Confronting Rape Culture in Social Dance

The words “rape culture” have gotten much attention lately and as illuminated by the outcry of the “Me Too” movement, they are not just a catchphrase thrown around by feminists, but a widespread epidemic plaguing much of the human race. Rape culture can be understood as a state of collective mentality and social conditioning that materialize in cultural norms that trivialize and tolerate sexual violence.

Taken in a broader sense, “rape culture” refers to an environment that is complacent with any physical and emotional abuse, be it sexual in nature or not. It is an environment where individuals and society as a whole have become so desensitized to abuse that perpetrators may not even be aware of their wrongdoings and victims may not realize they are being victimized. It is a culture where the few victims who speak up about their injuries get shut down as being too dramatic or untruthful while perpetrators are being exculpated. While females constitute an overwhelming majority of the victimized, rape culture is not strictly an issue of female oppression, it is a general state of disconnect between human beings when the bodies of others are no longer seen as precious living spiritual entities but as objects devoid of feelings, a society where it’s acceptable to prioritize one’s desires above those of others.

In this broader sense, rape culture came to permeate virtually every facet of our lives from popular media, song lyrics, everyday jargon, to our thoughts, sense of humor and the very basic way we see ourselves and relate to each other. Social dance scene is no exception.

Social partner dances such as salsa, bachata, tango, swing, zouk, kizomba, and rumba, among others, have been sanctuaries of healing, connection and joy for many generations. Rooted in rich cultural traditions social dances have evolved to be a refuge from the daily burdens, a space of freedom, play, authentic expression and a place to connect with community. Rape culture, however, has cast its hideous shadow even in these safe havens where boundaries are crossed and principles of consent violated on regular basis.

What does rape culture look like on the dance floor?

Blogger Verily Merrily Mary’s account of her first nightclub experience provides a vivid illustration: “I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that my body being present on the dance floor was an invitation for men to do whatever they wanted with me. I did not know that merely walking from one side of the dance floor to the other was “asking for it.” I did not know that it was acceptable that in my struggle to get away from the first guy and telling him to stop, having him grind on me without my permission was supposed to be something I enjoyed as the words “you know you liked it” left his lips. The truth is I didn’t like it. I hated it, actually. And though I was fortunate to have gotten out of the clutches of the second guy who violated my personal space, I was just as angry. The behaviors of those men did not flatter me or make me feel desirable. Instead, I felt like a slab of meat, their plaything with which they could do whatever they liked. They didn’t ask for my name. They didn’t ask if I would like to dance with them. They didn’t acknowledge that I was a human being. Instead, they demonstrated rape culture, behaviors and practices that normalize the stripping away of women’s agencies at the expense of whatever a man wants to do with the woman much like rape does…”

While fortunately most partner dance parties are far from that description, rape culture is very much present in social dance communities and even though it assumes more subtle forms, it is no less damaging. Human bodies get violated and consent disregarded on a nightly basis even in some of the most respected socials and congresses. Here are just a few of many more examples of what rape culture looks like in partner dance; all of these are actual situations that happened directly to or were witnessed by the author(s) or shared by friends:

  • “She is way overreacting, I was just having fun, she didn’t need to run off the dancefloor like that” (after a follower who got thrown in the air despite clearly physically resisting being picked up walked off the dance floor).
  • “I feel like I was dance raped” (coming from a sheepishly giggling new-to-the-scene follower who just twisted her ankle and got a clump of hair ripped out while dancing with an aggressive and likely intoxicated lead). A disturbing fact is that the phrase “dance rape” has become so commonplace that it often gets thrown around as a joke in social dance circles.
  • “I’m never dancing with him again, told him several times no body rolls and he keeps doing them anyway.” (from a distressed follower)
  • “Shhhhh” whispered in my ear while lowering me into a dip after being specifically asked that night not to dip me.
  • Inner monologue that goes “He’s just too advanced for me, I wouldn’t have followed that move if he didn’t force it, it’s not his fault I got hurt, I need more classes.”
  • “She was being way too dramatic, it really wasn’t necessary to make a scene like this.” (Female about another female who lashed out at a group of males making sexist remarks about her dancing).
  • “It was at a dance congress. I was wearing a mini dress and a guy stuck his hand inside my underwear from the bottom and literally touched my vagina”.

Disregard for communicated boundaries, trivializing, denial, and refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by one’s violations are all markers of rape culture that are clearly present in the above examples.

How does rape culture affect social dance communities?

Failure to fully integrate the principle of consent on the social dance floor creates an environment that discomforts and estranges many of its participants. An environment where creative elation is often replaced with distress, sense of unity with alienation and yearning for emotional healing with yet more hurt. It is something that even the most cohesive social dance scenes suffer from. And while this issue can affect anyone regardless of gender or role, it is hardly a matter of debate that female followers suffer the lion’s share of the harm.

The dynamic of leading (done predominantly by males) and following (done predominantly by females) of social dancing often reinforces the cultural narrative of manhood as being dominant and aggressive and womanhood as submissive. This dynamic in itself is neither bad nor good but its important implication is that it creates a power imbalance that puts the follower in an inherently vulnerable position, both physically and emotionally. Effective following requires full surrender, which, without a complete and unwavering trust for the leader, can be a very frightening place. In this tender place of surrender any act of actual or perceived aggression, negligence, or violation of consent from the leader can inflict lasting wounds and shatter the follower’s trust in an instant. Once trust is broken the follower may no longer allow herself to surrender and will remain on guard protecting herself. She will become less responsive to leads which will disrupt connection and make the dance a lot less enjoyable for both parties. If violated repeatedly, the follower may transfer her mistrust to all leaders, shut off her receptivity and constantly stay on guard, or, in many cases, disengage from the dance scene completely. Slower tempo dances like Bachata and Kizomba that incorporate more close positions, sensual styling and require deeper energetic connection between partners, are particularly susceptible to becoming a place of consent violations.

Female followers’ vulnerability on the dance floor is amplified by the fact that rape culture pervades their lives off the dance floor 24/7. It is estimated that 1 in 5 American women experience rape or attempted rape during their lifetime and that nearly half experience other forms of violence or abuse. These numbers are a lot higher in many other countries outside the US and in many communities within the US. When we factor in women who may not have experienced abuse themselves but have been traumatized indirectly through the experiences of other women in their lives, virtually everyone carries some wounds of emotional trauma. What it means on the dance floor is that potentially every woman a leader gets to dance with on a given night comes to the dance floor with painful memories and wounds associated with male aggression that can burst wide open when met with certain triggers. What a leader may intend as a display of passion may trigger a memory of aggression, horseplay may feel abusive and sweet talk may sound like insults. Leaders must understand these sensitivities and treat them with utmost tenderness.

And unfortunately disregard for consent doesn’t end on the dance floor. Dance teachers and event organizers receive regular reports of sexual harassment, assault, rape and attempted rape committed by social dancers against other social dancers off the dance floor in congresses and socials. And it’s almost needless to say that the overwhelming majority of victims are female.

How can we transform the culture of rape into a culture of consent?

As any transformation, it must start with awareness of the issue followed by decisive and persistent action. Dance is often a space of deep intimacy that while not sexual in nature is equally vulnerable and must be built on the same principles of consent. And just like in sexual exchanges, consent on the dance floor is all about communication. To make consent culture possible, as a community, we must acquire the skills and vocabulary necessary to communicate about consent on the dance floor and practice them every time. Every member of the dance community must bear a share of responsibility.

How can leaders cultivate the culture of consent on social dance floor?

  1. Respect the “No”! Social dance floor is a playful place, many followers will communicate softly and at times even jokingly; don’t let the light nature of the communication diminish its gravity. “Please, no body rolls” means “Absolutely no goddamn body rolls!” Same, of course, applies off the dance floor. “No” means No, “I have to go” means No, silence means No.
  2. Pay attention to body language. Does your follower look tense? Is she/he smiling? Does it look like she/he is enjoying the dance? Is she/he pulling away? Does she/he look more comfortable when you slow down, increase the distance, take smaller steps?
  3. Honor your follower’s verbal requests and take feedback seriously. Understand that everyone’s body and comfort level are different. Each follower comes to the dance floor with her/his own set of preferences, physical limitations, and personal boundaries. Respect the differences and do not get defensive about the feedback you get about your leading.
  4. Let the follower decide how close she wants to get. Invite her in and see how close she comes. Do not pull her in and do not make head or face contact without asking. If she is tensing, pushing, or arching back, you are too close.
  5. Drink responsibly. Complaints brought to event organizers reveal that alcohol is a factor in a large number of inappropriate and unsafe behavior incidents on the dance floor and in overwhelming majority of sexual misconduct cases off the dance floor. It is also the case that blaming it on liquor remains by far perpetrators’ favorite excuse.
  6. Never lead with force. There are only 3 reasons why a follower may not follow a move: #1 she is not familiar with it, #2 she is familiar but does not understand your lead, #3 she is familiar and understands your lead but does not wish to execute it. If the reason is #1, forcing the follow though the move is unlikely to teach her the proper way of doing it and may hurt her (if you feel a pedagogical urge, use words to offer to walk through the move you did not succeed with). If it’s #2, using force will reinforce your bad leading habit and may also hurt the follower (if you want to improve, explain to the follower the move you wanted to lead after the song is over and ask for suggestions on how to make your lead clearer). If it’s #3, using force is a violation of your follower’s boundaries and may both hurt and upset her. Remember, your leads should feel like well-articulated gentle suggestions. Use of force is never appropriate.
  7. Do not take lyrics literally. Damian Guzman of M.O.B. Dancers Group notes that lyrics to songs and remixes often have sexual meanings and implicitly ingrain this type of behavior in our culture. It is important to recognize that dancing to songs with sexual lyrics is not a permission to act in sexual ways without explicit mutual consent.
  8. Make connection and joy your primary objectives. Social dance floor is a not a competition! Most followers much prefer simple moves with strong connection and room for musicality and playful expression than elaborate ones they have to struggle to follow. Remember acronym KISS for "Keep it simple, stupid"?
  9. Leave performances for the stage. Many social dancers take inspiration from sensual dance performances they see on stage and are eager to bring performance moves they are able to imitate onto social dance floor. El Tiguere of Island Touch Dance Academy cautions that simply seeing something done on stage is not a permission to do it on the social dance floor. Performing duos are often romantic couples and expressions of sensuality in their performances are often an extension of their relationships outside of dance. Social dancers should not take sensuality in performances as an indicator of what is permissible on social dance floor when dancing with people you don’t or barely know. El Tiguere suggests the following useful rule of thumb “If you just met a person, dance with them as you would dance with your mother or sister.” It is also important to note that, in general, dancing for performance is fundamentally different from social dancing. In choreographed routines each move is rehearsed and anticipated. Social dancing, in contrast, requires in-the-moment sensitivity, clear communication, and distinct etiquette, which is a very different skill set. If your dance training comes primarily from performance teams, make it a point to take classes with instruction geared towards social dancing.
  10. Approach followers with respect. Understand that “sexy”, “baby”, “mami/papi” and similar endearments may not be welcomed by people who don’t know you well; reserve them for close friends who you know not to mind. If unsure, just ask “Is it ok to call you that?”
  11. Allow the follower to choose her own range of movement when performing backbends and other moves requiring flexibility. Provide a frame and a spot and let the follower decide how deep she wants to go. Again, never force a move!
  12. Any acrobatics should be done with explicit (preferably verbal) consent only. Having seen the follower do the trick with someone else is not a green light for you to just forge ahead with it. Ask first!
  13. Nurture trust by consistently following all of the above. Trust is what allows your follower to feel safe with you and is a key ingredient of partner connection and true enjoyment of the dance. Keep it simple, slow down, make sure your follower is comfortable before progressing to more sophisticated sequences. The more the follower trusts that she can follow you without being pushed, rushed, violated or put at risk of injury, the more she can let her guards down and surrender to your leads.
  14. Step in and speak up. As Lorenzo Haire (DJ Renzo) shares “Guys often see it as a “woman’s issue” or we try to remain silent because we know one or two guys who have been falsely accused - or we remain mum because we think what we will have to say may be construed as insensitive. Our silence is damaging.  Just like people who remain silent on racism because it doesn’t affect them. Our silence is deafening and makes us complicit in the problem. When we don’t show our opposition or disgust with aggressive attitudes towards women – we indirectly give it our nod of approval.”

How can followers cultivate the culture of consent?

  1. Remember your social dance Bill of Rights: you have the right to feel safe, you have the right to feel respected, you have the right to enjoy and have fun. The moment you feel like any of the above are missing, do yourself and the community a favor, stop the dance and explain to your leader how you feel and why.
  2. Communicate! Remember that most leaders are decent well-intentioned people who care about your feelings and want you to feel safe and have a good time. Many leaders who you feel are crossing your boundaries do it unintentionally and without any awareness of doing so because no one has ever explained to them what is and isn’t ok. If you feel like someone is crossing lines, assume good intentions and start with calmly and politely asking them to make an adjustment. If your requests are being repeatedly ignored, talk to event organizers, teachers, and other community leaders who may help you get the message across.
  3. If you are trying to communicate through body language and your leader is not responsive to it, use words. “I feel a little uncomfortable when we are this close, lets open up some.” “This is too much on my back, it would help me if we kept the moves smaller.” “I don’t feel comfortable with your hand there, I would prefer it on my shoulder blade.” Smile generously and thank your leader when he/she makes requested adjustments.
  4. Watch your alcohol intake. Muñeca Nieves who leads M.O.B. Sexual Assault Awareness Task Force reports that alcohol was involved in all sexual assaults reported to her organization by dancers. According to Muñeca, in those incidents all parties were drunk but the woman was significantly more impaired than her assailant. A large number of victims were so drunk that they were brought to a place where someone thought they were safe and it wasn't the case. Please drink in moderation! Spiking of drinks with the so called “date rape drugs” is a relatively infrequent occurrence in social dance communities but it does happen so it’s important to stay aware of the possibility and take steps to prevent it. Do not accept drinks from people you don’t know well and do not leave your drinks unattended. Signs of date rape drugs are not always easy to recognize when alcohol impairment is already a factor but they may include unusual drowsiness, confusion, loss of coordination, blurred vision, drastic mood changes, dizziness and difficulty breathing. If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or a friend, seek help from security personnel or other event staff immediately.
  5. Look out for yourself and others. Having a buddy system, network of safe friends, accountability agreements and making departure plans are of utmost importance in preventing sexual assault off the dancefloor at or after dance events. Communicate with your buddies ahead of time about when you’re planning on leaving and how, if anyone should wait for you to leave together and if you’re going to check in at certain times during the event. Agree about what your friends should do if you are not there for a check in or departure at the agreed-upon time. If you’re planning on drinking, agree on who is going to be the designated driver, or make plans to call a cab ahead of time. Experienced ladies, please look out for your new-to-the-scene sisters. Newcomers who are not yet well versed in the scene dynamics and have not yet formed a network of safe friends are at highest risk of sexual assault. If you see a new friend leaving alone or with someone you don’t recognize, take a moment to ask if she is ok, if she would like to wait to walk together or if you could help find a trusted male friend to walk with her. Similarly, if you see someone with a long history of dancefloor misconduct preying on an unsuspecting newcomer, don’t just watch in stupor, gently introduce yourself and alert her.
  6. If you are new, don’t be intimidated by experienced dancers. Leaders who are truly advanced will make even complete beginners feel comfortable, safe and fun on the dance floor. Truly advanced dancers have no need to show off or compete; their only objective is to share the joy of their art. If you feel you’re being pushed too much by someone more experienced than you, do not hesitate to tell them so. Also, be cautious not get swayed by generous attention, compliments and invitations to practice in private coming from someone who seems like a good dancer. It is not uncommon for experienced dancers to use their skill to try to manipulate newcomers into meeting them outside dance floor. Use caution!
  7. Remember that leaders too have their boundaries and all of the advice that applies to them applies to you too! Honor leaders’ requests, be responsive to body language, be respectful, drink responsibly, seek consent and welcome feedback. “Am I too close?” “Am I putting too much weight on you?” “Is head connection ok?” It is not overkill to ask these questions!

How can teachers and organizers cultivate the culture of consent?

  1. Lead by example. Model good communication and respect for consent on and off the dance floor.
  2. Act when called. Be sensitive and do not trivialize when dancers approach you with concerns. You won’t be able to solve every complaint or make everyone happy but making honest effort will go a long way.
  3. Teach consent. Make discussions of consent, dance floor etiquette, partner communication and safety as important parts of your workshops as you do dance skill acquisition.
  4. Refrain from using oversexualized imagery in marketing. Not only can it be offensive, it also sets the tone for the event and what is considered appropriate.
  5. Be mindful about music. Make sure your sound setup follows best practices and volume levels are kept within safe ranges so dancers can hear each other when needed. Do not play music with lyrics that objectify and oversexualize human bodies, contain misogynistic language, glamorize violence or may be offensive to any demographic group.
  6. Require responsible serving of alcohol from your venues. Do not ignore any instances of your venue’s neglect to follow responsible serving practices. Elevate any concerns about responsible serving to venue’s management immediately and request assurances of corrective action being taken.
  7. Establish written community behavior standards and zero tolerance policy of sexual misconduct and otherwise abusive behaviors.
  8. Establish a dedicated consent culture team. Many events and social dance organizations already have a structure in place for how dancers can report any consent violations that occur on and off the dance floor. Many organizations have also taken proactive steps to educate the community about the issues and preventive strategies as well as conducted active interventions such as consent and safely patrols at the close of the night to make sure everyone is departing safely. Such measures go a long way in preventing offences and sending a strong message that consent violations will not be tolerated.

In Conclusion

Violations of consent on and off the dance floor are a serious problem in social dance circles that more than often goes ignored, trivialized and normalized. While some genres have higher incidences of consent violations than others, the issue touches virtually all social dance communities. Many veteran teachers and event producers share that the problem has been on the rise in the last decade and continues to get worse. Fortunately, there is a growing recognition across the community of the magnitude of the problem and a resolute willingness to work towards a culture change. With increasing awareness, honest self-reflection, discipline and personal responsibility embraced by more and more community members we are confident we can build a culture of consent making social dance community a safe, fun and welcoming place for everyone.


Umka Pele et al.