Home Blues The Great Consent Debate

Consent is a topic that has popped up everywhere in the last year and blues dance communities all over the country are no exception. Consent is often brought up as a piece of the larger debate centered around how to make our dances safer and more welcoming places, for both new and existing members.

From Merriam-Webster:

consent – to agree to do or allow something : to give permission for something to happen or be done

When we’re talking about consent in the dance community, there are two categories of things that ‘can be done’ that we talk about. Dance things and non dance things. This article will focus on the dance related consent issues.

Historical Model

The historical model for consent on the dance floor looks something like this. Men are supposed to ask women to dance. Men are often encouraged to ask non-verbally with an extended hand or enticing eyes (maybe borrowed from tango’s cabaseo). If a woman declines, she should give an excuse, then sit out the rest of the dance.

This historical model has some obvious problems. For one it disempowers women. Not only are women not allowed to dance whenever they want, but they are penalized for being discriminating about who they want to dance with. If the people you want to dance with happen to be slower than the creepy guy who always breaths on your neck, you’re out of luck. It breeds a culture of fear and mistrust in women that leads to things like refusing to make eye contact and secret signals to friends when you need a rescue from a would be dance partner. This does not help make our dance scene as welcoming as possible.

At the same time, there are good things about this model. The guys who really believe in the chivalry aspect will often escort their partner back to their seat after a dance, offer to get them water, etc. The model allows them to take on the role of gentleman, which can encourage a really wonderful sense of respect in how they treat the women in their community. Especially when looking at the men who come from tango they treat cabaseo as a way to put the power in a woman’s hands. She may decline the dances she doesn’t want, without the requirement of sitting out because nothing has been said.

So while the historical model has some unfortunate gender issues, there is a sense of politeness and respect that comes from it that can often be very nice.

New Consent Model

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a very new consent model coming primarily out of the recess community. This model prioritizes degendered initiation and explicit verbal consent. Everyone is allowed to ask everyone else to dance and verbal requests are strongly encouraged. This model also takes consent beyond just consent to dance and includes things like consent to be dipped and consent to dance in different positions. Also, a no may be given without a reason and without sitting out for the rest of the dance.

Just like the historical model, dancers often run into some issues here. For many people, asking for explicit verbal consent is scary. Especially if you can receive a no without explanation, that’s a really hard thing to handle and takes a lot of courage. Especially for new dancers, this often makes the community feel less welcoming. And asking for consent for everything, including small dips and close embrace often feels cumbersome. Finally, the degendering of the community may make some new converts uncomfortable. It is true that men especially are often uncomfortable dancing with other men, and may be uncomfortable being asked by men. This is something that may make the community less accessible to new members.

On the other hand, this model certainly has it’s benefits. It is much more empowering to women, since they can ask for dances they want, and aren’t limited by their choices not to dance with some people. An explicit consent model makes it much less likely that anyone’s boundaries will be crossed. It’s true that not everyone will be comfortable dancing in close embrace and it’s nice to have the chance to tell your partner that, rather than awkwardly holding them away with a hand on their shoulder every time they try.

Most modern blues scenes fall somewhere in between these two extremes. At most dances around the country, it is acceptable for women to ask people to dance. There is generally some combination of verbal and non-verbal dance requests, often varying based on the existing familiarity of the partners. Frequently people who know each other well will use non-verbal cues, while still using verbal requests with new people. And most modern blues scenes have become lax on the the ‘if you said no, sit out the song’ rule, though this one is still up for debate in some places.

Overall, the goal of discussing consent in dance scenes is to make those scenes as safe and welcoming for dancers as possible. How that safety is achieved is different across different scenes, and different approaches will resonate with different people. Figure out what makes you, as a dancer, feel safe and comfortable. Then engage with your partners and engage with your scene to help get those needs met. If need be, travel around and find a scene where the expectations of consent most closely match what you want to see. All these things will help make sure we each have safe, comfortable dance scenes for everyone.

Nicole has been an avid blues dancer for five years, and social dancer for 9. Originally from New Mexico and co-organizer of Atomic Blues Fusion, she now bases out of San Francisco, but is seen just as often teaching somewhere at a dance near you.

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