In social dance, we often exist in a bliss bubble. We are used to physical touch and trusting those around us. But, these conditions also make it easy for people who are predators to manipulate or prey on us, our friends, and community members.
More often than not, the first allegation against someone won’t get a lot of traction unless there is substantial proof. But, in most cases, predators don’t commit a one-off assault. Rather, there’s a pattern of behaviour. One person may have experienced dance floor groping; another may have been kissed by force. Then, you may find out a third person has experienced something much, much worse.
Grey Line vs Black Line
I think of predatory behaviour as falling into two categories: grey and black. Grey is lower-level behaviour where there could be some misunderstanding that led to the incident. For example, not realizing that a partner wasn’t as “into it” as you, or failing to take a ‘no’ as a sign to stop flirting. In most cases, this is primarily behaviour that does not have a lasting or particularly strong impact on the victim. It’s still wrong, but is usually either motivated by a lack of awareness, a miscommunication, or low-level wilful ignorance.
Typically, the accused in these situations is more likely to respond well to corrective feedback and will modify their behaviour. Unless they show an unwillingness to change, continue to engage in this behaviour after feedback, or refuse to acknowledge the error, it is possible for these people to be re-integrated into the community in a constructive way.
Black is behaviour where there is no possible explanation for the behaviour that could be reasonable. For example, continuing to have sexual contact with someone who explicitly tells you not to, sex as a result of blackmail or force, or sexual contact with a person who is asleep or incapacitated. These cases are much more severe in nature, and (if supported by reasonable facts) are a sign that the perpetrator should not be allowed to participate in the social dance community in any way.
To me, a likely or proven black line behaviour is not redeemable, and should result in complete ejection in the person’s involvement. These people are a major danger to the dance community.
When the Predator is an Idol
An internationally-regarded DJ has sexual contact with a woman in a car, and publishes the video online.
A beloved MC is accused by 11 women of sexual assault.
A celebrated teacher’s past of grooming underage dancers is revealed.
An international artist is accused of raping dancers in his hotel room.
Another DJ spreads HIV to unknowing women.
These stories are real. They all have happened in different social dance scenes. And, sadly, it is an incomplete list of all the things that have happened.
It’s easier to take action if the predatory behaviour comes from a person who is already ‘weird’ or is a more casual member of the community. It is fairly easy to decide to ban or limit their involvement in the scene. Sadly, our dance idols and celebrities are not immune from being predators. Even worse, their status affords them a sense of untouchability and automatic credibility. After all, no one wants to believe that their favourite dancer has done such things.
These people also have easier access to community trust. People will willingly go to their rooms for a private lesson. They’ll believe them when they say something is “normal” in a dance. And sometimes, the power differential will lead to coercive behaviours. In the worst cases, the celebrity may even threaten the victim into silence (“No one will believe you if you talk, and I’ll make sure you can’t go to any event ever again.”)
It is important that we do not tolerate this behaviour even when it is an influential person. Our community leaders are the ones who set the tone for how others will behave, and I think it is completely reasonable to expect our professionals and leaders to hold themselves to a high standard when it comes to appropriate behaviour. If a community leader or dance celebrity has engaged in predatory behaviour, they should not continue to hold a position of influence and power within the community.
“But… What if the accusations are false?”
Often, by the time the accusations are public or a community takes action, the situation is very, very bad. Community leaders are very scared of falsely accusing someone. If there is not a substantial amount of information that indicates there’s a problem, most organizers and community leaders are hesitant to act.
I understand why. There are such things as false accusations. But, they’re rare.
Even if there was one incident, it does not mean it is false. It does make it harder to decide whether to take action against an accused individual because these cases become primarily he-said-she-said.
“So shouldn’t we immediately take action?”
Not necessarily. There is a fine, invisible, and ridiculously difficult line to draw. It’s not right to eject someone from the scene on a rumor. But, at the same time, we need to keep an open mind that predators are not necessarily who we expect them to be. And, if we start to see a pattern of bad behaviour or are faced with mounting information that indicates they have probably done what they’re accused of, we need to take action.
“So shouldn’t the accuser have a court case? Wouldn’t a guilty verdict be a good reason to act?”
This isn’t necessarily the right threshold for a few reasons. First, dance scenes are international, so the accused and victim may be in two different places. It’s very complex to bring charges against someone in another country or court system.
Second, the process of pressing criminal charges is a horrible, emotional, and exhausting experience. It’s terrible enough that a lot of people who could press charges don’t, simply because the possible outcome is not worth it for them. They’d rather focus on healing and moving forward.
Third, court cases usually take a long time. And, while it’s going on, most parties won’t share information about it. By the time the case is actually completed, it may be way past the time where action is needed.
Finally, a criminal charge (at least in common law jurisdictions) has a very high bar for conviction: beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that, even if we likely think someone is guilty, they’ll be acquitted unless there is enough information to say that it is beyond unlikely that they didn’t do the crime. In a sexual assault case, this is very, very difficult to prove.
Given all of this, it is completely reasonable to act on information without a court finding in order to protect our communities.
If it Happened to You (or someone you know)
Sadly, not all of us know what to do when we experience predatory behaviour. Or, even if we do know, we freeze in the moment and are unable to act. I was once followed to my hotel room at an event. I should have turned around and went straight back to the ballroom. Instead, I attempted to enter my room and he pushed his way into the room behind me. I’m incredibly lucky that he didn’t escalate the situation beyond intense verbal pressure for sex.
But, if he had (and this is important): it would not have been my fault. It also wouldn’t have been my fault if I had invited him to my room. Or, if I stopped him after a kiss. If it has happened to you, it wasn’t your fault. Even if they told you it was. Even if other people question you on it.
If you or someone you know have been the victim of a dance sexual predator, please tell the organizer of the event or community. And, if they don’t do something, tell a different trusted organizer or community leader. You don’t have to go public. You don’t have to lose your anonymity. You don’t have to be willing to go to the police. But please: do try to tell someone. Even if it’s been years. Even if you don’t want the organizer to take action on it.
If you are willing, do make a police report (if the behaviour was criminal). However, I understand not everyone is in the emotional or mental position to make such a decision.
If Someone Tells You
If you are an organizer, teacher, or other community member, please do not brush off someone’s account of assault. That doesn’t mean you must jump to banning the person forever – but the time when the alleged victim comes forward is not the time to take a stance. It’s the time to listen.
Sometimes, an alleged incident is incredibly low-level (for example, “he/she looked at me in a lustful way”). These may simply warrant reaching out to the person accused, or (in some cases), no action at all. And, even if the allegation is more serious, the alleged victim may ask you not to take action on it or not to share the information.
If the victim asks you not to share the information or their name, I urge you not to. If they have trusted you with that information and asked for it not to be disclosed, respect that. It may mean you mostly can’t take action on the situation, and that is fine. At least you now have some knowledge, and can keep your eye open for any future behaviour that may warrant further investigation or action.
If You are a Professional
Dance professionals are in an interesting position. We can be friends, lovers, and teachers to the same person. And, by necessity of the teacher-student relationship, there is a power dynamic that functions strongly in our favour.
As a result, it is very easy to misuse that power. In some cases, this can be relatively mild – like persistently dancing closer-than-usual by exploiting the dance trust the other individual has in you. In other cases, it can be more severe – like placing pressure on someone for sex, while ignoring the fact that students are often eager to please their idols even when they are uncomfortable with the situation. As a result, it falls to us to recognize these potential situations, and react accordingly.
If you are a dance teacher, it is extremely important to ensure your partners are enthusiastic about their experiences with you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have relationships with dancers in the community – but it does mean that any partners you do have should be completely agreeable to it.
I do recognize that in some cases, there are cultural differences. In some places, a playful ‘no’ is used to mean ‘try harder’. And, if you are functioning in a place where that is the norm, and if no one feels assaulted after the encounter, it may have been acceptable at that time. However, if you travel (or if you suck at reading body language), you are responsible for ensuring that the person is playing that game – and not actually saying no. If you are unsure, you are responsible for figuring that out. If you are not able to figure that out, it then becomes your responsibility to stop.
“But, a “no” should always mean no!”
Well… yes, and no. In some European and Western cultures, this is the norm. If you travel in the USA, Canada, a ‘no’ should be automatically considered a full ‘no’. That is the standard. But, our culture and our reality does not always interface well with the reality of some other places around the world.
This does not mean non-consensual sex or sexual behaviour is OK in those places. However, it does mean that what a “no” looks like could be different depending on where you are. Once again, every individual has the responsibility of ensuring they know what “no” looks like in their current environment.
If You were Accused
I have had to deal with several accusations of assault before. The majority of these have been relatively low-level. And, the majority of these have been resolved in a way that did not involve a person’s full ejection from the dance scene, while still helping the victim move forward from what happened. The main theme that underscored the resolved situations was that the accused individual was willing to examine their behaviour, apologize, and take steps to ensure it did not happen again.
This accountability for one’s actions is critical. A defensive, unwilling reaction to accusations is absolutely a major red flag when it comes to the risk of future bad behaviour. “Cultural differences”, “they were asking for it”, and “but they didn’t say no” are not defenses to sexual harassment or assault. And, by refusing to acknowledge that something went wrong in their interpretation of the situation, the accused is indicating that they do not understand or do not care that what they did hurt someone. This is unacceptable.
If you are accused of something that happened, take accountability for your error. Use this to do better in the future. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but it does mean you do have to do better.
“But, I’m absolutely positive nothing happened.”
If something truly did not happen (for example, you never had any sort of contact with someone that says you forcibly kissed them), it’s a different scenario. This type of false allegation is possible, but (in my experience), rare. And, if there is no information in either direction, people usually won’t take action on a single incident where the two people have a completely different recollection of what actual events took place and where there is no other information to indicate what really happened. You may be watched more closely, but you probably aren’t going to lose your place in your community.
Strategies for Organizers and Community Leaders
There are many great resources now available to help organizers implement or structure policies and codes of conduct. ZenZouk has a great Zero-Tolerance policy that can be tweaked to accommodate other events. Rachel Cassandra has written a great guide on the implementation of such policies.
Thinking about how you would deal with problems (should they arise) is a critical component of being prepared to deal with poor behaviour. The next step is deciding what to actually do about it.
Your code of conduct can also be reflected in artist contracts. It should set out the rules for behaviour, as well as a reporting mechanism. It is also a good idea to include the possible actions that may be taken for bad behaviour.
Preventing bad behaviour
In addition to having a code of conduct and setting expectations for your professional staff, there are other ways organizers can dissuade bad behaviour. For example, limiting the availability or event tolerance of drugs and alcohol.
Some other ways are avoiding marketing the event as a ‘wild party’, which often invites interest from people who are more interested in the wild party than dancing. Instead, focus on the ‘dance’ elements, and market the event as an experience for serious dancers. Other environmental factors, like extremely low lighting, can also on occasion contribute to what people think they can get away with.
Avenues for dealing with bad behaviour
If you are an organizer or community leader and you have received concerning information, there are a few options you have. These are some of the strategies I have used for dealing with poor behaviour:
1. Do nothing: In some cases, behaviour may be isolated, unclear, or low-level enough that action is not necessary.
2. Mediate: If the accuser and accused are open to it, you can help them resolve the issue directly. When there were no bad intentions, this is frequently the best and more effective option to resolve the issue.
3. Issue a verbal warning: For lower-level matters, speaking with the person accused may be enough to let them know that this behaviour will not be tolerated. This can also include setting specific restrictions on their behaviour, or providing a warning that any future bad behaviour may result in them being banned from the event.
4. (If a pro) Do not hire the accused: If behaviour regarding a pro is very concerning, you can elect to not hire them for your events. If you already hired them, you can cancel. I’d advise always including a clause about cancelling the contract in the event of accusations, even when they aren’t taken to court. It doesn’t mean you have to act on it, but it can make you more comfortable pulling the plug if an issue does arise.
5. Ban or limit the accused: If a person is accused of something serious and you think it is true, you can ban them completely from your event or limit the activities they are allowed to participate in.
6. Speak with other organizers or community members: If you have major concerns regarding an individual, you can share this information with other organizers or scene leaders in the interest of protecting your community. In rare cases, it may become necessary to publicly share the information.
(You can find a more comprehensive guide for organizers here)
A Safe Scene
Every time something happens in any scene, it breaks my heart. It doesn’t matter if it happens in Lindy Hop, Kizomba, WCS, Zouk, Salsa, or Bachata. This behaviour doesn’t belong in our communities. And, for the most part, we are lucky. The vast majority of the people we dance with aren’t predators. Even among those who cross some boundaries, most are low-level, not malicious, and are willing to change.
However, we need to take action when these things happen. We need to draw a line that this behaviour is not tolerated, and that we will do something when someone does hurt any of our dancers. In the end, our community is largely a wonderful, supportive place. Let’s do our best to keep it that way.