Fostering a Culture of Consent in Salsa & Bachata Dance Communities
By Juliet McMains, PhD
University of Washington, Department of Dance
Salsa, mambo, and bachata have their roots in courtship, in sensual play and flirtation that are, at times, sexually charged. Of course, most dance interactions don’t evoke a sexual spark, nor would we want them to. A good deal of the fun is never quite knowing when a playful exchange will become electrified with sexual energy. While this ambiguity is a crucial feature the dance, it is also why we as a community need to stay vigilant about ensuring that every participant is consenting to the game as it is unfolding. The #MeToo Movement has exposed gut-wrenching tales of egregious sexual assault, persistent sexual harassment, and a culture that silences, minimizes, and ignores the ubiquity of sexual violence. Although the social dance floor is a space of celebration, cultural bonding, personal expression, and healing, it is also a place where just about every salsera or bachatera (and plenty of the salseros and bachateros too) has at one time or another experienced an unwanted sexual advance or interaction that left them feeling violated, disrespected, or just yucky. Inspired by brave women in so many other communities who have spoken up to end the culture of silence around sexual violence, many women and men in our local Seattle Latin dance community are actively speaking out and taking action to re-examine our own complicity in sustaining a culture where sexual harassment and violence are tolerated.
As a professor of dance at the University of Washington, where I have the privilege of introducing hundreds of students to salsa, I realized I had an opportunity and responsibility to work with these young dancers to envision and enact a shift in the culture of consent, at least in our classroom. In winter of 2019, I integrated reading, writing, exercises, and discussion about consent into the salsa course I was teaching. I was humbled by the openness, sensitivity, and savvy with which these thirty-seven students approached the topic. As a white woman who is committed to salsa as a practice of Latinx cultural affirmation, I believe that this conversation must include and be led by Latinx members of the community and should involve dialogue in Spanish and English. Our classroom included several Latinx students, as well as Asian, African-American, and white students, all of whose perspectives contributed to this essay. However, as author of this piece, my voice predominates, which is informed by my experiences over twenty years as a white cisgender female dancer, teacher, and researcher of salsa and Latin dance. What follows are some of the insights the students and I uncovered in trying to understand why consent is such a challenging and important issue in Latin social dancing and some strategies we implemented to shift our own habits. It is our hope that others in positions of influence, especially teachers, might likewise adapt some of these exercises so that together we might shift the social dance culture towards one that practices affirmative consent.
Thank you to all the students in the course whose voices contributed to this work, including: Ben Bloom, Camille Cobb, Becky Darrow, Tiasha Datta, Name Olmez, Kat Ramus, Diana Reiman, Victoria Teng, Emily Uematsu, and twenty-eight other students who chose to remain anonymous.
Why Establishing Consent on the Dance Floor is so Complicated
1. Everyone has different boundaries due to their personal and cultural history, and these boundaries are continually shifting. For example, some dancers love a cuddly bachata with body rolls that bring pelvis and chest into contact, and for others, hip to hip is just a bit too close for comfort. Someone might enjoy a dance peppered with dips and sensual caresses with a sweetheart, but be less keen on doing these moves with a stranger. When I was in my twenties, I loved doing dips, flips, and even neck drops on the social dance floor, but now that I’m in my forties, I prefer to keep my head above my hips. Culture differences further complicate matters. Someone raised in a Latin American culture where people regularly greet each other with a kiss on the cheek may be much more comfortable with physical touch among casual acquaintances than someone raised in a culture in which even family members don’t embrace. As cultural outsiders to Latinx spaces observe and try to adapt to a new cultural environment, they may have difficulty distinguishing between touch that is part of the dance and touch that is a sexual overture. If a non-Latina refrains from articulating when her own personal boundaries have been crossed for fear of appearing disrespectful to someone from another culture, her silence could be then misread as consent, furthering the cultural mistranslation.
2. People bring the memory of trauma and fear of sexual assault with them into dance spaces. Because sexual assault and harassment are so pervasive (estimates are that one in three Americans will experience sexual assault in their lifetime and that 81% of women in the US have experienced sexual harassment), the threat of sexual harassment and assault are always present. Small missteps or inadvertent offenses on the dance floor have the potential to trigger responses that carry the weight of much larger personal and cultural trauma.
3. Distinct gender roles are still maintained. Despite some attempts to delink gender from the roles of leader and follower, the vast majority of social dance partnerships maintain a gendered division of labor in which men initiate movement and women are taught to “follow.” This system reinforces a troubling cultural norm where women are taught to subvert their own needs in service of others. In my classes, I don’t use the word “follow” for the role historically danced by women as I believe it encourages women to internalize a passive identity. I use the words “interpret” and “interpreter.” Students quoted in this article often use these words for the role most others refer to as “follower” or “follow.”
4. Dance is nonverbal. The whole magic of the dance is that it’s a nonverbal form of communication that is highly nuanced. However, we haven’t developed universally agreed upon nonverbal signals to communicate consent at nearly the speed we have perfected our turning techniques. I used to teach a technique of pushing away a partner whose embrace was uncomfortably close, until I realized that when I employed that technique myself, it inevitably led to my partner gripping me closer. So many factors, including differing skill levels, styles, and cultural backgrounds leave nonverbal signals open to misinterpretation. Although nonverbal negotiation of consent should absolutely be part of the process, when in doubt, I advocate for using words.
5. There is social pressure to say “yes” to every invitation to dance. There are lots of well-intentioned reasons to foster a culture where accepting all invitations to dance is the norm, including a desire to combat snobbery and cliquishness. I’ll be the first to advocate for experienced dancers to make more of an effort to welcome new dancers to the scene and to dance with a wider variety of partners. However, pressure to accept all invitations to dance, especially when gender roles translate to men doing the asking and women being pressured to ignore their own desires to please others, reinforces troubling cultural messaging that we don’t have the right to control our own bodies. Furthermore, saying “yes” to the dance doesn’t mean saying “yes” to everything that might happen during the dance (or afterwards). Pressure to always say “yes” doesn’t give people practice negotiating boundaries and saying “no.” In addition, when someone says “yes” to a dance out of social pressure rather than genuine desire to dance, the subsequent dance can be much more painful than a “no thank you” would have been, as exemplified in the incident recounted by a male student.
The second partner I had was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I have had social dancing (not that I have had much social dancing experience). I was dancing with my partner and leading her through mostly basic steps that I was confident doing. Almost the entire time she had a terrible grimace on her face like she looked very uncomfortable or bored, and I didn’t know why. I wished I would have said something, but instead I just kept dancing to the end of the song. She never said anything to me, but I could tell she did not look happy, and I wished I would have asked her why, but in the moment I sort of panicked and didn’t know what to say, and I just wanted to keep dancing to seem confident. The whole dance felt excruciatingly awkward, but I know now that if I ever am feeling that way I should speak up and ask what is wrong to see if my interpreter wants to stop dancing or if this entire incident was all in my head.
6. People are confused about what consent means. Education around consent, especially as society has shifted to a model of “affirmative consent,” is inconsistent. Contemporary thinking defines consent as words or actions specifying agreement to specific activities, rather than merely the absence of a “no.” One of the clearest explanations of affirmative sexual consent can be found on Planned Parenthood’s website, where they define affirmative consent as being:
The legal definition of sexual consent varies by state, but Washington law states, “‘consent’ means that at the time of the act of sexual intercourse or sexual contact there are actual words or conduct indicating freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact.” In both these definitions, “freely given” means that someone cannot be coerced or manipulated into giving consent, nor can someone who is drunk, drugged, a minor, or otherwise incapacitated. Even once people understand the basic tenants of consent (freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific), translating these to the dance context will take practice.
7. People don’t want to make a fuss. “So why don’t people speak up when they don’t feel comfortable?” asked one of the men in our class, genuinely shocked and saddened to hear the stories of others’ experiences of discomfort, pain, and even assault on the dance floor. One by one, individuals in the room thoughtfully articulated the pressures they experienced that kept them from calling attention to violations of their personal boundaries. These pressures include:
a. Fear of hurting other people’s feelings
b. Fear of their reputation suffering
c. Attempts to “fit into the culture”
d. Each offense was a small (micro) infraction
e. Perceived lack of support from community/organizers
As one student explained:
A lot of the time, the offender is not acting out of malice, is doing something not very serious, or is simply not thinking about their actions. On the other hand, the offended may not want to create trouble out of nothing, or may be afraid to be bold and voice their discontent. I definitely relate to this situation and to the idea that something is only reportable if very serious or terrible. I also feel kind of guilty whenever I turn someone’s request to dance down, so that if they ask to dance again later in the night, I cave in.
–UW salsa student
Actions to Foster a Culture of Affirmative Consent
Given this long and interconnected list of factors that complicate ensuring that our dance partners are consenting to each embrace, it’s no wonder that many dancers feel intimidated by the topic. The good news is that we have identified some practical steps we can take at an individual and community level to move towards a culture of affirmative consent.
1. Initiate more dialogue about consent. My own commitment to fostering dialogue around consent stemmed from a community conversation I organized in February of 2018 entitled “Envisioning a Feminist Salsa.” I was interested in talking about inequalities that stem from gender roles in salsa, but the fourteen people who attended the event wanted to talk primarily about sexual harassment and consent. So I pivoted. As the conversation unfolded, it became clear that one of the first steps for addressing the problems people were identifying was to have more conversations where people could share their experiences and receive community support. Likewise, the overwhelming response from students in my 2019 class to investing so much time discussing consent was gratitude at the opportunity to speak openly about consent. Especially because so many women primarily socialize with men on the dance floor, they had felt isolated from other women. I encourage everyone to talk more about what consent means in social dance. Talk in mixed gender groups. Men, and women, and nonbinary folks all have important insights and experiences to share. Talk informally and in organized meetings and community conversations. Teachers and organizers have an even greater responsibility to initiate conversations about consent in our classes, with our staff, with each other.
2. Practice verbalizing an enthusiastic yes and a respectful no. Practice in low-stakes settings (i.e., with friends) verbally asking someone to dance, accepting the invitation, or politely declining the invitation, and receiving a “no, thank you” with grace. If we normalize that an acceptable response to the query “would you like to dance?” is “no, thank you” (without any qualifications such as “I’m resting now” or “I promised this dance to someone else”), we can reduce the social pressure so many people (especially women-identified folks) feel to value others’ access to their bodies over their own autonomy. The following exercise develops this skill.
Exercise: Enthusiastic Yes/Respectful No
A. Have everyone stand in two concentric circles of equal numbers (circles can be one for leaders and one for followers but it’s not necessary). People on the outside of the circle travel around the circle and ask each person on the inside to dance. The person on the inside says “yes.” They don’t actually dance, but switch partners when the facilitator rings a bell. Then the exercise is repeated with people on the inside asking those on the outside and they say “yes.” Everyone should have the experience of asking and being asked with as many people in the room as practical.
B. Repeat the exercise, but this time the person being invited to dance says “no.” Everyone should have the experience of asking and being asked with many people in the room. After executing both parts of this exercise, there should be time for discussion, initially in small groups and then in a larger circle. Small groups can either be randomly assigned or can be self-selected based on topics of interest written on paper placed on the floor.
I absolutely loved how in class we implemented the normalization of saying “no” and setting boundaries. Far too frequently I’ve gone out and dancing with people I didn’t feel comfortable with, due to the fear of being rude. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to dance with others because I could be viewed as pretentious.
I found our class discussion a great practice of saying no when you don’t want to dance with that other person. I usually feel an urge to say yes just not to make that person get offended or I feel bad about saying no to someone. And when I don’t feel comfortable, I just think it’s just a one song I don’t need to see that person again, but at the class discussion, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts and there were other people who experienced similar thoughts and situations like me.
I have noticed that since the class exercises my social dancing experience as a whole has greatly improved. Not only am I more comfortable saying no, when I say yes, I am enthusiastic. Practicing saying yes and no to one another in class has not only helped me destigmatize saying no, but has also allowed me to feel more comfortable and confident when saying no. More surprisingly for me, I found that practicing saying yes in class was also extremely helpful. When I said yes to my friends, I was excited and enthusiastically saying yes and consenting to the dance, which had reminded me what saying yes should be and feel like. And by feeling comfortable with saying no while social dancing, I knew that when I did say yes, I had meant it. Since the exercises, when I have been out social dancing and have accepted a dance, I was enthusiastic and had a positive outlook for the dance. No longer did I go into dances feeling cautious, hesitant, or worried that my boundaries would be invaded. Instead, I would feel prepared to share intimacy and vulnerability with my partner for the next few moments as we interpreted the music together, and I savored that.
Since I grew up in a conservative town in Japan, topics about “consent” were always discussed in a vague manner or even considered a taboo. There was this social norm in my hometown that when declining offers, one must phrase it in a neutral way and must never reply with a direct “no.” Therefore, when I first came to Seattle, I continued to make up polite excuses or use vague phrases to avoid using the word “no,” especially when I went social dancing. It is only recently that I have learned that there are different ways of saying “no.” My way of vaguely phrasing “no,” not only is confusing for my partner, but also may end up offending them.
–UW salsa class student
3. Practice and invite a qualified “yes.” Saying “yes” to a dance doesn’t mean saying yes to everything that might happen in the dance. Practice (in a low-stakes setting) establishing boundaries before the dance starts. For example, you could say, “I’d love to dance but I don’t want to do any dips today.” When asking someone to dance, try saying “Are you comfortable with dips?” or “are there any moves you’d prefer not to do today?”
Exercise: Qualified “Yes”
A. Organize a partner rotation similar to the previous exercise in which the person being asked to dance accepts, but with qualifications (i.e., I’d love to dance bachata in open embrace).
B. Repeat the exercise, but this time the person who does the asking invites qualifications. For example, one person asks the other to dance, and after receiving an enthusiastic “yes” the first person asks, “are you comfortable with dips?” or “are there any kinds of moves you prefer not to do?” As in all these exercises, the exact wording is not important. What is crucial is that each person finds a way of speaking that feels true to them.
Something that I really appreciate that one of my classmates/friends does every time we dance bachata is he asks “are you comfortable with lifts and dips?” and adds “let me know if anything I do makes you feel uncomfortable.” It is really refreshing to have him ask me this, instead of just inferring. I have been dancing with him for so long, but he still asks me this every dance, and I think that’s wonderful. Even day to day, what people are comfortable with and capable of can change.
In some dance communities (primarily seen in the fusion/swing community), people regularly ask a new partner the following questions: “Lead, switch, or follow?” “Are you comfortable with close embrace?” “Are you comfortable with lifts and dips?” It helps normalize topics around these issues and might empower someone to speak up even more when they feel uncomfortable because a dialog for this has already been opened. I know personally I have benefitted a lot from being asked this and feel much more comfortable when dancing, and these questions or statements can be initiated by either the lead or interpreter. An interpreter’s version could be: “I am an interpreter/switch.” “I am/am not comfortable with close embrace.” “I am/am not comfortable with lifts and dips.” By suggesting something already present in other dance communities, I believe the salsa/bachata dance community might be interested in trying to incorporate something that has already begun and been successful elsewhere in a different dance community.
4. Practice how to respond to boundary crossing mid-dance. Given the varying personal and cultural histories in the room, it’s inevitable that your own boundaries will be crossed at some point in your dance life, and that you will inadvertently cross someone else’s boundaries. Preparing for how to respond to these scenarios when they happen is crucial to feeling empowered to honor our own needs and support others in doing the same.
Exercise: Re-negotiating Boundaries
Participants ask someone to partner with them on this exercise and together each partnership negotiates a scenario (or two) they would like to practice in which something happens in the middle of the dance that crosses their own personal boundaries. For example, it could be that a partner is holding them in a way that feels creepy or too intimate, or it could be that a partner is asking personal questions in the middle of a dance. They will ask their partner to play the role of someone crossing a boundary so they can practice what they will say or do if (when) it happens out social dancing. A variation of this exercise is to practice what to do when you suspect you have inadvertently crossed someone else’s personal boundary. For example, you could say, “it seems like you’re not enjoying this dance. Would you like to stop, or is there something I can adjust to make this dance more comfortable for you?”
I think it would be great if setting boundaries, specifically in regards to proximity, would be more standardized when going out. In my experience dancing bachata, half of my partners would make me dance too close for comfort. I understand that is the culture of that style of dance, but I personally am not comfortable with it. I wish I could get the stigma of being rude out of my head and that saying “no” is not a personal attack on the other person.
This class talk gave me more confidence and power to express myself verbally when I feel uncomfortable or when I don’t want to dance with someone. I also realize that it is important to share why we felt uncomfortable, since maybe they don’t know they are making others uncomfortable by doing that. It is not always follows’ or leads’ fault, but sometimes actions might be interpreted in different ways by people. So, it is always important to keep a clear communication between dancers to create a dance which both sides will enjoy.
–UW salsa class student
As a lead your number one goal should to be to make your partner feel comfortable and safe at all times. You are the one making the suggestions and in general have more control of where the dance will go. Your partner has to be able to trust you or the dance will not be as fluid or enjoyable for either partner. It is just as much the leader’s responsibility to obtain consent as it is the interpreters to give it. Leads can make it easier for interpreters to speak their minds, and feelings by asking how the dance was or how it is going. This will both give the lead hopefully useful and constructive feedback and give the interpreter the confidence to say when they are uncomfortable instead of enduring a painful or inappropriate dance.
Exercise: Bystander Check-in
Participants work in groups of three to devise a scenario where one person is a bystander who sees two people engaged in an interaction that they suspect may not be nonconsensual. The bystander practices going to check-in on the situation to see if anyone needs assistance in a way that feels respectful to everyone. Participants draw from their own experiences and keep rerunning the scenario until everyone in the group feels comfortable in the role of bystander. It is important that each person finds a way of handling the situation that feels authentic to their own culture and personality.
I am so glad people are speaking about the issue, and thankful for how thoughtful and open our class is about the subject. I am seeing more and more people stand up for others and confront these issues in the dance community. I think it’s important for us to keep an eye out for our fellow dancers and do our best not only to ensure that we are behaving and reacting to personal situations in the best possible way, but standing up for those who may not yet feel comfortable addressing these types of interactions. If someone notices negative behavior even and politely calls it out even when it doesn’t involve them directly, it can have an even stronger impact because it may make it clearer that not only is the person experiencing that behavior uncomfortable, but it is socially unacceptable and wrong. In the situation of someone who says no, but is persisted to dance, having some support, even just a small amount, from a third party can validate their right to say no, be heard, and be understood, while sending a clear message to the perpetrator.
–UW salsa student
In addition to these practical, pro-active steps we can all take to ensure our partners are enjoying each dance, there are additional actions event organizers can consider. For example, some venues, including Century Ballroom and the East Side Stomp (swing dance) here in Seattle have developed a code of conduct and a of plan action for investigating alleged violations (links to these below). Ultimately, I suspect that all members of the salsa and bachata (and indeed all social dance) communities have very similar goals—to share our love for the music and dance in a supportive environment in which all community members are respected. Only in working together and listening to each other can we ensure that we are moving towards a culture of consent that enables true freedom of expression on the dance floor and off.
Juliet McMains 2019
Resources on Consent
Code of Conduct by Syncopation Foundation
Code of Conduct at Century Ballroom
“Confronting Rape Culture in Social Dance” by Umka Pele
“Autonomy and Consent in Blues Dance” by Nancy
“Consent Culture in Swing Dancing” by Irena Spassova
“What to Do When you are Uncomfortable” by Rachel Cassandra