Anna Malitowska: Dancers’ Professional Ethics

By Anna Malitowska


Moral values and norms pertain to dance as to any other organized, communal human activity. Just as any other activity encountered in public space, dance can fall within the sphere of interest of interest of ethics. In Peter Singer’s apt words, our contact with ethics is unavoidable, since everything we do and do not do can become the subject of moral evaluation. Each decision in a dancer’s personal and professional life can, therefore, be morally evaluated and considered from the ethical point of view. 

However, in contrast to other cultural areas, so far scientific discourse has devoted very little attention to professional dance ethics. Even less has been said about the education of dancers in the field of ethical competence and decision making on the basis of ethical rules and values. It is also striking that such competencies are silently taken for granted, for example in the case of parents entrusting dancers with their children, or when dancers, mainly due to their achievements in dance competitions, are almost automatically accepted as arbiters and judges. They are, in that manner, given authority not only on technical abilities but also on ethical skills, i.e. making decisions for the good of others – students, competition participants, friends, and fellow dancers. 

We assume, then, that dancers are in the possession of sufficient ethical competencies to decide in morally dubious situations and to react to the threats present in the world of dance.

That world, which encompasses both art and sports, is becoming commercialized and is subject to the negative aspects of that phenomenon. If not today, then, probably, in the near future dancers will have to face corruption, doping, the cult of champions, and similar problems. Even now, although presumably to a lesser degree, a dancer needs the ability to withstand the not so rare opportunity of taking dishonest action for their own benefit. Is that ability not required when a dancer considers having lessons with a person who is known to later judge that dancer in a competition? Can a dancer properly react to a situation of unequal chances, for example when judges are partial because of their emotional bonds with particular dancers or other judges? Does a dancer reflect on threats such as exclusion or discrimination in a competition, for example, when the organizers favor the participants and judges of a certain federation over others? Are dancers capable of appreciating not only their own, but other dancers’ work, of respecting their competitors and even of supporting them, also at the expense of their own temporary interests?

Ethical reflection on dance is clearly necessary, especially when dancing is not only someone’s hobby, a private activity, but when it is a profession, a public activity subject to public evaluation consequent upon the demands society places upon such professional practice.

The remarks we formulate below concern the ethics of the dance profession. They will apply in a situation when a dancer can no longer treat dancing as a merely personal and private matter, when he or she should consider moral values and duties relevant to dance, as a representative of that profession. Dancing is a serious matter, as the poet Paul Valèry said. That is how we will treat it in this article.

A few words about morality and ethics

The words ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ are in common and quite frequent use. We apply them to attitudes and values, actions, motives, intentions, personality traits, and ideals. We use the words in reference to individuals, social groups, and institutions. What is ethics and how should we understand morality?

The term ‘ethics’ is of Greek origin. It is derived from the word ethos. In general, ethos meant a place in which one could feel “at home”, in which certain habits and customs were observed. The term ‘morality’, in turn, is of Latin origin. The words mos, mores referred to established customs of a given community. Initially, then, the two terms had a similar meaning. They were applied to deep-rooted, accepted principles, norms, and habits of a community, which determined what should be done and what should be avoided.

In time, though, the understanding of the two terms changed, as philosophers started a discussion about whether all that is called a “good” practice really deserves that name. They began to observe and analyze customs and to search for the criteria of “proper” and “right” behavior.

That was the beginning of ethics in contemporary understanding of the term. Nowadays, the relationship between ethics and morality is that of theory and practice. Ethics is the name for the theory, various concepts and ethical stands; morality is practice, a “part of life”, what we do on an everyday basis. Ethics, then, is reflection on morality as the whole of our attitudes and moral convictions. It points to the fact that not all our moral views are right and appropriate in every situation. It therefore appears whenever our common beliefs and intuitions require further reflection and a certain correction.

What is professional ethics?

We all have moral beliefs. In the nearest environment we usually do not hold differing opinions with respect to values and ideals. Even if we are not always faithful to those beliefs, we agree that they are important and essential. General ethics is interested in those beliefs, values, and ideals.

Professional ethics comes into view when we start to ponder about the principles of working in a certain profession, when we realize that society has some specific expectations regarding the representatives of a profession, and that it demands ethical attitudes and behavior from them. For that reason, professional ethics attempts to answer the question who a person working in a certain profession is and who that person should be.

Professional ethics refers to professional morality, that is the practice of a profession, in the following manner:

  1. it studies professional morality, first and foremost it observes and analyzes moral behavior of the representatives of a professional group in situations typical and atypical for that profession;
  2. it evaluates and normalizes professional practice, primarily, then, it answers the questions what the representatives of particular professions should view as valuable and how they should act.

The relationships between the two types of reflection are such that knowledge about actual professionals and real situations in which they work day by day is necessary for recommending, ordering, and prohibiting things to their professional group. Taking into account both levels or tasks of professional ethics, namely, the study and normalization of professional practice, we can conclude that professional ethics comprises moral convictions related to the practice of a given profession, considered to be binding on account of the knowledge about that profession.

Moral convictions concerning morally appropriate professional practice can, but do not have to, be written. They are often collected as codes of professional ethics. Those codes are formed especially for professions called professions of public trust.  That name is applied to socially important professions. Representatives of those professions – including doctors, lawyers, teachers, officials – are called professionals, from the Latin word professo – to profess, to publicly confess, to lecture. Codes of professional ethics inform us about what is expected of us when we work in a certain profession of public trust. They show us the difference between the private and the public area of our life; in the latter we have to live up to certain requirements.

Professional ethics can apply to any profession. Every profession has a wider or narrower field of moral requirements pertaining to its representatives.

Professional ethics involves adjusting commonly accepted moral requirements to specific situations and professional tasks of particular groups. All ethical norms we consider to be basic are realized in particular social situations, also professional ones.

The non-homogeneous character of professional ethics

When we write about social expectations with regard to professionals, we emphasize the social and communal character of morality. Indeed, moral rules are not the property of an individual, they are what individuals can find themselves in and what they assimilate in the course of socialization and education. Notwithstanding, morality has an individual aspect. That element of morality is linked with subjective and reflective handling of moral norms and regulations: one can try to understand and analyze them, and thus to distance oneself from them, to later criticize and even question them.

Principles of professional ethics expressed in various codes serve, then – with respect to two moral dimensions, the social and the individual – two functions. On the one hand, they build the atmosphere of social trust and publicly justify adopted attitudes. On the other hand, they are a type of conscious and voluntary self-control of an individual representative of a certain profession.

Moreover, principles of professional ethics can assume various forms. They can constitute a set of values which become important objectives within a profession. Professional ethics can also be aretological, i.e. reflect on virtues (Greek arete – virtue) or character predispositions, as well as character traits desired by professionals. Codes of professional ethics are very frequently sets of duties, therefore they are called deontological codes (from the term deontos, Greek – duty). Finally, as professional ethics is based on an analysis of problem situations occurring in professional practice, it can lead to a formulation of a set of guidelines helpful in solving moral conflicts.

It is in the last perspective, i.e. ethical reflection on moral issues, that values, virtues, and duties turn out not to be mutually exclusive points of reference for an ethicist but rather complex and interrelated aspects of moral reflection. They are important orientation points in the understanding, analysis, and solving of morally difficult situations in professional practice.

Values in dance

“Dancing is an art because it is subject to rules”, said Voltaire. That statement reveals the consciousness of a fundamental tension between values important to a dancer. The tension is between, on the one hand, the inner independence of every artist, the desire to free oneself from all restrictions, free self-expression, unbounded creativity, and, on the other hand, respect for rules and criteria on the basis of which every work of art, including dance (a particular “act” of dancing) can be judged and evaluated. It is also the tension between each dancer’s individuality and non-individual standards, something that can be called the “truth” of dance itself, in which a single creative act is only a part, even if a significant one, of truth.

That tension gives rise to other values which should be particularly treasured by a dancer. On the one hand, freedom is followed by individuality, variety, and diversity. If we value freedom, we give others the right to use it, and so we give other artists the right to speak with their own voice. More than that – we perceive the value of multiplicity and variety of those voices or creative acts. Like any artist, a dancer should be a champion of freedom, which entails an openness to plurality of beliefs, worldviews, perspectives, ideals, preferences, and needs.

On the other hand, if we accord another person the right to speak, express oneself, and create, at the same time we accord the person a certain fundamental right due to the subjectivity of their being. But that also means that we cannot demand any special treatment for ourselves or for others only on the grounds that we are subjects with the right to self-expression, because that right applies equally to everybody. Special treatment has to be gained. No-one can receive praise or a reprimand, an award or a punishment only by reason of using their own freedom or the right to a creative act. They can only be received for the work. The work, in turn, is evaluated on the basis of certain criteria, such as effort, engagement, and activity put by an artist into his or her creation.

At this point we get to another value, as vital as freedom and creativity. Judging a dancer and his or her work is a matter of justice, a just evaluation of events taking place on the dancing floor, of just and honest competition consequent on respect for criteria of evaluating, comparing, and awarding dancers and their dance.

Dancers’ orientation toward, on the one hand, freedom and justice, i.e. the right to creativity and self-expression, and, on the other hand, a just evaluation of creative acts, is the manifestation of every dancer’s responsibility for dance and its positive image, its esthetic, artistic, but also ethical quality.

A dancer’s Arete

Dancers often talk about their passion, disinterested love of dance, as the basic motivation for embarking upon the tedious trudge of exercise, training, and competition hardships. The counterpart of that passion in the field of professions is the idea of a vocation. Talking about passion one betrays a consciousness of one’s predispositions, preferences, and needs, namely, one’s likes and desires, and objects valued enough to devote oneself to them and develop in that direction. Similarly, a proper feeling of a vocation to enter a certain profession is not possible without feeling the particular value of one’s work and, at the same time, without rationally evaluating oneself as a candidate for a worthy representative of that profession.

That sort of experience, consisting of recognizing one’s vocation and mastering one’s skills so that one becomes an example for others, was called ‘virtue’ (arete) by ancient Greeks. In their understanding the term included both a kind of noble motivation and a normative objective of all effort, i.e. a certain quality of a person, a person’s distinguished psychological and physical features. Herodotus wrote: “It is not for a monetary prize that Greeks compete with one another, but for virtue”, and Pindar put it as follows: “Virtue arete (…) is nobleness and wisdom which gives sportsmen self-command and demands honest competition because only that does not provoke gods’ envy”. Naturally, arete as a skill and an ability, as well as an example for others, could be recognized and achieved not only by a sportsman. Virtue can become a normative point of reference and a distinguishing factor of every person or a social group, determining the demands one has to meet, both with regard to others and – most importantly – to oneself.

What is the nature of a professional dancer’s arete ? Is it, to an extent, a moral skill? The question about skills in a discipline is a question about criteria according to which we can evaluate someone. Can we, then, evaluate a dancer in moral categories? A dancer who works hard because of a wish to win in a competition, or who hones his or her technique as a source of income, does not yet deserve moral praise. That is only gained when the dancer has special motivation, such as realizing moral values, i.e. values oriented toward the good of another person. It is also the case when a dancer’s aspirations are comprised of morally laudable qualities.

Professional dancers can be evaluated in moral categories to that extent, at least, to which they are sportspeople, as such, they should hold in high regard values which are necessary for honorable sports competition. A set of those values has traditionally been called fair play. The idea of fair competition contains many morally significant elements, such as respecting rules, accepting a judge’s authority, accepting the principle of equal opportunity, respecting the enemy, not making use of chance advantage, and a competitor’s modesty and good manners.

Only a human being, as a psychosomatic unity, is capable of doing sports and, similarly, of professional dancing. A dancer’s activity demands both physical – somatic and kinetic – capacity, and spiritual – psychological and mental – capacity. At this point cognitive-intellectual and volitional-ethical abilities intersect. That imposes a special kind of duty of self-improvement of a person as a psychosomatic unity, as well as a duty of supporting others in a similar, bodily-spiritual development of personality.

A dancer’s duties

Obviously, one cannot expect the choice of a profession to be always motivated by a feeling of vocation. We can become a professional dancer for the mere want of profit, good payment, or to satisfy the need to outdo others, i.e. for not so much immoral as amoral reasons (i.e. for reasons not subject to moral qualification).

Nevertheless, the choice of a profession, even without a vocation, is never without a special kind of duty. Anyway, it should be made alongside a recognition of values and demands incumbent on that profession. Fulfilling professional duties may not, in such a case, be justified by one’s own moral expectations, but by social expectations. In other words, it may result not from moral values personally perceived to be important but be due to values important to others whose regard for them is high enough to pay for the work as long as it realizes those values.

Nothing, then, frees a professional dancer from the obligation to meet professional requirements, such as the duty to improve one’s skills or care for the image of the profession and for the reputation of its representatives, which means building trust in and social prestige of the profession and the related professional group.

Nothing frees such a dancer from the duty to respect other professional dancers, including their freedom to create and fairly evaluate the range of individual realization of that freedom, that is to evaluate creative acts.

A professional dancer is still obliged to support and actively help others in the realization of their professional goals, as that is a requirement of professional solidarity which forms the foundation of professionals’ effective work.

A professional dancer should also feel responsible for the ideal of fair play. Fair play exists as a foundation of the ethics of dance as a sports discipline, in two dimensions: competitive (honest fight with other players) and perfectionist (self-improvement).

A dancer’s moral competence

Striving to achieve good skills in one’s everyday activity requires the development of the whole psychosomatic personality. Although the development occurs in response to certain social expectations, and also some norms commonly viewed as proper, it always means an individual way toward inner harmony. Everyone bears a responsibility to oneself for one’s own life, including professional life.

A dancer’s moral competence, as any other professional’s competence, is not blind following into someone else’s steps. It is using someone’s advice and instructions in agreement with one’s own self-knowledge. It also requires a sensible translation of general principles into a particular situation, which cannot be done in any other way than one’s own, individual effort.

Speaking about values, virtues, and obligations, we only tried to point to the elements which can guide a dancer’s moral reflection. A dancer manifests ethical competence when he or she can analyze and decide about situations occurring in their professional practice from the point of view of values, virtues, and moral duties.

Anna Malitowska Ph.D.

Anna Malitowska holds a doctoral degree in philosophy and is an assistant professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (Poland). Her research focuses on professional ethics, applied ethics, philosophy of education, innovative philosophical teaching methods, and moral development theory. Anna is interested in “philosophy of dance” and in using philosophical methods in dance studies. She has experience as a coach and mentor, and as a consultant in social communication. Contact:

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