efforts being made in many dance classes, hope for the future is positive, and dancers now have more choices and opportunities to find places to dance where their ideas are respected and appreciated.