Dangerous SpinMedia Exposes Ballet’s Ugly Side

a black and white photo showcases a row of thin, white ballerinas in tutus on a stage, with their backs facing the camera

Ballet is considered a graceful sport, but recent stories illustrate that there’s nothing endearing or gentle about the violence dancers endure. “Dance, Lies and Videotape,” a Season 21 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU), explored how revenge porn functions in the top echelons of the sport. In this episode, someone illicitly shares footage of ballet student Dehlia (Annabel O’Hagan) engaging in a sex act with another dancer, Brad (Ben Biggers). The investigation reveals that Brad shared the video online, as well as with Dehlia’s peers and the school’s top donors, without Dehlia’s knowledge or consent. It turns out Dehlia wasn’t the only woman dancer subjected to revenge porn at the school.

In response to the episode, Chloe Angyal, contributing editor at Marie Claire and author of Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet from Itself (2021), wrote about the ripped-from-the-headlines story that inspired the show’s writers. Alex Waterbury, former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, sued her ex-boyfriend, fellow dancer Chase Finlay, and NYCB for $20,000. According to Waterbury, Finlay shared sexual images he had taken without her consent with two other dancers. Being forced to relive her trauma, especially on one of television’s most popular procedurals, made Waterbury feel as though she’d been violated all over again. “My lawyers said [that] in a sense the episode was a good thing,” Waterbury told Marie Claire. “It shows that my case was bad enough to be investigated by TV’s Olivia Benson [Mariska Hargitay]. Hopefully, they said, it’ll raise awareness about what happened to me.” Both Angyal and Waterbury hope these kinds of stories bring more awareness about the abuse occurring in ballet schools and help change how dancers are treated.

There are reasons to be optimistic: As with many other industries, ballet faced a reckoning in 2020 about its culture of sexual assault and harassment, as well as it how excludes people of color and working-class people. Angyal’s book explores everything from nonbinary dancers starting their own companies and mothers of Black dancers who struggle to find “nude” dance costumes that match their children’s skin tone to dancers who’ve experienced eating disorders because of the sport’s pressure. All of these varied groups are fighting to change ballet from the inside. Angyal sums this up in Turning Pointe, the title of which is indicative of what she hopes to achieve with it: “Saving ballet from itself will take radical creativity and an unwavering commitment to justice.”

But much of Turning Pointe is concerned with how the sport mishandles gender discrimination. There are so few boys and men in ballet that administrators will tolerate their bad behavior in order to admit them into schools and retain them in the overall sport. Ballet is so desperate for male dancers, Angyal writes, that top dance schools, such as the School of American Ballet, offer them lucrative scholarships that aren’t available to girls. Angyal dedicates a whole chapter to mothers, whom she writes, take up the unpaid labor of making sure their kids are on time to classes and competitions, their children’s costumes match, and their hair is in place. Ballet is notorious for its hyperfocus on appearance, requiring their dancers to whittle their bodies down to a svelte wisp—in other words, a body that is able to flit and be carried across the stage. “The rigidity and discipline that is imposed on ballet dancers from such a young age,” molding them into silent, subservient instruments, is “inherent to the training and necessary to the training,” Angyal writes. This, in turn, makes ballerinas more likely to remain silent about abuse.

The silence of dancers, one Angyal and Waterbury are working to remove, is a factor in crime novelist Megan Abbott’s forthcoming novel, The Turnout, which follows sisters Dara and Marie Durant as they prepare for a performance of The Nutcracker at their family-owned dance school. Hijinks ensue, resulting in the ballet being canceled. While the dysfunctional Durant sisters are very much the prima ballerinas of The Turnout, the family dynamic illuminates sexual abuse in ballet, including Dara’s husband, Charlie. Charlie has known the Durants since they were all young students and the sisters’ mother took an inappropriate interest in Charlie, one that echoes real-life ballet horror stories, and facilitated the sexual abuse of her daughters. It’s difficult to find data on sexual assault in ballet, perhaps owing to the industry’s “weird but normal” behavior, such as physical adjustments of form by superiors that could border on assault.

As with many other industries, ballet faced a reckoning in 2020 about its culture of sexual assault and harassment, as well as it how excludes people of color and working-class people.

Angyal reminds us, though, that boys are also at risk of being sexually and verbally abused. “Many boys who dance are bullied because they dance, and it’s possible that this makes them uniquely vulnerable targets for predators who find them in what is supposed to be their safe haven: the dance studio,” she writes. It takes a while for this to emerge in The Turnout as it’s enmeshed with other abuse that coexists in the Durants’ dance school, but both Angyal and Abbott share the same concern about ballet’s consistent abuse of students. At the first blush of a ballet flat or leotard, there might not seem to be much overlap between crime and ballet, but it’s telling that these are all recent examples of ballet’s connection to abuse, trauma, and crime. Even the special episode of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark featured a former ballerina. This 2020 HBO Max crime documentary, based on Michelle McNamara’s posthumous 2018 book of the same name, led to the arrest, trial, and conviction of Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, after his rape and murder sprees across California in the 1970s and ’80s.

A recent bonus episode, “Show Us Your Face,” focused on the murder of Kathy Lombardo in McNamara’s Oak Park, Illinois, hometown. The crime consumed McNamara and influenced her fascination with seeking justice for victims. While writing about it for her book, McNamara learned that Grace Puccetti, who was on her way home after ballet class in December 1982, survived an attack similar to the one that ended Lombardo’s life. Puccetti was stabbed in the neck by someone McNamara believed was the same man, with her ballet leotard largely preventing sexual assault. Puccetti’s family and local law enforcement kept the case quiet. Now that the case has been brought to light again, will Puccetti and Lombardo’s assailant finally be brought to justice? This recent spate of pop culture that intertwines ballet and crime, particularly sexual assault, indicates that it’s far more prevalent than ballet’s fluffy exterior might have you believe. These stories can be tough to consume, but as Waterbury said in her painful testimony about her primetime crime of the week, “I wanted to sit through it, because I wanted to know what they were doing with my story—with my life. It was awful to watch, but I felt like I couldn’t look away.” It’s important that we don’t turn away, either.

A photo of the Bitch Media yellow "Filled with Rage" mug, which is an exclusive perk of our membership program

Institutional support for the work that Bitch, and other outlets like us, do literally doesn’t exist yet in this industry. That is why we turn to you, our community, for support. For the next ten days we’re asking our readers to make a tax-deductible donation or join Bitch’s membership program to help us reach our $100,000 fundraising goal before October 14. Can you join us?

by Scarlett Harris
View profile »

Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic and author of A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler: An Abbreviated Herstory of World Wrestling Entertainment. You can read the rest of her work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris