Harry Shum Jr., who we've been stalking for years—first as a nameless silhouette in an iPod commercial, then as Mike Chang on "Glee," then as artistic director, choreographer and dancer for "The LXD"—has done it again.
In a YouTube-video-gone-viral, "If you are in a shell...," Harry is surrounded by colorful paints and dust, and he dances to a heart-wrenching voiceover by performance artist Ze Frank.
"This is Harry. As a boy, Harry was very, very shy," he says. "If you right now are in a shell, you should know that you're not alone. That there are many people like you, and that there is nothing wrong with you."
For those who have been bullied, those who feel socially awkward or those who are just having a tough day, his message may be the inspiration you need. Check it out, and prepare to be moved:
I have a confession: I miss “Dance Moms.” And these last two weeks of reunion shows with the moms (where are the kids?!) just aren’t cutting it. Luckily, I have a fun video of Chloe and Maddie’s visit with Dance Spirit to carry me through. Check it out:
Contestants perform Bonnie Story's "Tears of an Angel" on "So You Thin You Can Dance" Season 10 (photo by Adam Rose/FOX)
On last season of "So You Think You Can Dance," new choreographer to the show Bonnie Story brought a tough topic to the stage: In her piece, "Tears of An Angel," she addressed the issue of bullying—more specifically, the issue of bystanders who witness bullying without taking action. "If you're not a solution, you're part of the problem," Story says.
As you know, bullying has become a hot topic of discussion recently, and as more people are realizing how damaging it can be, they're also recognizing dance as a powerful tool in the fight against it. Not only is dance an outlet for victims to express their pain and reclaim their strength, it's also an effective medium for spreading the anti-bullying message.
Recently, the UK's Sol Dans Company posted the short narrative dance film "Invisible," which tells the story of one man's experience with bullying, and how dance helped him persevere:
Pretty beautiful, huh? This film, choreographed by Melody Squire, is the first part of a three part series, funded by the Arts Council England, that focuses on issues facing young people. Click here to learn more.
Seventeen-year-old Maya* was bullied all through middle school. Here, she shares her struggle to rise above it and move on.
As told to Rachel Zar
I’ve had the same group of girlfriends—the “popular” kids—by my side my entire life. From the beginning, we sat together in class, we ate lunch together and, after school, we went to the same studio for dance class. We were inseparable.
But in sixth grade, everything changed. My so-called friends began to turn on me. To an outsider, it may have seemed like everything was fine—we still hung out all the time—but they took every opportunity to ridicule me. It started small: They’d crack jokes about how skinny I looked in dance class or about my big forehead. They’d say things like, “Your forehead’s bigger than China” or “Why aren’t you smarter with a forehead that big?” They’d speak about me in Spanish, pretending they didn’t know I understood every word. Things progressively got worse. One girl used an app on her phone to create fake text messages from me and send them to other people. It wasn’t enough that they suddenly didn’t like me—they wanted everyone else to turn their backs on me as well.
Once, they even told a guy I’d never met that I was obsessed with him—and that I was secretly making videos about how much I liked him. He lived in my neighborhood, and one day at the pool, he spotted me, called all his friends over and told them how obsessed with him I was. I was mortified.
Whenever I’d confront the girls, they’d act as though I were imagining things. “You’re like a sister to us,” they’d say. “We love you!” But then it would all just start again.
It hurt so badly, and I would come home from school in tears almost every day. I remember several evenings in seventh grade, telling my mom, “That’s it, I don’t want to go back to school.” She would comfort me and say, “Don’t let them get to you. They’re just jealous.” But I didn’t believe that.
Finally, my mom suggested I talk to my school counselor. When I did, the counselor brought the bullies in for a controlled conversation. I thought we might be making progress, but afterward they called me a “snitch,” a “tattletale” and a “baby.” I told my mom I didn’t want to talk to the counselor anymore. She told me that instead of focusing on the bullies, I should put all my energy into dance. But that was hard to do when they were also at the studio—and it didn’t help that at competitions they were constantly placing higher than me.
I tried to take my mom’s advice to heart, and instead of letting them ruin my confidence, I used what was going on to fuel my dancing. I channeled my frustration into emotion onstage. And it was working—my performances were improving.
Still, my social life was getting worse. I’m a loyal person, and I’d never really considered giving up on my lifelong friends altogether. But once, fed up at the studio, I confided to another girl in my dance class that I was being bullied. We went to the same middle school, so I asked if she would introduce me to her friends. Little by little, as I started to get to know her friends and then their friends, I found that I really liked these people and they were a lot like me. I stopped worrying about what the bullies thought of me and rediscovered my usual, outgoing personality.
I thought my old friends might miss me now that I had moved on. But they didn’t seem to care. They didn’t even say hi to me in the hallways. It was as if I’d never existed.
My new friends were better, more responsible students—so in addition to being happier, my grades went up. I also joined an anti-bullying club at school, where we discussed ways to end bullying in our school.
I remember seeing a younger boy with autism walking the halls with a “kick me” sign on his back. I told him to walk with me, and took the sign off his back. I even confronted the kids who had put it there—something I’d never been able to do with my own bullies. I asked them, “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” I could feel myself becoming more confident.
Freshman year, I transferred to a new high school. Finally, I was no longer in school with my former bullies. But they still took dance classes with me—and they still do to this day. I’m never mean to them, but I have no interest in getting close to them again. In ballet class, I don’t stand near them at the barre. Instead, I move to the other side of the room and focus on myself.
In 2010, my hard work in dance class paid off, and I scored well at a national competition, placing above the bullies. Though I’d been congratulating those girls on their wins for years, they didn’t have one nice word to say to me afterward. Instead, they joked that I didn’t deserve it.
I’ll never be happy that I was bullied in middle school, but I’m glad those girls pushed me out of their group. If I’d stayed close with them, I might have become a mean girl, too. And I don’t want to be like them. I’m happy and doing well at school, and I’ve come a long way with my dancing. I know now that I’m a stronger person—and dancer—because of what I went through.
*Name has been changed.
Imagine that you’re in ballet class, working on your triple pirouettes. As your teacher watches you and gives you pointers, you look in the mirror and catch a glimpse of one of the other girls in your class exaggeratedly imitating your every wobble as her friends watch and quietly giggle. You feel your face growing hot, and it takes every ounce of your self-control to finish the exercise instead of running from the room. This mean girl has been acting like this for weeks and you have no idea how to get her to leave you alone.
Bullies can destroy your self-esteem and take all the joy from your dance life. (Photo by David Paone)
Bullying is a hot topic on the national scene. Government officials have teamed with educators, parents and celebrities to spread the message that bullying—by anyone, toward anyone—must not be tolerated. Unfortunately, bullying is just as present in the dance studio as it is in an academic school setting, in part because dancers are naturally competitive, vying for the same roles and comparing themselves to their peers.
Lynda Mainwaring, a psychologist with expertise in dance and performance psychology, says that bullying is “any act that intends to do harm, continued repeatedly within a relationship—and it’s often very subtle.” Even though bullying isn’t always physical, it still hurts. Bullies can destroy your self-esteem and take all the joy from your dance life.
To stop the cycle, first realize that you don’t deserve to be treated this way, and that it’s OK to ask for help. Every bullying scenario is different, but in each case, there are steps you can take to break free.
A classmate rolls her eyes and whispers to her friends every time you make a mistake. You walk into the dressing room and catch a group of girls making fun of your outfit. You log on to Facebook to discover an ugly photo tagged with your name and a mocking caption. Now you’re wondering, “Why me?”
“The targets of peer bullying are usually the kids who don’t fit in easily,” says Linda Hamilton, a psychologist specializing in the performing arts. “They might even be the most talented kids.” A bully may be jealous of you, she may be trying to make others like her by putting you down, or she may be dealing with a completely unrelated issue and taking it out on you. But just because there’s a reason for the behavior doesn’t mean that it’s OK—or that you have to suffer quietly.
One of the most effective methods to deal with a bully is to ignore her. If a bully is trying to get a rise out of you, she’ll get frustrated if you don’t react. “It’s like giving a 3-year-old a time-out,” Hamilton says. “You take away the attention the person craves.” If you don’t get visibly upset, the bully may lose interest in you as a target.
You can also confront a bully directly. For instance, in the face of a nasty rumor, ask, “Where did you hear that?” to put the bully on the spot. Surprise a teasing classmate by responding with a joke, to show that she doesn’t have the power to upset you. Speak up for yourself without stooping to the bully’s level. Avoid teasing her back or starting a new rumor about her, as these actions might lead to further retaliation—and could get you in trouble, too.
Talk to a trusted adult if you don’t feel comfortable handling the situation on your own. A teacher can bring the bully in for a conference or can mediate a meeting between the two of you. Administrators can also hold a studio-wide meeting about appropriate behavior, showing everyone that bullying will not be tolerated.
Your ballet teacher tells you to cut down on the ice cream—in front of your entire class. You’ve been working on a new step and your teacher says you’re lazy for not having mastered it yet. You got the flu and had to miss a rehearsal, and now the choreographer is making pointed comments about how “some people” don’t care enough to be present and are going to ruin the dance for everyone.
“It can be hard when bullying comes from a teacher, because you take to heart what that person says to you,” says Houston-area dance teacher Nichelle Strzepek. In fact, bullying from authority figures often feels like “tough love” gone wrong. Hamilton says that your teacher is bullying you when you’re being repeatedly humiliated, “instead of given the constructive feedback you need to improve.”
When you feel like an authority figure is treating you inappropriately, confide in an adult you trust. This might be a parent, another teacher or the studio director. These adults can approach the bully about her behavior, so you don’t have to.
If possible, avoid calling the teacher out in front of the class. Bullying is first and foremost an issue of power, and if the teacher feels threatened or humiliated, you may be in for even worse treatment in the future. Instead, try to stay calm in the moment and then later, deal with the matter discreetly.
The Best Defense
Surround yourself with people who will have a positive influence on your life. (Photo by David Paone)
The best way to battle bullying is not to let it start. However, rather than going on a witch hunt and looking for misbehavior around every corner, approach the problem from a positive perspective. Ask about launching a “dancer contract” for your studio that outlines appropriate behavior. For instance, dancers at Artistic Dance Conservatory in East Longmeadow, MA, sign a contract stating they will respect themselves and one another. Dancers promise to refrain from talking negatively about other dancers from ADC and from competing studios. “We encourage them to be continuously supportive of one another,” says ADC teacher Noel St. Jean. A culture of mutual trust and support is more bully-proof than a culture of suspicion, where everyone is quick to accuse each other of wrongdoing.
On the personal front, arm yourself by knowing and owning your strengths. Also, surround yourself with people who will have a positive influence on your life. “Find people to be your allies, people you can trust,” Strzepek says. “You’re not forming a group for retaliation, but to feel comforted and safe.”
Finally, recognize that you don’t have to stay at a studio where you’re being embarrassed and abused. “If you’ve tried to get help to deal with the situation and no one is willing to do anything or even recognizes that there’s a problem, you’re probably in the wrong environment,” Strzepek says. “If your school isn’t feeling like a safe place, it may be time to look elsewhere.”
Want to learn more? Websites like stopbullying.gov and prevnet.ca offer resources and information on bullying for kids, teens and adults.
Are You a Bully?
You may not realize how your behavior affects other people. You could be part of the bullying problem if:
- You focus on other dancers—in a negative way. This can include whispering, rolling your eyes or laughing at someone else’s expense. Psychologist Lynda Mainwaring recommends removing negative phrases like “look at how she does that” from your vocabulary.
- You leave certain people out of group activities. Whether you’re dividing into groups in choreography class or planning social time outside the studio, intentionally making people feel unwelcome or unwanted is bullying behavior.
- You think you’re better than other people. Even if you don’t express those thoughts verbally, feeling superior to someone else because of race, class, sexuality, appearance or even dance technique can lead you to behave poorly toward that person. Don’t dismiss someone because she’s different from you.
Whenever you’re in doubt about your behavior, defer to the Golden Rule: Ask yourself, “Would I want someone to do this to me?” If the answer is no, don’t do it to anyone else. —KH