A brilliant manipulator

How Bill Iha seduced a community

A lot of people got taken in by Bill Iha. I was one of them.

Iha is the choreographer and photographer who was sentenced to jail for a year on Monday (Sept. 14) for sexually molesting one of his Wall Street Dance Academy students, Erin Parsley. Over the years, as I wrote about him for this newspaper, I had many opportunities to ask the right questions but never did so.

Like Erin Parsley, who’s now 33, I was dazzled by his talent. I focused on it and ignored what I now realize were troubling signs.

Why, I might have asked, did this loner with no family and no connections to place or people like working with girls so much? What was he getting out of this intimate contact with vulnerable, innocent teenagers? Why didn’t he have the kinds of relationships healthy middle-aged men have?

Many others were closer to the situation than I was. In July, shortly after Iha pleaded no contest to two counts of felony molestation, I received an e-mail message from a former instructor at the academy, who said, “I was incredibly saddened to realize my instincts about him … were correct. Believe me, I was very vocal about my distrust of him, but my concerns fell on deaf ears.”

From the time Iha was arrested in March until he pleaded in June, the Internet was abuzz with discussion of the issue. Many people came forward with suspicions, while others passionately defended a brilliant artist and teacher.

In the end, only Erin Parsley had the courage to call Bill Iha to account.

Let me note that, of all the remarkable young dancers I saw coming out of Wall Street during the 1990s, she was the most promising and charismatic. So it was painful to hear her say, in her statement to the court last Thursday (Sept. 14), that the man she had trusted to help her become a better dancer instead had destroyed her confidence and created “unmovable emotional walls” that had kept her from realizing her potential.

Iha had incorporated the molestation, which began when she was just 14, into her training, telling her it would “bring out [her] inner beauty” and make her a better dancer. “I was a completely naïve and innocent girl with no sexual experience whatsoever,” she said.

She was a striking presence in the courtroom, tall, slender, self-possessed. It was telling that Iha never looked at her, even when he was reading his so-called apology to her.

Parsley said later she hadn’t expected him to meet her eyes. She’d wanted him to look at her at the June hearing so she could show him she wasn’t afraid of him, but he’d looked away, and she’d assumed he’d do the same this time.

“That apology wasn’t sincere. It was just more cynical manipulation,” she said. She no longer cares. Her deep secret is out, the man who hurt her is being punished, and she’s back in control and ready to get on with her life.