Swing Dancing’s Sex Assault Scandal
One of swing dance’s most inspirational exemplars stands accused of sexual assault by multiple women. Will legal cases follow?
Until Jan. 22 this year, Steven Mitchell was a god in the swing dance world.
He helped to save the dance from obscurity and spent the last three decades traveling the world as one of its ambassadors.
But Mitchell may also have had a dark secret, according to recent allegations which first became public in a blog post by Sarah Sullivan, a dancer and scene leader from Baltimore.
She wrote that when she was in her late teens he made inappropriate advances towards her, culminating in him twice trying to force himself upon her.
Among the 500 comments that followed, four other women claimed they had been sexually assaulted or raped by Mitchell as well.
Then, in October, Ramona Staffeld, an internationally known dancer and instructor, revealed in an emotional interview that when she was 14, Mitchell allegedly began a secret relationship with her during which he took her virginity and repeatedly raped her.
According to Staffeld, for the next three years she used a computer at the library to talk to him on a special email account he’d set up for her.
They would arrange for him to fly in to her hometown, pick her up from school, and take her to a motel for sex.
Staffeld told nobody what they were doing. As she put it in the interview, she was “robbed of my childhood.”
Numerous swing teachers told me that Mitchell has now been ostracized by the worldwide swing dance community and will likely never work in the scene again.
Based on conversations with teachers and a review of bookings, Mitchell has not been booked for many of the swing dance camps where he used to be a fixture, meaning that he is in danger losing his main way of making a living, even though no charges have been filed against him.
The response from the swing community has largely been positive, and there has been a huge increase in awareness of sexual abuse.
Codes of conduct have been beefed up and, according to conversations with numerous dancers, what was once excused as “creepiness” is not tolerated.
But the allegations against Mitchell have also caused an intense sense of betrayal and soul-searching, with many asking if there was something more they could have done.
Teachers who have known Mitchell since they were teenagers told me that they find it hard to believe a man that they idolized could have done something like this, if the claims are true.
Assuming that is the case, what seems to have been key to Mitchell’s deception, aside from his capacity for manipulation, is that he became a figurehead in a community where trust and acceptance are its cornerstones.
Being a swing dancer myself, I know that many people who love the dance are geeks and nerds; knowing what it is like to be an outsider there is an unspoken rule not to mistreat others.
To an extent swing dancers live in a bubble and will go out dancing seven nights a week as escapism from their day-to-day troubles.
For some this led to a kind of childish, scene-wide naivety, a kind of “it could never happen here,” that Mitchell’s alleged victims say he carefully exploited.
Mitchell, 61, grew up in Pasadena, California where he was a shoe salesman and disco dancer until he met his dance partner Erin Stevens, with whom he won a string of competitions in California in the 1980s.
They also became interested in the history of swing, or lindy hop as it is more properly known, and tracked down dancers who had started it in Harlem in the 1920s.
Among them was Frankie Manning, who danced with the famed Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers troupe, and in 1986 they persuaded him to come out of his 30-year retirement working in the U.S. Post Office to teach them what he knew.
Thus began the second wave of the dance, meaning that Mitchell is one of the apostles of lindy hop; without him there would have been no Gap commercial in 1998, no Zoot suit revival, and no international scene we have today.
During his career he performed at Disneyland with the Count Basie Orchestra and Cab Calloway and traveled the world teaching at camps in places as far away as Australia, Switzerland, and Argentina.
At these camps, of which there are dozens around the world today, teachers told me that was treated like royalty, taught at classes in the day, and attended evening dances which often went until the wee hours.
People of different ages mixed freely and danced with each other.
For a young girl, a chance to dance with Mitchell would have been the highlight of their night, or their whole camp—something he would have known all too well.
Reading through the different accounts of what Mitchell allegedly did, a clear pattern begins to emerge.
According to the claims against him he used secrecy as a method of control; Staffeld in particular talks about how she was “imprisoned by this secret.”
Sullivan, who met Mitchell at 16, says he said they had to be discreet because “no one would understand” and said they needed a “code word” to arrange to meet up in private at dance camps.
Allison (who has asked us not to use her second name), another of his alleged victims, said that she was raped by Mitchell in 2000 when she was 18.
In a video posted online she said at the time she thought: “I don’t want people to know, it is my problem and his.”
In the accounts the victims say that Mitchell praised those he wanted to have sex with and told them they were special.
They in turn admitted that they idolized him because of his status in the scene. Sullivan wrote: “He told me I was different from other people, that he didn’t usually trust people, and that he could talk to me.”
Asked why she didn’t tell her parents, Staffeld said: “I couldn’t. It was impossible. It was not possible. And I don’t care what you’ve learned through your upbringing… there’s nothing that can prepare you for that.”
In her video, Allison said: “He used his name, his fame, his popularity and charm to get me where I went with him.”
Another way Mitchell allegedly maintained control was to scorn any of the girls who refused him.
Sullivan claims that he told her she was “fucked up” for refusing to have sex with him whilst Staffeld talks about how “his voice would change and it was scary. Really scary.”
According to his accusers, Mitchell’s most used tactic seems to have been giving young girls alcohol, which would have impaired their judgment.
Heidi (who asked us not to use her second name) wrote that Mitchell made her margaritas that were so strong they hit her like a “tank.”
Heidi claimed that the moment she said she felt unwell he tried to kiss her and continued to try and do so even after she had thrown up.
Sullivan said that Mitchell gave her liquor in a coke can whilst they were at a swing dance camp.
Clara (who asked us not to use her second name) talked about how she was 17 when Mitchell got her really drunk for the first time by giving her wine. She passed out and woke up to find him grinding his body on top of her.
He told her it was “horizontal dancing.”
According to Jennifer Marsh, vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, Mitchell’s alleged actions are the “classic behavior” of a sexual predator.
She said that predators make their victims feel like they are complicit in the crime and zero in on those who are less likely to report them.
Marsh said: “They use their love as a gift or their relationship as a way to continue to perpetrate their abuse.”
The allegations about Mitchell began on the Internet and that is where he has effectively been tried and convicted, a process that seems increasingly common today.
But for some including Naomi Uyama, a world famous teacher based in Minneapolis, the response was too “black and white.”
Uyama said that being able to reach an entire community via Facebook to discuss the allegations was useful, but the benefit was offset by the shrill tone of the debate.
She told me that it was a “hard thing” to deal with the idea that somebody who has “done a lot for the scene” may have done something so terrible.
Uyama said: “People have a hard time holding those two ideas. It’s both.”
In a twist that is surprising even in the current climate, Mitchell appears to have made his own confession on social media before shutting his Facebook page down.
In a Facebook post he wrote: “I do have a problem… I will seek help as soon as I get home. I’ve been so blind and on a road of destruction for some time now. I will clean up my life.”
Mitchell also apparently wrote an even more incriminating comment under Sullivan’s story which read in part: “I feel so terrible that I made Sarah feel this way.
“At that time, I had strong feelings for her (whether right or wrong given her age). We did have those conversations and alcohol was involved.
“I don’t want people to think that this is something I do at all, and by no means am I a predator.
“This is something that happened and now I feel really, really bad about it.”
Mitchell, who is thought to be living overseas, did not return voicemail messages, texts, or requests for comment made through a friend.
As the months have gone on, the debate about Mitchell has widened out to include a general critique of lindy hop as a dance which has taken in gender theory and rape culture.
Some have argued that it reinforces old-fashioned gender roles because the man traditionally leads and the woman traditionally follows, something that becomes normalized off the dance floor.
Another issue has to do with consent and how most followers rarely refuse a dance for fear of causing offence.
Finn I. DeLacey-Kupel, a dancer from Seattle, said that in the past she had been physically pulled on to the dancefloor by men who told her: “Oh come on, you know you want to!”
When she turns down a dance the response is often anger: “I just saw you dancing, why won’t you dance with me?” or patronizing: “Oh, do you not know how to dance?”
Then there is the matter of race.
Whilst lindy hop began as a dance done by African Americans it is nowadays largely taught to white people by white people, the same folks who have policed Mitchell (who is black).
Finally there is the issue of blame, something which Ryan Francois is unafraid to take on.
He is one of the best known swing dance teachers in the world and has done choreography for the hit BBC series Strictly Come Dancing in the U.K. and the OutKast song “Idlewild.”
He also knew Mitchell for 30 years—he asked him to be his best man—and says that his “ability for secrecy was unparalleled in anyone else I ever knew.”
Francois said: “At some point you are going to put all of the blame on Steven’s head, which he deserves, but I feel there is something of a factor in the mentality of the community that knew more about Steven’s behavior than they would have probably said but weighed it up with him being a figure who would make their event remain successful.”
Francois has been around long enough to see that lindy hop has faced a situation like this before—and it responded with hand wringing that now feels uncomfortably familiar.
In 2001 Mo Jones was dramatically arrested while giving a lesson at Memories nightclub in Anaheim, California when a 17-year-old girl told police he had been abusing her for two years while mentoring her despite being a convicted sex offender.
Jones was jailed for three years, according to the Orange County Register, and the online conversations which took place in the aftermath are as conflicted as those today; some supporters even visited him in prison.
The posts from Jive Junction, a forum for lindy hoppers from the early 2000s, marvel at how Jones is keeping his spirits up by teaching his cellmate to tap dance and say: “Go Mo!” (Users of Jive Junction have asked us to clarify that, while there were some people who voiced support for Mo Jones, the majority of the community was against what he did.)
The next step depends on Mitchell’s alleged victims, who are still coming to terms with what they say has happened to them.
Sullivan says she has undergone therapy because she internalized the message that there was something wrong with her for saying no to a man.
Allison talks about how she got tested for HIV and says: “I was humiliated, I was a tool to fix his animalistic desires… I was just an innocent girl, I had no idea what I was getting into.”
Making a criminal complaint against Mitchell will involve the awful process of going back through chat logs and emails he allegedly used to groom them to give prosecutors proof of what Mitchell did.
There are also potential issues with the statute of limitations and the knowledge that just 2 percent of rapists ever go to jail.
These women have already been extremely brave and, assuming their claims are true, they will have to be even braver still should they want to bring forward a criminal prosecution.