A Series of Unfortunate Events … A Work in Progress

It is with a very heavy heart that I write this post. Both Kyah and I agree, it is time we speak out. 

Kyah has been dancing since she was two and a half years old and it has been a huge part of her life. She has lived and breathed her passion, dance, for the last fifteen years. She absolutely loves dancing and especially loves ballet. Unfortunately, past and recent events have forced Kyah to make the most difficult decision she has had to make so far. 

Kyah has decided to stop dancing. There are many, many instances over the last 8 years that have been very challenging for Kyah. She has come to the realisation that her moral compass is very different to what is required to succeed in the ballet world. 

We have never spoken out about this before, because it is commonly known in the dance world that if you speak out about things that are not right, the chance of you progressing to the level you want is totally restricted, and you would possibly lose every chance you had – no matter how good you are. Only those very few people that have walked this journey with us know what we are about to say. We truly want to thank you for your support through this and standing by us both, and helping me, help Kyah, get through this.

Kyah has always wanted to be a professional ballerina. Over the last ten years we have been told by eight different dance teachers that Kyah has the potential to be one of the best ballerinas in the world. This is not something you ignore, especially after after being told so many times. Each teacher was totally unrelated to the other and it was never prompted. We can only assume that Kyah has the potential to be one of the best ballerinas in the world. Her physical attributes definitely indicate this. She has the “perfect facility” to be a ballerina. Unfortunately, she does not have the attitude necessary: her upbringing will not allow her to tolerate the behaviour that seems to be expected in the dance world.

We are speaking out now because Kyah has decided that becoming a professional ballerina is not worth the angst, and treatment she has put up with. Now, she has nothing to lose by speaking out. We both agree this is the right thing to do for other potential dancers in the dance world and hopefully put an end to unlawful, illicit and disgraceful behaviour.

I will provide some general explanations rather than pointing the finger at certain people. The people involved are fully aware of their role in all of what we are about to share. My reason for doing this is to try to change the culture of the ballet world. It is not acceptable to abuse children – whether it be physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse or any other form of abuse. It is illegal in the real world, why is it accepted, and expected, in the ballet world?

We moved from NSW to QLD in 2013. By this stage Kyah had been told twice she had to audition for professional ballet companies when she became a teenager. It was also the time when the abuse began.  

In 2013, Kyah started dancing at a dance school on the Gold Coast. Unfortunately, some of the kids at this school took an instant disliking to Kyah, and Kyah was subject to physical abuse, bullying and exclusion behaviour. After speaking to the owner of the dance school, she said she would like to teach only Kyah, because she has so much potential, but unfortunately, she could not afford to teach only one child. I was not going to allow Kyah to continue dancing there and be subject to more physical abuse, bullying or exclusion. The children involved with the appalling behaviour were not reprimanded in any way, or asked to leave.  We had to move to another dance school.

This next dance school was very commercial-focused and Kyah really enjoyed her time there. However, it became even more apparent she was meant to be focusing on ballet. She just shone as a ballerina in all her group performances. So we looked at moving her to a more classical dance school.

This next dance school was an absolute alarming bombshell for both Kyah and I. The treatment of, and attitude towards, Kyah was disgraceful and deplorable and those involved should be ashamed of themselves; particularly the owner / teacher in question.

This particular owner / teacher promised Kyah so much at the outset and saw she had huge potential. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this teacher decided to turn on Kyah and started the verbal abuse by denigrating Kyah, humiliating Kyah, and picking on her in front of the rest of the class. She allowed the other children in the class to humiliate Kyah and they also were able to say belittling things about Kyah in front of the class, and to Kyah in front of the other dancers. The teacher also shoved a metal ruler up Kyah’s back telling her to keep her back straight. This caused bruises and scratches. Kyah’s back was one of the straightest backs in the class. Some other children were spoken to the way Kyah was and they were also humiliated by the teacher – which is simply not acceptable. Once I became aware of the immoral, unethical and simply wicked treatment, I would sit outside the dance room while Kyah had her lessons with this particular teacher; both private and group. I was almost in tears every time I heard this teacher speak to my child. There was never any positive feedback. It was always negative, denigrating, humiliating and contemptible language that was used by the teacher. 

Kyah and I spoke many times about me speaking to the teacher in regards to her treatment towards Kyah. At that stage, both Kyah and I believed that if we spoke up, this teacher would prevent Kyah from achieving her ballet goals. The ballet world is small, and people know people, and people talk. So we let it go for seven months. August of that year, both Kyah and I had had enough of the treatment. I met with that particular teacher. She was furious and incensed that I would “take up her time” to speak about my child. I was paying a small fortune for lessons and I believe I have a right to know how Kyah is progressing, but I also have a right to let the teacher know that I know what she is up to. As far as I am concerned I had a right to request a meeting. After I had the meeting, Kyah and I decided she would leave at the end of the year, because this teacher was not the right fit for Kyah. Kyah does not flourish in a negative, abusive environment … I don’t really know of many people who do.

   

A very sad aspect of being at this dance school was that the other mums and kids knew what the teacher was like but they never said anything. No-one else ever stood up to her, nor did they support Kyah and I when we spoke out. This teacher prevented her dancers from speaking to other kids at eisteddfods, even if they were friends. She spoke very poorly of any child that had been at her dance school and had left. She prohibited her dancers from speaking to another child that had been at her dance school and had left. She encouraged her dancers to bad mouth and denigrate others dancers that were absent from class, during class time. I was appalled that the mums also behaved in this manner. They knew it was wrong, but they wanted to keep this teacher happy so their child would not get ostracised or abused in any way. It seems they compromised their beliefs in order for their child to progress in the dance world. Sadly the ballet students involved were also complicit in this open secret. 

Both Kyah and I totally disagree with this type of behaviour. This is not what I have taught Kyah to do with people in her life. I have always said to Kyah she needs to celebrate other people’s wins, and support them when they don’t win. And just because someone succeeds somewhere does not mean Kyah won’t succeed somewhere – so there is no need to be jealous, envious, or resentful of them. This is definitely not what we have seen in the ballet world.

In the meantime, Kyah and I had decided that she would audition for Queensland Ballet for the Associate Program for 2017. This particular teacher made it very clear she did not like Queensland Ballet and was not supportive of our decision, so it made Kyah’s time there even more difficult.

We found a ballet teacher who teaches the Vaganova style of ballet – this is the style Queensland Ballet perform. We thought it best if Kyah start lessons with her to help prepare Kyah for her audition in the October.

Unfortunately, Kyah injured her ankle in the September of 2016 – the injury that started “Kyah’s Journey”. It was a very easy way for Kyah to leave the deplorable dance school early; so that was a blessing. The teacher never contacted Kyah to find out if she was alright. Kyah also had to stop all Vaganova lessons for the short term.

Once she started back dancing Kyah was subjected to abuse at a level I cannot fathom. I am so upset with myself for not realising it was going on. The only way I found out about a particular abusive pattern of behaviour towards Kyah was one day when Kyah got in our car, she burst into tears (something Kyah very rarely does), and said she was giving up ballet and dancing because she had been told she was “hopeless and would never amount to anything”. She said that if I looked at her legs and her back I would see red marks on her body from where this teacher had been back-hand slapping her all morning. Kyah had put up with this treatment for over four months without telling me. This teacher had reduced Kyah to complete and utter hopelessness and helplessness. I was furious. Apparently Kyah “allowed” it to happen because she thought she was supposed to put up with it if she wanted to progress in the ballet world.

We spoke to a number of mums and apparently this treatment is quite “normal” for that teacher. Yet again, no-one has spoken up because it will jeopardise their chances of progressing in the ballet world. Apparently this behaviour happens more than any of us want to say. 

This particular teacher loved to intimidate Kyah with both words and body language. How can anyone perform well when they are in an environment they are made to feel scared, threatened, and worthless? This teacher tried to intimidate me – something she did not succeed at. This teacher has even posted on her Facebook page “Harsh but precise education…Maybe I should channel those old days intimidation for my next year students”. This goes with a video of a teacher yelling and handling the students in a less-than-desirable manner. Kyah said this particular teacher was doing this same behaviour to her but on a much more aggressive manner because she was in private lessons, there was no-one else around to watch. This teacher said to me that she was jealous of Kyah because “Kyah has the perfect facility” and if she had what Kyah has she could have been the best in the world. 

Kyah faced covert bullying and exclusion treatment from a number of her dance colleagues. She was given the invisible treatment by abusive teachers when in certain group situations. Life has been pretty tough for a number of years for her. Even though we have spoken out to people that should have helped her, we got no support at all. We were told we needed to provide evidence of the abuse.

Just by chance while I was putting this blog together, Kyah came across a post on Instagram by @maddiebless. She had recently done a study on over 900 dancers from all over the world. She found there was many, many instances of abuse of all types happening to dancers. The statistics she details are more than shocking. I have posted copies of her findings throughout this article, with @maddiebless’ permission.

There are many reports of ex-dancers having PTSD as a result of treatment they have been exposed to. I know for a fact Kyah has a number of these symptoms.

 

Kyah has realised that life as a ballerina requires a compromising of her values. Kyah’s moral and ethical beliefs are very different to what she has been exposed to, and she does not want to jeopardise her beliefs for a life of questionable behaviour. Success and survival in the dance world, as it is now, is for the few that are extremely mentally tough, or they have not experienced what Kyah and many others have. The whole environment was very much affecting Kyah in a number of ways. She was not enjoying her ballet, she was having nightmares involving the abusive teachers, she was experiencing symptoms of anxiety, she did not trust certain authoritative figures (some for good reason). The whole experience was really affecting Kyah in a negative way.

We know other people have reported mistreatment and abuse by the same teachers and nothing has been done about it. It is such a shame that these teachers seem to be “protected” by their colleagues. Someone has to draw the line and try to change the culture. I was asked to provide more evidence than just words before they would even listen to me. I don’t believe there was ever any intention of them going to take action. 

Just last year, The New Yorker  and The New York Times reported on a scandal in the New York City Ballet. It took a huge amount of courage for Alexandra Waterbury to speak out. When we read this article we were horrified, but not surprised.  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/18/what-went-wrong-at-new-york-city-ballet  www.nytimes.com/2018/09/05/arts/dance/nyc-ballet-alexandra-waterbury.html

It’s unfortunate that Kyah’s experience has been such a negative one, as we both realise that there are ballet studios and companies that encourage, nurture and celebrate each individual. Unfortunately, Kyah’s experience has been mostly the opposite of this. Kyah and I are astonished at what some ballet teachers continue to perpetrate with each class, each day.

Kyah is well aware that those that seem to survive in those negative environments have a totally different outlook to her, possibly because they have not been abused or they know that it is a dog eat dog world and use that to their benefit. Unfortunately, it seems the old fashioned methods of training will continue for a while longer. Ballet teachers need to realise that negativity, abuse, exclusion, giving a student the “invisible treatment” are not constructive or advantageous, when they want to develop dancers that are holistically healthy. 

Kyah has made some true friends in the ballet world, however, it is incredibly difficult when you are constantly in competition with each other. It is very hard for true friendships to develop when you are competing for a spot  – “the spot” – in each performance, particularly when the environment is encouraging that of a cut-throat approach.

     

Also, Kyah has been struggling with a very simple injury all year involving both feet, and this has meant she is pretty weary with striving to achieve. The injuries have been dealt with in a very different manner to how I would have treated them. Unfortunately, due to the method of treatment provided, Kyah has inflammation in her feet and Achilles tendons so bad that neither the sports doctor, nor myself, have seen this extent of inflammation before. This is a very draining situation; it is exhausting both psychologically and physically.  

Kyah has had a very tough time and it seems she is not cut out to be in the ballet world, as it is. It seems to be a very toxic environment. Just look at the figures in the post by @maddiebless. Kyah never wanted or expected privileged treatment. In comparison to the others who have not had to endure the abuse, humiliation, bullying, the trauma of her complete dislocation injury, and this current seemingly never-ending injury, it has been a very tough journey for Kyah. The last eight years have been exhausting and draining for Kyah. When she needed nurturing, encouragement, and uplifting support, she did not receive it. We have even been told that Kyah needs to take ownership of her past experiences! She has taken ownership of them, we were asking for understanding, and support, and it was never forthcoming. 

It seems that the higher someone moves up in the ballet world and heads towards a more  professional level, the less nurturing it becomes. We have been warned to expect levels of abuse there too. At this stage of Kyah’s life, (she is still a teenager) I think she just needs some time out for her to stop, breathe, feel good about herself, build up her self-esteem and confidence, and get ready to go again – whatever that may look like.

Fortunately, Kyah does not have the willingness to put up with what has happened to her. She has seen a number of other very good dancers leave for similar reasons to her. The ballet world seems to be a world we do not agree with. I do hope we can find, or create, a better place for upcoming dancers – to teach them the love of ballet, and dance, to encourage them and to celebrate their wins and support them when they don’t win. This is something Kyah will have to decide – if she even wants to go back into that world.

We would like to thank the teachers who have had a positive impact on Kyah’s life and her dance experience. They have really helped Kyah find that love for her dance. It is just a shame the negative experiences have outweighed the positive, and for the moment, she needs a rest from it all. 

We are extremely grateful for the opportunity Queensland Ballet and Queensland Ballet Academy (QBA) have given Kyah with regards to one full scholarship and one half scholarship over the three years she’s been with QBA.

Normally, I would strongly encourage Kyah to complete any task she has set out to accomplish. In regards to this – Kyah’s mental health and impression of herself is more important to me than her finishing this year at QBA. She stopped dancing on August 7, 2020. Already she feels a huge weight has been taken off her and she has been told by a number of people she “looks happy” and is “glowing”. That is a positive sign. 

It seems dance schools and companies do not have a governing body that they are answerable or accountable to. There is no fear of retribution. As I was told, if I wanted something to happen to the teacher I reported, I needed to prove the abuse. Even if I did, I know nothing would have happened. Sadly, I have been led to believe that other dancers have reported inappropriate behaviour, in fact abuse, by the same teacher and the students were asked to leave that dance facility. This says it all.   

I am horrified at the teachers who have inflicted abuse onto my child. The disturbing fact is that Kyah and I do not stand alone. We have joined an enormous, ever growing group of students and parents / carers who are speaking out. Kyah has very strong moral compass and code of ethics, the treatment of her is something both she and I reject totally. It is a very toxic world and she does not want to be a part of it, as it is. In time she will overcome the trauma she has been exposed to and she will be a blessing and a gift to those she influences in her life.

    

On a more positive note:

In testimony to her resilience and overcoming the trauma she has experienced, Kyah will graduate from high school this year with her QCE, a Certificate 4 in Dance, a Diploma of Business, a Certificate in Functional Anatomy, and she will be a qualified Pilates Reformer Instructor. Quite an achievement for a child that has also been dancing for more than 36 hours per week, every week. 

Two weeks ago, Kyah went for her Provisional Licence test. She got it! First go! No mistakes! She is a capable and competent driver. We are both so pleased, and very relieved, she got her “P’s”. It will free up some time for me with regards to not having to drive her places, and she will be able to book appointments for herself without having to consider my schedule. Already, she has driven to the beach and spent the day up there, had lunch, did some shopping with a girlfriend. There will be many more outings I’m sure.

So even though Kyah is bowing out of ballet for the time being, I will continue to blog Kyah’s Journey for those of you that have told me you look forward to hearing about her achievements, accomplishments and ventures.

John 17:15-19 NIV  15My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17Sanctify them by d the truth; your word is truth. 18As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.