Is trauma-informed, healing-centered performance pedagogy possible? written by Wit López
I’ve been performing in some capacity since I was two years old, so I’ve been somewhere on somebody’s stage for nearly 30 years of my life. A few years ago, after enduring two years under a manipulative director, I decided to step back from all of it because the emotional pain of performing was too great. I figured that I could quietly stop performing and no one would notice, but, of course, everyone did. “Are you still singing?” was a frequent question and the answer was always no with a weak smile. I couldn’t sing without crying, I couldn’t even look at sheet music without feeling an internal panic, and there’s no easy way to tell that to anyone. I wished there was a way to share the breadth and depth of the pain I was feeling, but even more than that, I wished that the mistreatment that I had experienced was not the norm for many performers. I wish someone had warned me. No one told me about the pain and violence I would be forced into, that I would internalize, and be trained to use on myself and other performers. No one told me. No one tells anyone… because no one sees anything wrong with it. It’s an unfortunate and, unfortunately, welcome part of every performer’s life. Why are we okay with it? Why have we grown to accept it?
The sad truth is that we are very comfortable with the abuse that exists in the world of performance. Abuse is woven into every fiber of the performance world: how we teach performance, how we perform, how we learn performance, how we build relationships with fellow performers, and even how we interact with performance as members of an audience. The abuse is a legacy that is normalized and even praised. It is explained away behind well-meaning phrases when you inquire about it and congratulatory actions when you embody it. Abuse within the performance community, and also in the general arts community, is something we have all come to expect and even welcome with open arms. Many of us who grew up under abusive performance instruction have now become abusive performers or abusive performance instructors ourselves because it’s “just how we do things.” Those of us who crack under the abuse are assumed to be not cut out for this. Some of the most talented performers will never get the recognition they deserve because the abuse they faced was too great.
The abuse isn’t only present in the performance spaces, but also in the media we produce about what happens behind-the-scenes in performance spaces. We all know the performance abuse trope on screen and on stage. We’ve seen it from instructors in movies like Whiplash, where JK Simmons plays an extremely violent band professor at a school similar to Juilliard. We’ve seen the abuse that happens between performers on television, as many of us remember fondly the Aunt Viv dance audition episode from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We’ve seen it from controlling, performance-obsessed parents like the character Rose in the Broadway musical G*psy (this word is a slur to Romani people, which is why I am censoring it). We’ve seen it in how those of us who are performers are unkind with ourselves and those around us as we strive for perfection like Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan. We’ve seen it in the way the industries oust those of us who advocate for ourselves or whose bodies do not fit neatly into ideas of success, as in the portrayal of Effie in the Broadway musical and movie Dreamgirls. For those of us who are performers, we see these tropes and maybe we nod because we know what it feels like, or shrug in a dismissive way because we’ve been there and we’ve been told that this is what makes you better at your craft. For those of you who aren’t performers, you might be able to relate through your field, or you’re probably in disbelief that this sort of treatment is real or condoned. Tragically, it’s both real and condoned.
We don’t condone this behavior in every situation. If a person on public transportation yelled at us the way some music directors yell at members of a band, choir, or orchestra, a fistfight or an arrest would most likely follow. Dance teachers instill insecurity in children for reasons beyond a child’s control, and many adults know this before they enroll their children in a movement class, but the children are still enrolled anyway. Why do we condone it? I don’t know every answer to this question, but one of them is that we are taught that this is normal. Without being yelled at until you cry, you’ll never know how amazing of a performer you could become, or so someone might say. And the flip side of this is that if you break under this “pressure” (which is actually abuse), then you are told that you weren’t meant to succeed in that field. “They just see what you’re capable of and want the best for you,” is a phrase I’ve heard to explain away the abuses I’ve endured for higher notes, deeper pliés, and more applause. And now, I’m careful. I don’t let people in the world of performance treat me this way anymore. It took over 25 years to realize this, but I did, and that’s what matters to me. I matter to me.
I’ve chosen to break the cycle for myself by not engaging in performance spaces that make me uncomfortable and also by creating accessible, trauma-informed performances for myself. I recently auditioned for a choir and left after the first rehearsal because a song that was selected is a song I was forced to perform to perfection by a former conductor. Hearing the song on the piano and holding the sheet music in my hands triggered me to the point of tears. After four years of not singing, I thought I was ready again, but I wasn’t at that time, I realize that now, and it’s okay. I am a performer traumatized, and this trauma colors how I come in contact with performance and how I allow others in the world of performance to come into contact with me. I choose not to teach performance to anyone. The most I have done is tutored around music theory and taught people how to read music. I recognize that I’ve been socialized to be abusive, and even though I would never purposely do it to someone else, I do it to myself, so I know that the ability to transfer the legacy of performance abuse is in me somewhere.
The performance abuser in me rears its ugly head when I’m home alone or at karaoke and I hit a wrong note. It purses its lips when I watch a group performance and one person misses a step. It struggles daily against a version of myself that stands in stark opposition to it. As a survivor of Intimate Partner Violence, I take abuse very seriously, but as a trained musician, singer, dancer, and actor, I was always taught not to take that type of abuse seriously. As I journey further into creating my own performance art, I believe, very firmly, that the treatment many performers face and perpetuate is, in fact, violent abuse. It resembles how abusers groom their victims and employ mental abuse through gaslighting. When performance instructors use abusive language or actions with their students and say, “My instructor did the same to me/was worse!” as if that somehow makes it okay. Just because we experienced it, does not mean that it is acceptable to pass it on to future generations of performers. It’s not acceptable as a teacher, a fellow performer, or an audience member. Abuse is never acceptable.
The five tips below are not perfect, by any means, but I hope they can be a step in the right direction:
Look inward. It’s not easy. We must first turn the lens on ourselves. As folks in performance, we need to ask ourselves how we may have been victimized by others and what in our own performance practice is abusive to other performers. What did someone do or say to us that was unacceptable? How can we actively choose not to do that to someone else? We have to be prepared to face the fact that most of us have internalized abusive behaviors, confusing them with efficacy in pedagogy, and may have replicated them in a way that is harmful to other performers. Don’t be afraid to examine your practices and to be honest with yourself.
Use consent. The concept of consent is important no matter where you are. It is customary for many instructors to use their hands to show students how to hold an instrument, how to use their diaphragm in singing, or how to achieve the proper position in a dance routine, but ask the student before you put your hands on them. Never take away your students’ ability to say ‘no.’ And learn to be okay if the student says no.
Believe a student’s limits. If a student says they can’t go any further, hear what they have to say. This may be an injury, physical or mental, and pushing them past that limit may cause irreparable bodily or emotional damage.
Swap abusive language for affirmation. Instead of telling students negative things, use language that is affirming and still gets the job done. Where you might feel the need to say, “Only a stupid person couldn’t hit that note,” say, “You’re doing a great job so far, but that last note was a bit flat, let’s try it again.
Your performance space should be a safe space. Your students should not have expectations of being invalidated and mistreated every single time they come to your teaching space. Your students should not live in fear of you. Fear is not equal to respect. You should not abuse your power. Create a safe environment for all of your students in your classroom or during your sessions. If you have trouble imagining your space as a safe space, you may want to reconsider teaching.