The Mentor/Mentee Relationship: Significance in the Arts
by Rosalie Anthony, Point Park University
Abstract: In this presentation, I will articulate, analyze, and describe the aspects of a mentor, mentee relationship through the examples of history, and personal experience relating to the dance field; highlighting positive and negative aspects of the dynamic. The audience will not only gain insight into how the dance community interacts, but how those interactions can affect other aspects of a dancer’s life outside of the studio, stage, company, etc., positively or negatively. Furthermore, dance has a heavy and focused concentration on collaboration; if the relationship dynamic between mentor, boss, and / or teacher is toxic, it can take support, confidence, and strength to confront and change the working environment in the dance program, colleges and universities, dance companies, and even small hometown studios enforcing the importance of empowering young aspiring artists to speak truth to power.
When I think of everyone who has influenced me, helped me become who I am, shaped my experiences, offered me advice on difficult decisions, and cared about my growth, I think of the many mentors who have had a strong, positive influence on my life. I started dancing, because I was adopted from China at age one, and my gross motor skills for my age were delayed. I could not even sit up on my own, which was a sign of poor core strength. Mentally, I was not appearing expressive, and dance helped me form a sense of self. Dance has been the gift that has given my life meaning, strength, discipline, and heart. I decided to start studying dance seriously, after I did not make the middle school dance team. That failure motivated me to apply for the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA), a performing arts high school that would open numerous opportunities for me. The application process was rigorous with a written application, interview, and dance audition. I had to pass academically in addition to demonstrating potential dance talent. Once accepted, I worked hard and found my passion for dance. When I decided I wanted to pursue dance further into college, I had many supportive mentors who helped me through that arduous process. An influential mentor I had was one of my teachers at ASFA. Deciding to attend Point Park was difficult due to financial constrictions, despite Point Park’s generosity. My mentor advised me that Point Park was not an opportunity to give up, and if I had the chance, to go. That advice changed my life, which is how I arrived where I am now. I have faced multiple challenges, too, to get to where I am. Speaking truth to power is a phrase that refers to confronting someone who holds an important or influential position ("Speak Truth”). In dance, this can be increasingly difficult due to the different classroom dynamics and, furthermore, since most dance knowledge and movement are commonly communicated orally to aspiring young artists through human interaction, relationships, and mentorship. Through analyzing my experiences with the mentor/mentee relationship and its historical significance in circulating dance knowledge, I aim to provide insight into how the dance community interacts and propose how to move forward in a healthy and productive way that benefits the dance community as a whole.
Mentorship, as defined in the Lexico Oxford Dictionary, is, “the guidance provided by a mentor, especially an experienced person in a company or educational institution,” (“Mentorship.”) This definition can apply to dance when an older company member gives advice to a new company member regarding where to stand in company class; another example is at Point Park, where the Dance Club has a “Big, Little” program where upperclassmen dance majors can sign up to be a mentor to an incoming freshman dance major, offering a formal kind of mentorship. This relationship offers the freshman a peer to ask advice on auditions, classes, or adjusting to the rigorous program. Psychologists Brad Johnson and Charles Ridley offer insight on how to facilitate a successful mentor relationship. In the text, a mentor relationship is defined as a, “... dynamic, reciprocal, personal relationships in which a more experienced person acts as a guide, role model, teacher, and sponsor of a less experienced person” (15), therefore, lending itself to have both benefits and detriments. Both Lexico Oxford Dictionary and Johnson and Ridley’s definition of a mentor have commonalities and overlap regarding a more experienced person guiding and offering insight. After looking at the broader Oxford definition, the definition I will be working with is Johnson and Ridley’s because it goes beyond a company or educational institution with providing more specifics on the relationship. The first informal mentorship position was being an older sibling, and this relates to the working definition through acting as a role model through a dynamic, reciprocal relationship. I am the oldest of five and my sister is two years younger than me. Throughout our lives, we have been there for one another. An example is when we each moved into college. She travelled with my mom up to Point Park to help me move, organize, and collect all my necessities, and I did the same for her when she moved into her university. I am so proud and honored to have had an impact on her life and her in my life. I gained interest in formal mentorship in high school. We had a peer helper program where older students would be assigned to younger students as a guide and resource. I keep updated on my mentee through social media, and it has been so enriching to see them grow and flourish into a beautiful, and mature young adult who is also a great dancer. From then on, I started looking for and recognizing the different mentors I had in my life.
In the dance community, I have had many mentors who have helped me become who I am today and who have guided me through the arduous career path I have chosen. Success in dance, for me, is based a lot on personal growth and achievement, through good grades, receiving awards for my efforts, being recommended for a job, or getting an exciting opportunity. Good mentors, according to Johnson and Ridley, will exhibit and practice certain behaviors, which will help them not only enrich their experience in the relationship, but, additionally, it ensures the mentee’s growth and success. A great example of a mentor I have had throughout my college career is the professor advising me on this paper, Dr. Colleen Hooper. She has demonstrated positive qualities I hope to use in my life including: warmth, listening actively, dependability, showing unconditional regard, respecting and safeguarding my privacy, tolerating idealization, embracing humor, gently confronting perfectionism, attending to interpersonal cues, displaying trustworthiness, respecting diverse values, and not appearing jealous (Johnson, Ridley). A specific piece of advice I got from her mentorship that was helpful was when I was deliberating on whether or not to pursue a Master’s in Business. She told me to analyze what my goals were, return to the reason I came to Point Park, and imagine what I wanted the rest of my college career to look like. My goals can be ambitious, and with the rigor of the dance degree at Point Park, I was able to organize my priorities. Subsequently, I decided to really focus my energies on my dance studies and minor work. This advice included the important mentor characteristic of active listening. A dance career is short, because of physical degeneration, so after analyzing my goals, she gave a supportive and appropriate response. This revealed to me that having someone who has experience and knowledge in your field is a key part in helping to focus in on what you are passionate about. Through her example, I hope to take those qualities and pass them on to everyone I meet and mentor.
With dance being such a collaborative and creative career, communication, networking, and mentorship relationships are an essential part of success. Professor of Arts Education and Socially Engaged Arts pedagogy classes in the UCLA Visual and Performing Arts Education Minor (VAPAE) program, Kevin Kane, investigates the mentorship relationship that forms when there is a commonality, like dance, between youth and college-aged professionals.
“The mutually beneficial relationships that develop in such a program - both peer-to-peer alliances and, importantly, the step-ahead mentoring relationships that bring high school youth and college-aged counselors into committed alliances with each other - can become influential developmental relationships, founded upon a mutually transformative event in the arts, (Kane, 231)”
A personal example of this beneficial mentee experience is my experience working at the American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive (ABTSI) as a Residential Mentor in July 2019. I created a working, professional relationship with the students at the intensive, and through this relationship, I grew as a leader, mentor, and coach. After taking responsibility for the students’ safety and well-being, I learned the importance of supporting them when they are their most vulnerable. An instance when I supported a student was when I took them to the designated intensive health clinic. The clinic suggested they had to stay off and rest the injury if they wanted to be able to heal and come back as soon as possible. Walking back was long, hot, and difficult. I made sure to stay encouraging, enthusiastic, and supportive to help make sure this student continued to have a good experience and did not see this challenge as a setback or a disaster. Injuries can be detrimental to a dancer, because they physically cannot do what they came to the intensive for and what they love. In the end, this student was able to get back on their feet and perform in the final showcase, which was the pinnacle of the intensive, showcasing the dancer’s progress. After determining the importance of interpersonal relationships, I would like to offer some insight into a classical ballet class.
When I enter a ballet class, feelings of nervousness, vulnerability, fear, and
exposure can arise. As a female, student dancer, the dress code is pink tights, a black leotard, and either flat ballet slippers or pointe shoes for footwear. There have been discussions that have arisen about the historical significance of wearing pink tights. Therefore, at some schools, companies, conservatories, or studios, students can wear flesh colored tights if they choose. For male dancers, a traditional dress code is a white or black shirt, black tights, white socks, and black ballet slippers. The significance of the dress code is to enforce a sense of uniformity, and for female dancers, historically, to complete a beautiful, clean line, which is a defining aesthetic of classical ballet, making their legs look “naked.” For dancers of color, including myself, pink tights do not fulfill this expectation, which is why “flesh tone” tights are becoming more, widely accepted (Howard). This, additionally, contributes to a sense of individuality, in which, the ballet art form does not always exemplify. Furthermore, before even walking into a studio, the expectations are strict and proper “etiquette” is expected. Different dynamics in the classroom can include and be impacted by these individuals or groups: the teacher, the student, the parents, one’s peers, or onlookers. Once a teacher steps into the room, the expected response is for the students to be quiet and ready to work. Not only does this establish a power dynamic making speaking truth to power challenging, but it can imply that the students have no emotions or useful feedback to give in the class. In the classroom, speaking truth to power could look like leaving when feelings of disrespect emerge. Privately, speaking truth to power can look like having a meeting in a safe space to constructively talk about what issues are occurring. When relationships start to form, there can be difficulties that arise due to an unhealthy and at times unethical work environment; for example, if a student is receiving a grade, promotion or feature in a piece, or other reward, this can be a toxic element that can be used as a manipulation tactic instead of a positive one, and since dance is subjective, there can be room for malpractice. Furthermore, at my university, my scholarships are contingent on maintaining a certain grade point average. If a student does not reach that grade point average, they could lose scholarships, which, in turn, could prevent them from being able to complete their education. Additionally, as a high school student, my dance grade affected my GPA, which is a defining component to getting into college. For years, I let fear rule my actions, but I have since realized conversation is necessary for change.
Throughout my life, I have had both positive and negative experiences as a mentor and
mentee. When I seriously started dancing during impressionable years, I had teachers who were emotionally abusive. My self-esteem was affected and speaking truth to power was difficult. I wanted to say, “I have worth, so pay attention to me,” “I’ve worked so hard, so I should get recognized for my work,” “You just called me the TAG, or token Asian girl. Is that all you think I can offer to this program?” Something that held me back from speaking up was thinking there was something wrong with me or my concerns would be viewed as complaining. If I just fixed an aspect of myself, I thought I would get noticed positively or earn respect. Moreover, I believed there would be negative consequences, like a lowering of my grade or not receiving future opportunities, if I spoke up. Ultimately, I scheduled an exit interview to try and persuade change for better treatment for future students. Unfortunately, the consequence of this meeting proved ineffective and my concerns were dismissed. Even with all the progress I have made and great mentors, it has taken a lot of time and self-work to mature past their hurtful comments and actions. If the negatives about the arts or mentorship in the arts are not talked about, that can create a cycle of abuse and a malicious environment. In Robin Lakes’ “The Messages Behind the Methods: The Authoritarian Pedagogical Legacy in Western Concert Dance Technique Training and Rehearsals,” she investigates the dangerous, dark side of mentorship. For example, Lakes includes Deborah Jowitt’s account:
“Among my earliest memories of Anna Sokolow is that she threw a chair at me. Well, toward me. And others, I still feel the shock in the pit of my stomach... She wanted us to rush toward the front of the stage and stop at the very edge... We couldn’t get it right... so she yelled ‘GO!’ and, as we tore forward she hurled the chair at us... The chair didn’t actually touch anyone, but it hit all of us, I think, in a very deep place,” (Jowitt, 6).
In this type of situation, there was an emotional and physical response felt that will not be
forgotten, and this can create a cycle of abuse and negative dependability on feedback, positive or negative. The danger of this type of technique is taking the power away from the
dancer, the teacher going to extremes to get their desired results, and an emotional scar that does not ever heal or mend. In many ways this is harmful to dancers' mental health, self-esteem, confidence, and ego.
Some teaching and curriculum development techniques can assist in preventing an authoritarian pedagogical legacy in Western concert dance. After analyzing how a ballet dance class is set up and the importance of establishing a healthy work environment, having good mentors becomes clear. A healthy work environment would include being supportive of others without tearing oneself or others down, more collaboration or communication between the teacher and students, and more inclusivity. This looks like having open office hours and scheduled one-on-one meetings, different body types in the ballet class, working to correct everyone equally, not whispering on the sides in classes, and being able to praise classmates when they do something great. Education on mental, physical, and spiritual health, curriculum development, diversity and inclusion, and history can help in breaking the authoritarian pedagogical legacy in Western concert dance. When a teacher is developing curriculum and considering what they want to teach in class, there are a few questions to consider, because dance is an intellectual endeavor as well as physical endeavor. In Dance Magazine, Kathleen McGuire gives advice to dance teachers regarding mental health, including, “Teach your dancers to treat their mental wellness with the same care that they do their physical wellness.” Mental health is a serious concern and an issue which starts with how aspiring young artists are taught and trained. Teaching the importance of self-worth can help empower dancers and give them the courage to speak truth to power, which is necessary for advancing much needed change in dance. Dance educator Susan Stinson poses thought-provoking questions: “What dance content should be taught... Whose dance / what dance kind of dance should be taught... What is the primary purpose... Who should dance education be for.... How should it be assessed?” (139). By using Stinson’s questions, they can help shape dance curriculum development to best support and empower students. Inviting students to participate in a collaborative teaching process can nurture creativity as well as prevent internal conflict in result of fear or belittlement. Diversity and inclusion can bring different perspectives into the learning environment, which advances cultural, personal, and experiential knowledge.
Since I dealt with emotionally abusive teachers throughout impressionable years, I realized no one can have power over me unless I give them power. Advocating for myself and seeking to be treated fairly should not be something I should have to apologize for. During my time at Point Park, I have witnessed, firsthand, the efforts of the dance department to lead, inspire, and innovate in their approaches to dancing and teaching in the arts. On “syllabus day,” which is traditionally the first day of class, most, if not all, of my teachers speak to the students about the expectations they have of us and ask of the expectations we have for them. Additionally, they leave some time for questions and make sure the students understand their responsibilities. This opens the lines of communication between the teachers and students while establishing trust and transparency. Throughout my life, I have tried to help empower others through mentorship just as other people have empowered me. Some examples are my involvement as a Dance Club mentor, Honors mentor, Pioneer Ambassador, Residential Mentor at ABTSI, and Teaching Artist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Artplay’s Musical Theatre camp. I hope to make a positive impact on this world and in the dance community by continuing the conversation about mental health, changing the authoritarian pedagogical legacy in Western concert dance, teaching the next generation of aspiring artists, and being a voice who can speak truth to power. Dance and mentorship have the power to change lives.
Mentorship in the arts, dance specifically, is an influential and integral part in circulating dance knowledge to aspiring young artists and in the community. Speaking truth to power alludes to the strength and courage it takes to confront those who hold power over oneself. This can include students or even working, seasoned professionals. Aspects of dance history manifest the complexity of this idea through what styles of dance are practiced today, how dance is taught today, and who gets the job. An example of this would be classical ballet and modern dance techniques being a requirement to complete a degree in dance, but dance forms originating from people of color being electives. This community dynamic is why mentorship is an essential aspect of education in dance. A mentor is a person who guides, protects, nurtures, supports, encourages, and much more. They can be teachers, peers, friends, supervisors, or someone one admires. There are many facets of the mentor/mentee relationship, and successful pairings and experiences are dependent on the personalities of the individuals involved. I hope that increasing offerings that address mental, physical, and spiritual health, curriculum development, diversity and inclusion, and dance history will help in breaking the authoritarian pedagogical legacy in Western concert dance. By having these conversations, I aim to raise awareness and encourage individuals to speak truth to power as it relates to dance and the arts. Furthermore, taking this power and having the ability to practice this in their everyday life.
Howard, Theresa Ruth. “Is Classical Ballet Ready to Embrace Flesh-Tone Tights?” Dance Magazine, 16 Mar. 2020, www.dancemagazine.com/ballet-flesh-tone-tights-2612825762.html.
Johnson, W. Brad, and Charles R. Ridley. The Elements of Mentoring: 75 Practices of Master Mentors. 3rd ed., St. Martins Press, 2018.
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Lakes, Robin. “The Messages behind the Methods: The Authoritarian Pedagogical Legacy in Western Concert Dance Technique Training and Rehearsals.” Arts Education Policy Review, vol. 106, no. 5, 2005, pp. 3–20. doi:10.3200/aepr.106.5.3-20.
“Mentorship.” Lexico Oxford English and Spanish Dictionary, Thesaurus, and Spanish to English Translator. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/mentorship.
McGuire, Kathleen. “Why Are We Still So Bad At Addressing Dancers' Mental Health?” Dance Magazine, 13 Nov. 2019, https://www.dancemagazine.com/why-are-we-still-so-bad-at-addressing-dancers-mental-health-2466177083.html.
“Speak truth to power.” Grammarist, grammarist.com/phrase/speak-truth-to-power/.
Stinson, Susan W. “Questioning Our Past and Building a Future: Teacher Education in Dance for the 21st Century.” Journal of Dance Education, vol. 10, no. 4, June 2010, pp. 136–144., doi:10.1080/15290824.2010.529764.