We are a unified network and long-term community of dancers who have worked extensively with Diego Piñón through Body Ritual Movement workshops, residencies and performance events both in Mexico and the United States. We are a diverse group that includes Mexican, American, Latinx trans, cis-women and their allies, people of color and their allies, non-binary people and their allies, gender transgressive men and their allies, LGBTQ people and their allies, assault survivors and their allies…
Recently, another longtime student/organizer/colleague of our shared teacher published a blog post, shared on Facebook, entitled Misogyny in the Dance World: Are We Listening?. We do not intend to ignore this woman’s voice, nor that of any woman, as we honor the article’s expression of pain and suffering. However, we think her decision to frame these grievances inside the popular current of the #metoo movement grossly misrepresents Mr. Piñón as well as his and our collective dance training practices. After reading and discussing her post at length we agreed it requires further clarification and context. We would also like to frame this discussion more generally within the following propositions concerning dance and gender:
- Using dance to explore internalized dynamics of gender and power can provide a pathway for each of us to investigate deeply and, in many cases, to heal from gender-related trauma.
- Through dance we can express our own experiences of gender, be they feminine, masculine, transgender, or nonbinary.
- Our dance, however it manifests, can be charged with a deep reverence for the divine feminine in order to help bring balance to the oftentimes hyper-masculinist world around us.
RESPONSES TO THE ARTICLE:
Some of the issues and accusations raised in the aforementioned post prompted several members of our community to share comprehensive personal statements on social media. These have been archived HERE [link to read-only google doc, needs to be organized]. Below we would like to address a few specific items that we collectively agreed warrant greater context:
*All bullet points that follow throughout are quoted EXACTLY as they appeared in the aforementioned article.
1. The term “Guru”
- This man was regarded more as a “guru” than a dance teacher, Never question the guru.
- If one wished to attain mastery in this art form, one needed to comply with his demands and “submit” to him. Any dissent was met with the ultimate pronouncement that our egos were in need of submission.
- Our ego was always a target, but the teacher’s ego was never in question.
While Diego is certainly a unique teacher who has woven his experiences with butoh teachers from Japan with his own shamanic traditions from Mexico, he has never made any claims of gurudom. “The ritual work I did with Diego gave me a new reverence for myself, others and the power of dance. I don’t think it was his intent to become a guru” stated one longtime female student of Diego’s. While the work often brings participants to heightened spiritual and emotional states of consciousness, these are always spoken about as accessible through one’s own “calling” and the power of togetherness that can be achieved through any group coming together with deep intention. In fact, his guidance could be viewed as an antithesis to the “guru” model, as it reinforces the importance of everyone finding and following their own path and inner guidance. Diego’s facilitation is more focused on creating the space for people to find their own keys to their own creativity and path, and stresses the importance of finding one’s own ways of cultivating it within one’s own life and communities.
Diego certainly takes an active role to create and to hold a very high energy in a focused container. In a way, he “demands” a certain respect for this “sacred space.” As one woman stated, “This requires discernment and a very active form of love – a willingness to risk getting in close with people and confronting their habits, when necessary. Diego is willing to take that risk. I have not come across many people who will. I have found Diego to be an exceptionally thoughtful and generous teacher. I’m grateful to be able to trust him.”
The ideas of submission or surrender and the challenging of the ego are very common in Diego’s work as well as butoh in general. But as one woman stated, “I don’t think Diego meant “submit” to HIM, but to losing our egos in the dance, a standard practise in butoh.” It is the cultivation of subtle and profound levels of authenticity and energetic transmission that draw many of us to butoh and Diego’s work. This kind of “mastery” is no small task and takes a certain vigilance from not just Diego, but from the group as a whole. As another woman saw it, “[Diego] holds his students to high standards of truth-telling and honest expression, and I have no doubt he holds that same standard of honest self-reflection and accountability for himself. Diego teaches this commitment to integrity, and, in my experience, he lives what he teaches. I’ve seen him again and again ask for feedback, sit with his students and invite reflection, and collectively envision a better world.”
2. Punishing and Violent Exercises
- He uses methods that feel unsafe. We were sometimes pushed to the limit, and asked to take part in unconventional “exercises” such as flagellating each other with branches.
- The exercises were often punishing and violent. Ankles and arms were broken.
- These exercises had little to do with the dance and perhaps satisfied his unconscious need to dominate.
- He tells his students that their discomfort is for their own good
Amongst us, we are aware of two incidents which resulted in broken bones. Only one of these occurred inside of the training (the other after the workshop). In reaching out to the woman who fractured her ankle while training, we received this response, “I’ve only been to Mexico twice, but participated in many of his workshops in Chicago. When I was injured he took me to the hospital with other friends that came with. He was nurturing & the next year he had me do my own dance at the site of my accident to release the energy. It was very cathartic. The person the blogger is describing doesn’t sound like the teacher I’ve seen and experienced.”
There is no denying that Diego’s work is physically intense and demanding. For example, his workshop descriptions from 2002 included statements such as: “Warning: be prepared to take emotional and physical risks; Very High Physical Level; Continued pushing of physical limits.” At times, Diego brought a quality of “tough love” to certain situations. As the term implies, it came from a place of care and honoring our higher potential, just as many of our other great teachers do. Yet this is an aspect about the work which so many of us appreciate. One woman expressed this appreciation by saying, “I miss the days when I woke up from his workshops with every muscle of my body aching. They were intense. They were not punishing in the sense of the word she means. Nor violent. They were exploring the mind/body/emotional-body relationship, trying to get at the core of our common humanity through release. Every dancer, every athlete, every person must know their own limits. Diego does not infantilize anyone. I wouldn’t work with him (or anyone else) if he did. I never felt as anything other than his equal. And I’ve never known him as being anything but humble, respectful and passionate in the workshop setting.” Obviously, these exercises have EVERYTHING to do with theatre and butoh, and are similar to other exercises in butoh and physical theatre. We never witnessed Diego using his leadership role to dominate others.
When injury/illness occurs, Diego and the group offer a sense of caring towards the student, which includes offering tinctures and homeopathic medicines to individuals who feel they might be getting sick, herbal teas and chinese medicines to support people with stomach pain or digestive issues, or when needed, taking an individual to a traditional, homeopathic or allopathic doctor. Although it is important for everyone to stay engaged in the workshop to support the collective process, if someone needs a rest or a break, they are supported to do so.
One woman remembers her experience when she fell ill in 2015 during the December Intensive: “Diego asked me to rest, but to stay close so that I could still feel and participate in the energy of the workshop. He gave me plant medicine and Chinese herbs from his personal supply, and at one point during the day sent me up to his room above the dance studio to rest and sleep. He tended to me throughout the day, and, respectfully, made sure I was cared for both energetically and physically. By the following day I was replenished and able to continue to dance. I felt honored and cared for by him and the other participants.”
3. Subjugation of Women
- On average, these workshops were comprised of 80% women. Very early on, I started to notice that this teacher tended to publicly humiliate the women in the workshop, never the men.
- Angry tirades and inappropriate personal comments were not uncommon.
- Women were called “angry wombs” and “empty wombs”. Women were told to be supportive of male students while they were often yelled at and humiliated by this teacher.
- Inappropriate, angry personal comments towards me reoccurred over the course of years. I was chastised for being “invisible”, while being told that I reminded him of his sister, and mother. Dating advice was yelled at me during group exercises; I was called “self indulgent” publicly for being in severe pain from menstrual cramps.
Body Ritual Movement training has prompted many of us to discover a divergent gender identity and/or to dance deeply through the realm of gender in a transformational way. For many of us, this work specifically has helped us to confront and to heal embodied trauma from gender-related abuse. For all, it has inspired a devotion to the feminine and to our feminist approaches to community building and dance-making.
The ratio of male to female in Diego’s workshops varies depending on the city, the venue, and who is coordinating and recruiting participants. For example, only women are involved in one organizer’s group, so these workshops had a higher ratio of women. The last three workshops in NYC, coordinated by another organizer, had an approximate 50/50 ratio of men to women.
Body Ritual Movement is a practice that encourages us to explore the spectrum of our experience as multifaceted beings, often using rigorous trainings and explorations that include the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual bodies and can be very challenging on all these levels. But throughout our countless experiences working with Diego in the US and Mexico, we have witnessed him facilitating in a way that applies equally to the entire group, regardless of their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or ethnicity. While the work can be very personal, the invitation is for all to find our own limits and edges. One woman shared, “I never noticed any discrimination between the sexes. I felt he was on everyone’s case equally and supporting us all at the same time.”
The blogger at one point claims being forced to dance through terrible cramps. Being a woman in the movement world has its challenges, for example, when the body is in cycle. A female student remembered this particular workshop and shared her experience: “I fetched Diego who massaged the bloggers feet and offered her a homeopathic tincture. I stayed with her for comfort as the workshop continued on. We eventually decided to return to join the group. During the rest of the workshop I did not witness angry tirades or inappropriate personal comments. What stood out to me was a moment when Diego opened a particular discussion around the importance of the creative act of an artist being as valuable as the act of giving birth. He emphasized his belief that women have a special capacity to channel this energy creatively and to effect change in the world. If anything I have always felt Diego honoring the feminine with a deep reverence.”
Regarding a different workshop, this same student also shared: “I had recently had a mastectomy and my friend was also attending the workshop while pregnant. From the beginning Diego gave us explicit permission to take breaks as we needed. Like many movement classes, at the beginning of the workshop students sign a liability release acknowledging their personal responsibility to take care of themselves both mentally and physically. Although Diego often pushes us, he also invites self awareness, self-care and respects individual limits.”
4. Economic Exploitation
- We were asked to clean the teacher’s yard, even build shelves for him. Under the guise of receiving “private teaching”, I spent hundreds of hours working for free for this man, either building his student base or facilitating his work in the United States. I supported his green card application. Built his press kits. Left him my apartment on occasion. Counted his money. Recruited students. Yet never received any private teaching. I was told that money was not important, and that it was a great honor to support him.
- He underhandedly over saturated our niche market by booking several workshops around the same time with different organizers, without any regard for the conflicts he created. When I reached out to him, he refused to discuss the situation and went unresponsive.
- I shared my experience with other workshop coordinators who are still bringing him to the US. My story of abuse was ignored for the most part. Worse, I was blamed for this “rift” with the teacher that “made everyone uncomfortable.”
- One organizer said to me: If this is true, it is unacceptable”. “If” is the equivalent of “see no evil, hear no evil
A number of us included on this statement co-facilitated the application process for Diego’s visa. We understood that there was no requirement to do so, and that it was our choice. We wanted to support the application process for our own ease in bringing Diego to the United States to teach according to our timeframe/scheduling. As for lodging, presenters of any international artist’s work find housing per the artist’s contract, as was Diego’s contract during his US workshops. If one offered his/her apartment in order to fulfill this contractual obligation, that would be of their choice and freewill and also saved on commercial lodging costs for the organizer.
In Mexico, a workshop often concluded with a presentation to the village and larger community. As the performances happen all over the property, preparations involve not only cleaning the studio, but also the various outdoor stages and community areas. These preparations are also used as a meditative training to focus and to ready everyone for dancing.
The blogger claimed that Diego “underhandedly over-saturated our niche market by booking several workshops around the same time with different organizers, without any regard for the conflicts he created.” The reality is that we who have organized have worked together for decades to ascertain that two or more workshops in the same metropolitan area always were coordinated amongst the different presenters to share costs (airfare, lodging) and resources. In addition, the other workshop mentioned was only a possibility, still in the stages of dialogue, in which all organizers, including the blogger, were included prior to decisions made. Yet the blogger wrote, “When I reached out to him, he refused to discuss the situation and went unresponsive.” In fact, direct communications were taking place with the blogger through email. Day by day the blogger escalated her demands for urgent resolution. When there was difficulty in scheduling a skype meeting because the area had unreliable internet, during preparations for an intensive international workshop, the blogger severed communications. This decision to stop dialogue on her part was actually in direct response to an email from Diego and his assistant that offered multiple possible times to meet on skype even though, as known to the blogger, Diego was involved in a complicated schedule of new student arrivals during the international workshop held in Tlalpujahua every year on the same dates. The blogger clearly stated, “If you choose to do a workshop with another organizer in New York [other] than [with blogger’s group] and be in competition with my business, that is a breach of our partnership as far as I am concerned.” This was perceived as a movement towards an exclusivity that Diego and his other presenting collaborators were not willing to accept. No artist/s would find possible such demands requiring work limitations in a major city for the arts.
It is important to note that Diego does neither group therapy nor is he anyone’s psychotherapist. And, yet, like people in these roles, he’s especially vulnerable to projection and blame as his workshop students move big emotions and body memories. He’s thus also responsible to respond. For decades and to the present, enrolling and interested students for Diego’s workshops receive promotional and enrollment statements reflecting the intensity of the work and they are asked to sign liability waivers/acknowledgement. As organizers, we also add our own customized waivers to address the particular needs of our communities, thus creating a safer space with clearer expectations about what to expect from Diego and what to expect from ourselves. An ongoing discussion and examination of what works best enables one’s community to thrive and sets the stage for everyone to take more personal responsibility for their experiences, for their statement of needs and for the creation of space/time to discuss what’s working and what’s not working during and after the workshops. We are all committed to continue making space for this and updating the ways in which we do so in relationship to varying circumstances and evolving paradigms.
We also acknowledge that the societies in which we live are riddled with sexism. It’s in “the air we breathe.” It’s real and pervasive and no one escapes its effects. To heal from it will be a painstaking yet valuable process, because it will bring us (people of all genders) closer! We share our voices not to shut other voices down, but in the hopes that we will stay together through the messy feelings—the rage and heartbreak and humiliation—and listen to one another. Ultimately we want one another, and we need one another to be able to grow and transform. If we pit ourselves against one another, we will miss this chance, and that would be a shame!
It is clear how deeply we value the work Diego has continued to offer for so many years. More than just the work itself though, it is about a living web of connections—a community—that we wish to nurture as it nurtures us, and all those that it has the potential to benefit. This is why it is so important for us to give context and another perspective for the previous claims. It is the larger community’s right, as well as those new to the work and community, to have access to this information. This is the primary purpose of this statement. Many of us are artists, teachers, and organizers and it is important to continue to have dialogue with Diego and each other about how to continue to keep the containers for this kind of work both safe and challenging during these very tumultuous times. It is also clear that to keep the work evolving there can be no single stamp of approval or grand tribunal overseeing everyone. It takes our grass-roots efforts with the courage to speak up, to listen and to take action in the ways we can. In this sense we find no fault in the fact that the blogger chose to share her larger concerns in relationship to butoh, to the dance world and even to Diego, but rather in the way that she chose to present them. Her claims about Diego and this work were taken out of context so blatantly that they border on defamation, rather than serving as a platform to promote useful and meaningful criticism, dialogue and exchange.
Julie Becton Gillum
Anastazia Louise Aranaga