Content warning: this article contains mentions and descriptions of sexual assault


This past summer has been a reckoning for the ballet world, as two professional dancers filed a lawsuit alleging that they were sexually assaulted by a former teacher and mentor. Students and teachers alike reacted, arguing that further reform is necessary to prevent future assaults.

On July 28, two professional dancers filed a lawsuit against Mitchell Taylor Button, claiming that he had sexually assaulted and abused them. The defendant in the case, although not directly affiliated with Boston Ballet, has been involved with the dance community: Mr. Button has taught dance classes outside of Boston Ballet, and Dusty Button, his famous ballerina wife, is described as a “non-party co-conspirator” in the case. Ms. Button has over 300,000 Instagram followers and was a principal dancer at Boston Ballet until her employment there was terminated in 2017. The suit specifically claims that “the Buttons abuse their positions of power and prestige in the dance community to garner the loyalty and trust of young dancers.”

Though both plaintiffs are dancers, the alleged assaults occurred states apart: Gina Menichino was dancing at a studio in Tampa, FL, where Mr. Button was her teacher at the time of her reported assault. The other plaintiff, Sage Humphries, was part of Boston Ballet’s apprenticeship program, where Ms. Button, then a principal dancer with the company, introduced her to Mr. Button. The defendant would go on to allegedly sexually assault her regularly.

Although the defendant’s attorney did not reply to a request for a comment on the case by the time of publication, he has previously stated that the couple denies all the charges. Boston Ballet also declined to comment, but has publicly released a statement saying that the company “supports Sage Humphries who is bravely coming forward, sharing her experience to protect others, and seeking accountability and justice.”

“There will always be a hierarchy in business, and dance is a business,” said Margot Parsons, who has danced professionally in New York and Boston, has taught dance at Harvard, Boston College and Boston University and is the Artistic Director of DanceVisions, Inc. “The problem in ballet is compounded because of the physical side of the training and because young people turn their lives over to adults to guide them in learning the craft.” 

Student accounts supported Parsons’ argument that ballet’s focus on physicality can foster unhealthy dynamics. Ashley Reardon, a rising high school junior who has danced for 10 years at a small dance studio near Boston, vividly remembers a summer program teacher getting “way too close for comfort” to another student in the class without asking if he could correct that student’s technique.

Parsons also personally experienced a toxic teacher-student dynamic. As a young teenager, she met a teacher who attempted to correct dancers’ technique by holding lighted cigarettes under their hips. “I picked up my bags and left the class and never went back,” she recalled.

Yet teachers are not the only ones within ballet companies who have authority that can be abused: executives oversee entirethe companies. Thus executives, like teachers, have the authority to promote an environment in which dancers do not feel intimidated to report instances of sexual assault. Having danced at ballet companies for decades, Parsons argued that the director of any company “needs to be inclusive with everyone, and very open” in order to protect dancers.

Along with their lack of authority within companies, dancers are also often physically exposed in their everyday attire. Dress codes requiring dancers to wear relatively revealing leotards can make dancers, especially younger students, feel self-conscious about their physical appearance.

“When you’re confident in yourself you already have boundaries set and… know your own worth,” Reardon said. “And because you know your own worth you’re able to stick up for yourself.” Thus because the strict dress code that dance studios enforce decreases the confidence level of many students, those students become more susceptible to abuse from those in power.

Since news of the case has spread, Boston Ballet has implemented policies to hopefully deter potential offenders and protect dancers. An official statement on Boston Ballet’s website states that “recently, a ‘Take-Five’ has been developed and implemented where dancers may request a pause in rehearsal if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable for any reason.”

Additionally, Parsons suggested that further reforms might be necessary. Every company should have an accessible “human resource center where a person could go and be able to talk,” she said. At smaller dance studios, like the one that Reardon studied at, simply having a friendly employee in a reachable place such as a front desk could provide a safe space for dancers to share uncomfortable experiences, she said.

But Reardon remained optimistic that as sexual assault survivors come forward, it will empower victims to seek justice in previously unreported cases. As she said: “History always repeats itself…. people are going to start seeing [this case] and the word’s going to begin to spread and it will take its course and flower.”