This is a blog about what do about dance scene creepers, or people that make others uncomfortable with their words or actions. From solid criteria about what constitutes creepiness, to how to have conversations with people in your scene, this is an attempt to talk about a really uncomfortable topic that has plagued the dance scene for a long time. Now, if you are a male reading this (or writing this, i.e. me) chances are pretty high that about 2-3 women (hopefully not too many more) in the world have a story about how you gave them the creeps at some point in your life (hopefully when you were young or a teenager). Chances are you learned from your mistakes, made adjustments and moved on. Some people don’t with out a gentle nudge, others never will. It’s not about finger-pointing, or moralizing, it’s about being a better person than you were yesterday, and taking a critical look at something that has failed to get adequate attention in the swing world for a couple of decades.
Some actual example hard conversations I’ve had to have in real life with people who’ve attended my events or classes
- Don’t pick people up at the end of _every_ dance, or any dance for that matter. Really.
- Stop asking people out repeatedly.
- Don’t bring knives to the dance and show people. Again, really.
- Don’t insist on walking people to their car.
- Don’t lurk.
- Don’t lead aerials on unsuspecting people.
- Don’t stroke people’s hair. *sigh*
- Don’t ask one person repeatedly to dance.
- Stop telling people they are beautiful (a tough one because there was discomfort caused, but I believe the intent was more or less genuine)
- Don’t ask people to make out with you in the back room.
- Don’t force-press yourself on people at blues dances.
- Don’t kiss people’s necks while blues dancing.
As president of Savoy Swing Club, I’ve also had to deal with people being disallowed to events for other reasons. Point being, I’ve had lots of uncomfortable conversations.
Swing dancing is a fun, and typically safe environment. It’s a place where people come together over their shared love of a era, an activity, a feeling, and that music. That jazz music speaks about triumph over hard times, of love and the spirit of the Jitterbug. I think perhaps there’s not many things more addicting that the feelings that swing dance brings.
It’s also a complex and nuanced social world. To complicate things, there are notions about partner dancing which are both sexist and easily (and incorrectly) justified by our historical references, because of false values we’ve held as a community (i.e. “never say no to a dance, ever!”), or because the dance has existed in several eras of less progressive times. Today there is a growing awareness around consent, gender equality, entitlement, marriage equality and on a larger scale, income equality, privilege and systemic racism. I think one would be hard pressed to say that the world is a place where all people are equal in terms of opportunities, power, voice etc. It will never be a perfectly safe one, or even one where justice is served equally to all people, but we have to try. In short, I think our community is enriched by the fact that we look out for each other, we change with the times, and we try to hold and promote values that have all of our best interests in mind.
This year has been a sad one for Lindy Hop. Personal stories have come to light about abuse of power, coercion, sexual assault and rape. There have been people taken advantage of financially, and trust misplaced with events that were supposed to celebrate our best ambassadors. It’s not my intention to paint the Lindy Hop community as a bad place, because I truly believe that it is not. Lindy Hop isn’t a utopia and there is no way to escape that there will be bad people who take advantage of vulnerable situations and people, or even good people that have a few lessons to learn. What we need is to call out things we see happening (rather than sweep them under the rug) so that we can have fun while protecting ourselves. We need to be safe, and also sate our own need to continue feeling bigger, better, more euphoric feelings. I believe we made excuses for people who were good dancers (and still do to some degree), and I think we ignored a lot of things could have been said earlier on, but they weren’t. I think the world around us has also progressed too, and now is a more enlightened time to address these things. And we certainly don’t live in a perfect world, but we do live in one that is changing all the time, and that we can change as well.
All over the web, over Facebook and in conversations after dances we’ve been discussing, sharing information, even joking as a way of dealing with the drama, and mourning. Also planning, changing and deciding what our communities are going to be like. Some articles on the topic is that they devolve into long, winding arguments without clear points. I hope to find some clear actions items, and illustrate some scenarios for the sake of discussion; some which I’ve observed or partaken in personally and some that I’ve made up for illustrative purposes.
This blog is an attempt to look at a complex issue, and offer a few suggestions. I’m not here to moralize or look down from a high horse. I’m here to share my own lessons and ideas. I’ve found the line that’s comfortable for me by sometimes crossing it in my life, and not without regret. I’ve dated other dancers, I even dated a student once. I’ve had to talk to people who attended my events, and had to tell friends they were being creepy. I’ve navigated murky waters of room parties. I’ve looked away when something should have been said. I’ve made good and bad decisions in my own interactions. I’ve held less than enlightened opinions and had less-than-enough empathy for people who’s experience is different than mine. I overcame the stigma around therapy and went to a lot of it in my life to understand myself better, and to have more functional romantic and personal relationships. I’ve read a fair amount of books on the topic. I’m not a expert by any means, just a dancer with observations.
Changing minds is hard. I’ll talk about that more below. Talking to people who make others uncomfortable is hard, and I’ll talk about that too. Understanding a thing which is close to us because of our own desires to succeed socially, and because of how we place Lindy Hop teachers on a pedestal also complicates the issue.
I’ll share one of my experiences
Once a long time ago, I went to swing camp Catalina with my dance team. We were young, I think I was about 24 at the time. I took my dance team, about 10 of us. We rented two houses on the island for a week’s stay. Ages ranged from 17 to 30-something. I’d never been to a Lindy Hop house party, nor had most of our team. One night we went to one after the dance. Drinking ensued. There was a dancer (around 30+) from another city laying the charm on thick to our youngest dancer, 17 at the time. I had promised her parents that she’d be safe with us. We stuck around the party for an hour or so, and when the group was about to leave, the young dancer told me “no”, she would be staying out a little later. I looked into her eyes and I made the judgement call that she was impaired, and I took her back to the house with the group. She was livid. About 5 of our group thought I did the right thing. About 5 of them thought I was out-of-line for pulling her away from the party. Our two houses split. Suitcases were moved; one house with the people who thought I acted in good judgement, others who thought I overstepped my bounds by taking her away from a potentially dangerous situation. Arguments were had, and our team was forever changed.
Unfortunately it was enough friction for me to find ways to be less involved from that point on when I saw things going down that I thought were shady (which is the wrong thing). I also closed all of our team programs to people under 18 (which ultimately made sense for my situation). I also knew from that moment I had better start figuring out if and when I should involve myself in the business of other people, and I better start learning from other people about it, instead of going with my instinct. If I knew then what I know now, I would have had a lot more words, ideas, facts and experience to make that decision on the fly.
Another story, one of the saddest things I ever heard from a young female dancer. She told me that if propositioned at a party, she was likely to make out with a fellow for a few minutes, and just ‘grin and bear it”, rather than say “no” and have him treat her unkindly for the next 6 months. I thought right then and there that there has to be a better flow of information. That people should know that it isn’t ok to be bitter towards someone if they don’t feel like engaging you romantically, or to press these situations.
“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
― Oscar Wilde
Why am I writing this blog?
As I was writing this, I said to myself over and over “Just leave the topic alone, others can deal with it.”.. I had to really push myself to put this blog out. I aggregated many ideas, I’m adding a lot of personal experiences, and I’m being as honest as I can be about some very sensitive topics.
Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; …the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.
Speaking up and talking about really uncomfortable things with honesty and open mindedness is not a path to popularity, and the Lindy Hop world seems obsessed with popularity. We all want to be liked by others who are good at things we love, and those who dance, perform and dress in ways we admire, and who we see at the big parties we call “events”. But, ultimately honesty and community building seem more important to me at this stage of life, if for no other reason than I want people feel empowered. I want them to feel like they can speak up and make the wrong things right, and I want them to enjoy dancing, and even dating in the dance world without fear.
Still, it’s a tough thing. As we move toward a more progressive world, there are those that take the opposite, and more extreme views. It’s terrible to respond to someone’s thoughts of fear, mistrust and lived experience by invalidating it with another social ill. Change is always met with resistance, and sometimes it seems the harder we try to change someone’s outdated opinions, the harder they will hold on to them.
Things that will be helpful to read ahead of time
- Read this comic about privilege
- These comics on consent
- http://www.thetrackpodcast.com/episodes/007 Please, listen to this. My words fail here.
- This article on Swungover
- My Friend Group has a Case of the Creepy Dude
- The C-Word
- An Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping
Power, creepiness, coercion, sexism and the law
One useful mental construct I like to use to understand social/sexual interactions between people is to analyze their behaviors across a few different spectrums.
Let’s take an example situation: you might see new dancers interacting in hotel parties with much more experienced dancers who may have age, social capital, and skill in abundance compared to the starry eyed newbie. I think we start to step on the line at this point. I doubt there is one instructor, male or female, worldwide that hasn’t found themselves in such a situation, Most of the time it end in some innocent flirting, sometimes in consensual hookups, sometimes in relationships, and every once in a while in a tragic loss of trust or a transgression on an otherwise trusting person. In all questionable situations, I like to analyze what actions happened, and which of the following spectrum(s) they fall into: Power, Sexism, Coercion, Illegal behavior. Some behavior in the Power or Sexism spectrums ask for a change in thought, or care. Behaviors in the Coercion spectrum generally ask for a sincere desire to change, probably some therapy, and maybe banning. Behaviors in the Illegal spectrum almost always require banning from the community.
Some examples of the Power Spectrum
- One person who has more privilege than another person
- One person has more social capital than another person
- Self worth
- Physical strength
- Political clout
- Leading tricks, dips, or airsteps on unsuspecting newbies
- Employing a person vs being their employee
- Descending upon newbies exclusively or almost exclusively
- Side teaching in classes is often both a display of disrespect to the teachers and a way of expressing power over younger, newer dancers
- Knowing how to be a “Pick up Artist” or other types of NLP or manipulation
The Sexist Spectrum
Sexist and generally reprehensible behavior that sometimes happens in our community
- Not listening to victimized people
- Slut shaming, or the act of calling someone out on promiscuity. Calling people “star-f**kers”, or the like.
- When a woman complains about a person who makes them uncomfortable other men defending that person, and/or label her the problem
- The common practice of telling male leads to “just find someone” to teach with, and not paying out lead and follow equally.
- Complimenting body parts over choices
- Saying things like “I love it when women wear dresses” or other insinuations that women fulfill a role in the male experience
- Negging (https://xkcd.com/1027/)
- Drifting hands, while dancing or otherwise
- Leaders getting opportunities like teaching or DJing sooner in their career than a follow
(These are red flags that people are sensitive to but may not rise to the level of an actionable offense, but may warrant being on-guard around said people. A lot has been written on the topic, which I encourage you to read)
- Standing too close to people
- Complimenting people on their body parts
- Always turning the conversation towards sexual topics
- Bragging about sexual prowess
- Cornering people to trap them in conversation
- Overtly commenting about people’s attractiveness
- Hugs that last too long
- Not respecting someone’s significant other or relationship status
- Coming up behind someone and touching them, particularly for acquaintances
- Encouraging people to drink after they’ve refused
- Inviting someone to a hotel room under fake pretenses
- Insisting on giving a love interest a ride home, or walking them to their car, even if they refuse
- Touching people in any way that is unwanted
- Making excuses for people who do the above
- Pressing the issue after a “not interested” or “no” has been vocalized
- Seeking physical affection from another person when that person is not in a good state of mind to make good decisions
Just plain illegal
- Seeking physical affection from another person when that person is inebriated or otherwise incapacitated
- Using threats
- Using physical force
- Continuing to contact someone when they’ve drawn a boundary
- Having relationships with someone below the age of consent
- Many other things which should be obvious, and I won’t go into, because this blog is about the grey area
The reason I call these spectrums out is because I think that some of them have a grey area, the others do not. The power spectrum is one we inherently live with all the time. Hardly any two people are equally powerful in any social situation. One person will always be stronger physically, one will always have had a better upbringing, one will always have better self esteem and one will always be a more admired dancer. When you see two people interact and there is a gap across their power spectrum, it is a reason to look closer, but it’s not always a reason to act.
For instance when you see an age gap in two people in a relationship, it might be a reason to look a little closer, but not necessarily indicative of coercive or unhealthy relationship. You might see an employer flirt with an employee, and that’s reason to look closer, but only sometimes is it an actionable offense. You might see a popular person giving a lot of attention to an unknown person. The important thing here I think that power differentials and coercive behavior are often conflated.
Whenever I see a possibly interaction, I first try to determine which of these buckets it falls into and choose my actions accordingly.
So lets say you’ve observed a behavior from the above, and you want to make your scene safer. And, you are the appropriate person to have that talk. So perhaps you have someone in your life, or in your scene who you’ve decided (hopefully after talking to a few people) that they need to be confronted about a behavior. No one wants to have to do this.
Here are my tips:
1) Make it short. People who may be manipulative have a way of pulling others around to their way of thinking. You are also less likely to water down your message. The longer a conversation goes on, the more likely you are to soften what you need to say.
2) Start difficult conversation by making sure you won’t lose your temper or get upset. You are going to get one of three reactions.
- Silence, or denial.
- Violence – although this can just be emotional violence, blaming, denial or anger. (“How could they say that!”)
- An open minded reaction, the person reticent and genuinely willing to listen and make a change sort of attitude.
If you get silence or violence, you aren’t communicating. There isn’t a trust between you and the person that you are telling them something worthwhile.
Think about a private lesson you may have had in dancing. You need two things: You need to believe the teacher knows what they are talking about, and you need to believe they have your best interests at heart. Same with talking to a transgressor. They have to believe you are at least partially right, and that you have their best interests at heart.
3) Within a couple of minute you have to decide if you want to fix person or rid your scene of them temporarily or permanently. A red flag is when someone feels good about achieving a bad result. For example, if the confronted individual is immediately dismissive of the other person’s experience, or launches right into an insult of the offended person. It’s a sign of defensiveness or justifying bad behavior. When a bad result has been reached, i.e. someone feels terrible, no other party should feel justified in that. Self-righteousness is a way that people transfer shame to others. You might have to start over again with a different tactic.
4) Separating story from fact (the most important one, to me)
Stories are things we tell ourselves about things that happened. Facts are specific, verifiable and are tied to actions.
Here’s an example situation: You’ve gotten reports of a person who lets their hands linger too much while standing on the sidelines at dances. It’s making people uncomfortable.
You’ll likely get a _story_: which is a person’s narrative about the behavior:
Example “story”: “I’m just a touchy person, my family hugged a lot, and I’ve always been this way”
Your job as the person talking to them is to turn this story into _fact_:
Example fact: you’re touching people too much (
specific, objective and verifiable) , people have complained and you need to stop, or I’ll have no choice but to disallow you from my events.
5) Don’t let the person turn themselves into a victim or a martyr
Example situation: Someone confides in you as a venue manager or representative that a certain dancer has been insisting on walking people to their cars,and they haven’t been attending much as a result.
Beware of the confronted individual that turns himself into a victim.
One person’s facts: “He kept insisting on waking me to my car, it made me uncomfortable. I just felt like I had to tell someone.”
The offender’s “story”: “I’m just a nice guy! People don’t get me. She’s cold and doesn’t realize how dangerous it is to be outside alone ( painting her as naive and himself as a hero and a victim)
Or, better yet
“She doesn’t appreciate that I’m a nice guy!”
Now he’s not just a victim, he’s a martyr too.
6) Avoid painting the situation as the entire community. I would choose to say “I have something I need to talk to you about”, rather than “Everyone has been talking about your behavior”. You risk losing a chance to connect and right the wrong if they feel attacked.
7) The best way to change someone’s mindset is to start off by thinking of them as a good person. Perhaps even an awesome person, except that they have a really backwards behavior or opinion about one thing. All people are heroes in their own mind. No one leaves the house saying “man, I’d really like to victimize someone today”. If they do, they’re a sociopath and need to be eliminated from our community and arguably our society. Start by listening. As you listen, it all comes down to one question “would a reasonable, compassionate, decent person have this mindset”. Then you can formulate a good, fact-based argument for why something needs to change.
These four words rule these kinds of conversations: Communication, empathy, understanding, action.
How to apologize when you’ve crossed someone’s boundary.
If you believe you’ve offended someone or made them uncomfortable, there are some important rules for an apology.
- Say “Thanks for telling me” if someone tells you you’re being to forward, etc. Then stop.
- Explain that you were wrong. “I misread the situation, and I did something I regret.”
- Apologies, in order to be valid need to come with an admission of wrongdoing AND a change in behavior. They also do not come with “conditionals” e.g the word “but”.
- I’m sorry but I was drunk <- this is an excuse, not an apology
- I’m sorry. <- this didn’t come with a commitment to change
- I’m sorry, and I’ve scheduled some time to talk with a friend/therapist about what I did, and I’ve made a promise not to ever do that again. <- Getting there
- A good apology also does not request a response. If you apologize to someone, don’t ask them to write back, say “it’s ok” or otherwise assuage you of your guilt. Let them do what they will with the information. Apologies are not about making you feel better.
Making the way for a safer community.
While some parts of our dance (like the majority of footage we have, or our music, or fashion) are stuck in time, that doesn’t mean that we, as people have to be. We’ve failed to some degree on the following things, in my opinion
- Communicating what kinds of behavior are acceptable
- Making a clear-cut and logical system for allowing people to report inappropriate behavior
- Helping those with influence or skill to use said influence or skill for good.
- Supporting people who have been victimized.
- Not hiring people who’s behavior is questionable.
That being said, here are some action items for scene leaders
- Make a point of offering opportunities like teaching, DJing etc equally to male and female community members. Remember that there are social factors that come in to play that make it less likely for a female to ask for these opportunities than their male counterpart. While you might think this is an issue more of sexism, it also impacts abuse reporting. It’s important to make sure you have women represented in the leadership of your community, as women often look to other women to report behavior to.
- Make it clear that shady behavior won’t be tolerated
- Weave messages of personal safety into your teaching. For instance I open say “Whichever partner wants more personal space gets their wish granted.. so if someone moves you to a close embrace, and you’d rather not be in close embrace, move away.”
- Talking to your beginner class about it being ok to say no to a dance.
- Normalize the idea that there is nothing inherently sexual about “a dance”, even a slow close one.
- Find ways to make it ok to report any bad behavior, without fear of social repercussions.
- Write a safe spaces policy and public it on your website so people know that you are actively thinking about this. This by itself will not change things, but people need to know there is a policy, and a path for reporting.
- Make the effort to tell people when there has been a complaint about them, they can’t change what they don’t realize is a problem.
- As a team leader, I recently added a section to my team intake for that asks two questions: Is there anyone at this tryout who you would feel uncomfortable partnering with, and is there anyone in this room that you would feel uncomfortable attending regular practices with. I got some surprising answers, and was able to talk to an individual in our scene.
Ways as an individual can make the world a safer space
- Keep an eye on your drunk friend, male or female. Alcohol has been lowering inhibition and enabling stupid decisions for thousands of years. My friends have rescued me from drunken fights, drunken ex-texting, drunken loudmouthing, drunken dancing to electro-swing and other bad decisions on many occasions. I appreciate them for that. I have also opted to pull female friends away from dangerous situations, or at least ask if they want an “out”. There’s a reason they call it impaired.
- Do not minimize someone’s experience. If they say someone makes them uncomfortable and is “creepy” do not instantly defend that person or try to rationalize their behavior (“He’s just socially awkward”etc). Listen, validate, and then keep your eye on that person.
- Encourage the offended party to articulate their boundaries if they feels they can. Women are socialized to smooth things over and make it “not awkward.” But, people should appreciate the opportunity to correct course early, before being labeled a creeper or a threat.
- And let them know you’ll back them up. Don’t let others pull the “bitch” card or make her the problem. The guy doing uncomfortable things is the problem. Call out people who are not backing them up.
- When you hear stories of creepy behavior, do not launch into your own litany of experiences, as if one person experiencing inappropriate behavior somehow cancels out someone else’s experience. It’s not ok, even if we all experience it.
- Listen to stories told by your friends. For me until it became more of a media issue, I don’t think I ever paid it much mind. Listen and believe their lived experience.
- The power of bystander intervention is strong. Like at the airport, if you see something, say something.
- When you do something, ask yourself if a balanced, sensitive, respectful person would be doing whatever you are doing right now.
- Read what you can on the topic
I hope that we can make a safer, more positive space. I hope I can contribute to that actively. Suggestions for improving this resource are welcome.
* Authors note: Some people have asked about the praying mantis photo. This is actually an old inside joke from when I lived in Denver. Back then, we lived by the old “you can never say no to a dance” rule. And there were people who knew this, and they would slowly stalk others, moving ever closer, with their hands up like a praying mantis, getting up the courage to ask. We had a signal: when someone touched their ear, it meant to save them from this eminent dance they could not say “no” to. And so we played this game, getting around the lack of consent for a dance. Thank goodness we’ve progressed since then.