While teaching the US history survey in 2013, I planned a lecture based on Danielle McGuire’s fantastic book on how sexual assault played a role in civil rights organizing. But I knew that I had a student in class whose attacker was going on trial for her rape at the end of the semester. I wondered how best to create a learning environment in which I could discuss this important facet of the Civil Rights Movement, long overlooked by scholars and completely new to students, while taking into account that some students struggle to discuss such topics because of their own histories. How can we, as teachers and as fellow caring humans, take trauma and personal experience into consideration?
For many of us who actually work on college campuses, we understand that trigger warnings are ways to consider that not all students who enter our classrooms will be able to discuss certain topics with detachment, and we recognize that students’ experiences outside the classroom may influence their views within it.
In terms of safe spaces, I myself have used “trigger warnings,” though I didn’t phrase it that way at the time. I decided that rather than require a student to sit through 50 minutes discussing sexual violence, at a time when she herself was required to relive her trauma in the justice system, that she would not be required to attend this class. I announced earlier in the week the topic of that particular class and told students that they would be excused from attending if they wished. Two other students came to me privately and asked to be excused. Out of 35 students, three had experiences that made them extremely uncomfortable with the topic of sexual assault and rape. And I have no idea how many more decided it was better to sit through the class than have to speak to me about missing it. Three years later, I have never regretted allowing these students to sit out of one class, and I am happy that I could make the classroom a safe space.
The university classroom is not my only teaching experience. I also am lucky to be an active member of the Richmond, Virginia swing dance community, where I have taught introductory swing, lindy hop, and balboa classes. These dances from the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s have a huge following in the United States and around the world.
Since the 1990s swing revival, many Americans (and even more people internationally) have been drawn to the fun of doing the lindy hop, swing, Charleston, balboa, and shag to jazz music. Dancers congregate at large weekend or weeklong events, weekly and monthly dances, and classes around the United States and the world. Dancing is a great way to meet people, hear great music, get exercise, and build a community. But like in the college setting, the swing dance community has found itself in recent years struggling with the ways that personal experience, inequalities, and especially rape culture influences the members of our community.
Swing dancers come from all backgrounds — diverse in gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation, and other categories — and these markers have an impact on dancers in the classroom and on the dance floor. But unlike the university, the swing dance community does not have resources to support its members. There is no dean of students, counseling center, ombudspeople, or chain of command that helps when something goes wrong. And this became very clear to swing dancers in 2015.
In January 2015, scandal echoed through our national community when a dancer and musician in Baltimore named Sarah Sullivan revealed in a blog post that she had been sexually assaulted by a respected dance instructor years before as a teenager.1 As her story went viral (at least, within our corner of the internet), other women came forward to say that they too had been assaulted by this man. In October, an international instructor Ramona Staffeld bravely and emotionally came forward as another survivor in a podcast interview. This same man had groomed Staffeld from the age of 14 and she had never spoken about it publicly until then. Though swing dancers are a relatively small community, these stories managed to hit a more national stage in venues like the Daily Beast.
These revelations led to much introspection. The experience of dancing and the structure of the lindy hop community specifically brought up a lot of questions.
Dance is obviously an intimate act, where you are expected to touch people. Like most partner dances, swing dancing has a “lead” and a “follow,” with one member of the couple initiating movements and one member reacting to this movement and interpreting it with their own body. Leads are generally male and follows generally female (though I myself am able to both lead and follow many swing dances, as can many more advanced dancers). These gendered roles are a throwback to the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s when these dances developed, and even today it is easy to fall into thinking of these roles as static — that the man makes all the decisions and the woman “just follows” them. Further, at social dances, it is generally expected that everyone dances with everyone else — you don’t bring one partner and stick with them all evening. Many women (and some men) have struggled with finding ways to politely refuse dances with those they don’t want to dance with.
Besides the dance itself, lindy hoppers found out that the accused instructor had first met his targets at dance camps. Swing dancers congregate at national and regional dance camps, workshop weekends, and exchanges throughout the year and around the world. These events are wonderful learning experiences and a way to meet dancers from all over the country and world, but it became clear that they could also harbor darkness. In particular, this instructor had used dance camps to meet teenage girls, become friendly with them, and eventually lure them into situations where he assaulted them.
As a result, the swing dance community has voiced the need for better practices at events. Many organizers and participants have embraced “safe spaces” as a way to combat the ways that rape culture appears in the dance scene. Local communities and large events have written safe space policies with codes of conduct that clearly lay out how they expect dancers to act and interact with one another.2 Many have designated members of the community as safe spaces coordinators or made committees of individuals who are given the task of upholding these policies.
I myself am on the safe spaces committee in my local dance scene. I take this role very seriously, and I’ve been honored to be asked to do safe spaces work at different events in my city. We hope that clear policies and designated places to report transgressions means that people will be more willing to come forward with whatever issues arise. If someone is touching their partners inappropriately, if they are dancing in a way that physically harms their partner, or if more serious violence occurs, we want to know about it. The committee can investigate and make recommendations to our community organizers. In the most egregious cases, dancers can be banned from participating in our community to help protect our members.
We should strive to create safe spaces wherever we go — the academic or the dance classroom, the campus or the dance floor. We can recognize the power dynamics that exist in teaching atmospheres that can lead to inappropriate behavior, and we can work to make people more comfortable regardless of their previous experiences or personal identities. Rape culture permeates the world we live in, and we can do our best to minimize these influences, to fight for a better world without sexual and gender violence, and to level the playing field for all. Whether in the classroom or on the dance floor, I hope we all can strive for this kind of empathy and compassion for those around us.
In 2014, David Perry (@lollardfish) compiled a list of resources about trigger warnings in the classroom. This is a good place to start if you’re new to this conversation.
In late January 2015, a group of respected dancers, instructors, and organizers sat down and had a conversation about safe spaces in dancing. Again, a good place to start though this conversation has continued to evolve.
- I have chosen not to use this man’s name, as he has never been convicted of these crimes in a court of law. Since ten to fifteen years had passed since these events occurred, most are past the statute of limitations. Return to text.
- A few codes of conduct as examples — the annual Lindy Focus event in Asheville, NC; the Mobtown Ballroom venue in Baltimore, MD; and the safe spaces policy for the Richmond, VA, community. Return to text.
Special thanks to Abigail Browning, who gave me feedback on this essay.
I totally agree with you about being up front about the content of a class or lecture. I always make sure that “miscarriage” is in my announced talk titles, because the last thing I want to do is torture someone dealing with a recent miscarriage or anxious pregnancy by springing my work on them unawares. Some moments in life are better than others for dealing with inherently personal and emotional topics.
I love the idea of consciously creating safe spaces in the dance community. To dance with people, you really have to trust them, and one bad actor can ruin it for everyone. It’s so smart to have a plan and a procedure in place. I’m mostly a modern dance, but I’ve also done some Argentine Tango, and I’ve had occasional uncomfortable moments. In addition to safe spaces and people, I’d love to have some standard polite language understood to mean, “back off!” It can get weird, for sure, even with male partners who basically mean well. Someone who is simultaneously clumsy and domineering can be highly problematic even if it’s not “assault” per se. I am often too polite and allow myself to be mauled and then yelled at for not being able to follow a lousy lead. We need well-meaning partners to be able to manage constructive criticism and the occasional dance that is cut short to help create the kind of atmosphere where full-on assault is clearly different and unacceptable.
Lara, your experience is so common in the lindy hop community! And there is definitely a gendered aspect – women often want to be seen as nice and accommodating, so they aren’t always as vocal when they are uncomfortable with a leader, or even being hurt by them. The safe spaces movement has been very encouraging in telling dancers that they have the right to turn down a dance, or stop a dance at any time, if they are uncomfortable or just don’t want to dance. Worries about being “polite” shouldn’t put us in bad situations.