Since I started dancing again, going on 4 years now, there has been a monumental shift in the dynamics of the international swing dance scene in regards to safety, mostly due to brave persons coming forward with their stories of sexual assault and even severe abuse. The majority of scene and event leaders were supportive, decided to get educated, and adopted policies. A “safe spaces” movement was born.
This post is mostly about the responsibility of organizers vs. the responsibility of attendees. For background, I have spoken with a lawyer in length about this topic. To boil it way down, the event staff only has to make an effort to create a safe space by having and posting rules and attempting to back them up when asked. This does not mean it is their job to police all the guests and make sure they are behaving. The person(s) that notices any rule-breakers actually has the burden to report it directly and immediately to staff.
So, when you attend a dance event, you yourself are responsible to try to keep yourself (and others, by observation) out of potentially dangerous situations. The event organizers would have to be grossly negligent to be liable for anything that happens to you, meaning they knew that a situation was dangerous, i.e. exposed floor nails that others have previously complained about or a person banned from another venue is present and they knew about that, and you have proof that they knew.
There is also a lot of debate about what you are consenting to when you say “yes” to dancing with someone. It is your responsibility to warn someone if something that is intrinsic to the dance is off the table for you. If you have a laundry list of dos and don’ts that you rattle off before a dance you will probably have a very small pool of willing partners, but at least they will know the boundaries in advance.
Now… what can you do to keep yourself out of harm’s way?
–Make sure the venue feels safe to you. Do they have rules posted, have attendees sign a waiver, or both? Do you know who runs the event or venue in case you need to report someone for breaking a rule (or law) and are they present? Do you trust they will enforce their rules? Is the venue structurally sound (smooth/dry floors without potential to trip, slip, or fall)? Room to dance where you won’t be run into people or furnishings? Air conditioning? Water to drink?
–Make sure you are physically and mentally prepared. Observe the activity. Are you fit enough to do the style? Does it require you know how to spin or jump or spin while jumping? Have good core strength? How’s your balance? Can you breathe properly to do an aerobic type activity for 3-4 minutes? Are you wearing the appropriate clothing and shoes? Did you take any prescription medications you need? Are you sober and/or at least thinking clearly? Did you take any lessons? Did you warm-up and stretch out appropriately? Do you know what frame and connection are and how to match? Do you have and maintain your own weight or know how to try to keep others from throwing you off balance? Do you know how to bail or recover from a botched move?
–Be proactive and vigilant. One option is to vet your potential social dance partners. Observe a few dances and see if there are dancers you would prefer to avoid for safety reasons. Likewise, note some dancers that look like a good match for you and ask them to dance. Consider saying “no” to strangers (Note: I consider a stranger someone I’ve never seen before, not students or regulars I have seen around and just haven’t vetted yet). You do not have to dance with everyone that asks you. You do not have to even give them a reason for saying “no.” If you do say yes, and things go awry, you can bail out of a dance at any time. Use your words, body language, and/or walk away.
The days of not being allowed to turn anyone down are over. We’ve learned from our mistakes. It’s not being snobby. It is being safe. It is unrealistic to go up to someone you don’t know and ask if you can put your hands on them for several minutes and expect them to agree to it. If someone wants to become a swing dancer and have enthusiastic partners, they need to take lessons, learn proper technique and etiquette, practice, and just generally put in the work like the rest of us already did.
Stay tuned for a separate post on verbal and nonverbal ways to say yes or no to a dance.