Crisis of consent and gender in a social dance

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Over the last two weeks, it has come to light that a highly respected international lindy hop teacher abused his position in the scene and sexually abused many young women. I am dumbstruck. I am outraged. I am profoundly concerned with how we move forward as a global community. The survivors who have come forward to share their experiences are incredibly strong women and I can only empathize – but I don’t think that’s good enough. I started lindy hopping a month shy of my 19th birthday, in a scene where I was the youngest person by four years for several years. I learned from Steven Mitchell, I have friends who’s dancing was dramatically shaped by his mentorship. We have suffered a sucker punch as a community. There are far smarter people then I am having a thoughtful and vital dialogue around creating a safe space and environment where vulnerable people are protected in our scene. These conversations surround vital codes of conduct, social monitoring and tactics.

I wanted to touch on something I’ve been thinking about over the last few days that’s aligned but slightly tangential. I think we’re having a crisis of consent.  I should say that this all came about after a conversation with my teaching partner where he asked, ‘why are you a better leader, then I am a follower’? Well! When I started dancing, there were many ‘creepy old men’ in the Toronto dance scene. I learned how to lead because it meant that I could save friends from these leaders by cutting in on the next song. It was a survival skill for the social dance floor. I will say that Toronto Lindy Hop have done a strong job of hearing and reacting to community members’ concerns since this time, but why did we all have to wait years for this kind of feedback and conversation? In the 10 years I’ve been dancing, I’ve been groped, grabbed, held on to and pulled on to the dance floor. I have had men say in appropriate things to me while dancing, hold me to close and not ask consent. It is a light hearted environment where I often rely on my humour to get me away from these leaders. And it’s worked well! But I feel like I can do more. I know leaders who here in the London scene get pulled, bullied and guilted into dancing because somehow by spending their personal money and choosing to spend their free time in a ballroom entitles another person to dance with them whether or not they want too. Why can’t we say no? Why do we feel shame around calling someone out on inappropriate conduct on the social dancefloor? Why is does the responsibility fall on the organizer when it should be on each and every one of us to socially monitor each other? Dancing is sexual – we touch – but it is consensual! In that, you must ask. You must ask for a dance verbally or non-verbally (if there is a language barrier) but there is a need for consent. There is also a need for entitled behaviour to go fly a kite. If someone says no to a dance kindly, take it with grace. What if everyone led and followed and everyone valued dancing with each other regardless of gender or traditional dance role? That would be a world where there was lead and follow balance and perhaps higher understanding and empathy towards one another. How do we make this better?

I teach, I am a community leader. I have a responsibility to keep my friends and students safe.

I also have a responsibility as a woman to diminish male patriarchy on the social dance floor. We are equals in this dance. We need each other in either role. It is when we value one partner more than the other that we create the kind of power and hotbed for bad people to do bad things. I feel that we do value leaders more and there is an element of misogyny in that because leaders are often men. It’s movement after all – something that isn’t necessarily gendered. I’d love to see more performance and teaching partnerships of men dancing with men where both are agile and strong and one isn’t camp-ing up the ‘follower’ role. It feels like a bit like a panto.

I also think the conversation happening now is the most important in my and our personal dance history. How do we equalize the value of leaders and followers, how do we hold ourselves (every community member) accountable and ensure the safety of vulnerable people and what do we as a community stand for? The lindy hop community is growing and that brings more people and not all people are good – but how do we make sure we know that we have done our best to be a place where everyone can celebrate, dance and collaborate? I am having that conversation with myself and my peers and I ask you for help, guidance and your perspective.

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