Harassment, rape and power in the Swing dance community

Some women had the courage to talk about the rapes suffered by some swing teachers during the Festivals

Luisa Betti Dakli
Luisa Betti Dakli
DonnexDiritti Network International Women Director

On October 10 the New Yorker published Ronan Farrow’s investigative report in which more than 30 women tell their stories of sexual assault and harassment by Harvey Weinstein, the powerful Hollywood producer. They are employees, costume designers, models, and great actresses who at the time of the allegations were at the beginning of their careers. Young women who, invited to his hotel room to discuss their work, became trapped in a tight space with a physically large and socially powerful man who could ruin their careers forever if they denied him. They are Rosanna Arquette, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Judith Godrèche, Heather Graham, Mira Sorvino, Kate Beckinsale, Eva Green and many others like Lysette Anthony, who denounced Weinstein for following her home and raping her, or Rose McGowan, to whom the producer proposed a $100,000 hush-money deal. Among them are two Italian women: Asia Argento and an actress who wanted to remain anonymous who has said she was raped in a bathroom of a Beverly Hills hotel in 2013.

Harvey Weinstein

With the criminal investigation underway in New York, London and Los Angeles, Weinstein has been expelled from the Academy, French President Macron has revoked his Legion of Honor award, and his friends have given mea culpas for knowing about his behavior but never speaking out. Producer Scott Rosenberg and director Quentin Tarantino have declared that while they were aware, they kept quiet as though it was something normal. This violence could happen anywhere, as Weinstein’s chauffer Mickael Chemloul told the “Sun” about assaults in the back seat of the car: Weinstein was “a man who was known as ‘the pig’ on the Côte d’Azur.” It’s a tornado that with the campaigns of #metoo, #quellavolteche and #balancetonporc — which invite people to tell their harassment and assault stories on social media – has brought to the forefront all that women have kept silent for so long in fear of being disbelieved, of being judged, of losing their jobs, of not being supported by their communities.

It’s a wave that in these last few weeks has swept across the United States where the director of Amazon Studios, Roy Price, was forced to resign after sexual harassment claims against him; Robert Scoble, technology expert, asked forgiveness on social media for his treatment of women; Fox News host Bill O’Reilly signed a sexual harassment settlement for $32 million; director James Toback was accused by 38 women; and on Wall Street Fidelity Investments fired two employees for harassment. And even if in Italy after the absurd victim-blaming campaign of Asia Argento, “guilty” for having immediately denounced the rape at age 21, the wave is weaker and there are still few actresses who have denounced using first and last names, the dams have now broken and nothing will be like it was before if all these woman begin to tell what really happens in their lives. And no newspaper has spoken about it but a crack has also formed in the magic world of swing, the dance of our great-grandparents that twisted through their smoky jazz halls and that is now reconquering the world with the help of thousands of young people.

A magical harmony interrupted this year — on January 17th — when Ruth Evelyn, a blues dance teacher from Boston, posted on her Facebook profile a shocking description of a 2014 night at Lindy Focus, a dance festival in North Carolina

“A man in a suit made eye contact,” Ruth says in the post. “It was Max Pitruzzella. He wandered towards me. I had admired his dancing, but it was hard to hear in the room, the bar it was crowded, so it didn’t seem that weird that he suggested we go to his room. He put on a song. We danced to it.” She continues: “He started kissing me, and I kissed back. He took off my shirt, and I hesitated, not sure that I wanted to be going this quickly with someone I really didn’t know. Then I noticed his wedding band. I said something along the lines of ‘Woah, you’re married.’ He said, ‘Yes, but for us it is fine.’ I said that I’m not sure that it is fine for me. He continued, when I heard someone at the door.

I didn’t want someone else to see me with my shirt off so I ducked into the bathroom. A minute later Max came into the bathroom

I said that I needed to go. When I tried to leave the bathroom he held the door closed, and wouldn’t let me out, keeping the door closed as I tried to leave. He said that I couldn’t just leave. I started feeling panicked. He finally opened the door, and pulled me into the room after him. He pulled his pants down, and pushed my head down. In that moment I was afraid. I wanted fight back or run, but he is stronger than me. In that quick, terrified moment though, I thought that maybe he would let me go with nothing worse happening if I just gave in and gave him a blow job without fighting back — so I gave in and did it.”

“I have not brought this up before now because I am afraid that people won’t believe me, that even the people who do believe me will not hire me, because they ‘don’t want drama.’ I did not report to authorities.” But after receiving a private message threatening to sue her for defamation, and hearing about other assaulted girls, Ruth decided to speak up, opening a door for other women. As a matter of fact, two days later, other stories of alleged sexual assaults appeared on the Facebook profiles of other dancers, all involving the French teacher considered one of the most important swing dancers in the world.

The first was on the FB page of Laney Barhaugh, where Jane Doe (a fake name) told her story of December 30, 2014

“I was 20 years old,” she writes. “It was my second Lindy Focus, and I was still new to the dance community. I met Max in the hotel bar. He approached me, and brought me a glass of wine. We spoke for a while, I asked for help understanding a dance step. He invited me up to his room, because the bar was crowded. He was a teacher. I trusted him, was a student in his class, and admired his dancing. Once we got to his room, he made me another drink, and we went over the footwork. I started to feel woozy, far drunker than I should have felt. He kissed me, and started to undo my dress. I remember hesitating, and saying that I didn’t feel well and should go but he held me by the arm. I don’t remember how he got me into his bed. I remember being incoherent and at this point, I was incapable of giving consent. He assaulted me without using a condom.”

The same day, Jo Hoffberg, an influential international swing dancer, made her FB wall available for anonymous stories and immediately posted Susan Doe’s story (another fake name), who met Pitruzzella at a festival in 2014. They drank together and spoke about dancing, and she was invited to try some blues dance steps. “We walked into his room, his roommate was in bed asleep,” Susan recounted. “So Max said, ‘Let’s dance in the bathroom.’ Why I didn’t say no to that, I don’t know. I remember that it seemed a bit strange, but honestly I trusted him. Once we were in the bathroom, he put on some music. We danced and we started kissing. It was nice — he made me feel he was interested in me. And then everything changed. Suddenly he pushed me against the sink, opened his pants, and pushed me down. I was so afraid even though I myself am pretty tall, he’s still taller and stronger… and he overpowered me.

I was too drunk to get my strength together and fight back so I gave in

After he came, he almost literally pushed me out and closed the door behind him. I was standing in the hallway, with cum on my face, not understanding what just had happened. I felt so dirty and disgusting – she says – I remember standing under the shower, crying until my friend got me out.”

Ashley Hill then spoke on FB about the Swing Jammerz Festival in Montpellier, France in 2015: “The Saturday night June 20th, I enjoyed the dance and evening so much that I felt disappointed when the dance had ended, and when Max Pitruzzella invited me to an after party I jumped at the opportunity. I had had a consensual experience with Max back in 2013 where he had kissed my neck — and so, after 2-3 minutes I was very tipsy and responding to Max starting to kiss me in the kitchen and not really realizing what was going on. He pulled me into a bedroom, His clothes came off and pushed me onto the bed, and started touching me.

I pulled his hand out before he could put them inside me. I am so thankful I managed to keep my pants on. His pants were off and he pushed my head down to him telling me to kiss his penis. I kept refusing and telling him I was hoping to see the man I loved the next day and I couldn’t do this. I kept trying to pull away but was growing increasingly frightened, I could tell he was starting to get annoyed because I then heard the most degrading words I’ve ever heard as a woman and human being in my entire life. He then took my hair and pushed my head down onto him. I said no countless times but I didn’t want him to rape me, so I did as little as I could for him to be satisfied so I could get out. I have never washed my mouth for so long in my life,” Ashley says. “I brushed my teeth for 20 minutes while I cried. The trauma was like a bomb that went off in my life and I am still picking up the pieces.”

But this is not over, because rumors are starting to circulate and it seems that the stories about raped or molested girls in the magic world of swing dance abound, and that the French teacher is not the only one involved. It’s about teachers of any age that — with the excuse of dancing — use their young students’ trust and their position in a way that could quickly transform in a sexual proposal. When the girls are not consenting, they don’t report, and most importantly they don’t speak with anybody, because they are afraid of not being believed or of being shamed or left out of the community. It’s a dynamic — according to the longtime dancers — occurring everywhere, but only a few teachers are trying to deal with the problem, with the help of musicians, singers, and only a few lindyhoppers. The biggest case shaking the swing community is the one about Steven Mitchell (born in 1954). Eight women accused the American master — a real legend of swing — of harassment and sexual violence.

The first is Sarah Sullivan. After eleven years she wrote on her blog ssullivan410 about meeting Steven Mitchell in San Diego when she was sixteen, and how she was flattered by the interest of a famous teacher

Sarah writes that he taught her to drink in secret, and that during a festival he got her drunk and brought her to an isolated place. “It’s pretty humiliating to think about. I remember making out with him (…) I was drunk and I was scared (…). At one point, Steven was on top of me and I felt like the situation was quickly escalating (….) I started flailing and pushing him until he got off of me. (…)The part of this memory that is most upsetting is what happened after. As we were walking back to the dorms, he grabbed my crotch. He held on to it and told me that he didn’t know what had happened to me that “fucked me up” so badly (…) and that I had started it. As a young person (…) engaging with an authority figure, I got the message that I was “fucked up” (…) That something was wrong with me (…) I internalized that message for years.”

Mitchell responds to this public statement without denying what happened, asking forgiveness and asserting not to be a sexual predator. He claims he had real feelings for the girl at the time. Reading about it, another dancer named Allison Cordner asked Steven to elaborate and wrote “Sarah’s story is my story”. Later on, Allison explains in a long video how she survived being raped by the American master in 2000, when she was eighteen. She is able to speak about her trauma only after fifteen years. Allison reads with a broken voice the letter she wrote on a piece of paper towel to her boyfriend Fred. She reads that she left Canada with her friend to go to a festival in order to meet their hero, Steven Mitchell. Once they got there, after a wonderful day, the teacher offered her a private lesson and then he raped her in the woods. It is a horrible story, in which Allison describes her feelings when she realizes she is bleeding, and she decides to go for a medical check because she is afraid of being infected by a violent and non-protected sexual assault.

This horror show goes on and also Heidi Salerno leaves a comment on Sullvan’s blog. She writes that in 2013 he gets her drunk, then assaulted her.

Fearing rape, she manages to escape and go to a toilet, where she vomits for hours. Then there came Clara Goodwin and Ramona Staffeld — a very well-appreciated dancer in the international scene — telling about the violence Steven Mitchell put them through. Ramona was interviewed by Ryan Shift on “The Track” podcast and it was shocking for the whole community. She told of being persuaded by her teacher to start a secret relationship when she was fourteen. He made her swear that was their secret. “I was tiny. I was a girl, and the attention of a teacher was gratifying for me. I lost my virginity,” she says. “It was like shock. It wasn’t violent so much because I was so terrified, I couldn’t fight back. I really thought I’d take this to my grave (…). I’m so grateful that Sarah paved the way (…) That the impossible becomes possible somehow, and now I am not afraid of talking about it.” After this scandal, Steven Mitchell disappeared into thin air. In spite of the community banning him, he is still celebrated as one of the stars of swing, to the point that immediately after all the testimonies, his portrait appeared in the cafeteria of the Studio Summer Hop in 2015. The drawing of Steven Mitchell — accused by eight women has hearts and signatures of Lindy hoppers. Meanwhile, a photo of several smiling French teachers with the background of his portrait was published on the internet.

Why, in spite of a wide expression of solidarity towards the brave women who told their stories, does this secondary victimization attitude towards them partly persist?

In regards to the allegations, some international teachers started to discuss the need for creating safe spaces and codes of conduct inside the swing dance community. These codes are now adopted in the USA, Canada, UK, Korea, Denmark, Australia, France, Austria, Israel, Germany, and Sweden. But in Italy, for months, people were questioning on social media the testimonies’ truthfulness, ending all the discussions with indifference, like the issue wasn’t a concern for our country at all. In Salsomaggiore on September 22, after disappearing for almost a year, Max Pitruzzella reappeared right here, in a public event. He was even photographed near Norma Miller — another legend of the swing community — who recently toured Italy with her “The Queen of Swing Tour.”

This episode fueled reactions all across the world, like singer Megan Lange’s of “Megan and Her Goody Goodies,” who publicly wrote: “If Max Pitruzzella or Steven Mitchell ever shows up at a venue where I am playing, I will stop.” And one from Jonathan Stout, one of the most important musicians in the swing dance scene, who said: “We will not attend or perform at any event where Max Pitruzzella or Steven Mitchell is present or involved.” But in Italy, the episode is alarming only a local teacher, Lucia Mazzanti, who tried both to signal the facts on social media and draft a sort of code of conduct that was overlooked by the Italian scene.

To this day, we discuss consent, women’s good faith, those “guilty” of exposing themselves with provoking clothes or behaviors, of speaking up only after years, of not denouncing, but never enough about the guilt of the men who acted with total impunity. This attitude victimizes survivors a second time. That is an additional violence, the fundamental reason of women’s silence, where their words are always less valuable than a man’s.

Asia Argento was forced in Italy to explain the details Weinstein’s violence, almost as she needed to justify herself for what she endured. She has been in these past few days the symbol of the secondary victimization, forbidden by law (Istanbul Convention ratified by Italy in 2013) but in fact still occurring through media, in the courts of law, at the police stations, on social media, everywhere.

Our is an unprepared society, soaked in stereotypes where if a woman is not beaten to death, or if she denounces sexual assault from a partner, an ex or a man she humored the advances, she was not a real victim and was probably consenting. Ours is a society that, if she tries to denounce later, or seeks community support, will be at risk of not being believed, being shamed, or having fingers pointed at her and virtually stoned. Maybe it would be better to stop asking why women who were subjected to violence from a man do not denounce, and why in Italy more than 90% is unreported: the answer is now finally clear.


Inquiry published by the Italian newspaper Corriere della sera



This is the english section of DonnexDiritti Network, that deals with International Human Rights matters, focusing on women and children. International Women is ran by the Journalist Luisa Betti Dakli, Human Rights Expert and DonnexDiritti Network Editor.

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