Escape the Drama! On Mending Relationships in the Dance Community

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I don’t know about you, but two words I hate to hear associated with my dance community are drama and politics.

Although we all claim not to want anything to do with drama, even though we generally say we want to stay out of scene politics, they seem inevitable. Think you’re untouched? Go to Facebook and enter “kizomba drama,” “bachata politics,” “salsa conflict,” or something similar, then click “Posts.” See how many of your friends are complaining about these issues.

It seems to me that both of these problems come down to broken or toxic relationships, whether among dancers or between scene leaders.

Of course, it’s normal that sometimes we won’t get along with someone in the dance scene. We have all experienced a falling out at one time or another. There may also be some people that we prefer not to spend much time with. I’m not saying we need to be the best of friends with everyone in the dance scene.

However, if perfect unity isn’t our goal, peaceful coexistence should be. If we want to avoid descending into gossip-fueled conflict or resentment-filled competition – or worse yet, making some people give up on the dance scene entirely – there are some strategies we can consider.

Let’s be clear though: there are definitely situations that extend beyond simple drama, especially involving safety. Nobody should submit quietly just to keep the peace in the scene. We’ll come back to that.

In the Heat of the Moment

Photo by Braden Nesin Photography

Photo by Braden Nesin Photography

Your heart is pumping, there’s a roaring in your ears, and you feel your skin heating up. You’re ready to yell, hurl insults, or plot revenge. “THIS ISN’T RIGHT!” screams a voice inside you.

It’s perfectly natural to have strong emotions when something hurts or offends you. I’m in favor of allowing yourself to feel them, acknowledging them – but not letting them dictate your actions in the heat of the moment.

Regardless of what the situation is, the first thing you should do is get some space. Go somewhere quiet where you can process your own side of things.

You probably already have some techniques for dealing with anger or frustration. Practice some self-care. Take a shower. Listen to some (perhaps not dance-related) music. Write down what you’re feeling.

Reflect

When you feel ready, start thinking through the situation. Try to identify what the conflict or offense is really about and whether it might have another side. Are you offended that someone insulted you or a person you love or admire? Or are you feeling insecure about your place in the scene? Are you angry that someone made a move on your partner or “stole” your dance crush? Or are you feeling afraid of being alone? Are you indignant that someone would dare advise you to resign from the performance team? Or are you feeling ashamed of your recent lack of effort or commitment to the group? Are you fed up with another organizer scheduling events that conflict with yours? Or are you reluctant to make room for others to take a leadership role in the scene?

It’s rare for any conflict to be truly black and white. They very often result from unmet expectations, careless words, crossed boundaries, and miscommunication. But it’s a lot more comfortable to be angry or indignant or self-righteous than to look at our own fears and insecurities.

Once you’ve got some perspective on your own feelings, try to look at the situation from the other point of view. What matters to them? What are they trying to achieve? How might their own fears or insecurities have come into play? Are they inherently spiteful and mean, or are they so hungry for validation that they put others down to feel better? Are they sexist or do they lack perspective about the weight of their words? Are they all about sexual conquest or do they enjoy the self-esteem boost of flirting? Are they engaging in power plays or genuinely concerned about the success of a performance? Are they trying to undercut established nights or looking to offer something new and different?

If we can recognize our own human needs and those of others, we can stop vilifying them and work towards understanding. A little compassion can make all the difference.

If you’re having trouble getting perspective, it might be helpful to ask for advice from someone you trust. But be careful not to use this as license to gossip. Choose someone who is outside the situation and can really help you think it all through.

The last step here is to imagine what a healed relationship would look like. Imagine forgiving them, even if they don’t apologize or change. What do you have to lose? How would it affect your friends and the dynamic of the scene?

Communicate

There won’t be any resolution unless there is communication, so don’t hesitate to make the first move. Reach out to them and ask for an opportunity to talk with them. Rather than ambushing them and demanding a response, set up a time that’s specifically to work out the issue in question.

Photo by JSAlmonte

Avoid the temptation to try to handle everything by text message, Facebook thread, or e-mail exchange. While it might feel safer to use a medium in which you can edit your words before sending, it’s also far too easy for miscommunication to occur. We need tone of voice, body language, and maybe even the ephemeral “vibes” or energy to arrive at genuine communication.

Take responsibility first for your part in the situation. That could mean admitting to inconsiderate action or just having ignored them. It could mean confessing some of your own insecurities. It might entail an apology if appropriate.

Whatever the case, be sure that you then explain your side without accusing. You’ve probably heard this advice before: use “I” statements rather than “you” statements.
“I feel like I am robbed of self-worth when I hear someone make comments about the shape of my hips or the way I style.”
“I feel like I don’t deserve my partner. When someone comes on aggressively, I worry that I’ll lose the most important person in my life.”
“I really value being part of this performance team. I absolutely want us to succeed. I don’t want all the work I’ve put in to feel like a waste.”
“I’ve put in a lot of effort to create a dance night that will welcome everyone. I feel frustrated when people are put in a position of having to choose between this party and someone else’s.”

The next important step is to listen. Ask for their perspective and listen to what they want to say. They will probably also have some emotions to express. They may not have spent as much time in reflection. They may not reciprocate your openness or apology.

Even so, listen carefully. Believe that they have good intentions. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Articulate your appreciation for positive aspects of their interactions with others or gratitude for the good they do in the scene. Empathy will build a bridge between you.

This heart to heart, even assuming perfect communication, probably won’t resolve everything. Try to make a plan for rebuilding trust and good feelings between you. It’s okay to make a request, but you also need to be open to theirs. What will it take for you to work well together again? Or at least be in the scene together without conflict?

But what if…

I absolutely support everyone’s right to protect themselves and set their own boundaries. I stand against sexual aggression of all kinds. I know that sexual assault and rape are rampant in the dance world and are largely silenced. If you have a story you’d like to share anonymously, I provide a space for that. I also provide resources and support for dancers who are trying to establish codes of conduct or who are wrestling with the question of banning someone from the scene. I do not support keeping quiet about people who harm others, regardless of their standing in the scene. No one should keep silent simply to avoid drama.

Yes, there are other kinds of situations that result in broken relationships that can’t be mended. Sometimes boundaries are trespassed in ways that can’t be forgiven. Some people really do care for nothing beyond their egos. Sometimes we have to break things off completely.

I think we are too quick to jump to assuming we’ve reached a point of no return, though.

Consider very carefully whether there is truly no way forward. Do you have to publicly denounce this person? Or will you just choose not to dance with them, or not to attend events they organize or work for? Does the community need to require recompense? Is a public apology necessary? Could someone intervene to try to help educate them about appropriate behavior? Or must they in fact be banned?

I do believe that people sometimes cause even serious hurt or distress unintentionally. That does not excuse them from consequences, but it might mean that they can learn to behave differently. I would far rather see someone apologize and change rather than be kicked out of the scene to go forth and perpetrate similar harm elsewhere.

In other cases, we may not be able to mend the relationship, but we can avoid rupturing others. Rather than badmouthing someone who insulted or criticized us unfairly, we can choose to avoid them. We can speak with our money and choose whom we support.

CONNECTION

No matter what, I believe that engaging in communication is far better than the alternatives: at best, living with the awkwardness of always trying to avoid someone; at worst, getting embroiled in conflict or leaving the scene altogether.

It might take effort to establish that communication. It almost certainly will take time to rebuild trust. Yet I know when I think of my dance community, I think of the shared love and ties that we have to the dance. It’s all about the connection we create together.

Cover photo by Devon Rowland Photography.
Special thanks to David Hendershot for his contributions to this article.

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