tl;dr Social dance has a consent problem but its community-building power is amazing. Some day, I hope we can find a way to make this power truly effective and positive.
One of my earliest memories is going to the family dance with my…family (surprise). We’d do some reels, some ceilidh dances, a ridiculous grand march, a snail walk, folk dances from Russia, Israel, South Africa…sometimes we’d sing, sometimes there was food. It was always a good time.
I grew up on social dance. First at family dances, and once I became a little bit older, I joined my family at contra dances. When I got fed up with contra, I fell into the international folk dance scene for a while, before going off to college in a different country and never looking back (my mom asked me to go to a contra dance during my first year to scope out the band and I refused, she never asked again).
I am mainly going to discuss contra dance because I did that at a particularly formative age that has had a huge impact on my life since and because some of the problems that exist in all social dance communities I have been part of are more visible and easier to talk about in contra dance.
I left social dance for a huge variety of reasons, some were small little annoyances, some were specific to certain communities, some were giant reflections of terrible things in our society.
In the end, it all boiled down to consent – I did not (and still do not) enjoy being touched without my consent. Even while you could technically claim that I consented to certain kinds of touch by participating in the dance, you could also equally claim that I was forced to give that consent. Remember, social dance is a community activity and, for me, it was a family activity. I could either consent to touch, despite being uncomfortable with it, or not participate in my community and family activities. Is that kind of pressure really consent?
That is also ignoring the way my lack of consent was ignored when it should not have been. When I was younger, older adults, even strangers, would pick me up during a dance because I was small and cute. They thought it was funny when I glared at them and demanded they put me down and so, over time, I was conditioned to smile at how proud they were of themselves for picking me up (they always seemed to think they were the first person to ever do that). During a dance, certain moves require slightly more closeness. I would put my hand at the distance I was comfortable with, and the person I was dancing with (usually an adult and a man) would then ignore it and put himself as close to me as possible. There were also the people that would pick up my hand and condescendingly move it to where they wanted it, claiming that they were teaching me to be a better dancer.
This started before I was ten.
Let me make this clearer: I was taught, before I was ten, that the boundaries I set were insignificant and that other people were allowed to redefine my boundaries based on their wishes. I was taught that this was normal and something I should smile at and something I should be thankful for.
When I was around fifteen, I would bring friends to dances and lecture them on how important it is that if someone asks them to dance and they don’t want to, they are allowed to say no. They would shake their heads at me and inform me that that wasn’t polite and saying no made them feel bad. We would hide in corners and talk about all the pushy, older men that made us uncomfortable. There was even one older man that would invite himself to the older teenagers’ after-dance skinny dipping. No one felt safe saying no.
The problem was that, even while I knew, to an extent, that this was wrong, I was not able to recognize exactly how fucked up it really was until I had not gone to a dance for years.
I am now incredibly skittish about attending any kind of social dance – even ones that are far away in distance and content from what I attended when I was younger.
About a year ago, a friend of mine organized an LGBT tea dance at her church. I was wary of going because of aforementioned terrible experiences with social dance, but I wanted to support her, she was someone I trusted to care about my wellbeing and I heard there would be good cake (I’m pretty easily swayed into things by cake).
It was a WONDERFUL time – I didn’t dance loads (finding a partner is a huge social stress for me that I am terrible at) but I felt safe, I enjoyed the people I got to dance with, and I was reminded of why I had started my entire dance life in social dance spaces.
There’s a particular magic about a group of people coming together to dance. It becomes particularly magical, when it is more about the community and social connections being built, as opposed to the kind of skill-building you get in a dance studio.
See, in dance class, in a studio, we still have this cult of the teacher. Even if we’re learning social dance moves or attending class for the social aspect, the teacher and the skills they are teaching us are the focal point.
Even when there is a “teacher” in social dance spaces, they are the facilitator of the dancers’ good time, not the teacher. The entire point of social dance is coming together and building connections. The dance, the teacher…that’s secondary.
I fucking love that.
I’m still not running back to social dance spaces. Honestly, I’m still terrified, but it was good to remember that there is a reason why social dance is amazing and important. And it makes me wonder – how can we build spaces for social dance that are truly positive, safe spaces?
How can we reconcile the absolute fucked-upedness of a lot of social dance spaces with the community it offers?
How can we use social dance to build our communities in positive, healthy ways?
I’m not sure yet, but it’s definitely something on my mind.
[note: I’m well aware that this does not at all get into issues around racism and cultural appropriation in folk dance communities. That does not mean they are not important! I am still figuring out the right way to express my thoughts on these matters. But, in the meantime, please be aware that folk dance communities are also doing pretty poorly in these matters, alongside issues of consent.]