Tackling Sexual Assault in the Dance Community Means Creating a Consent Culture

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Another few months have passed, another set of allegations of rape and sexual assault has emerged. If that sounds tired, it’s because I am exhausted of the same story happening and nothing really being done about it.

In the past few months, we’ve seen several high-profile dance teachers accused of repeated rape, sexual assault, and predatory behaviour by multiple dancers. Some of the women sharing their stories say that they felt unable to report it previously due to the power imbalances and the teacher’s standing in the community. In many cases, they felt unable to leave the teacher’s dance team or classes without doing serious damage to their own dance career.

I have no doubt that there are far more women who have experienced similar behaviour and do not feel able to speak up: rape is far less reported than other crimes.

And it does not surprise me that this keeps happening in the partner dance scene, because we have a toxic culture that enables rape and abuse. We do not treat women and non-binary people as equals, we teach people that they do not have the right to say “no”, and many dance event organisers and teachers shy away from taking responsibility for their students’ and attendees’ safety.

If we want to tackle the prevalent issue of predatory behaviour in the dance scene—whether it’s salsa, bachata, kizomba, Brazilian zouk, or anything else—then we need to change our community. We need to prioritise respect and dancer safety, and we need to move towards a consent culture.

We Share the Responsibility of Creating a Consent Culture

We hear a lot about rape culture, which is when rape becomes pervasive because society normalises it and/or doesn’t take a stand against it. Consent culture is its opposite: it’s what happens when society normalises asking for consent and respecting the answer.

Here’s a breakdown of how we get to a sustained consent culture. It was created by Megan Emerson and you can also download it here.

The Stages of Consent Culture for Dance Communities table

There’s one thing that this table implies but doesn’t actively spell out: it’s not enough to say “all dancers feel safe” if you’re not taking all the actions listed under planning, creating, and sustaining a consent culture. That includes:

  • Organisers value and track feedback regardless of source and severity
  • Organisers are aware of biases, work to educate themselves and others
  • Organisers plan for the continuing evolution of dance and consent culture
  • Centralised tracking and consistent consequences
  • Tracking process seeks feedback from underrepresented groups
  • Response is timely, predictable, and community-wide
  • Response acknowledges microaggressions and intersectionality
  • Response is seen as a chance to teach and learn rather than as punishment

It can be easier and more pleasant to believe that there’s not a problem in the dance community than to admit that perhaps we don’t see the problem because we’re not empowering people to report it. I get it: this is a highly uncomfortable situation, and fixing it requires hard work. However, we have to be hold ourselves to higher standards.

Two years ago, we discovered that a man had sexually assaulted dozens of women in my (at the time) local-ish dance community. I asked in a private Facebook group if the community leaders would create codes of conduct and processes for reporting abuse so we could avoid it happening again. But rather than getting the support of teachers and organisers, the thread descended into a mixture of students saying they would like to see this happen, male teachers refusing to take further action because they believed their dancers already felt safe, and vitriolic abuse towards rape victims and survivors. While teachers felt the community was already in the sustaining stage, the abuse alone demonstrated that at best we were in the reacting stage.

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This is not an isolated example. I’ve had similar conversations with many people.

Now let’s fast-forward to what’s happening today: not only are numerous survivors and victims bravely sharing their stories, but some of them say that they told other dance teachers about the assault yet nothing was done. There are at least two claims of a Facebook/Messenger group of dance teachers where revenge porn is shared.

And what are we doing about this? Some genre-specific dance leaders are taking steps to call out negative behaviour, although much of it is in closed groups, while the Brazilian zouk community is creating a professional association.

However, most of the response has been lukewarm or worrying. Community leaders discuss “what the women are doing wrong” in Facebook Lives. “Cultural differences” are offered up as partly in defence, partly as a way of shifting the responsibility from the community to the victim or survivor.

But no one is to blame for their rape or sexual harassment. Even if cultural differences mean that dancing multiple songs, close holds, and smiles are misinterpreted as an romantic or sexual interest, that does not excuse sexual behaviour without enthusiastic consent.

There’s another type of reaction that concerns me. Teachers who operate under the brands of people accused with rape have been posting anodyne statements that they “do not stand for rape”—and receiving congratulations.

Is that really the best we can do? Since when is “not standing for rape” something worth mentioning?

Not standing for rape should be considered a given, just like not standing for the bullying of the disabled or the theft of donations to charity. If you need to clarify this, or it’s the strongest statement you’re making, then you’re not doing enough.

We need to be planning and creating systems for change so that we can get to the stage where we have a sustained consent culture. And this means accepting that even if we’re not the ones sexually harassing and assaulting people, we have a responsibility to counter it.

If we truly don’t stand for rape, it’s time to start acting like it. Here are some ways you can do so:

Create a Code of Conduct (or Ask Your Teacher to Do It)

Teachers and organisers, you might think it’s obvious: “unacceptable behaviour” is not accepted.

But what is unacceptable behaviour? Do your students agree with you? And do they know that you’ll support them?

Without a code of conduct, there’s no guarantee of the answers to these questions.

A code of conduct helps you establish norms on everything from sexual harassment through to unsafe dips and tricks. It also lets students, attendees, fellow teachers, and performers know that they will be supported if there is an issue, and gives them extra confidence when they establish their boundaries.

It doesn’t have to be an inflexible guide, either. Norms could be “ask before touching someone’s face” or “respond politely if someone tells you ‘no’ and don’t ask them again”. Conduct like this leaves flexibility for people’s varying comfort levels while still prioritising respect and consent.

Writing a code of conduct can seem intimidating, but many dance organisations have made their ones available as inspiration. Some will even allow you to use them as a template. You should adapt any code of conduct to better suit the needs of your school or event, but reading through these codes of conduct can make it much easier. Take a look at all the links below to help you do so.

Oh, and don’t forget to make your code of conduct visible for event and class attendees. Share it on social media and pin it up at events. If selling tickets online, include a link to it in the confirmation email.

Additional Resources:

Plan Responses and Consequences

If you don’t know to handle accusations of inappropriate behaviour, how can you guarantee that you will respond fairly and consistently when forced to make spur-of-the-moment decisions?

Not everything can be planned for. However, it is unfair to spontaneously decide on the consequences. Getting it wrong could increase the levels of trauma experienced, put more people at risk, and potentially even leave you vulnerable to legal action.

Take a look at the links below to help you plan out how you will respond to incidents.

Additional Resources:

Establish and Publicise the Process for Reporting Incidents

Your code of conduct is of no use if people don’t know how to report incidents or don’t feel safe doing so.

People need to know who they can go to if they experience or witness inappropriate behaviour. They also need to feel comfortable doing so, which means ideally having a diverse choice of people they can approach. If possible, this group should not just be made up of teachers.

These identities of these people need to be publicly known; I suggest including them in your widely published code of conduct, and at big events, creating a station or asking them to wear specific t-shirts so they are easy to spot.

The team responsible for this also needs to be given support. They are taking on significant responsibility and an emotional burden. To help them out, create a process. Outline who they have to tell, what immediate action they should take, and what their responsibilities are with regards to anonymity and impartiality.

Additionally, give them a space to talk if they’re struggling with the emotional impact of handling these situations. Make sure they know that they can always take a break from this role, and actively check in with them.

Additional Resources:

  • A Dance Event Organiser’s Guide To Sexual Harassment & Assault

Encourage Saying “No” and Communicating Boundaries

Dancers, especially followers, are often told that saying no is rude or simply bad dancing. They are encouraged to say yes to every dance and follow moves without disrupting the flow. When things make them uncomfortable, it’s often dismissed with “it’s just dancing” or “if you don’t like it, then you shouldn’t be doing partner dancing”. In classes, phrases such as “if you lead this move right, she’ll have no choice but to follow” are commonplace.

This is unacceptable. It removes our bodily agency and teaches us to prioritise not upsetting our partner over our own feelings of comfort.

It also makes not saying no a norm.

It’s hard to go against what our society tells us to do. Studies have shown that we follow norms even when we know they are “arbitrary and useless“. We allow random computer bugs to determine whether we believe behaviour is moral or immoral.

When you add the intensity of a traumatic experience, along with our predisposed tendencies to freeze or fawn, to the mix, it’s easy to understand why people find it hard to prevent or report dance-related abuse.

As for the harassers and attackers, while harmful norms don’t justify their behaviour, they normalise and condone it. Presenting a different set of norms can help shape people’s opinions on what is acceptable.

Making consent a norm, making expressing your boundaries a norm, making listening to your partner a norm—these are all actions that we can take to facilitate a consent culture.

Good starting points include paying attention to the language teachers and promoters use, teaching how to communicate consent and boundaries while dancing, providing alternative moves and holds, and more. Changing norms isn’t easy, but it is possible.

It is also worth emphasising enthusiastic consent, or the idea that your partner should be “actively excited” about whatever it is you’re doing. They don’t say “yes” because of social norms, and nor do they avoid saying “no” because of fear. Refocusing our attitudes onto “will my partner enjoy this?” instead of “has my partner said ‘no’?” will make our dance scene better.

Additional Resources:

Refuse to Victim Blame

No matter how someone dresses, dances, or even flirts, they are not inviting unwanted sexual behaviour. No matter if they go to an artist’s hotel room for pre-social drinks, an after party, or a private lesson, this doesn’t count as consent. No matter what their reputation is, or what someone else’s reputation is, that doesn’t equate to “yes”.

Nothing short of enthusiastic consent is an invitation for sexual behaviour—and as such, the victim is never at fault.

Blaming the person who has been harassed or assaulted is more than unfair. It is incorrect, it increases their trauma, and it sends the message that harassment and assault are acceptable in certain circumstances—something that, in turn, reduces the likelihood of people speaking up.

Additional Resources:

Treat Women as Equal Partners

Men and women alike experience sexual harassment and assault in dance classes and on the dance floor. However, the gendered power imbalance makes it harder for women to express and assert themselves, while their contributions, opinions, and experiences are also valued less.

Respecting what women and followers bring to the dance community, whether it’s as dancers, teachers, or event organisers will help empower them.

Putting this into action means giving female teachers a voice, teaching follower-specific skills, encouraging role-swapping, paying female teachers and organisers equally, negotiating with them, putting them on event posters, providing them with microphones, and more.

Additional Resources:

Stay Informed

Tackling sexual harassment and assault is complicated. Rape culture is pervasive and normalised, as is sexism. Something that seems “harmless” to you may, from a more informed perspective, become more clearly damaging.

Additionally, incidents often looks different when they involve LGBTQ identities, identities of colour, disabilities, language barriers, class and wealth gaps, and other aspects that affect equality.

In the US, Native Americans and black people are more likely to experience rape and/or sexual assault from a partner than white people are. Trans and bisexual people are also particularly likely to experience rape or sexual assault from a partner, compared to lesbian and gay people. Moreover, these groups may fear discrimination from the police or simply less support, and so be less inclined to report issues.

A person’s socioeconomic background can leave them more willing to put themselves in vulnerable positions (e.g. sharing a hotel room or bed), and powerless to speak out against abusers. Language barriers can either make communication harder or be used as a defence: while it is anecdotal evidence, I have experienced dancers pretending not to understand me when I said no, neither in their native language nor in English.

Learning more about sexual harassment, assault, and inequality will leave you better prepared to recognise problematic behaviours, respond to them, and build a more supportive, egalitarian, and consent-orientated culture.


A note for the fact-checkers: I haven’t linked out to or included identifying details about any of the recent claims. Here’s why: firstly, the article isn’t about reacting to incidents but about planning for a consent culture. Secondly, I don’t want to take control of the stories of victims and survivors, nor of their privacy. Coming forward publicly about your story is hard, but when you do it on a social media platform like Facebook, the chronological nature of Timelines means that it eventually gets harder to find the post unless you’re actively searching for it. An article, however, is just a Google search away, no matter how many years it has been since its publication date.

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Tanya is a social dancer and non-stop traveller who loves how dancing allows her to meet people no matter where she goes.