The subject of sexual abuse in the ballet world has been brought up before and many articles on the subject have been written. Many of these articles have been written with an eye toward entertainment, highlighting some of the most infamous incidents that have been mentioned. While many of these accounts can be found in books devoted to the history of the dance, there is an absence of articles or stories written about the reality of sexual abuse within the dance world. Sexual Exploitation in the Ballet World: A Short History of Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian Era Sexual Exploitation, written by Barbara Benagh, provides an insight into the culture of the time that rarely gets told. Through the use of first-hand accounts and an examination of some of the more notorious cases that have been covered in the press over the past decade or so, this account offers a rare glimpse into the dark side of nineteenth-century ballerina life.
In the book, Barbara Benagh profiles several different new York city ballet dancers, all of whom had been sexually abused during their performances. Her focus was not on revealing the perpetrators but on understanding why the female dancers had to endure such abuse. Some accounts described accounts from the point of view of the male attackers, while other accounts came from the point of view of the female attackers. It was also revealed that some of the women who had been attacked on stage had died from their injuries, making it clear that being a victim of sexual abuse was sometimes not your fault. Though there are many who would suggest that it was the women who chose to endure the abuse, it must also be said that there were some male attackers involved in those instances as well.
Sexual Exploitation in the Ballerina World was published as an expose of a type of cultural pornography that had been prevalent in the early twentieth-century ballerina’s world, but which had been taken to new heights after World War II. It is interesting to note that such exploitation of women by rich men came at a time when there was so much concern over sexual abuse of all kinds, including by both men and women. In fact, according to estimates, somewhere between five and fifteen percent of all dancers in the world’s many dancing schools are women. Many of the men who are responsible for these abuses belong to the upper class. There are so many wealthy men who have dancers in their employ and are thought of as “rich and famous,” that they often choose to hire young women as companions. One famous ballerina was even married to a rich man.
The author tells us that she contacted me because she was interested in learning about the connection between a performer’s career and an abusive experience. As it turns out, there was such a connection. She had spent years researching this particular aspect of nineteenth-century ballerinas. What she found is both shocking and true. I listened to the story of one woman who had been repeatedly sexually abused by rich men and yet she was able to rise above that to become one of the greatest modern-day ballerinas.
She did not suffer from sexual abuse at the hands of men who paid for the privilege of watching her perform. She was, however, mistreated by some of the other less scrupulous members of the ballerina fraternity. The men who made up her troupe were known by the name “the lowest rent.” One of them propositioned her. When she politely declined, he replied, “Well, you can always pay me later, honey.”
This is a classic example of how a woman who is smart, independent, and confident can be victimized by an abusive situation. But it goes beyond that. The lesson here is that in any social group, men who treat women poorly and get away with it are in violation of the code of conduct. It doesn’t matter what color you are, when it comes to being a ballerina, you have an equal right to be treated with respect. And that includes sexual abuse.
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