An Open Letter to Young Women at Their First Swing Dance
Content Warning: This piece discusses sexual harassment & assault.
[Edited 12/11/15 — see addendum at the end]
On behalf of the swing community, let me first say that we’re so glad you’re here! I hope you have such a good time that you come back every single week. You make our dance community richer.
You’re going to learn a few basic steps, enough to get you out on the floor and moving to the music. Your teachers will get started in a few minutes, but first I wanted to talk about what to expect in this social situation, and remind you of your rights as a person.
Your instructors will probably encourage you to accept (enthusiastically, even) every offer to dance, especially if the offer comes from one of your fellow classmates. If you feel this enthusiasm, by all means, accept! Dance! Have fun! Make mistakes! Laugh at them! Try not to step on anyone! Apologize if you do! Just be your awesome self!
But–and this is very important–I want to make sure you also feel good about declining offers. Especially if you feel uncomfortable.
Too often girls and women are expected to smile and be demure, to put up and shut up, all while feeling as though they’d rather be anywhere else. Let’s not repeat this pattern that makes it easier for people–mostly men–to take advantage of us.
Tonight I’m encouraging you to assert your right to be in this space as a full person, a person with bodily autonomy.
It took me a decade to get to this place of asserting my right to a safe space, and I still slide back into harmful, enabling habits from time to time. I’ll sometimes eschew the directness I know is needed if men are going to learn that their advances are not always welcome. I’m trying, with this letter, to save you a decade of self-doubt and personal violations.
Too often, we teach new female dancers to be coy in their refusals, to say we’re “taking a break,” or “going to get a drink of water” in the name of politeness. But this places the burden, as usual, on women to coddle the fragile male ego. Enough. We’re only making things uncomfortable and unsafe for ourselves and the next generation of female dancers.
You’re probably going to be approached by a few older men tonight. They will ask you to dance. Most of them will be great people. But one or more of them might make you uncomfortable. I’m here to remind you to trust your discomfort and act accordingly. You do not “owe” anyone a dance. You have the right to say “no” firmly for any reason. Asserting yourself isn’t rude, it’s your right as a person. Don’t let the social expectation of female politeness bully you into saying “yes” to a situation that you think will make you uncomfortable.
It’s not about the intent of the person who is making you feel uncomfortable. Don’t even go there. That’s what predators want–room to get in your head and create space for thoughts like, “he probably doesn’t mean anything by it…” Nope. Trust your gut. Listen to yourself. Assert your boundaries, and brush off any douche-bag who tries to guilt-trip you about having or setting them.
You are under no obligation to make someone else feel welcome at the expense of your personal safety. You have as much right to this space as anyone else; as much right to your body as any other individual has to theirs. You are not obligated to feel flattered that someone is asking you to dance. You are never obligated to say “yes.”
The men who make you feel uncomfortable are counting on your also feeling too intimidated to stand up for yourself. They are counting on your ignorance of their MO. How could you possibly know that these men consistently target the newest, youngest, most inexperienced dancers in the room? (Welcome to the dance-floor power dynamics.)
These men will position themselves as benevolent, more experienced dancers who are doing you a favor. They expect you to be flattered, or at least taken back enough that the politeness you’ve been socialized to respond with kicks in over any inner hesitations.
These warnings and suggestions should not be taken as an indictment of older men as a category. You can (and should, when you want to) dance with people of all ages and experience levels–there’s fun to be had all around! This is not about advocating for snobbery. This is about remaining in tune with your comfort level, and respecting your very real feelings of discomfort. Predators are counting on you to dismiss your feelings in favor of abiding by social expectation. They look for girls who are young and shy and unsure of dance floor etiquette. They look for girls and women who have internalized the gendered social role of submissive politeness.
It’s time to call bullshit on that dynamic. All it does it take power away from us and hand it to another person.
For too long we’ve let lecherous older men prey on the young women who come here to have a good time, intimidating them into close contact and taking advantage of their naiveté. They hold women too close, they make suggestive conversation, they touch women inappropriately. This often drives women away, which weakens the dance scene and indirectly perpetuates this predatory behavior.
Don’t get me wrong; consensual inter-generational dancing is awesome! Making friends with people of all ages and ability-levels is part of the magic that is this community. All I’m encouraging you to be aware of are your personal boundaries, and to reject the burden of the cultural expectation that says women must make men feel welcome at all times. You have friends here. We’ll back you up. Women stay silent about this type of harassment for many reasons, one of which is fear that speaking up will backfire. The knowledge that our credibility may immediately be called into question, or that we’ll be accused of being “too sensitive.”
Well, that’s not this community.
Earlier this year, a woman came forward to share her experience of being sexually assaulted by an older dancer. Other female dancers soon confirmed his predatory behavior by sharing their own experiences. One of the most common responses to their stories?
“I believe you.”
Prominent dancers in the community spoke out in support of these brave women, and serious discussions took place both online and at dance venues around the country. We all had to process what this meant for the community, and are committed to creating safer spaces for dancers, spaces that don’t create opportunities for predators.
So please remember that you get to say “no” at any time, not just to the initial ask for a dance. If you say yes initially and get out on the dance floor and start feeling uncomfortable with your partner, you can and should walk away from the situation.
You have as much right to be here as anyone, and that means feeling safe and in control of your body.
So let’s practice saying these perfectly acceptable phrases:
“No thank you.”
“You’re making me uncomfortable.”
“This dance is over.”
The more we assert ourselves in this clear, direct way, the more normal it will become.
Let’s make the dance floor a safer space for everyone. We deserve it.
Originally published on contemporarycontempt.com
Addendum: Several swing dancers have rightly pointed out that predatory behavior is not found solely among older men. The older-man/younger-woman dynamic is the most visible example of predatory behavior, and that is why I focused on it. But this power dynamic is by no means the only context within which abuse can occur. Unfortunately, people of all ages have been known to violate others’ boundaries.
There are many other things that must be done to make social dancing a safer space, chief among them educating men about appropriate behavior early and often. The point of this particular letter was to empower dancers who identify as female to trust themselves and refuse to engage with people who make them uncomfortable. I’m hoping that more dancers will feel comfortable paying attention to, respecting, and maintaining their comfort level. This includes enlisting the support of fellow dancers and venue organizers when their boundaries are not respected — whoever the offender might be. The burden is on all of us to make this an easier thing to do.