The Fine Line Between Submissive and Aggressive

As a student of dance, you are taught to be as submissive as possible. You know nothing and the teacher holds the key to all of the possibilities of your future. Of course, there are good teachers and bad teachers and you submissively hope that each teacher is going to give you all of the correct tools for success. Whether you get proper training or not, if you make it as a professional, it is likely that you lucked out on a great teacher or moved along to find a new, better teacher to show you the way. Once you become a professional, you are hired to follow the lead of a director and their artistic staff. Essentially, show up, take class, come to rehearsal, do your job, and go home. Don't question authority, corrections, or advice. As a pro, your role as dancer changes to a degree and you have a bit more say in how you approach your work. But for the most part you must still remain subservient, even as a fully grown adult. At what point does this mindset help one's career and when does it begin to hinder your pathway to success?

When I am teaching a class, I fully expect my students to hang on every word I say. I've been through rigorous training at world-class schools, I have danced on many great stages, and I have had lasting power that has allowed me to continue dancing for 10 years and counting. My students are more than welcome to ask questions. But when it comes to questioning my approach, knowledge, and corrections, I am not open to holding a debate about my reasoning with a student in class. What it comes down to is this. A student is somewhere between a blank canvas and an uncolored outline of a beautiful picture. They still need the tools to determine what colors to paint the picture, what brush to use, and the appropriate technique to combine these things into a piece of art. Very rarely does a student have a natural knack to complete the image without any instruction. For the most part, a student needs articulate guidance to help them along their path to success. This idea of blind following is a necessary aspect of a student's training.

Because many dancers begin their career at a young age, the concept of blind following tends to bleed over in the transition from high-level student to professional dancer. As a pro, it is assumed that you will be that blank canvas I mentioned above. The expectation of a dancer is to walk into a studio, have previous choreography/new work transferred to their body, and then to go onstage and do exactly what they have been told to do in rehearsal. For the most part, the dancer is performing under great influence of those that they are submissive towards. Typically, the only influence dancers have in the choreography comes from their personality and individual nuance. It is not common for a dancer to be given liberty to make largely personal choices in the studio or onstage.

Dancing "Gold" in "Sleeping Beauty" - SAB workshop '03
I often ask myself whether adult-professional dancer submission is due to the nature of the work or the nature of the training. There was great controversy back in 2009, when New York City Ballet's Ballet-Master-in-Chief, Peter Martins, was called out by a dancer that had been laid off and felt the need to speak about certain aspects of dancing for America's largest dance company. In this article, former dancer, Sophie Flack, stated "we’re referred to as kids by the administration. Some of the people they’re referring to are 35-year-old women with children." I often question why this happens. For many dancers, especially within New York City Ballet, they are hired as teenagers that have come through the School of American Ballet. Peter Martins often taught at the school when I attended in 2002-2003. When students come through training programs as teenagers and transition to professionals at a young age, the leadership still has the memory of the dancers as students. I feel it can be difficult to make the mental transition, on the artistic staff's side, from aspiring child to working adult. This is not always the case, as many dancers move on to dance with companies that didn't see this progression. But the idea that most dancers don't have a transition in the most common sense, like going from high school student to college student to intern to working professional, blurs the line between submissive, child-like attitudes and more aggressive, adult-like independent thinking.

It is quite difficult to work as a freelance dancer because of the submissive nature that is instilled in dancers at an early point in their training. At times, one can feel like they are fighting against their very own being. When a dancer chooses to freelance, they are finding their own work, promoting oneself, and looking out for their own needs. Much of this requires an aggressive streak. Dancers that remain submissive will find that they have trouble convincing employers that they are the right person for the job. The act of negotiating a contract is also an activity that requires the dancer to act more aggressively to have their needs met. Following these more aggressive behaviors, a dancer arrives in the studio and is expected to be completely submissive. To add to the confusion, if an issue, whether relating to comfort or safety, needs to be handled, it is the freelancers necessity to speak up for themselves. It can be quite confusing and cause problems if one can't determine when it is appropriate to be submissive or aggressive.

What I find works best for me is to get my most important needs written directly into a contract. This prevents any question if an uncomfortable situation arises and I need to address it. Responding aggressively to an action that is in opposition to expectations seems less aggressive if it is put down in writing prior to the issue. I find that it is easier to remain submissive in a studio if you respect the people you are working for and if they provide an atmosphere that is comfortable and safe. As it is often said, respect breeds respect.

To be completely honest, I find myself happiest in a studio where I feel that I can remain submissive. When I feel the need to step into a more aggressive role, it is usually because I feel disrespected or endangered. Moving away from my place of submission makes me horribly uncomfortable. Certain situations do arise that can push the boundaries of a dancers' reaction. For instance, if an employer makes last second changes to a rehearsal schedule, how is one supposed to react? What if rehearsals continue longer than they are supposed to? Or if the warm-up class is not what is expected or appropriate? What if there is a last minute costume change that could be potentially dangerous without any time to adjust? When is it appropriate to speak up (an aggressive act) and when is it time to let it slide (a submissive act)?

As I have already said, I am happiest in rehearsals where I can remain submissive. Unfortunately, working as a freelance artist, there will be times when one must stand up for themselves. This has been a challenge more than I would like to admit during my tenure as a freelancer. Dancing with an AGMA company, the dancers had a 40-something page contract that clarified every detail of expected conditions and terms listed. In the freelance world, there is no such thing. For the most part, you are at the will of whatever the employer asks you to do. If you don't feel safe and you choose to act submissively, you may be jeopardizing your own well-being. But if you respond aggressively, you may be upsetting the management and creating an insubordinate image. Essentially, it takes great judgement on the freelancers part to decide when it is appropriate to let something slide and when to speak up for oneself.

In the end, due to the nature of expected dancer submission, if one chooses to vocalize their concerns, they may risk souring the director's view of them and destroying potential for future work together. Whether the issue is small or large, an aggressive discussion (whether mild or severe) to resolve conflicts of interest can end in resolution or disaster. Unfortunately, I am not in a place to give advice on what is right and what is wrong. It is as personal as it gets. The only advice I can give would be to judge your relationship with the person you are bringing an issue up with, think about how important the problem is and how much it is affecting your well-being, and avoid entering into a discussion with anger and resentment. Keeping these things in mind, it will be easier to have a civil conversation. Essentially, be aggressive with a hint of submission. And if you see that the opposite party isn't responding well, have an exit plan. If the item is important, stand your ground. If it is anything less than important, consider taking a step back or compromising.

Many engagements come and go smoothly with both parties pleased with the work done. There are times that things don't go as planned. Working as a freelancer often means that an employer can request a dancer to do anything beyond the scope of their contract, which is often short and limited in language beyond pay, status, and expectation. Any dancer should be aware that they are expected to act submissively on most occasions. But as a freelancer, one can't be afraid to have aggressive moments. Work aggressively to find work and protect your comfort and needs, but keep a close gauge on managements responses and reactions to help maintain a good working relationship. In the end, if conditions are bad enough that you feel the need to play the aggressive card too often, it is likely that you won't be returning to dance for that employer again in the future.

Submissive dancers in the front - Aggressive dancer in the back


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