About Safe Spaces in the Dance Community

Warning: this post addresses issues with sexual assaults in the dance scene.

Fellow Monkeys,

It is with trembling hands that I’m writing this, almost a week after those events first transpired. To me, Zack Richard, the Jazz Monkey has simply been a persona through which I could do one of the things I like most, entertain people and maybe even make them smile. I have never fancied myself or this blog as advocates of social change. I favor fart jokes over pompous political declarations at any time of the day.

But today is not a day to smile. Let this entry be an exception to the rule. Even though everything has been said about this situation, I feel it’s important to add my voice, even if only as a record that I wasn’t silent. I am sorry if this post seems a little all over the place. I had to stop, rewrite and come back to it several times. I am also sorry if it seems like I’m referring to my own feelings excessively – writing this has also been a way for me to start coming to terms with this whole situation. I in no way want to appear egocentric or make it about myself. I am extremely conscious that whatever I’m feeling is in no way comparable to what those women have gone through and let me be clear when I say we should give absolute preseance to them.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read Sarah Sullivan’s testimony about a prominent Lindy Hop teacher making inappropriate sexual advances on her. I first want to applaud her courage to come forward with this information, as well as the other women who testified of abuse at the hands of the same predator. If you can stomach it, you can also watch Allie’s testimony about her experience, which is one of the most gut-wrenching accounts I’ve ever watched – especially since I knew Allie, a young Montreal dancer full of life, talent and promise at the time of the events and it hit very close, uncomfortably close, to home. In my book, you’re all heroes, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, because they’re full of shit and deserve a rightful kick to the nuts. The sheer amount of guts it took to publicly acknoweldge the situation puts a whole season of Game of Thrones to shame.

Let’s get something out of the way right now: I wholeheartedly believe and support these women’s claims without reservation. There is no question as to whether or not these actions constituted “sexual assault” – they most definitely did. Let it also be known that the perpetrator in question has recognized quickly that he had posed these actions. It is with dismay and horror that many of us who knew the man, partied with him, drank with him, held long heart to heart conversations with him, hugged him, admired him, received advice from him, saw this whole situation unfold. But let’s not blind ourselves with his reputation, his charisma or his artistry, or our love for him. Let’s have some semblance of responsbility – even if it’s too little too late – and see the facts like they are: he has repeatedly and systematically used predatory methods to initiate inappropriate and sometimes criminal sexual contact with these persons. Yes, our souls are shattered and in a million pieces. We will pick them up for a while. Little by little. But the important thing is to examine this, support these women in their brave path to recovery, and create a safer environment for all, one where women of all ages but especially younger and more vulnerable can freely express these traumas. These should never have stayed shameful secrets. We have a lot of soul-searching to make, a lot of guilt to wade through – I know I have – , a lot of work to be done, but let’s remember that this is ultimately exactly one person’s fault, and it’s not any of us.

It’s a hard and shitty conversation to have, but it’s an important one; one we will be proud of having. A tragically necessary one. Every time this kind of behaviour comes to light, we seem to collectively think “oh, so that was the abnormal one, we are safe now”. No we are not, not as long as the atmosphere in the community is not one of 100% support against this kind of predatory actions.

It has been difficult for me to think about solutions for a few days – even though it has practically been constantly on my mind, I’ve mostly been in a state of shock and paralysis. I did draw up a code of conduct for my school Swing ConneXion (heavily inspired by the Mobtown Ballroom’s code of conduct), that serves as a starting point to have a unified code of conduct for the three big swing dance schools in Montreal. There is still a lot of work to be done on it, but it’s a start. I plan on doing everything I personally can to get this information out, to let people know that I as a person, dancer, director, instructor and admitted party-lover will not stand for this kind of behaviour, and neither will any of Swing ConneXion’s representatives, including guest teachers here in Montreal. I pledge to be every bit as ferocious and unwavering in that resolve as if my own 11-year old daughter would be implicated – she might after all very well be some day part of this community, and I want her to enjoy a safe environment. This safe environment includes not having a goddamn sexual predator in our midst, and I’m appalled that some events or organizers don’t see that more clearly.

As Michael Seguin pointed out in a very powerful post, this is a male problem, and male instructors need to particularly and unequivocally speak out and examine their behaviours and discourse. We are probably, like it or not, in the most dangerous and influential position of authority. We traditionally have enjoyed a superior status – something that the Jazz Monkey has addressed before. The instructors’ cult and particularly the male instructors’ cult is an obvious problem that everyone needs to examine with a closer look and reflect upon. We must reflect on ourselves and our behaviors as well. I’ve asked myself a lot of hard questions and also asked questions to people I might have offended or hurt and, although it’s a hard and sometimes humiliating thing to do, I encourage everyone to do the same and clear house. It’s the beginning of a dialog, a better understanding of each other.

Being a good dancer does not equate being a good person – I myself, for example, will admit that I sometimes pick my nose with an unhealthy and abnormal amount of glee. It is not out of some misplaced sentiment of patriarchy that I say that male dancers, and particularly male dance instructors, are one place to start – we must take our responsibility seriously in saying unequivocally: this is fucked up. We also need to give the example, and call out this kind of behaviour with all the conviction and power we can muster. No more heads in the fucking sand. Enough lives have been ruined.

Another angle to prevent this kind of behaviour is to spread the word as much as possible and educate men and women – especially the newcomers in the scene – about what they can do in these situations. It’s mainly why I’ve been so vocal, almost to the point of obession, on the issue. It is far from my intention to say that these events are in any way, shape or form the women’s faults, but more people need to know that there are figures of authority they can turn to if things turn to shit. More people need to know that they will be heard and taken care of. It will give them confidence to speak out if they know that a system is in place to address their concern, that this behavior is widely unacceptable. Talking about it and affirming our strong opinions as individuals will serve to both discourage eventual predatory behaviour and give courage to eventual and past targeted persons to speak up about the abuse. I know we don’t want to “scare beginners away”, but Jesus Christ, guys. These things are happening. We can choose to ignore them or face them head on. There is not really a middle ground here.

I would also like to point out something that has, quite shockingly to me, not been brought up as much: we have many strong, beautiful female role models in the dance scene. I’m thinking of course of the survivors in this situation (Sarah, Brenda, Allison, Heidi, Clara, at the time I’m writing this) but also of truly admirable, powerful women such as Annie Trudeau, whom I see as one of the best persons I know and towards whom I will always feel true, deep and unmitigated love and admiration; Hilary Alexander; Carla Heiney; Virginie Jensen… Hell, I’m sorry dudes, I love you to pieces, but to be frank the sheer power and moral fortitude of our partners is an example we should all strive to imitate. They are examples to follow and listen to more often. Maybe, just maybe, we should consider, as a community, making more space for their voice because they have, in the end, way more to bring to the table than us concerning empowerment and getting respect as women in a (so far, let’s hope we can change that) male-centric world.

We also have to let go of archaic policies such as “never refuse a dance” or “you have to go with anything your partner does on the floor”. No you fucking don’t. You don’t have an obligation to be guilted into being made uncomfortable. And I extend a big fuck you with a cherry on top to those who think otherwise.

It’s also been the norm in the past few years to start de-genderizing the roles in the dance, stepping away from saying “men-women” and towards the more gender-neutral “lead-follow”. It is a small and indirect step towards gender equality, which is a rampant problem in both our society and scene.

I know some cynical individuals who have said “well we can’t stop all these things from happening”. This is a coward’s response and akin to saying if you can’t save everyone from a sinking ship, you should just fold your arms and watch.

I say, maybe we can’t, but we can try. And by shooting for this, I’m 100% sure we will make our community a better, safer place. From all this ugliness, let something beautiful grow.

A lot of us profoundly need to believe this at the moment.


About Zack

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5 responses to “About Safe Spaces in the Dance Community

  • Stephen Coderre

    Merci. Très intéressant! Je transmets!

  • thelogicallead

    “I can’t tell you what to do with all this information, but I can tell you what I’m trying to do with the experience. I love the Lindy Hop community, and I am not going to leave it. It’s important to acknowledge, though, that this sort of thing does in fact happen in our scene, and the culture of our community contributes to it. As a scene, we idolize instructors and good dancers, and value what they think of us over speaking up when something is wrong. We frequently conflate having authority in dance with having authority in life, which leads to us privileging particular voices over others. As a young person, I thought that I would lose my place in this community if I spoke up about Steven. While I don’t believe that anyone besides Steven is responsible for what happened to me, I do think that a different tone in the Lindy Hop community could have protected me from the years of not speaking up.”

    Somehow that paragraph from Ms. Sullivan capture my attention, it seem to me that she is saying that the root of the problem is the idolization that some dancer receive, where people are afraid to say anything wrong about those people because they are afraid of being ostracize by the community.

    And from several story i heard, it is real, people get thrown out of the different city community for speaking out about unfair or amoral conduct of the “elite”.

    Before putting in place rules that will be used and abused, you should realize that everyone could be a victim of power.

  • Kate B

    Yup. All those things but particularly the last bit. No defeatism. We need to work towards making a better environment for everyone to have a safe dancing experience.
    I always say hope for the best, prepare for the worst. I think it applies here too. Hope we can have a dancing scene without sexual predation and abuse of power, prepare for those eventualities.

  • ohdear

    Thank you very very much.

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