How Swing Dancing Faced Its Sexual Assault Scandal
In a blog post last year, one woman accused Steven Mitchell, a living legend in the swing-dancing world, of using his position to prey on women; soon more victims came forward. The allegations shook the community, but have they changed anything?
Illustration by Caitlin Kelly
Sarah Sullivan sat in front of her computer staring at an open Word document, watching the cursor blink. There was so much she wanted to type. Now, for a brief second, it all reached a bottleneck, right at her fingertips. Normally, Sullivan had no problem saying exactly what she thought, but now that she had finally decided to speak out, after so many years, she didn't know precisely what to say.
It didn't take long for the writer's block to lift, and give way to a stream of consciousness that took hours to abate. Sixteen pages and one month of edits later, she had a single blog post. It was the first and only one she has ever written, and it contained the story she had kept hidden for almost half of her life.
"My name is Sarah Sullivan," it began, "and I have been dancing for about eleven years. I'm writing to the Lindy Hop community after years of consideration, hesitation, and confusion, about an experience I had when I was a teenager with Steven Mitchell, an instructor who was much older than me. The words below were hard for me to write, and it may be hard for some of you to read."
She agonized whether to post it. I wanted the attention, she'd tell herself. I wanted to drink. I put myself in that situation. Sullivan still wanted to think of Mitchell as a friend, because if they weren't friends, then what were they? What was she?
Her friends supported her every step of the way, but also prepared her for the worst—that she might no longer be welcomed by some of the people she had known since she was a teenager, that people might never look at her the same way. That her whole sense of community might be shattered.
She debated with a friend when to post it. The friend asked, "Why not now?"
Why not now? Sullivan thought.
Around 9:45 PM Eastern Time on January 22, 2015, she clicked "post," and then went to the bar with her friends, trying not to think about what other people would say.
Steven Mitchell was, as one popular blog put it, "a legend in the swing-dancing community." Starting in the 1980s, he helped bring a specific type of swing known as Lindy Hop back from relative obscurity.
"You might be a Lindy Hopper if..." one joke went, "you pack up and take off on the spur of the moment if you hear Steven Mitchell is within 250 miles of your given location."
According to a Daily Beast article written in the aftermath of Sullivan's post, Mitchell was born in 1954 and grew up in Los Angeles. Until the 1980s, he worked as a shoe salesman and disco dancer in Pasadena. He and his previous dance partner won a bunch of cha-cha competitions but, according to an interview his partner at the time did with Pasadena Weekly, they had never tried swing dancing until a competition at the Santa Monica's Miramar Hotel, which they won.
With his silky moves and electric personality, Mitchell soon rose to prominence as a swing dancer, receiving a star's welcome in every city. When interest in swing experienced a resurgence, particularly in the 1990s, Mitchell—depending on who you ask—either rode the wave or created it.
But there's a group of women who know a very different Steven Mitchell. Over the course of two decades, Mitchell used his standing in the swing-dancing community to travel the world and allegedly groom and assault young, vulnerable women, according to multiple people who spoke with VICE Sports. While details of the allegations vary, they follow a distinct pattern: Mitchell flattered them with the same compliments, controlled them with the same behavior, manipulated and intimidated them through the same tactics.
Several people in the swing-dancing community say other women allegedly assaulted by Mitchell are still afraid to come forward. Nobody knows precisely how many victims there are in all. VICE Sports spoke to four women who say Mitchell assaulted them, and two others who had an intimate relationship with him but who say they were not assaulted. In addition, VICE Sports spoke to dozens in the Lindy Hop community, and examined several dozen blog posts and Facebook threads reacting to Sullivan's initial post.
Mitchell did not respond to many attempts to reach him via email, Facebook, Skype, phone, and through intermediaries.
A few of the women who have come forward were inspired to do so by Bill Cosby's accusers, some of whose stories bear many similarities to their own. Each woman had her own reason for speaking out, but two common goals united them. All of them wanted to show how Mitchell's fame and his standing shielded him from suspicion, even in a progressive community like the Lindy Hop world.
The women also know how often these types of crimes go unpunished. For a while, they lived it. But thanks to Sullivan and the other women who came forward with their stories, a certain kind of justice happened. It wasn't perfect. But it happened.
For a long time, Sullivan had no intention of going public with her experience. It took years of life experience—going to college, studying abroad, as well as seeing a therapist—to recognize Mitchell's behavior for what it was.
Gradually, Sullivan came to accept that Mitchell had been grooming her. But she still had no plans to say anything until 2014, when she saw a post about Mitchell on a now-defunct website called Cheaterville. She often looked up Mitchell's name online, as did all of the women who spoke to VICE Sports.
Glued to the screen, she read as an anonymous person claiming to be Mitchell's ex-girlfriend wrote about his emotional manipulation, constant lying, and lack of loyalty.
Another anonymous person replied to that post, saying Mitchell did all that to her, and more. The person claimed, in no uncertain terms, that Mitchell had raped her twice. Now Sullivan had evidence she wasn't the only person Mitchell preyed upon. The thought of speaking out creeped into her mind. Over the ensuing weeks and months, it didn't go away.
In the summer of 2004, when Sullivan was 16 and living in San Diego, Mitchell came to town for a workshop. She first met him at the after party. As Sullivan recalls, he was lounging on a couch, one arm draped over the back, and she felt his eyes follow her as she walked by, like she had never felt another man's eyes before. She knew she had his attention.
That night, they talked about nothing in particular. Mitchell asked to stay in touch, and over the coming months they exchanged hundreds of messages on AOL Instant Messenger and spoke on the phone. In those chat logs, which have been viewed by VICE Sports, Mitchell, in messages littered with typos and internet lingo, told Sullivan that she was special, a fantastic dancer, and that she would go far in the Lindy Hop world. He said that she was beautiful, that he had never felt this way about any girl before. He asked Sullivan if she was a virgin, grilled her on her sexual history, and flirted with her in an adolescent manner. If she didn't reply to his messages quickly enough because she was doing homework, he would scold her and make her beg for his forgiveness in a way that came off as half-joke and half-serious. He told Sullivan that he loved her, but that no one else would understand their relationship. She had to keep it a secret.
At the time, Mitchell was 50 years old.
The next year, Sullivan went to Beantown, an annual weeklong swing-dancing event held on a college campus outside of Boston, where Mitchell always taught.
By then she was 18, which Mitchell knew, because he had asked her when she became "legal" on several occasions, including over AIM. Sullivan says that Mitchell gave her alcohol at an after party, putting Southern Comfort in a Coke can so the other instructors wouldn't notice. Mitchell was the first person to give her alcohol. She didn't want to drink a lot, but Mitchell told her about other girls he knew who could really "throw them back" and how cool they were.
As Mitchell surreptitiously offered Sullivan drinks, he instructed her to meet him in the rec center. They went inside and sat on the couch, talked, and drank. According to Sullivan, they made out, and he positioned himself on top of her. Sullivan remembers becoming aware of his body on top of hers, that she was trapped and powerless, and no other people were within shouting distance. She realized that, right then, he could do whatever he wanted to her and she would have no way of stopping him. She panicked, began hitting him and forcing him off of her. He did move away, but there was a brief moment, a beat of time, where she was hitting and pushing him but he didn't stop.
As they walked back to the venue, Sullivan apologized profusely. She didn't know what had come over her and didn't want to lose his approval and support.
Then, according to Sullivan, out of nowhere, Mitchell reached across, grabbed her crotch, and said, "I don't know what happened to you that fucked you up so badly, but something's wrong with you." She felt guilty for disappointing him.
A few months later, at an event in New Hampshire, Mitchell once again gave Sullivan "the signal," they went off to a secluded corner, they once again made out, and she once again pushed him off in a panic.
She described most of these details in her post.
"I'm not speaking up because I want to ruin Steven's life," Sullivan wrote. "I want the community to be aware of what he did. I teach kids now, and I bring them to events that Steven is teaching or judging at. There are teenage girls and young women at the Ballroom that look up to me and deserve to have an example of someone who speaks up when someone hurts them. I've seen him at multiple events a year, and I've kept my mouth shut when friends gush about how amazing he is. I have been carrying this around with me for almost a decade, and I have to get it off my chest. I've wondered if there are other women and girls who this has happened to, or is happening to (with Steven or anyone else), and I have been eaten up with guilt. I don't want to feel as though I am colluding with Steven to keep his actions a secret."
One of the post's first comments was from Steven Mitchell (or someone using his name).
"I don't want people to think that this is something I do at all, and by no means am I a predator," "Steven" wrote. Soon enough, people started replying to him, including Allison Cordner, who wrote, "Okay so Steven how do you explain the same thing happening to me???"
Cordner grew up in Saint-Lin, a small French-Canadian town of just under 10,000 people where she had spent her childhood dancing: ballet, jazz, and competitive performance from the time she was three years old. For her, dancing wasn't just a hobby; it was a lifestyle and a future career. In the fall of 1999, when she was 17, she moved to Montreal to attend Concordia University.
Her first week in the city, she went to a jazz festival and saw performers swing dancing on one of the stages. She was instantly captivated by the music, the movement, the freewheeling joy. To her, swing was fresh and new. She made friends in the local swing scene and became one of its youngest members—one of the only teenagers in a group mostly comprising adults.
It was big news among the group when Mitchell came to Montreal for a clinic that winter. He was a living swing legend, Cordner's new friends told her. This was before YouTube, so she had never seen him dance. She couldn't wait to see the legend in action.
Cordner remembers Mitchell paying extra attention to her that weekend, often throwing his arm around her or talking with her. She wanted to be a professional dancer, and his words of encouragement made her feel like that was a real possibility: never stop dancing, you're going to go far, you have a lot of talent. His compliments about her dancing resonated so much that she was able to overlook all the ones about her looks. She had apparently caught the eye of an internationally renowned instructor, and it was flattering.
That weekend, Cordner says, she stayed in a bed and breakfast near the venue with the clinic's instructors, including Mitchell and his dancing partner, Virginie Jensen. She remembers coming out of her room into the common area, where Mitchell was watching golf, his favorite sport. He turned and looked her up and down.
"Mmmmm girl, you are lookin' good," she recalls him saying.
He asked her how old she was. When Corder replied she was 17, Mitchell, then in his mid-40s, kept looking at her, eyes locked on her body, and moaned affirmatively, "Mmmmhm. Mmmmmhm."
About six months after first meeting Mitchell, Cordner saved money to attend Beantown, the swing-dancing camp in Boston. Although she found Mitchell's behavior in Montreal slightly odd, she gave him the benefit of the doubt because of his fame.
When she saw him at Beantown, she strolled across the quad, went up to him, and said shyly, "I'm sure you don't remember me, but—"
Mitchell cut her off. Since they had last seen each other, Cordner had braided her long blond hair. Mitchell told her she looked like Cleopatra, and started calling her Cleo. "Yo, Cleo. What's up, Cleo?"
After the first session, Mitchell approached Cordner and struck up a conversation. They walked through the quad, and Mitchell told her she needed to travel more on the dancing circuit. He urged her to attend an upcoming camp in New Hampshire, and flagged down the instructor running that camp. He turned to her, winked, and told her not to worry, he'd get her in. She smiled with gratitude.
Afterwards, they walked to his dorm. She confessed to him that she wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life; she was enrolled in creative writing courses, but also wanted to be a dancer. She felt "so important, so cool, and lucky" to be confiding in one of the greatest living Lindy Hoppers.
"Sounds like you need some hugging," she remembers him saying.
Cordner didn't know what he meant. "Yeah, I guess," she replied, with a nervous laugh.
Mitchell said he could probably help her, that his help would do her some good, in a quiet voice so the people hanging out in the common area couldn't hear. Cordner believed Mitchell was offering her free private lessons, even though she knew—everyone in Lindy Hop knew—he never did privates, much less for free.
"So it's good then?" he asked.
"Yeah..." Cordner uneasily replied. He kept repeating the question, as he would when getting a crowd pumped up, until she answered him more and more emphatically, nodding along but still not sure what she was nodding along to. They agreed to rendezvous at a barbecue being held that night. He would give her a signal. Before she left, he instructed her not to tell anyone. It was their secret.
As the sky grew dark over the barbecue, Mitchell took a break from a game of frisbee to converse with a small group of people, including Cordner. He eventually directed her—by awkwardly pretending to swing an invisible baseball bat—to the arts center; they would walk over separately in order to avoid attention. When they got there, the doors were locked. Cordner figured the private lesson was off. Not to be deterred, though, Mitchell led her down a path into the adjacent woods.
Mitchell plopped down on the ground, with his legs in a "V" shape. Mosquitos swarmed around them in the warm New England night. By now, Cordner had no idea what Mitchell was planning.
While still on the ground, he beckoned her closer and held out his hand. She took it, reacting reflexively to how swing dances often begin: with a man holding out his hand for a woman to take before receiving a slight tug. He pulled her down on top of him, so she was facing him. He rubbed her back, pressed her against him, and made slight moaning noises.
Cordner didn't want this, but felt like she may have accidentally agreed to it earlier in their confused conversation in the dorms. She didn't want to upset Mitchell. He was offering to help her, after all. And now he was physically holding her. Everything she had been taught as a child—to respect adults, especially prominent men—prevented her from withdrawing. She felt ashamed, disgusted, and trapped.
That's when, according to Cordner, Mitchell raped her, there in the woods, as the mosquitos attacked them.
Afterwards, they walked back to the campus. She went to her dorm room, closed the door, and grabbed at herself in a mixture of pain and humiliation. She thought he tore something in her.
With no idea what to do, Corder took off her bloody underwear, changed into a clean pair, and went down to the dance, as if nothing had happened.
At the dance, Cordner kept stealing glances over at Mitchell, looking for some indication, no matter how subtle, of what just happened. He didn't look her way once.
The next day, Cordner rode silently in the car home to Montreal. As soon as she walked through her door, she began to cry. She wailed and shook, releasing all the emotions that had been building for the previous two days and it was total, abject despair.
Her boyfriend came over and asked her what was wrong. She decided to tell him what had happened, even though he was a swing dancer, as well, and his hero at the time was none other than Steven Mitchell. Between sobs, she managed to say the words "Steven Mitchell raped me," and his face drained of emotion.
"You—you cheated on me?"
This was not what she expected to hear. She tried to tell him that's not how it was, it wasn't like that, but he backed away from her, sat down, and started crying, too. "I can't believe this," he muttered. "I can't believe this, how could you do this to me?"
His response convinced Cordner of what she already suspected—that she could never talk about what happened, because no one would believe her.
According to Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S, this is a very common reaction. "When the abuser is so trusted and known," he told VICE Sports, "victims often think they won't be believed, or they will be ostracized for speaking out."
As if a switch had flipped, Cordner's boyfriend stopped crying and, very matter-of-factly, instructed her to write down everything that happened, in as much detail as she could remember, and mail it to him in Sweden. And with that, he left her for six weeks to go to a swing-dancing camp.
Cordner wrote the letter over the next few days, working on the rough draft on a piece of paper towel while at her job in a movie theater. She later typed it up and mailed it to her boyfriend, but their relationship suffered as a direct result of this unreciprocated moment in which they both grieved for two very different things. Less than a year later, they were no longer together. They never spoke about Mitchell again.
But Cordner says Mitchell stayed in touch, and started to call and email her shortly after Beantown. He offered to bring her on his trips, told her that she was special and beautiful.
He asked her if she was going to any upcoming events, and she told him she had signed up for the LA Lindy Exchange. He lived in nearby Pasadena and insisted on picking her up from the airport.
Today, Cordner knows how ridiculous it seems to allow her rapist to pick her up at the airport in a strange city. But after her boyfriend rejected the idea that she was raped, accused her of cheating on him, and shamed her into silence, she was looking for any excuse to shift the narrative of what happened in Beantown. Mitchell was offering to redeem himself, she thought, to give her that private lesson. Maybe, Cordner hoped, this was all a big misunderstanding and everything would be straightened out. There was no way the Steven Mitchell was the person she thought he was. Everything would start to make sense now.
As Cordner remembers, Mitchell picked her up, drove her to a sparsely furnished house with bars on the windows. It's unclear if this was Mitchell's house in Pasadena or a different house, since Cordner had never been to Los Angeles and had no idea where they were.
He led her straight into the bedroom, and, right then, Cordner knew she was all wrong about Mitchell, again. He wasn't there to make amends. He was there to repeat the crime. She froze. Her memory is quite hazy, but all the same feelings she had in the woods—the shame and self-loathing—came rushing back as he raped her again.
Afterwards, he dropped her off on a random street corner somewhere in LA. Luckily, Cordner had a cell phone—not exactly common in 2000—and called the man she was staying with, who came to pick her up in a white pick-up truck. They rode in silence to his apartment.
This May, in her house on a quiet street in Montreal's Little Burgundy neighborhood, where Cordner runs a successful photography studio, she opened a box with the letter her boyfriend recently returned to her. She held the letter in her hands, and sat in a chocolate-colored lounge chair next to an open window letting in the perfect spring air. Her formerly long blond hair is short now, parted to one side. She has tattoos along her arms and recently got her motorcycle license. As if contemplating the girl who wrote the words she was about to read, a girl perhaps more different to her now than similar, she paused for a moment, and then, with her turquoise nails, opened the letter.
Corder had told me her story for the first time a few weeks prior to opening the letter. Her memory was nearly perfect, almost exactly matching the words on the page. But there was one thing she forgot. There was a small group hanging out in the lobby next to Mitchell's dorm room where he first invited her for a "private lesson." They saw her talking to Mitchell alone in the room through the open door. Mitchell had tried to close it, but she had insisted on keeping it open. Those people probably could have heard everything they were saying. She silently reflected on this as the gentle Montreal breeze filtered through the open window, then folded the pages and put them back in the envelope.
Mitchell's alleged abuse took place during swing dancing and Lindy Hop's neo-renaissance, which arguably reached its peak in 1998: swing revivalist bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers were blasting the airwaves; Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, another swing revivalist band, would play at Super Bowl XXXIII. Gap ran a national ad spot featuring dancers swinging out to Louis Prima's rendition of "Jump Jive an' Wail" while wearing the company's signature khakis.
Naturally, as swing dancing's most famous instructor, Mitchell reached his professional peak that year, as well, with performances on the Roseanne Show and on a PBS special called Stomp, Slide, Swing: In Performance at the White House, hosted by Savion Glover and with President Bill Clinton in attendance. Mitchell also performed at Disneyland and landed prominent choreographing gigs. Attendance at swing camps spiked, and all of them wanted Mitchell on the bill. According to several people familiar with running such swing-dancing events, he would charge upwards of $200 per hour, plus travel, accommodations, food, and a rental car.
Swing dancing had spread throughout the world, with major hubs in places like South Korea, Argentina, Australia, Sweden, and, of course, the US. The typical scene revolved around local swing nights, which usually consisted of a DJ, or perhaps a live band, playing swing music while people danced until the early hours of the morning. While there are some competitive events, most swing dancers are hobbyists looking for little more than a weeknight thrill.
The swing subculture is a tight community despite the vast distances separating epicenters of activity. If Mitchell appeared at one event, all the others would hear about it and want him, too. He drew huge crowds because, above all else, he was a charismatic figure. He could dance and people liked watching him do so. He was, in many corners of the Lindy Hop world, quite literally referred to as a god.
Mitchell stood out for another reason: his race. While Lindy Hop originally emerged from the African-American community during the 1920s, today's dancers are more likely to be upper-and-middle class and white. Today, there are very few black people in Lindy Hop with influential roles. Some people in swing felt Mitchell, who is black, gave the hobbyists implicit legitimacy. In many of the dozens of videos available on YouTube of Mitchell teaching classes, he is almost always the only black person. For many, he was not only one of their most talented practitioners but an invaluable figurehead in the Lindy Hop world, one who would use the social norms of this unique society to his advantage.
Mitchell's race was also another factor that held Sullivan back from initially speaking out. "I couldn't help feeling that by exposing his behavior I would inadvertently feed racist stereotypes and narratives," she said, "or that, like it or not, I'd have a part in another black man losing power and potentially his job, and I'd have a part in the Lindy Hop community becoming whiter."
Lindy Hop is typically done with a partner, and there is a leader and a follower, but there are no hard and fast rules about what these roles entail. Those most passionate about swing dancing view it as inclusive and welcoming. A common mantra is that no one should ever say no to a dance.
But several women—and a few men—told me this attitude can have an unintended effect of making some people feel uncomfortable, where they don't have agency over who they dance with and the shame of turning down a dance shifts to the person who says no. It's a complex dynamic in which a subculture trying to be inclusive and welcoming ends up making some people feel like they can't say no. (The description sounds similar to that of improv comedy culture, where performers are taught to always accept and build on others' ideas. As BuzzFeed reported in January, this has led to an environment where "women felt they were expected to 'Yes, And' and play along, not only onstage but off, where the unwanted come-ons sometimes continued.")
In 1998, PBS ran a City Arts special on the booming swing scene in New York City; in it, young men and women praise it as a great place for men to pick up women.
"Guys," the voiceover from a local female instructor says to open the segment, "if you're shy, if you don't know how to talk to a girl, just take a few swing dance lessons at least just to get onto the dance floor and make that girl spin."
"All of a sudden, we have manners," says one man wearing a purple tie and grey stetson.
Within this environment, Mitchell embraced his status and all the benefits that came with it, developing a reputation as a ladies' man. Women threw themselves at him, both literally and figuratively. Some just wanted a dance with the living legend, others wanted more.
Despite all the attention, though, few people really knew much about him. Even other instructors who worked with him for decades were largely ignorant of the details of his childhood. Ryan Francois, a well-known swing dance teacher, told the Daily Beast that he knew Mitchell for 30 years and asked him to be his best man; he said that Mitchell's "ability for secrecy was unparalleled in anyone else I ever knew."
Like nearly any internet comment section, the one below Sullivan's post quickly devolved into name-calling and micro-debates over issues she never even brought up. Some commenters, after qualifying they did not condone Mitchell's actions, offered half-hearted defenses of him. It took less than a day for the comment section to become concerned with the damage to Mitchell's reputation and his professional life. Nearly all such comments appear to come from either anonymous accounts or men.
The post rippled out into the swing-dancing world. Ramona Staffeld, a professional instructor, heard about it while in Korea. She tried not to think about it, just as she had been trying not to think about Mitchell in general.
A few days after Sullivan's post went live, though, Staffeld received an unprompted email from Mitchell with the subject line "STEVEN." It read (all sic):
I'm pretty sure that what I say has no affect at all. I know that I failed you completely.
And what I have taken you through and taken away from you is just unforgivable on all fronts.
This selfish and irresponsible behavior that I've lived is un acceptable.
What I put you through and others is unimaginable and especially you.
I know there are no words that I can say or apologizes that I can make to take away the pain or give back what I have taken away from you.
I've been living in denial for some time now in my life and never shared any of my Discretions with anyone. And by no means am I condoning this behavior of mine.
I am dealing with my sickness as I write this to you..
I know that you can never forgive me, but I'm truly truly sorry for what I've done to you.
I am dealing with this Sicknesss as we speak!
Around 1997, Mitchell had gone to Ithaca, New York, where Staffeld lived, for a workshop. Staffield was 14 at the time; she had been swing dancing for about three years, and was just getting serious about it. Mitchell told Staffeld that she was really talented and he wanted to help her. He invited her back to his hotel room at the Holiday Inn. Staffeld thought he was offering to become her mentor.
Staffeld doesn't remember much about that hotel room conversation, but recalls sitting on the bed, feeling awkward but also flattered because the great Steven Mitchell was taking an interest in her.
Mitchell wanted to stay in touch, but Staffeld's family didn't have internet at home. So, in the hotel room, Mitchell set up a Hotmail account on his laptop for her so they could email. He told her they had something special, but it needed to stay a secret.
Over the coming months, Staffeld went to the local library to use the internet and communicate with Mitchell. Over those months, the conversations became increasingly sexual in nature, in much the same way they had with Sullivan.
In 1999, Staffeld went to Beantown, the same camp where Mitchell would later assault Sullivan and Cordner, and saw Mitchell again. She recalls that very late one night, after the dance, he told her to meet him in the dugout of the baseball field, where they could be in private. He instructed her to sneak away so no one would notice.
When she arrived, the sun was just beginning to rise. Mitchell was already there. He had brought food, wine, and cheese from the party. They sat in the dugout feasting as the morning came.
Staffeld can still feel the conflicting emotions she had sitting there in the dugout. She wanted to be there, to be with Mitchell. She also knew it was wrong.
But here was not just a grown-up but a grown-up even other adults admired, telling her how beautiful and talented and special she was and that their relationship was a good thing. This was Steven Mitchell. "He had power, everybody loved him, and he chose me!"
There, in the dugout, Staffeld says Mitchell kissed her for the first time. She was 15 years old.
Staffeld remembers driving home to Ithaca from that event with Mitchell and a few other people, but doesn't recall precisely who. Most of the details are fuzzy. She has spent the majority of her life trying to block this event out of her memory, not recall every detail. But, as best as she can remember, they stayed at a bed and breakfast in Albany, New York, on the way home. They may have all shared a room with many beds, or perhaps she let him into her room. In the bathroom, Mitchell raped her.
Afterwards, she took a bath because she felt so dirty and violated. She doesn't remember much else.
"I just remember the tub," she said recently over Skype from Australia, where she now resides. "And I don't remember if there was blood, but I remember it hurt a lot, and I just remember needing to, just"—she paused, swallowing the memory and forming the right word—"wash."
In the days that followed, Staffeld wanted, more than anything, for the rape to never have happened. So she accepted Mitchell's narrative: that he cared about her, that they shared something romantic together.
She also accepted his demands for secrecy, not merely because their relationship was illegal but because he constantly reminded her their love was only for each other, not for anyone else to know. "This is ours," he would tell her. "They won't understand."
All the while, Mitchell met and charmed Staffeld's parents. He positioned himself as someone who could help their daughter's dancing career, and also protect her from drugs, alcohol, and other teenage vices. Always the snappy dresser, Mitchell offered to take Staffeld's father, Bill, shopping in New York City. He came to dinner at their home and held their hands as they said grace.
Mitchell gave Staffeld money and gifts, and he brought her on trips. They went to New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Hawaii, carrying on a sexual relationship, all under the guise of going to dancing workshops. She was a minor the entire time.
That Hawaii trip, in 2000, supposedly for a swing-dancing workshop, provoked significant consternation among her parents. Staffeld's mother, especially, was uncomfortable letting her travel alone with Mitchell. She reflected on this recently from her home in Ithaca, with her and her husband taking turns talking on the phone. Today, Andrea Staffeld talks about the gut feeling she had that something wasn't right, that there was something about Mitchell she didn't trust. But at the time she denied it, repressed it, and dismissed it. A big part of that denial, she says, was Mitchell's fame.
Mitchell assured them everything would be OK and that he would call the second they arrived in Hawaii. But hours passed after her flight was scheduled to land and still there was no word. Andrea called Mitchell's dance partner, Virginie, who told her not to worry, everything was fine (Virginie was not in Hawaii). Still, the Staffelds fretted. Bill sent Mitchell an email, to which he received an angry, frustrated response, accusing them of implying he was untrustworthy and of invoking the racial stereotypes of black men violating young women. Both Bill and Andrea remember a specific line in the email with complete clarity: "What do you think I am? Do you think I'm some sort of rapist?"
Meanwhile, in Hawaii, Staffeld remembers Mitchell wanted to go to the grocery store to buy chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and other desserts for a kinky sexual encounter. Staffeld wasn't into it, but, as she recounted years later, "that wasn't OK," so she went along with it, reluctantly.
"I felt like I was acting, like I was playing a role," she said. "I was going along with all these things he wanted me to do. Going along with the secrecy, going along with the story of our relationship. All those elements, it was playing a role. It wasn't me, so to speak."
Staffeld can't indicate a single moment when things ended between her and Mitchell, but by 2001 she had mostly stopped replying to his emails. As she got older and had sexual encounters with other men, she realized the relationship she had with Mitchell wasn't healthy. At an event in Houston in 2002 or 2003—she can't recall which year—he asked her to go to his hotel room for sex. She said no.
In the years since, Staffeld became an internationally renowned instructor herself, traveling the world teaching swing. She remained friendly with Mitchell because they were still professional colleagues and would run into each other at events. More than anything else, the thought that everyone would know about their history terrified her, so she did everything she could to keep up the facade, even if it included dancing with him. She even invited him to her wedding. He did not attend.
"I'm so grateful that Sarah paved the way," Staffeld would go on to say on a popular swing dancing podcast on October 20, 2015, in which she talked about Mitchell's abuse publicly for the first time. She audibly cries through almost the whole thing.
Video above of Staffeld performing this year. She is now one of the world's most respected swing dancing instructors. "I enjoy the feeling of connection. The physical feeling that happens when the leader is that little bit ahead, and the follow is that little bit behind. It actually creates a sensation in the body. It's connection, it's a feeling of pull."
Of the women who talked to VICE Sports, Sullivan was the only one to file a criminal complaint against Mitchell; she did so in New Hampshire, not long before her post went live. More than a decade had passed, so the statute of limitations had expired. Staffeld is the only woman for whom the statute of limitations has possibly not expired, depending on which of the many states she could file a complaint, but she currently lives in Australia and wrestles with the conundrum of whether to go through the grueling, difficult, and oftentimes humiliating process of filing a complaint. Even if she did fly to America to do so, criminal charges, let alone a conviction, would be unlikely given all the time that has passed. And even then, Staffeld doesn't see what good it would do at this point. "I don't believe in our justice system. I don't believe that is an answer, just putting someone in jail," she said. "It's not actual rehabilitation."
For these reasons, a criminal case against Mitchell is a non-starter.
This is not an unusual outcome. According to RAINN, just one-third of all rapes are ever reported to police, and only 18 percent of those reports lead to arrests. Six out of every thousand rapists go to prison.
But in the court of public opinion, and the swing-dancing community in particular, Mitchell has been punished. When Staffeld went public with her story in October, any event that hadn't already disinvited him did so. Many instructors vowed publicly to never work with him again. He went into hiding, deleting his email address, Facebook (after publishing an apology similar to the one in the comment section), and phone number. Few people seem to know where he is. The once ubiquitous figurehead of Lindy Hop is now nowhere to be found. Most every event that printed his name in giant letters at the top of the bill have wiped him from existence. Camps that he helped create, like Camp Oz in Australia, have a permanent disclaimer on their Facebook page that they are no longer affiliated with him, and his name remains in the "About" section only as a matter of historical record.
At the time of this writing, Sullivan's post has been read by more than 69,000 people and translated into seven languages.
Sullivan's post shook the Lindy Hop scene for several reasons, but chief among them is that the community has long considered itself socially progressive, awake to women's rights issues and rape culture. Yet, Mitchell was able to operate under their noses.
Many people in the Lindy Hop community have denied that they had any idea what was going on. Mitchell's former dance partner, Virginie Jensen, broke off professional ties with him two days after Sullivan's post went live, and claimed no knowledge of his actions:
Jensen was constantly around Mitchell for decades. Staffeld remembers checking into a New York City hotel with the two of them and hanging out in their room. Cordner also remembers interacting with Jensen and Mitchell together. Jensen once told a woman dating Mitchell that she was unwilling to discuss or otherwise get involved in his personal affairs. Jensen declined to comment for this article.
Regardless of the veracity of Jensen's specific claim of ignorance, it's certain people saw things and said nothing. One organizer for a very high-profile swing event privately confided in one of Mitchell's survivors that they had known about his behavior since at least 2008, because other women (who have yet to come forward) told them, hoping they would do something about it. The event invited Mitchell back every year anyways.
Bill Sullivan, Sarah's father, no longer feels comfortable dancing in his local community in San Diego, where many knew Mitchell personally. "I think definitely, without a doubt, unquestionably, the conditions are still ripe for someone to do what Steven does," he said over the phone. "I don't think there has been any, at all, fundamental change in the behavior of the community or the people who teach and organize events.
"This culture of silence," he continued, "it's not Machiavellian in the sense that there's these dance instructors sitting around going, 'What am I going to do to prevent someone from saying this or that?' I think it's subconscious when they do it."
He's hardly alone in this belief. A few hours after Sullivan's post went live, someone with the username A Once Young Girl left a comment that began, "This is awesome. I don't dance anymore, and I attribute it to similar predatory behavior that I still can't bring myself to come forward and talk about."
The commenter went on to call the dance scene "incredibly predatory," and said that "people often give the benefit of the doubt to seasoned dancers. Instructors are considered to be ambassadors of the scene, so they will more easily hide under the radar."
Bill shared similar sentiments. "They may be good Lindy Hop dancers, but they don't know crap about sexual assault."
Sullivan's post—and the dozens of blogs, Facebook threads, and discussions that emerged from it—tried to address the issue of people feeling like they had nowhere to go if something happens at a swing event. Less than a week after Sullivan's post, several prominent members of the swing community held "an impromptu online conversation on how to create a safer, more positive swing scene for all, particular those most vulnerable like teens and young women."
Many events adopted codes of conduct and introduced safe spaces, where someone can confidentially report any problems and expect it to be handled. Some events also started offering workshops on treating others with respect, defining consent, and using less gendered language with the leading and following roles in dancing.
Jerry Almonte, who runs a popular swing-dancing website, says it's hard to determine how effective any of these codes of conduct or safe spaces are. "There's no metric out there that says we're being less abusive this year than last year. But those conversations are happening."
Still, Almonte says, just because people are "talking a big game" in public forums online where anyone can see and critique doesn't mean they behave any differently during their swing nights.
People have long danced to unwind, to have fun, to forget about their troubles and lose themselves in the music. Making sure the dance floor is safe and enjoyable for everyone doesn't have to change any of that, and there's still room for improvement on that front, according to Almonte. "Whereas people before may have turned a blind eye, now they're not turning a blind eye. They're at least noticing," he summarized. "They may not do anything, but at least they know something should be done."
On September 9th, a prominent swing dancing instructor posted publicly on Facebook that she had been raped by someone inside the swing community. She said she went to the police, and they are now investigating. "I am hoping that my terrible experience and my testimony will help other victimes [sic] break their silence." The response to her post was universally supportive.
Sullivan, Cordner, and Staffeld said that they are, to varying degrees, in better places since Sullivan spoke out. Cordner, now a professional photographer, is proud to show people that she didn't let Mitchell's actions define her. Sullivan—who now works for House of Ruth Maryland, a nonprofit working around intimate partner and gender-based violence—accomplished her primary goal: Mitchell is no longer teaching young women.
Staffeld is relieved to no longer be carrying around her secret, but she still finds it difficult to discuss, especially with her parents. Staffeld's mother, Andrea, is trying to work through the shame and guilt she's felt ever since she first learned of Mitchell's abuse. Even over the phone, Andrea has a soft voice that has the same calming effect as a loving hug. "When the podcast came out, I would find myself sometimes not wanting to go anywhere, like if there was something happening on a Friday, I would say no, I don't want to go. Or I would run into somebody in the co-op and I would just blurt it all out, corner them, just tell them about..." Her voice trailed off. "Sometimes, I just needed to not talk about it at all."
She now revisits that intuition about Mitchell she repressed, condemning herself for not acting on it but, at the same time, not knowing how much she could have done based only on a feeling. Ultimately, Andrea, along with the entire swing-dancing world, bought what Mitchell was selling. "Steven Mitchell, he is a rapist," she said. "But on the dance floor he can make you feel so good. He can make you feel like the center of the universe."
After our first lengthy phone conversation, she emailed to say she found it helpful to talk through her feelings, and that she felt like she could "finally move on." But two days later, she emailed me again. "I am finding that moving on is not so simple," she lamented. "Instead, I am excavating, looking through old pictures, trying to date them, trying to unearth some clues."
Now, when she's doing yard work and hitting stakes into the ground, she sometimes imagines her hammer making contact not with a wooden pole, but with Mitchell.
Even though Sullivan achieved what she hoped with her post, like the Staffelds, she still hasn't quite put the past behind her. Sitting on her back porch in Baltimore last April, I asked Sullivan how she felt when she read Mitchell's brief response and halting confession. She sighed and thought for a few seconds before letting the thoughts spill out, much like they did when she first sat down to write the post. Sometimes she thinks about contacting Mitchell, just to make sure he isn't destitute. Other times, she wishes he would rot away in jail. "I feel like, honestly, if you ask me how I feel about any of this, the answer is going to be different today than it is tomorrow than it was last week. I bounce between different ways of feeling about it."
What doesn't change are the things Sullivan is proud of: that she told her story and started this conversation in the swing dancing community. "This is an opportunity," she said, "to look inside yourself and think about what you are doing, or not doing, to perpetuate this culture that allows these things to happen."
- VICE Sports
- allison cordner
- lindy hop
- ramona staffeld
- sarah sullivan
- steven mitchell
- swing dancing