Rethinking Consent on the Dancefloor

My debut into the world of partner dancing happened in 1995 at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. That summer I attended a week long church sponsored camp called, “A Time For Youth,” that focused on training 14-18 year old young men and young women the finer points of etiquette around dating. We learned which fork to use, and when. How to properly escort a lady, and be escorted. Why it’s important not to honk from the driveway when picking a lady up for a date. And of course, we were given daily partner dance lessons, during which I learned the Cha Cha, Waltz, and Swing.

During one of the dance etiquette sessions the topic was brought up on how to handle a situation where a lady does not want to dance with the gentleman that has asked. The answer given to my impressionable mind was a significant pillar in my thinking toward consent for at least the next decade. The facilitator of the workshop, a woman in her 40s to 50s with teenage children of her own, strongly told the ladies how they were to act. “If this is the first time the young man is asking you to dance, the answer is always yes. After that initial dance, however, you may politely decline.” I’m sure she went on to give some tactful methods of how to politely decline from there. She sure had a lot of tricks for how to gracefully handle all kinds of awkward social situations.

The overarching sentiment of this instruction reveals a somewhat compassionate view of the fragile self esteem of the young men who are given the responsibility in this culture to do the asking. For many young men finding the courage to ask someone to dance takes monumental effort, and of course, even if the young woman is disinclined to dance with the boy, she might find out that he’s a good dancer and actually a good guy! The subtext, however, is sneakily one of the problematic frameworks that leads to women being disenfranchised and overrun by men that has been shown to be prevalent in our culture. What young women are being told in this interaction, is that they need to honor the emotional fragility of the man over their own personal emotional needs and desires - at least the first time.

My current thinking on consent goes like this:
A person has the right and responsibility to enthusiastically participate in activities that bring them joy, provided their enjoyment of said activities does not infringe on the rights of others, and that consent has been derived from all parties involved.

In this scenario a person should be able to withdraw their consent at any point along the way. It doesn’t matter which time it is the boy asks the girl (or the girl asks the boy, or really any configuration imaginable), consent must be sought for each time, and can be granted, and withdrawn freely. If we are to be concerned with the fragile egos of those being rejected, the answer to develop methods to train emotional intelligence. There are ways to handle rejection with dignity and respect, that also prevent the terrible self talk that can paralyze a person in fear and anxiety when they are told no. Imagine a world where you were taught as a teenager skills for how to handle your disappointment (“suck it up” does not count as a skill set). On the other side, imagine if we train the upcoming generation of women that they can voice their opinions openly right away, even when confronted by a man! Perhaps even developing skills at negotiating these difficult emotional landscapes in a way that honors all parties involved. When she is asked to dance, and does not want to, she has the right, and the responsibility to say NO, but perhaps can suggest something like, we can go get a glass of water and talk for a moment. (The specific doesn’t matter, but the framework is to redirect the moment to a different scenario that she would be more comfortable with).

Since I retired from the DanceSport world my wife and I have enjoyed quietly attending some dance classes for the more social club dance styles, most recently Zouk. This dance style is a derivation of the infamous Lambada, and central to its language is a lot of body rolls that have a very sexy and sensual visualization. It really is an awesome dance to watch, and a lot of fun to do. In the limited amount of time we’ve been participating, however, on at least 3 occasions a woman has voiced concern about doing a body roll against the body of her partner. Seems like a pretty legitimate concern to me. I’ve been appalled by all three times, three different teachers have said, “well that’s just Zouk, if you don’t want to be doing that you shouldn’t be doing the dance.” (I’m not making up the quotes, one of the teacher’s literally said that).

Here’s the problem… Implied Consent. The logic says, if you want to dance Zouk, you have to be willing to rub your body on someone. I actually found the student after class one time and talked with her and told her what the teacher said was bull shit (forgive the language, but sometimes it is necessary to call it like it is). There is no reason in Zouk that you have to rub your body against another person, or do anything you don’t want to do. Doing your body roll 12 inches away from your partner is just as viable as doing it against his body. YOUR BOUNDARIES MATTER! I will submit that body contact is absolutely critical in a lot of dance movements, especially when rotation is involved. But having said that, those moves also tend to be advanced skills, and generally are done within partnerships of people that know each other well enough to be comfortable in contact positions.

Many life lessons are taught on the dance floor. My dance training has informed my personal relationships on and off the dance floor. It’s time we shift the culture within partner dance to prioritize consent over all other concerns. If we change the way we view boundaries, and train people to handle rejection in productive ways, we can empower dancers to increase their emotional intelligence and provide them with tools that will impact all of their relationships.

Chad Brooks