Consent, by definition, is the permission for something to happen, or an agreement to do something. It’s a pretty simple concept. But for such a simple concept, I find that consent is often misunderstood, abused, or completely ignored — even in the dance community.
Consent cannot be influenced by age, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, politics, or hair color. Consent can be given or revoked at any time, for any reason — whether you choose to stop dancing in the middle of a song, or you ask someone not to do a particular action again. Consent is your right.
Asking Someone to Dance
When I started dancing in Atlanta, Brooks Prumo was a regular dancer in the scene — and after a while, I considered him a friend. One day, I walked up to him and extended my hand — like many dancers do — in an invitation to dance. Or maybe I gestured to the floor or just tried to start dancing… whatever it was, he stopped, and he said something along the lines of “I really appreciate it when someone actually asks me to dance.” Shocked, I asked, and he said yes.
Those words have stuck with me for a long time. With close friends, I slip a little, and I sometimes forget to verbally ask someone to dance — but with acquaintances, new friends, and especially new dancers, I work hard to verbally ask someone to dance when I initiate the invitation. Since then, I’ve told Brooks this story, as well as other leads I consider friends — because honestly, verbal consent is important, even if you consider the other person your friend.
During a Dance
A week ago, I was dancing with a person I hadn’t met before. He lead the turn where a lead placed his hand on my neck and I dipped under his arm — it is a move I absolutely hate. I dislike the feeling of a hand on my neck, and I especially dislike the feeling of being off-balance and disoriented because a lead thinks it looks cool.
I only followed the move because it caught me off-guard (though a small part of me also hates disrupting a dance if I can avoid it). But as soon as I followed the move, I could see his eyes light up. I knew he was probably going to try it again — so I prepared. As soon as he prepped the move, I stopped in my tracks. “I really dislike that move,” I said. He was surprised, and he apologized, and he promised not to do it again — and we continued to have a great dance.
Consent Culture Requires Everyone’s Input
For me, there are a few rules to consent which I try to keep in mind while dancing, and which I hope to impart to new dancers I meet in the scene:
When Asking Someone to Dance
- Ask a person to dance verbally whenever possible
- Try to be considerate of body language — someone might say yes, but if they hesitated or seem tired, it might be kind to offer an “easy out”
- Accept a “no” gracefully — even if you see the other person dancing with someone when they just told you “no”
When Being Asked to Dance
- Trust your gut. If you don’t want to dance, don’t force yourself to dance
- You are allowed to revoke consent at any time
- If you feel you’re being guilted or harassed into a dance, find someone (a friend or an organizer) who can help
- Do not apologize for your lack of consent
Encouraging Consent in Your Scene
- Some teachers require students to ask each other to dance as they go around the classroom; I really love this practice.
- At the end of classes, remember to offer a little advice on consent. I like saying something along the lines of, “It’s polite to verbally ask someone to dance, and anyone has the right to say no to a dance for any reason.”
- Talk about consent as much as you can. Post your Code of Conduct where it’s visible, and consider mentioning consent in your weekly announcements.
- Call out those who don’t respect consent, even if they’re doing it in a joking way. Lack of consent is not a joke.
- Lead by example as much as you can.
On Not Apologizing For Lack of Consent
I’ve been thinking about consent a lot over the last few weeks in particular, and I’ve come to realize we often apologize when we don’t consent to a dance. I will say “I’m sorry, no” when I actually mean “No, thank you” (or just “No”). Consent — or the lack thereof — is never something which requires an apology, because that would imply that you were giving an wrong answer. And whatever your answer is, your choice is the correct answer.
Thank you to Irena Spassova for encouraging to write up my thoughts on consent; you can find her thoughts on consent in Consent Culture in Swing Dancing, where she emphasizes important ways we can all help create a culture structured around consent. I also found An Open Letter to Young Women at Their First Swing Dance thought-provoking, where Rachel Reed hopes to empower young women in the dance scene to assert their consent whenever they feel uncomfortable.