This is the second installment in a three-part series. If you haven’t worked through the first part, go back to it here and come back later!
You might also want to revisit these questions periodically. Your dance boundaries are likely to change throughout your life, as your level, experiences, and perspectives change.
Now it’s time to consider how you can communicate about boundaries in a way that’s safe and beneficial for you. It might be intimidating at first, especially if you are in a dance scene without role models practicing this. I’ll admit, you might sometimes meet resistance. But in my experience, you’ll also find that very often people are happy to know what will give you a better dance experience. What’s more, you will become an example to others in your dance community who would also like to spend more time in their green zone of enthusiastic, enjoyable dancing!
While this article focuses on sharing your boundaries with others, let’s also keep in mind that it’s important to reciprocate by listening to and accommodating other dancers’ boundaries when we are able to. Respecting others’ boundaries means not harassing or shaming people for acting in a way that keeps them happy and healthy – and recognizing that will look different for different people in different situations.
My thanks go out again to Jeemin Kim of Latin Dancers for Consent & Safety for sharing the workshop material that inspired this series as well as valuable feedback on my writing.
Part II: Communicating Your Boundaries
Write down your answers to the questions in the first two sections individually, then discuss with a partner or group. For the role-play exercises, you’ll definitely want a few people to practice with! These can easily be adapted to community events and dance workshops as well.
E. Communicating Your Boundaries Before the Dance
If you have any particular non-negotiable boundaries that many other dancers in your scene do not, the best way to communicate them is verbally and before you start the dance. This is also a good strategy for when there’s some factor affecting your boundaries in that moment. Basically you ask if your potential dance partner is willing to adapt their dance to your comfort level before you both commit to dancing together.
“I don’t like dips, could we dance without them?”
“I don’t like to have any contact on my stomach, could you please avoid that?”
“I have an old ankle injury. Could we dance without multiple spins?”
“It’s really hot! Can we dance in open hold?”
“I am really tired, would you be up for a chill dance?”
Especially in scenes where setting boundaries is not common, it’s possible some partners might push back or feel threatened by your requests. You don’t need to give in or get into a conflict, but you could clarify that the request is personally important. If they’re not willing to accommodate your request, you can avoid a potentially stressful or unpleasant dance before it even starts.
“I am not questioning your abilities, this is just what I need to feel good and enjoy the dance.”
“I am sure many other people are fine with it, but I am not. Would you still like to dance?”
“If dancing in close embrace is essential to you, let’s dance another time when we’re not so hot and sweaty.”
16. Look back at your non-negotiable boundaries from #14 (see Part I). Try creating a few introductory requests similar to the examples above–but make sure you phrase them in a way you would actually be ready to say. Imagine how you might continue the dialogue if they didn’t initially agree or tried to argue–or perhaps just how you’d end it, since the point is to enjoy your dances, not get into a conflict.
17. Look back at your variable boundaries from #15. Write a few examples of introductory requests, again similar to the examples above but in your own words. Imagine a particular context for it. Consider how you might disengage with a “thanks anyway!” or, if you’re feeling up for it, how you might hold your boundary even if they point out that you have at some previous times been fine with something else or if they have seen you act differently with another partner.
F. Communicating Your Boundaries During/After the Dance
It’s normal to feel reluctant to “bother” someone or “get into it” if they do something that makes you feel uncomfortable. Studio dance culture in particular says that we shouldn’t “teach on the dance floor,” and it can feel like any criticism or feedback falls in that category. But letting someone know that you’re uncomfortable and requesting a change is offering them an opportunity to accommodate you, not dictating how they must dance.
In Part I we considered how, with practice, we can become sensitive to our boundaries and recognize the moment we edge into the yellow zone of discomfort or wariness. That’s the perfect moment to ask your partner to modify so that you can continue to enjoy dancing with them. If you wait until speaking up is “justified” by your being truly in pain or distress, then you are well into the red zone and it will be hard to come back to enjoying.
If your dance partner is willing to participate in this communication, you could both reap the benefits together: relishing the comfortable, happy green zone together and having much more connected, fun dances. Ideally, that interaction will go something like this:
– You make a request for a change, which might be verbal, nonverbal, or both, depending on the situation. For example, if someone is squeezing your hand or arm you might flex or shake it and/or say “Could you loosen your grip a bit please?”
(Check out this article on direct communication and this one on defensive dancing for some ideas.)
– Your partner acknowledges your request verbally or non-verbally and modifies accordingly.
“Oh, OK!” or “Really? Sorry!” or a facial expression and nod. A considerate partner may also ask “How about now?” or similar, with a raised eyebrow and eye contact.
– You can either confirm with a smile and nod or “Yes, that’s great, thank you!” or you can clarify your request: “Actually, it was about your thumb pressing, not the other fingers.”
– Repeat until you are both comfortable.
Of course, we don’t always have ideal interactions. If your partner ignores your requests, refuses to accommodate you, or just can’t understand what you mean, you can choose to remove yourself from the situation. Politely thank them for a dance and maybe for trying, then walk away. Remember, boundaries are about protecting yourself, not policing others. (Although hopefully your scene has a code of conduct with information about community standards!)
And to be fair, if removing your discomfort has now created an uncomfortable dancing situation for your partner, they could also choose to end the dance politely. Sometimes we just aren’t compatible in what we need or prefer. That doesn’t mean either of us is failing, just that it can’t work in those circumstances.
18. Looking at your variable boundaries from #15, imagine some ways you could ask for a modification so that you could get out of the yellow zone and return to the enjoyable green. Remember, these can be verbal, non-verbal, or both.
19. Looking at your non-negotiable boundaries from #14, imagine being in a dance where you realize you are in the red zone and want to end the dance. Create a few possible dialogues with words you feel you could actually say. In some situations or with some partners, you might feel comfortable making one (final) request or warning before walking away.
G. Role-play Exercises
Partner up with another dancer or get a small group together. Using your answers from the questions above, practice these interactions. It might feel silly or scripted, but this kind of practice helps it become normal and comfortable to speak up or take action when it’s relevant. It’s also great practice for accepting others’ boundaries and not taking rejection personally.
See question #16.
a. When your partner asks you for a dance, share a request about a non-negotiable boundary.
b. Ask your partner for a dance with a request about a non-negotiable boundary.
Try it out with your partner sometimes agreeing to your request and sometimes saying they can’t accommodate it. Swap roles and try again as many times as you like.
See question #17.
a. When your partner asks you for a dance, share a request about a variable boundary.
b. Ask your partner for a dance with a request about a variable boundary.
Try it out with your partner giving you both positive and negative responses. Swap roles and try again as many times as you like.
See question #18.
Practice asking for a change or giving a warning during the dance. You might need to explain to your partner in advance what situation you have imagined for the role-play, especially for contexts suited to nonverbal communication. Keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily about giving someone feedback about their dancing, but rather sharing what you need in order to feel good about continuing to dance with them. Again, try a few different situations and swap the roles. Here are a few examples:
a. “Could we please press pause on the conversation and just focus on the dance?”
b. Your partner is holding your hand too tightly. Flex your hand a few times, maybe looking at it to draw their attention. They relax for a little while, but then grip it tightly again. Pull your hand down and free.
c. Your partner is leaning their head in, seeking forehead contact. Pull your head back, but don’t put yourself in an untenable position. They lean farther in. Pull your upper body away a bit (or step out of hold), make eye contact, and say, “I don’t want head contact (right now).”
d. Your partner’s arm or hand is tending to wrap around you too intimately, maybe around your neck (leader) or the side of your chest or down to your belt (follower). Use a hand to pull or push the offending arm or hand back to a place that is comfortable for you.
See question #19.
Practice ending the dance after a boundary has been crossed. Practice verbal and nonverbal options that are relevant to your imagined situations or past experiences. Be sure to try several ways and swap roles. Here are a few ideas:
a. Make eye contact, stop dancing, say “Thank you” with a smile, then walk off the dance floor.
b. Say, “I just realized I’m feeling ____ and I need to stop. Thank you.” Then walk away.
c. Step away from your partner, make an apologetic gesture and expression, and walk off the dance floor.
d. Break the hold by pushing out of the frame, say “Thank you, but I’m sorry, I need some space/a break,” and walk away.
e. Say, “I don’t tolerate _____” and walk away. (This is best for a situation when the partner has violated community standards or otherwise acted with a deliberate lack of respect.)
The more you practice this kind of communication, the more natural it will feel. Be patient with yourself. Even after years of working on this and encouraging others to do so, I still sometimes find myself noticing I’m uncomfortable and yet reluctant to speak up and get myself out of that yellow zone. I do sometimes just use defensive dancing techniques and wait for the end of the song to excuse myself. You will need to find your own way of dealing with your discomfort on the one hand and whatever social pressure you feel on the other hand.
Every time you successfully communicate about your boundaries, you are prioritizing dancing in a way that’s enjoyable for you. And you not only get to enjoy your dancing more—you improve your communication skills and set an example in your community. You may even discover more and more dancers welcoming and valuing this communication!
In the third and final part of this series, we’ll look at several games that use the traffic light concept (the red, yellow, and green zones). This is a great way of introducing ideas about boundaries and two-way communication to your dance scene, as well as an excellent opportunity to put into practice your own increased sensitivity to what brings you joy when you dance.