Taking an ARTIST-CENTERED Approach to Working in the Performing Arts Industry
Welcome to Beyond the StEPS
We are talking to Leslie Scott Zanovitch and Dr. Steven Karageanes about What are the dangers of not taking an artist-centered approach to working in the performing arts industry?
There will be slight mentions of sexual abuse within this article, please protect your peace, and give yourself the space and grace needed.
Our guests are Leslie Scott Zanovich* and Dr. Steven Karageanes, what is your inspiration and motivation for committing to this work and how do you stay committed through the most challenging times?
Leslie: I think for many of us that become advocates and educators beyond the moves, it is really rooted in our own personal frontline experience and feeling like we didn't have advocates, feeling like we didn't have a support system, feeling that we were maybe even brave and courageous and we tried to speak up about things that fell out of alignment to us or felt scary or unsafe. And we were not met with an open ear or an open heart. And in many cases, we were actually met with the opposite, with people telling us that we needed to be silenced, that the show must go on. You know, so for me, I know I'm, and I think that it's just important at the front of this, just because our work does go on the continuum of abuses, all the way to the more extreme form terms of sexual abuse and sex trafficking and objectification.
One of the benefits of this is that it can be revisited if you need to take a break. However, I want to provide some context about why this work is important to me. As a survivor of both child sexual abuse and adult sexual assault, and having endured many abuses during my almost 20-year career as a professional dancer in Hollywood, I found that when I tried to speak up and advocate for myself, I was met with more reinforcement and praise for my compliance in staying silent. This is why working with colleagues like Dr. Tomian Roberts, Dr. Christina Donaldson, Dr. Stephen Tokunaga Uchida, Crystal Andre, and Alexia on Nema's board is so important to me. We all share a commitment to the incredible power of movement arts. It is not just about witnessing or experiencing the harms, but also recognizing the positive impact it can have on creating community and fostering personal growth, joy, celebration, and therapy. By doing this work, we are safeguarding the right to enjoy and benefit from movement arts, which is crucial for young and experienced practitioners alike. We must protect this outlet at all costs.
I would like to discuss the artist-centered approach that we will be focusing on today. Specifically, I would like to direct this question to Dr. Kane, as we often hear about the patient-centered approach in medicine. What exactly does it mean to take an artist-centered approach in this work?
Dr. Karageanes: The concept of an artist-centered approach is similar to the athlete-centered approach used in sports medicine and the patient-centered approach in medicine. However, it does not entail giving the artist complete autonomy to do whatever they want. Some choreographers and company managers might view themselves as experts and consider their vision to be the center of everything. But an artist-centered approach prioritizes the interests, concerns, and welfare of the artist. It involves creating an environment that enables the artist to thrive and perform to the best of their abilities. For instance, just like athletes taper down their training before a competition, artists need to prepare themselves adequately for a performance without exerting themselves excessively. By doing so, their performance quality improves, and it contributes to the overall success of the company or artistic expression. Although this approach may seem counterintuitive, it is commonly employed in sports and other fields to maximize performance. Moreover, it requires choreographers and managers to consider the needs of the artists and not just focus on their personal vision. It is crucial to acknowledge the physical and mental stresses that artists undergo and ensure that they are comfortable with the choreography, movements, and interactions before progressing. An artist-centered approach values the personhood of the artist and prioritizes their well-being, as opposed to treating them as an object to manipulate or control.
What are some of the dangers for performance artists if we do not collectively start taking an artist-centered approach? Do you think our industry can involve the way it needs to without doing so?
Leslie: In Dr. Tomian's research on objectification, it has been found that complex PTSD can lead to dehumanization. When individuals are treated as objects or products, and are subjected to a reward and punishment system, whether covertly or overtly, it can occur in various settings like home, studio, culture, agents, and relationships. This leads to the loss of self-regard, self-objectification, and the diminishing of the human spirit. Stephen's research on physical injuries and its psychological impact highlights the significant toll on mental wellness. Unfortunately, the power differentials, hierarchy, and uses of power in the industry can lead to psychological abuse, grooming, and priming. Every individual has a role to play in eradicating the Continuum of abuse, but trauma can hinder progress. Advocates may also experience vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. The stigma around mental wellness is still prevalent, and individuals often need to have physical illnesses to receive support.
What actions can we take at various levels to drive change towards an artist-centered approach? Dr. Karageanes, could you suggest one or two measures that could be implemented in the commercial and competitive space, in higher education, and at the studio level with students?
Dr.Karageanes: One important step in creating an artist-centered approach is to have open conversations with parents to discuss expectations and establish lines of communication. It's important to understand that not everyone who causes abuse is necessarily evil or aware of their behavior, and blaming individuals is not productive. Studios should make time to gather feedback from parents and dancers, and educate themselves on best practices. By creating an environment where dancers feel comfortable expressing their concerns, stress can be minimized and potential issues can be addressed before they become critical. It's also important to recognize that not all dancers are suited to the same types of performances, and teachers should take the time to understand each individual's strengths and limitations. Ultimately, the goal is to make dancers feel like they are a part of their own performances and have a voice in their own dance education.
Leslie, building a safe and open space for concerns to be expressed is crucial in creating a positive learning environment. As an educator, it is important to respond to these concerns in a way that validates the student's feelings and shows that you are actively listening. Instead of becoming defensive, try to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. Acknowledge the student's concerns and assure them that you will take the necessary steps to address them. Encourage open communication and let the student know that their voice is valued. It is also important to follow through with any actions you promised to take to address the concern. By responding in a thoughtful and constructive manner, you can create a supportive and respectful learning environment for your students.
Leslie: I mean, it's interesting how Dr. Steven and I have different names for the same person, but to connect with what Dr.Karageanes just talked about, I want to share another reason why this topic is important to me. For many years, I was a part of a system that caused harm in Hollywood. I was told that treating artists as objects was the best way to do things, and that if we gave them a say, we were going soft on them. This mentality of breaking artists down to build them up is a generational trauma that we need to address in the Performing Arts Movement Arts ecosystem. Research shows that this mentality has long-term consequences for our physical and emotional wellness.
When someone comes to us with concerns, it's important to resist the urge to get defensive and be curious instead. Different people have different values, beliefs, and boundaries, and as educators in dance-related organizations, we need to be prepared for these differences. Training in code of conduct, bullying, mandated reporting, and cultural sensitivity is crucial. This training doesn't take away our unique human qualities; instead, it prepares us to respond appropriately in different situations. Creating safe and artist-centered spaces is a marathon, not a sprint, and it requires us to slow down and be mindful.
I recently returned from a job in Los Angeles where a trauma-informed approach was truly necessary. However, the situation was challenging, and I had to fight for what I believed in. Being back in Hollywood made me realize why I left, but it also pushed me out of my comfort zone to speak up and stand by my beliefs, despite the risk of being stereotyped or put down. It was not an easy task, but I had to be resilient and brave enough to say something when I saw something wrong, even though it came at a cost.
Unfortunately, some harm was caused to some important people in this job, which I prefer to refer to as a "heart endeavor" rather than a job. If everyone had slowed down for just a moment and listened to why my requests were important, it would have changed a lot for the dancers' experience and achieved our goal. However, as Stephen said, the production was always "go go go," and our leaders were constantly stressed and overwhelmed. This made it difficult to create a safe and conscious space where people could share their concerns and needs.
In the professional space, people may be afraid to speak up when they are hurt or feel unsafe, which is why it is essential to create a safe and conscious environment where everyone's needs are heard and respected.
How can we shift the professional space to prioritize the needs of artists? Leslie, you have emphasized the importance of slowing down. What advice do you have for professionals who fear that slowing down may result in financial loss, missed opportunities, or delayed productions?
Leslie: It is a misconception and a harmful narrative that mental wellness is something to be ignored in the entertainment industry. This narrative needs to be challenged and reframed. Studios, jobs, and agents that prioritize an artist-centered approach have reported being happier, healthier, and more productive. Creating art should not involve harming people in the process. Instead, there is a payout to the entire industry and the art itself when we prioritize wellness.
To advocate for oneself as an artist, it is crucial to engage in self-reflection and self-inventory with grace and without shame. We must commit ourselves to a different way and find community in this pursuit. It is also essential to speak out about the need for change and prioritize our own well-being. As artists, we have the power to force change at higher levels and create a healthier industry for everyone involved.
Dr.Karageanes: Advocating for yourself means being your own best representative, speaking up and voicing your wants and needs without fear of reprisal. It's important to communicate what's affecting you and what's not. Bullying is at the heart of many forms of abuse and often involves trying to silence the victim. Advocacy can be difficult to do alone, which is why there are resources available to help individuals learn how to advocate for themselves. This is the mission of many organizations that provide advocacy resources to those in need. The idea is not to have someone else do it for you, but to help you understand what you need and how to articulate it effectively. Recognizing your needs and speaking up before a situation escalates is crucial. By creating safe spaces in dance environments, individuals can feel comfortable speaking up and addressing their concerns.
Leslie: Dr. Stephen's words highlight the significance of the cares program, which offers support and advocacy for individuals who need a safe and caring environment to figure things out. Often people experience events that leave them feeling scared or violated, but they don't know how to process what has happened or recognize that they are being gaslighted. Fortunately, there are resources available like the Athletes Helpline through Child Help, which provides free and confidential spaces to talk and process. It's crucial to understand that trauma can cause physical injury to the brain, and just because someone has experienced traumatic events doesn't necessarily mean they are mentally ill. Trauma is a violation of one's boundaries, and it can range from micro traumas to significant violations such as assault and lack of informed consent. The vast majority of people in the industry are not perpetrators, but rather participating unconsciously because they lack education and community support. It's essential to release ourselves from shame and guilt for causing harm in the past and focus on doing better when we know better. While there is a darker side to the industry that seeks to exploit, commodify , and coerce, it does not represent the majority of individuals in the industry.
Leslie, as you know from your previous appearances on Beyond the Steps, we like to provide our viewers with homework - a small actionable step they can take to make progress in the relevant area before our next show on Friday. So, what is the one step you would like to suggest for all our viewers to take in the next seven days?
Leslie: It's a challenge because there's so much to be done, but it all starts with recognizing our own resistance to change. It's not enough to just seek out training or attend workshops. We need to approach this work with a humble willingness to listen and learn. In my experience, I had to break down to break through, and I couldn't control anyone else's actions or the power structures in place. All I could do was control my role and my impact. We shouldn't underestimate our power in this space, and we need to be brave and speak up even though there may be punishment. There is suffering in advocacy, but there's also a reward on the other side. It's important to look at our own hearts and be hyper aware of how we're doing this work. For those who are already on deck and in advocacy, be the healer and encourager that you needed when you first started. The topic of trauma recovery is often associated with advocating and educating on the importance of creating safe spaces in dance. It is crucial to be mindful of the impact it has on one's human spirit, and finding a support system that can uplift you, just as you do for others. It's common to experience burnout in any advocacy work or non-profit work, and this can be challenging when you have a deep passion for something that both helped you and caused harm to you psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally. It's essential to find safe people to navigate this journey of advocacy, speak up, and find your own strength. This might entail letting go of friends, agents, or changing studios, but new seeds will be planted, and new things will grow, allowing you to find your full potential as an artist, feeling free and safe. Nema is a non-profit organization advocating for all movement arts, from children to adults. Their mission is to create safe and healthy spaces within all movement arts, promoting emotional, physical, and sexual wellness and safety. Their CARES program provides compassionate advocates who offer resources, education, and support to those experiencing abuse, fear, eating disorders, body image, sexual abuse, abusive power situations, NDA situations, or any emotional, physical, or sexual issues related to wellness and safety. This program is completely confidential and free and is staffed by clinical psychologists, social workers, and other professionals to provide assistance in navigating these challenges.
NEAMA offers accessible programming and services to cultivate healthy and safe spaces for all through interactive, educational experiences for youth, parents/caretaker, educators, and organizations rooted in caring for the mind, body, and soul.
*Leslie Scott Zanovitch is a choreographer, educator, and passionate movement arts advocate with a career spanning 32 years.
Leslie taught for over a decade as faculty at The Edge Performing Arts Center and Millennium Dance Complex in Hollywood, CA, adjunct faculty in the dance departments of Loyola Marymount University and Phoenix College, Founder of Arizona State University’s Hip-Hop Coalition dance company and acted as a Creating Opportunities® dance industry coach in Hollywood for 5 years.
Leslie is an Authorized Darkness to Light Facilitator on sexual abuse awareness and prevention. Leslie is considered a specialist on the complexities of sexualization and objectification and how it intersects with sexual abuse in the movement arts.
She Founded the nonprofit EDIFY Movement® and Youth Protection Advocates in Dance (YPAD)® in 2012 and dedicated her life to YPAD for a decade. Although Leslie is no longer affiliated with YPAD, she continues her work as President of the Board of NEAMA, Nonprofit Education and Advocacy for the Movement Arts.
**Dr. Karageanes (DO, FAOASM) is primary care sports medicine physician at Restorative Physical Medicine in Novi, Michigan.
He serves as the Co-Vice-President of NEAMA's Board of Directors. Steven is also on the editorial board of the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, the credentialing committee of the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, the Executive Board of the Bridge Dance Project and the Personal Safety in Dance International Work Group, and was a former advisory panel member of Youth Protection Advocates in Dance.
He is also Past-President of the American Osteopathic Academy of Sports Medicine, and a clinical assistant professor at Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine and Wayne State University School of Medicine.
Karageanes is one of the first physicians in the United States certified in performing arts medicine by the Performing Arts Medical Association. He is a founding member of Athletes and the Arts and co-hosts their regular podcast.
He works with Wayne State University Department of Theater and Dance, University of Michigan Dance Department, Madonna University, and ConteXture Dance Company, as well as numerous dance studios across Michigan.
Watch the full episode below!