Women describe a pattern of abuse by TU Dance co-founder

 Uri Sands, left, and Toni Pierce-Sands stand for a portrait.
TU Dance founders Uri Sands, left, and Toni Pierce-Sands stand for a portrait inside of their studio in St. Paul on April 26, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

TU Dance in St. Paul has reached a legal settlement with a former company member.

The dancer had alleged that the company's co-founder, Uri Sands, sexually assaulted her. And she said the dance company’s board failed to adequately address previous allegations of sexual misconduct.

The plaintiff, who spoke to MPR News under condition of anonymity, said Sands used his position to pressure women for sex.

She said he offered her career opportunities that involved traveling with him to work on commissions for other companies. He arranged for the two of them to sleep in close quarters, encouraged her to go out drinking with him, and then told her he was lonely and valued their close relationship.

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“I was like, ‘We can have a close relationship, but we have to be like brother and sister,’” she said. “And I was very clear, like, ‘You know, nothing else. Nothing romantic can happen.’ And he agreed and said, ‘Yeah of course.’ And so I thought, OK, I handled it, I took care of it. He understands. I figured this out. And then that was the first night I was raped.”

The plaintiff said she is happy to have reached a settlement. She said the most important result was that Sands was forced to resign permanently from the company last December. She said the only reason she took the case to court was to draw attention to his behavior, and to protect other dancers.

The plaintiff is one of four women who spoke with MPR News about their experiences with Sands. Their stories were strikingly similar: They were offered exciting career opportunities, invited to a distant city and then, once isolated, pressured for sex.

One woman said she froze, and he proceeded to rape her.

“It just ended very abruptly after he did that to me,” she said. “It’s like he got what he wanted. There was never any more talk about rehearsal or meeting up or anything. And he said, ‘I promise not to tell anyone if you promise not to tell anyone.’”

Attorney Sarah McGrane, who represents both TU Dance and Uri Sands, declined to make Sands available for an interview. She said once the company was served with the lawsuit, it conducted an internal investigation.

“The dancers have alleged that he was in a position of power, and as somebody who’s in a position of power, they could not have a consensual relationship,” she said. “The investigator also interviewed Uri, who indicated that the relationships were consensual. And so it was one of those situations where one person is saying one thing, the other person is saying the other thing, and there is no proof, there’s no video, there’s no photographs, there’s nothing like that.”

This recent lawsuit is not the first time the company has heard allegations of sexual misconduct.

In 2017 three of the dancers reached out anonymously to the board. They informed the company they believed Sands was a sexual predator, and they had concerns about his mental health.

They asked that he not be allowed to work or travel alone with female dancers; that he see a counselor, and that the company enact stricter policies on sexual misconduct. McGrane, the attorney, said it’s to the board’s credit that it did all of those things.

“And I think the other thing that’s really important to note is that there were no new allegations after these corrective measures were put in place,” she said. “And in fact the last alleged misconduct was January of 2017. So after those corrective measures came in, there’s been no allegation of any inappropriate behavior since then. So from the board’s perspective the corrective measures were working.”

The plaintiff argues company members were never informed of the allegations against Sands, and should have been.

Uri Sands co-founded TU Dance with his wife, Toni Pierce-Sands, in 2004.

All four women who allege Uri Sands abused them maintain that they joined the company because of their deep love and respect for Toni Pierce-Sands. Some of them started taking classes from her at the age of 13 or 14. They say that’s part of why it was so hard to speak up.

McGrane said Uri Sands has apologized to his wife and is now working to repair their marriage.