‘The Dark Side of Ballet Schools’: An all-too-familiar tale of toxic cultures and safeguarding failures

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A recent BBC Panorama investigation exposed an alleged toxic culture of bullying, body shaming, and eating disorders behind the pointe shoes and pirouettes of ballet. The issues bear a striking similarity to those uncovered in British Gymnastics. Without one overarching national governing body in the world of dance, however, how will the industry move forwards?

The 30-minute episode of BBC Panorama, titled ‘The Dark Side of Ballet Schools’, explored claims of bullying and body shaming at two of the UK’s most prestigious dancing schools: The Royal Ballet School in London, and Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham.

Several dancers recounted their experiences at these schools, which included allegations of: 

  • body shaming
  • a focus on weight and appearance over performance
  • humiliation and cruel coaching techniques
  • physical intimidation and a culture of fear
  • exercising to lose weight, and being praised for losing weight
  • restrictive diets.

The issues highlighted by these dancers, one of whom was as young as 13 at the time, largely mirror those uncovered by Anne Whyte KC’s review into safeguarding failings and allegations of mistreatment in British Gymnastics.

One 22-year-old complainant, for example, was hospitalised with anorexia after positive attention from her teachers following weight loss encouraged her to lose even more weight. Another was allegedly positioned in front of a mirror by her teacher, who proceeded to point out the parts of her body that she would cut off with a knife if she could.

These similarities are perhaps unsurprising given both gymnastics’ and ballet’s focus on performance and artistry, as well as the younger ages of their participants. Furthermore, while safeguarding has been increasing in importance for many sports, there is still a way to go, particularly for gymnastics and dancing which have similar physical demands.

In response to the allegations, both the Royal Ballet School and Elmhurst have stated the importance of the welfare, safety and happiness of students in their care. According to the Royal Ballet School: “Nothing is more important than the happiness and continued well-being of its students”, and it is “continuously improving and innovating.”

Elmhurst has also highlighted that its records “vary in some significant” respects to the allegations highlighted in BBC Panorama.

What next for the world of dancing?

In addition to its hard-hitting conclusion that gymnast wellbeing had not been at the centre of British Gymnastics’ culture, the Whyte Review made 17 recommendations for the national governing body, focussing on four key areas:

  1. Safeguarding and welfare
  2. Complaints handling
  3. Standards and education
  4. Governance and oversight.

There is a distinctive difference between dancing and gymnastics, however: forms of dance such as ballet do not have a single, overarching national governing body. Without this, who will be the driving force behind reviews and reforms like the four areas highlighted by the Whyte Review?

According to Anne Whyte KC, it was “inherently problematic” that a national governing body was “marking its own safeguarding homework.” 

Following this investigation, we expect that there will be a push on, and expectation for, greater transparency, monitoring, and governance procedures across all forms of dancing, including ballet. The calls to abolish outdated ideals on the physical aesthetics of dancers can also only increase. 

Who will lead the charge on initiating these changes, and whether this will culminate in a similar review process to that of gymnastics, remains to be seen. It is likely, however, that more dancers may come forward over the coming weeks and months, perhaps even implicating other schools in similar allegations.

All dance schools should now be scrutinising their approaches to safeguarding and student welfare, as well as the cultures that permeate throughout their institutions. Their reputations, and indeed the future of their school, could very well depend on it.

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