Why Are We Uncomfortable with Safety?

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The idea of making dance scenes “safer” isn’t new, but it’s also one that creates a lot of discomfort. Why is that? What can we do about it? I spoke to several people across styles and continents to bring you some answers.

Our Dance Home

Social dance scenes offer so much to us. We come to escape from our task-driven lives and have some fun. We are moved by music and learn to express ourselves creatively. We build meaningful friendships and even call each other family. In many ways, our dance scenes are our homes.

If keeping our homes safe is important, why don’t we want to talk about consent?

Rowen Dawson, founder of ACSS, commented, “I think people don’t want to deal with it because they want to have fun, so they’d rather not deal with the things that aren’t fun.”

For others, it’s just not clear that there’s really a problem that needs addressing. Dancing is a time-honored way of getting to know potential romantic or sexual partners, after all.

“Unfortunately from the lens of masculinity, there’s just the view that these women are at these events, dressing and carrying themselves in certain way, so they might be open to this attention,” said Miguel Zaragoza, organizer of San Francisco’s Hot Bachata Nights.

And hey, sometimes they are. Dance scenes with no flirting would be artificial spaces, and a lot of that attention is exchanged in a fun, unobjectionable way.

An Unfortunate Truth

Recently there have been more obvious cracks breaking through our dance scenes’ friendly façades. 2015 saw multiple accounts of sexual assault in the Lindy hop scene. In 2016, three women discovered their unborn children would all have the same father, someone they’d unknowingly shared at a Latin dance event. In 2017 came the revelation of a prominent Brazilian zouk DJ ignoring and then denying his HIV positive status, failing to warn partners that became infected in turn. And the #MeToo movement has had women from every social dance scene raising their hands if not publicly revealing their stories.

Many communities have dealt with accusations of rape and sexual assault, but even if you haven’t heard of such a case in your community, many things can cause dancers to feel unsafe, and ultimately leave the scene.

A breach of consent is any interaction in which someone does not want to do something or have something done to them, and yet it happens anyway. Sexual assault is at the dark end of that spectrum, but breaches of consent include stolen kisses, an unwanted caress, holding someone uncomfortably close, or repeated pressure to meet one on one.

So are breaches of consent really happening regularly in your scene? I think it can be hard to recognize the way our norms can allow for interactions that make some of us feel threatened.

Most of us learn how to dance (or behave) by watching what others do. Miguel explained, “There’s a kind of glamorization especially on the level of instructors. A lot of them have said, ‘Just because I dance this way with this person doesn’t mean that’s okay for you to do,’ but I think that that message is being lost.”

What’s more, when we open ourselves to connection and trust our partners, we leave ourselves open to getting hurt. “The problem is that because in the dance scene there’s a unique opportunity to connect with people, there’s a special vulnerability,” said Billy Myles of Kizomba Harmony.

So while trust can be rewarded with beautiful connection and relaxed intimacy, losing that trust has terrible consequences for our dancing. We thinking about protecting ourselves rather than enjoying the moment and the music, and we’re far less likely to take the risk of dancing with someone we don’t know.

The Problem with Coming Forward

Our dance scenes usually encourage us to give others the benefit of the doubt, to avoid making a scene, and be accommodating rather combative. Now, being polite is important for maintaining a happy dance scene! Unfortunately, an unintended consequence can be that we expect victims to deal with or accept breaches of consent – unless they are truly egregious – and patterns of behavior are overlooked.

“Experienced dancers will share information with each other about bad experiences and avoid the guilty parties,” noted Lydie Costes, director of Triangle Zouk, “which often leaves newcomers to suffer through those dances.”

Many never come back.

Thus plenty of our scene members are left completely unaware that these incidents are even occurring, which makes it hard to recognize how deep the problem runs. However, it’s a risky proposition for anyone to come forward more publicly. The worse the breach of consent, the more shame that’s attached to talking about it. No one, regardless of gender, wants to be seen as a victim – or to be judged for having “let it happen.”

That’s one reason I created the Survivor Stories page on my site. It’s intended to be a place where dancers specifically can share their stories anonymously, to help them be heard without fearing the social or even legal consequences. It’s an opportunity to show more publicly the types of stories we hear all too often privately. Yet even here, the majority of people feel hesitant about sharing.

What Now?

Please, let’s not fall into the trap of blaming one another. Many people who breach someone’s consent do so unintentionally. Norms are changing. For some people, it’s not clear what’s allowed anymore. David Hendershot, a Denver blues dancer, commented, “We live in a culture where men are suddenly afraid of consequences, especially for actions that cause unintended harm.”

But these changes are happening for good reason. Those of us advocating for safer dance scenes aren’t here to kill the fun or punish people. We want people to enjoy their dancing without feeling threatened by unwanted attention or contact. We don’t want new dancers to decide it’s not worth coming back.

Let’s have compassion for one another. Challenging a dominate culture and bringing positive change takes effort and above all time and patience.

That said, there are plenty of small actions that can make a significant impact, especially when taken collectively.

1. Consider consent in your interactions with other dancers.

A few months ago I shared an exploration of consent and tips for teaching it for social dance. I’ve also collected some resources on the topic, so there’s plenty for you to explore, but here’s one example:

“Say you try putting a hand on someone’s hip. If they say no or pull away, you stop, but if they lean into it and then wrap their arms around you, that’s perfectly fine,” offered Max Pogonowski, in Sydney, a director of Swingin’ the Blues. “There’s a lot of people who are worried about misinterpreting nonverbal communication, and to them I would say ‘Then ask!’”

2. Give feedback when someone makes you uncomfortable.

This will increase your discomfort in the short-term, but I promise it gets easier with practice. Consider getting a few friends together and trying some role-plays.

“Giving advice on the dance floor is usually a taboo, but not where your safety is concerned – you could be helping the person’s future dance partners,” advised Lydie.

3. Check in with your friends or a newbie

When you see someone looking uncomfortable during a dance, take a moment to check in with them. That could be nonverbally during the dance (perhaps even leading to an interruption) or more likely a quick chat afterwards.

“Sometimes we are so focused on the dancing we forget about the social part,” Rachel Meth of Embodied Dance commented. “Let’s have time for reflecting and talking about what’s happening on the dance floor, and not just when we see something that looks dangerous or suspicious. The better we know each other the more we will be connected and innately want to take care of each other.”

4. Listen

It’s incredibly important to listen without judgement when someone shares a story about a breach of consent with you, particularly when it’s serious. It may or may not be appropriate for you to take action afterwards, but the first thing your friend needs is to feel heard.

“Everyone says they’re against rape,” said Kate Molski, a DC blues dancer and advocate, “but when someone says your friend raped them or someone you know and are dancing with did something nonconsensual…people have a harder time taking action.”

5. Bring up the topic of consent if your scene leaders don’t.

In many dance scenes, all of these ideas are pretty new. You might find you’re paying more attention to it than your teachers or organizers.

“In my opinion, what is missing is the education of both men and women on what is ok and what is not. Just looking from outside it might feel like if you dance blues you are totally open for physical contact,” shared Polina from Blossom Blues in Zurich. “It took me more than a year to understand these kind of things and I find it very important to educate people as early as possible.”

This doesn’t have to mean a big intervention, though. “If you’re in the class with a teacher, you can ask questions about consent if the instructor doesn’t,” Billy pointed out, “like, ‘What are the consent considerations, because it seems a little sensual?’”

Our Community

As a regular member of a social dance scene, you have far more power than you realize. We pay a lot of attention to teachers and organizers, but you outnumber us. Your attendance tells us what you appreciate. Your money funds the scene. That’s why I think we should take Rowen’s advice: “Be mindful of the culture you’re creating.”

Advocating for safer spaces isn’t about making rules and shutting people down. It’s about “creating this beautiful space where every moment you’re dancing you’re really in that moment, and every moment you are in that community and every interaction with your friends and dance acquaintances should feel like a moment that you want to be living,” shared Kate.

“As we become clearer about consent and ground ourselves in thinking about fostering safety,” reflected Lior Vered of Triangle Zouk, “it also becomes easier for us to trust each other, to take risks, to be vulnerable and as a result, to elevate our dance.”

This is what we are working towards. And dance scenes around the world have been making huge strides in this direction. Next month, we will examine some policies that have had a positive impact. Check back then for plenty of practical advice for organizers and people taking a leadership role in their scenes.

In the meantime, check out all these resources on consent, including downloads from ACSS you can adapt for your scene. You might also want to read Tanya’s article, focusing on how event organizers can handle allegations of sexual misconduct.

Special thanks to David Hendershot for his invaluable contributions to this article’s final version.

Cover photo by Benoy Varghese

1 Comment

  • Tanmay Pradhan says:

    “In 2016, three women discovered their unborn children would all have the same father, someone they’d unknowingly shared at a Latin dance event.”

    Ummm… this is not sexual assault. Stop overreacting and blaming men. Thanks.

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