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A group of girls go out after practice and don’t invite you. When you score a top award for your solo, you hear others whisper that you didn’t deserve it. After your worst day in rehearsal, another dancer corrects your technique in front of the entire cast.
Chances are you’ve seen things like this happen, to yourself or someone else. Maybe you’ve even acted this way toward others. In a high-pressure environment where dancers are often competing against each other to be cast in the best roles, jealousy and stress can drive girls to their cattiest. DS enlisted experts to get to the bottom of the mean-girl phenomenon.
Naming the Beast
Any action that hurts someone’s relationship with others—teasing, gossiping, spreading rumors or deliberately excluding someone—is called relational aggression. It can be as subtle as rolling your eyes or as overt as insulting someone’s appearance in front of others or behind her back.
Experts say that relational aggression is more common in girls than boys and peaks in middle school, though research as to why this is the case has offered a number of possible reasons. Dr. Cheryl Dellasega, author of Mean Girls Grown Up, says that relational aggression tends to be more common in activities where bodies are on display such as dance, swimming and gymnastics. This leads to comparisons, jealousy and self-esteem issues. Girls who are mean to others benefit by boosting their own self-esteem—they might get a laugh from others or bond with fellow dancers by excluding or insulting someone else.
How To Respond
If you’re the victim of mean comments or actions, immediately talk to someone outside the studio (a parent, an older sibling or a friend) about what happened and how it made you feel. “Come up with a plan for yourself including things you can do [next time],” says Dellasega. Some options are to walk away, say “that hurt my feelings” or make a joke.
The textbook response to bullying is to give an “I statement,” such as "I felt really upset when you insulted me in front of everyone.” In real life, though, that might not be the best approach, especially for teens, says Dr. Laura Martocci, a sociology professor at Wagner State University. “Oftentimes, bullies don’t care, [because] they’re trying to make you miserable,” she explains. “It’s also making [your] feelings totally contingent: ‘I feel bad when you do this, so you should stop doing that because I can’t feel good about myself.’”
Instead, take control of the situation by reacting in the best possible way that suits you. If you’re shy, confidently ignoring mean comments can be the most comfortable response. Using sarcasm—like saying, “you don’t have to blow out my candle to make yours brighter”—allows you to stand up for yourself and turn around the situation. Throwing back another insult, on the other hand, will only put a bully on the defensive and escalate the situation.
If you’re confrontational, try turning your enemy into a friend by talking to her outside of the studio one-on-one, suggests Dellasega. Explain that her behavior bothers you, and ask if there is something you’ve done to upset her. Tell her that you’d like to try to work together instead of against each other, and keep the situation neutral by asking her what she thinks you both could do to change things. After she responds, work together to come up with some guidelines for the future. For example, if she has something to say about your performance, ask her to speak to you individually and directly, rather than talking to others about it.
When Enough Is Enough
When another dancer’s behavior is affecting your happiness in class, it’s time to talk to your teachers so they can address the behavior or mediate a group discussion. “Your teachers should address things as they happen—[something] as simple as eye-rolling—with that person immediately after class,” says Diane Scarcella, a regional director for The Ophelia Project, a national organization that educates teens about relational aggression.
If there’s a widespread problem with relational aggression in your school or studio, you’ll need the leadership of instructors to change the culture. Teachers and coaches should demonstrate appropriate behavior themselves and make it a school-wide standard.
Start traditions that promote respect like applauding each other after class and making an effort to genuinely congratulate fellow dancers on a good performance or competition. Instructors at Linda Dies Dance Unlimited in Warren, PA, worked with Scarcella on a studio-wide project to curb meanness. They’ve adopted the motto “It’s cool to be kind,” and posted a mission statement including standards of respect, tolerance and understanding near the entrance of the studio. A lobby bulletin board displays dancers’ positive achievements outside of dance, and they’ve also made it a classroom rule that dancers are not to correct each other; it’s the teacher’s job to give corrections, no matter how experienced the students.
Jealousy and insecurity are major contributors to the mean-girl phenomenon. In the dance world and the real world, there will always be someone who is better than you at something, so learn to accept your natural feelings of envy. “There’s nothing wrong with looking at another dancer and saying, ‘Wow, she can do that better than I can.’ It’s what we do with [that knowledge] from that point on,” says Dr. Cheryl Dellasega. Instead of reacting to envy by putting others down, channel your envy in a positive direction. Harness those feelings to motivate yourself to work harder at achieving your own goals. Or, ask that fellow dancer to share the secrets of her success with you.
For more on relational aggression, check out these websites:
Take the Lead
Dr. Cheryl Dellasega gives straight answers on how best to react in two common studio scenarios.
Q. What should I do if the meanest girl of all gets the lead role?
A. Ask yourself, did she get [the role] because she’s mean or because she’s talented? Having people recognize her abilities is going to make her feel more secure and decrease that mean behavior. However, if she gets something that everyone else wants and people treat her badly because of it, it may reinforce her thoughts of “See, I’m right. None of them are my friends anyway.” It’s how you respond that determines your future—if you’re going to be mean and nasty to her, then [her] mean behavior is likely to continue. If you’re the bigger person and say, “Hey, congratulations,” or “I know you worked really hard to get that,” it may improve your relationship with her. Be gracious; this scenario will repeat itself throughout life. It’s important to learn that people are always going to get things that you want, and they aren’t necessarily going to be the nicest people.
Q. What should I do if I get the lead and others are talking about me behind by back?
A. Win them over by helping them feel secure and recognizing that they are talented too. If you see that other girls are talking about you and are resentful of you, make a point of approaching them one-on-one and saying, “Listen, I wouldn’t be where I am now without your support. I just want to thank you for being a part of this group, because we all work together to make everybody look good.”