Consent Culture in Swing Dancing

I love swing dancing. I’ve been doing it for six years now, I’ve done it in various locations, I’ve taught and DJed and organized and pretty much if there’s a job or activity within the swing dance community, you can bet I’ve done it at least once. (Excluding all music-producing positions, for lack of skill.)

And recently, there has been a big surge of support for being proactive about making dance events a safe and welcoming space for all who choose to attend. Which is fantastic! But with this relatively recent popularity, this movement has been filled with well-meaning people sitting around saying “sure, we want to provide a totally safe and welcoming environment for everyone, but, don’t we have that already?”

No, you don’t.

“Do we really need to say anything official?”

Yeah, you do.

“I talk to everyone who comes to dance every week, none of them strike me as creepy or predatory!”

Congrats, that’s not what we’re talking about here, and also, you’re probably overlooking some subtle cues that I’m not going to get into right now, but statistically, yeah, you need to take a second look. (And get a gold medal in extroversion, probably.)

“Ok, well, how can I help make this happen?”

Now we’re talking.

First of all, if it reaches the point that you’re dealing with a complaint, then I hope you deal with it respectfully, fairly, and with compassion. But at that point, your actions are reactive. And at that point, you really should have people who have been trained in mediation, counseling, or at least have met up with each other and seriously discussed how they respond to complaints, from procedures within the organization to hypothetical scenarios as a guided practice. And all of that is super important.

But now we’re gonna talk about proactive actions – building a culture of consent around swing dancing.

Teachers

The teachers are the first people of authority that new dancers interact with, and the most consistent authority figures for those who choose to come back. There’s several ways teachers can start new dancers with fantastic consent habits. Here are some of my suggestions:

End of class wrap up
Probably the most obvious spot where actively encouraging consent culture is an easy addition, because I bet teachers already do this. At the end of class, to wrap up, you can lift up your students by commenting on how well they did, do a visual review of things you covered, and most importantly, tell them what to expect at the social dance.

That’s your in, right there. I’ve said, heard, and overheard many different versions of this over my years dancing. What I say now is a combination of things I’ve absorbed, of my fellow teacher’s wonderful contributions, and things I find important and comforting. The highlights are this:

  • Dancing is meant to be fun! You don’t need to try lead fancy things or worry about your skill, you just need to be willing to have fun for three minutes with your partner.
  • Anyone can ask anyone else to dance – and anyone can say no to a dance, for any reason. Respect each other and each other’s answers.
  • If something hurts, say “ow”! If it happens again, ask one of the teachers to help you with why it’s hurting.
  • If at any point you feel uncomfortable at this event, talk to us, talk to the organizers, talk to the door volunteer – we want everyone to have a fun and enjoyable time.

Yeah, it’s a little long. I haven’t quite found anything that I feel comfortable trimming down. Ultimately, especially in beginner lessons, you are welcoming new people into this activity, and you want to give them a few guideposts along the way.

In class consent.
This is a new idea to me that I’m trying to implement well. A fellow teacher in my scene mentioned it (and he heard it from another instructor, and so on and so on) and I loved the idea of it, but I struggle with feeling it is implemented effectively.

The idea here is that as you rotate and have a new partner, you verbally ask that new partner to dance. Every time. It gets everyone into the mindset of verbal communication and practicing consent.

The part that I’m trying to streamline is how to make it more welcoming for either party to ask (it’s easy to just have the person rotating always ask, but both people need to be in the habit of asking others), how to encourage a positive environment where even in a class setting, you can say no to dancing with someone who makes you uncomfortable and it won’t be a big deal, and from a teaching logistics perspective, how to keep the class from talking too much as they do this.

I’m still working all of those out, but it’s a process I think is very much worthwhile. If we actively include asking for consent and respecting the answer you’re given in classes, it sets the tone for the social dance as well.

Organizers

As I mentioned before, I’m not really going to talk about reactive responses to complaints here. But you can (and should) proactively make sure that your teachers and staff are aware of the code of conduct, that you have a code of conduct, that it includes clear ways to talk to someone in person and through email or phone, and that it’s visible and promoted.

A policy by itself is not going to necessarily scare anyone away, but it’s there more for the fact that it will encourage people to keep in mind that this is an actively maintained safe space, that there are certain social expectations of the people who choose to attend these events, and that if anyone breaks any of these social expectations, there’s a way to tell someone who will listen. A code of conduct is a proactive action on behalf of the organization. Having to use it is a reactive necessity, and why it’s very important that drafting it and implementing it is taken very seriously.

Dance Regulars

You’ve been coming to dance for a while. You have friend groups, you’re comfortable and confident, you’re feeling included in the community. You’re the kind of dancer that newer dancers watch from the sidelines sometimes, or maybe you’re still relatively new-ish, but you’ve met most of the regulars and feel comfortable in the group as a whole.

You’re leading by example.

Practicing visible consent as a more well established member of the dance community is the easiest way to maintain a consent positive culture. Always asking people to dance verbally, always either accepting or denying verbally, and always respecting the answer you are given will go a long way to all of those newer people who are making small talk with you or are standing shyly to the side observing everything. End dances in the middle if you have to. Show consent and respect in action.

The other half of that is talking about consent, honestly and clearly. If someone doesn’t respect your answer (or someone else’s answer), call them out on it. Use explicit words, like “consent”, “respect”, “inappropriate”. Don’t silently dismiss someone that pushes you to change your mind when you say you’d rather not dance to a song with them, actively tell them that you’ve answered their question, and them not honoring your answer and your comfort level with the situation is disrespectful and unnecessary.

And if you don’t feel comfortable or confident doing that yourself, use the resources your organization provides you with to help. Talk to a staff person and have them help you. Then talk about how the situation was handled and resolved because the staff person helped you, making it more likely and acceptable for people to ask for it when they need it.

 

Consent culture is hard to maintain already – we’re working against a lot of institutionalized bias about what is socially expected, and coming into every interaction with a power dynamic due to a variety of factors that we’ve picked up from every day life.

Consent should be given enthusiastically and continuously. The dance is a conversation, and at any point, for any reason, that conversation can end with a “no”. It can end before the dance begins, when someone asks you to dance in the first place. It can end during the dance, if someone is disrespectful or inappropriate. It can end after the dance, when someone says something that makes you uncomfortable, and you decide to not accept dances with them again.

Our mission, is to internalize what organizers, teachers, and fellow dancers practicing positive consent are trying to embody. Be respectful, and don’t be afraid to say no, and to stick to that no if it comes to it. Don’t be afraid of saying it loudly, or talking to someone in charge if you didn’t feel it was respected.

We’re all trying to build a new and positive interaction standard. It’s not something that happens with the flip of a switch. But it does happen with the cooperation and efforts of everyone involved, with proactive conversations and actions, and with good and consistent evidence of it being practiced and implemented by all members of the community.

 

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