The Conservatory as a Greedy Total Institution

By Clyde Smith (2001)

Revision of Paper Presented at the 30th Annual Conference
of the Congress on Research in Dance (1997)

This paper is part of my ongoing investigation into power relations in the dance classroom that reached a temporary culmination with my dissertation (Smith, 2000). The overall project utilizes a form of extreme case sampling (Patton, 1990) featuring interviews with former students of a dance conservatory known for the cruelty of its faculty. It began with my attempt to find explanations for why these students endured and often expected abusive behavior when first training professionally. That initial questioning resulted in a paper entitled “Authoritarianism in the Dance Classroom” which is included in a collection of works edited by Sherry Shapiro called Dance, Power and Difference (1998). In this paper, based on a previous conference presentation (1997), I explore themes from a group of interviews focusing on the dancers’ feelings that this training center, termed the “Conservatory,” was an enclosed isolated world that consumed their lives. I utilize the related sociological concepts of the “greedy institution” (Coser, 1974) and the “total institution” (Goffman, 1961) to consider implications for professional dance training more generally. I close by briefly discussing some of the possible implications of this study.

The interviews drawn on for this presentation were conducted with six women who attended the Conservatory as either high school or college students. All six left the Conservatory to continue their undergraduate training in university based dance programs. I quote directly from interviews with a woman I call “Catherine,” who attended the Conservatory in the late 1970s, and two younger women, called “Mo” and “Taylor,” who attended in the late 80s and early 90s. Catherine subsequently pursued an extremely successful performing career while Mo and Taylor are still training for their own anticipated careers.

The interviewees described the Conservatory as a place where their daily routine was institutionally established and required a near total commitment of their physical and emotional resources. The intensity of the training left little time for other than recuperative activities. Most of their personal lives revolved around fellow dancers and much time was spent discussing their teachers and other students. The uninviting community adjacent to the Conservatory encouraged students to confine their activities to the campus. Their understanding of dance was constrained by the visions of their teachers. Their sense of anything outside of the dance world was limited and often perceived as unimportant at the time.

This portrait of an all consuming training schedule and an enclosed world relate closely to aspects of both the greedy and the total institution. Lewis Coser developed his ideas regarding greedy institutions, which “make total claims on their members and which attempt to encompass within their circle the whole personality” (1974, p. 4), through study of organizations such as the Jesuits and the Bolshevik Party. Erving Goffman’s study of a mental hospital produced his concept of the total institution that “may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life” (1961, p. xiii).

Though I look at each concept separately, my aim is to bring both together in the hybrid of the greedy total institution. I use these concepts not to say that the Conservatory is a prison or an asylum or a cult, though I find the resemblances startling. Instead I am using these ideas in order to “unthink” (Bush in Morgall, 1993, p. 129) our taken for granted notions about the way things are so that we can more easily rethink how we go about educating dancers.

Goffman contrasts the total institution with what he terms “a basic social arrangement in modern society” in which “the individual tends to sleep, play, and work in different places, with different co-participants, under different authorities, and without an over-all rational plan.” For Goffman,

The central feature of total institutions can be described as a breakdown of the barriers ordinarily separating these three spheres of life. First, all aspects of life are conducted in the same place and under the same single authority. Second, each phase of the member’s daily activity is carried on in the immediate company of a large batch of others, all of whom are treated alike and required to do the same thing together. Third, all phases of the day’s activities are tightly scheduled, with one activity leading at a prearranged time into the next, the whole sequence of activities being imposed from above by a system of explicit formal rulings and a body of officials. Finally, the various enforced activities are brought together into a single rational plan purportedly designed to fulfill the official aims of the institution. (1961, pp. 5-6)

This description of the total institution is readily applicable to the observable social structure of the Conservatory. More telling perhaps is the lived experience of Conservatory students. Catherine stated,

It’s like being in a little prison, that school. There’s just a whole system when you’re in high school. You are regulated. You have certain hours that you need to be in the door. You have room checks. You have hall checks. You have the cafeteria that you ate at 3 times a day. The class. The schedule. It is a kind of emotional prison.

Mo told me about her schedule as a high school student in the modern dance department:

Well, it started out, eight o’clock was an academic, nine o’clock academic. Then ten o’clock I’d have technique, modern technique. Then eleven thirty I would have ballet technique. And then one I’d have lunch. Then two an academic, three an academic, four a dance class, five a dance class. And then dinner at six. And then we were expected to go back into the studios and work on what we had done in class that day. And then I go home and try to do my homework. The pressure is hard. It’s really hard to be that young and be on a schedule like that.

Goffman explains how the nature of power relations within the total institution are established upon initial entry:

Staff often feel that a recruit’s readiness to be appropriately deferential in his initial face-to-face encounters with them is a sign that he will take the role of the routinely pliant inmate. The occasion on which staff members first tell the inmate of his deference obligations may be structured to challenge the inmate to balk or to hold his peace forever. Thus these initial moments of socialization may involve an “obedience test” and even a will- breaking contest: an inmate who shows defiance receives immediate visible punishment, which increases until he openly “cries uncle” and humbles himself.  (1961, pp. 16-17)

While Goffman is addressing initial entry into the institution, Taylor told of a similar experience of her first encounter with a particularly brutal faculty member I call the “Teacher”:

This is my first exposure to modern ever. And I was thirteen and my first modern class and I’d heard horror stories about the Teacher and I was petrified. I mean we all were . . . We were all just scared to death of what he was going to be like. And we went in the class and I was doing something and I started tugging on the back of my leotard cause it started rising up in the back. And I pulled it out and he came up to me and he said, “If you touch your leotard one more time. I’ll pull it so far up your ass, I’ll split you in two like a chicken and make you bleed.” I never touched my leotard again. And then another girl that was in the class was doing the same thing and so he gave her a huge wedgie and made her wear it like that for the whole class. And this is sort of our introduction to modern.

Such events set th
e ongoing tone of training at the Conservatory as Mo revealed:

People are at different stages . . . They’re all very good but they come in at different points. And what they do is they break you down to nothing. I mean, after my first semester there I felt like I had lost all the technique that I had ever had. I felt like I could not dance at all . . . And they break you down mentally, I guess in a way you feel like that. And then what they do is they build you back up through the rest of your years there the way that they think that a professional dancer should be.

Dancers describe dance training at the Conservatory as always entailing much abusive behavior, usually verbal but occasionally physical. Yet they chose to stay and endure various hardships in part because they believed that the Conservatory would provide them with the necessary training to achieve their goals. In many ways, the Conservatory represented their dreams of being dancers. This belief is an example of the functioning of a greedy institution that Lewis Coser describes as “maximizing assent . . . by appearing highly desirable to the participants” (1974, p. 6).

Taylor pointed out that “they sort of make you think that that school is the begin all, end all first of all. And if you want to be anybody, this is the place to be.” But such beliefs were not simply illusions, as Mo explained one of her reasons for staying:

I saw that every time somebody graduated they had jobs like that . . . You think, well they had to be like me when they were here . . . So I guess that kept me going. And plus everybody that graduated there that I knew got jobs. I mean, good jobs. It’s almost like, if they can get me ready for that, you know. That’s what I really want to do so if they can really get me ready for it.

As students became accustomed to their environment, the Conservatory began to feel like their only place in the world. As Coser puts it, “being insulated from competing relationships, and from competing anchors for their social identity, these selected status-occupants find their identity anchored in the symbolic universe of the restricted role-set of the greedy institution” (1974, pp. 8-9).  One aspect of this process entailed being cut off from their former friends. Mo related that,

I had to grow up real fast there. Where I’d call my friends that I’d grown up with at home . . . and they’re like, oh, we ran around in my car last night and got drunk in the car. And I was like, let me just tell you about the day I had. My teacher called me a bitch today. I had the worst fight. And they could just not even comprehend anything that I was going through because they weren’t. I lost a lot of the friends that I had. Because we couldn’t really relate to each other. Because I was maturing a lot faster, well I had to. I was living away from home. They weren’t. And just being in that kind of situation. So that was hard.

Taylor concurred:

I knew I didn’t want to go back to the public school because I had changed too much to go back. I noticed that I didn’t really relate to my public school friends the same. And I think a lot of that was just the kind of environment, I had to grow up so quickly.

For Taylor this process occurred without her officially residing on campus:

Even though I was living at home, after like my first or second year I wasn’t really living at home anymore . . . I was rehearsing until 11 sometimes 12 [midnight] . . . and then coming back for class at 8:30 in the morning the next day.

Taylor’s situation supports the idea that the conditions of the Conservatory’s training as a greedy total institution applied whether the student was in residence or not. Remembering that such an institution demands one’s total commitment and cuts one off from the larger society, we can begin to think of the greedy total institution as a mobile, internalized state of being. What makes this hybrid concept even more useful is to extend it to the total life of the professional dancer from elite education to elite practice. Such an orientation is clearly suggested by Catherine as she reflects upon her life as a performer in relation to her experiences at the Conservatory:

I still think of that little room that I took class in every day in high school and think of it as an incubator. Or a greenhouse. Or a prison. And somehow that never left me. That intense room I’ve been living in for 17 years. 17 years I’ve put into working my butt off to be as good as I be and that took all of my stuff. I didn’t have any really successful relationships with other people because . . . traveling all around the world wasn’t really conducive for me to be in a relationship. I didn’t have that learning experience fully. There’s a lot I feel like I missed out on.

Catherine’s metaphor of the “little room” provides another way of understanding the mobility of the greedy total institution as we follow the dancer’s career from the Conservatory to the performing world. Mo has realized, though still training, that life as a professional dancer will be as consuming and restrictive as life at the Conservatory:

I have friends that have gone on and are in companies and stuff now. And you know it’s hard. You don’t make any money. You’re performing all the time. You don’t have a social life and all these things . . . And a lot of people that I’ve talked to that are in companies, they hate touring. That’s like the worst part of being in a company they say . . . There’s things like being on a plane all day and then getting off and having to perform in a few hours and things like that, that are real hard that make touring not so fun.

Catherine, though still in her thirties, was looking back at a life of enclosure. Though still a relatively young woman, Catherine’s reflexivity was deepened due to a major debilitating injury requiring surgery and a multiyear recovery process. When I spoke with her, she was sorting out alternate career possibilities and realizing she had little or no experience in anything other than dance. The greedy consuming of her life by dance left little possibility for other directions. This lack of alternatives brought on by an exclusionary education was also noted by Taylor:

It’s like a little world in its own. And I sort of lost touch with the world outside of that school. Because you’re there twenty four-seven. I didn’t know anything else. What else am I going to do? All I’ve done all my life is dance. I don’t know how to do anything else. You know? . . . I was talking to someone. I said, I’ve never even played a sport in my life. I don’t know how to play one sport . . . They train people to be stupid dancers in a way. There’s not even a typing course offered. There’s not a computer course. It’s like, this is the only avenue you have if you come to this school.

Such observations raise the question of how we train professional dancers, particularly when we know that the majority will not go on to reasonably paying performing careers. We must consider the possibility that dancers are impoverished by dance as a greedy total institution. Yet I also want to ask, does the experience of the Conservatory dancers suggest possibilities for re-envisioning dance training? Let me consider a few ideas and draw some conclusions while being clear about the fact that I am thinking my way into a problem rather than presenting finalized curricular proposals.

For example, we must recognize the pleasure in immersing oneself in the world of dance and in a total arts environment. Mo described such pleasure:

When I first got there it was like magic . . . because you were totally surrounded by artists. I mean you’re closed off and . . . you’re surrounded by very talented people. . . . You don’t get to take advantage of the other arts as far as classwise because you don’t have the time. But you know there’s always music going on everywhere or people always dancing . . . People all over the place stretching and classes goin
g on, like five classes, you can hear the pianist from each class. Cause there’s so many classes going on at once. Things like that are magic to me.

We might also look at how students of the Conservatory cope with stress. For Mo, coping strategies included finding friends outside the dance department:

I made good friends there but none of my friends were dancers . . . all the people in dance talked about was dance or people in the dance department or how fat you are or how this sucks or how that sucks. So instead of hearing about that all the time . . . I wanted to talk about something else when I went home at night. So I had friends that were visual artists and actors and singers and stuff. And that was nice. That was like an outlet for me. Even though I didn’t leave that campus, you know.

Mo also commented on some of the differences between the Conservatory and the “University” at which she now studies dance.

I finally realized that the [University] department is not bad. It’s just that they don’t baby-sit you here . . . [At the Conservatory] they make you take floor barre. They make you take body conditioning. They motivate you there . . . While here [at the University], I think that they just leave all that up to you if you really want to dance. They’ll give you classes and they’ll give you training. But they leave all that up to you, as far as getting yourself in shape and taking care of yourself and motivating yourself.

Taken together these statements, in relation to earlier comments, suggest that in an atmosphere of total immersion it would be better to loosen both internal and external boundaries that define and compartmentalize the total institution. For example, encouraging interaction between disciplines would help dancers relate their concerns to those of other students. Furthermore the rigidity and excessive demands of the curriculum must be challenged to undermine its greedy total aspects. Rather than controlling and monitoring every moment of the dancer’s training we must allow dancers more responsibility for their own education. To some degree, dancers are trained as if they are incapable of doing things for themselves. By giving them the benefit of the doubt and the resources and support necessary to accomplish their goals, we can begin to move away from this totally greedy notion of training and towards a more fruitful model of education.

For some who have responded to this paper in an earlier form, the Conservatory faculty are viewed as “bad” teachers as opposed to the apparently “good” teachers who have a more enlightened view of dance education. Of course, it is easy to identify outright abusive behavior, even in settings such as ballet or Graham technique where such teacher behavior is sometimes considered a mundane element of the traditional norm. Yet the next step of this investigation explores what happens when we begin to consider the ideas generated through consideration of the notion of the greedy total institution in the classroom of the “Caring Dance Teacher.”  However I must bring this particular writing to a close with the observation that as I discuss this work with dance educators, I increasingly discover that many people are reconsidering business as usual in the dance classroom, from the teaching of technique classes to the overall curriculum of dance programs. My hope is that my own unthinking of the assumptions that I encounter can be part of a larger rethinking of dance education.

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