Apolla dance recovery socks

Is it ‘Old School’ or Abusive? With Emily Bufferd

Written by
Emily Bufferd
Thursday 21, 2019

Is it ‘Old School’ or Abusive?

 With Emily Bufferd

I have lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone recently say “oh, that’s just ‘old school’ training mentality” and wondered if when we use the term ‘old school’ we oftentimes are justifying training methods that are…

  1. Out of date and scientifically proven as ineffective
  2. Physically abusive
  3. Mentally abusive
  4. Emotionally Abusive

We’re living in a time where our students (and oftentimes, ourselves) are on edge constantly wondering about our safety, our health, our purpose in life (dramatic…), etc. At what point do we as educators acknowledge once and for all that some of the ‘old school’ training methods simply are outdated and need to go? Why are some of us so stuck in our ways that we can’t see that while yes, you might be training a brilliant dancer, you might also be damaging them in the long-term? That overstretching, that time you told them ‘it sucked’ without some positive reinforcement that you know they can do better and believe in them, the moment you made them feel less than on purpose… this is not ‘old school’, this is abuse. 

We seem to have, as a community, allowed these type of circumstances to be described as ‘old school’ for too long; there is a big difference between a mentality of hard work, and praise being offered for that hard work (actual ‘old school’ mentality), versus abusive behaviors being justified by the term.  In my training, I was not praised unless I had done a good job/deserved/earned it, that is not ‘old school’, that is knowing a compliment is coming from a genuine place.  The current culture of metaphorically telling our students they are pretty for every single thing they do is an unbalanced effort… if everything is great then nothing is great.  This is not because something isn’t actually exceptional, but because if(??) praise is given for all things, then it has lost its meaning for what is actually done very well.  ‘Participation trophy’ dancing… simply showing up, in dance, is not actually enough; we do our students a disservice when doing this, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, while praising someone for doing very little is not ‘abusive’, it is also knowingly not setting them up for success, which is improper as well.

This article by Michael Mignano discusses emotional abuse in sports, which has been studied more than it has in dance, and is a great piece of insight as to how emotional abuse in training scenarios happens.  The power dynamic between teacher and student in dance is very similar to that of a coach and player in sport – these ideas, while not exact, are in alignment with what happens in abusive relationships in a classroom.  I would love to hear your thoughts, and what we can do as a community to ensure our students are being trained with real love and integrity.

Comments: 3

Erin Parsley
Erin Parsley

Feb 28, 2020

Sylvie, it is amazing to hear of your wonderful teachers you are now experiencing and your lifelong dedication to the beautiful art of ballet.

Anonymous, I am so sorry for the hurtful and discouraging words from your former teacher. I hope you can come to understand that is just one (apparently deeply unhappy) person’s subjective view, and not inherently the truth about you AT ALL.

I suffered years of abusive training and mean spirited comments in pursuit of my ballet career. It nearly wrecked me to the core at an emotional level. But I love dancing too much to let myself be deterred from creating a life around it, and I am SO GRATEFUL that I found the inner strength to never give up on myself. It’s taken me many, many years to undo the terrible mental conditioning I received at the hands of so many teachers, and to reshape my self-image into a positive, supportive one of myself.

But I did it! And dance continues to be the center of my life, and my most favored form of challenge, freedom and expression!

And that is why it is my mission now to impact my students in an incredibly uplifting way – empowering not only wonderful, sound dance technique, but also self-confident humans who feel awesome about themselves and ready to take on any challenges they may be facing (in life or on the dance floor).

Dance is hard. We’ve got to work our butts off, but also have some fun in the process! And celebrate and honor how we show up!


Feb 02, 2020

I am not a professionnel dancer, but I took ballet classes from the age of 5 until I was 18. I did not (and stil don’t) have a body type suited for a professional career, or I would have tried for it, such was my love for ballet. So I trained for the sheer pleasure of it. I have had good teachers, and bad teachers. The good ones knew how to praise good work and when to point out, in a constructive way, mistakes so that I could improve.
I am now 57, I still love ballet, and last year, after a 39 years iatus, I joined again a ballet school. I am the oldest on my class ! And I have a great, positive, supporting teacher who doesn’t shy from pointing out what’s wrong, but also doesn’t shy from praising things that reserve praise. That’s what I think is a good teacher. She uncompromising in her desire for us to be the best we can be, and knows how to show us how to get there.
And I had the opportunity to take a class last week with Wayne Byars, and it was amazing. What a teacher ! He made us all feel like prima ballerinas, correcting every mistake with such gentleness yet you could feel his desire for us to love ourselves and what we did, and strive for perfection. It was amazing.
And the next day in class, I found out that his comments and teaching paid off ! Some moves that seemed still so hard for me to achieve became suddenly easier. And all because of a few positive remarks.
Ballet is hard, it’s a cruelly demanding discipline. Yet for those of us who love it, it is a joy. And a good teacher who knows how to share with you that love and joy of the perfect, seemingly effortless move, without glossing over the harsh really of technique, and without making you feel like a total failure if you botched a pirouette, that is a good teacher.


Jan 12, 2020

I once asked a teacher who I had studied with for years – and revered – if she would Mentor me for my RAD certification – and she told me (with great vitriol) that I was " simply not good good enough"! This not only devastated me at the time – but has haunted me ever since – so much so that absolutely every challenge I face in life not only with teaching, but with everything else as well, I approach with great fear and trepidation, not to mention a morbid dread of failure. I have Never felt like I have been a success at anything I have done in life …and I have failed at more things than I would like to admit (things I really shouldn’t have failed at). Many years prior to this she had discouraged me from even attempting to apply for the training, but at the time she said there was not a much market for RAD teachers in the area where I live, but in retrospect I realized she was telling me (even then when I thought I was one of her “star” pupils) that I was “Not Good Enough” … I have not thought of this in a very long time – but clearly it has stayed with me for all these years … and still brings me to tears as I write this.


Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.