Creating a Safe Dance Environment
What are the problems?
In general, there is a good atmosphere at ceilidhs, folk dance clubs and festivals. However, at times some dancers behave in problematic ways. Some problematic behaviours include:
- Pushing other dancers into place, and general manhandling out of frustration or out of a misapplied wish to “help”.
- Becoming verbally aggressive with dancers who have “gone wrong”.
- Dancing in a way which can cause injuries: overswinging, unsafe flying baskets or lifts, cranking a person when they’re twirling, thumbs digging into arms or hands, dancing out of control and crashing into someone.
- “Creepy” behaviour: unwanted flirting or touching, on or off the dance floor. It might also include repeatedly asking the same person to dance when you don’t know them, or failing to take ‘no’ for an answer.
- Casual homophobia, such as pointing and laughing at two men who stand up to dance together. This is still homophobic, even if the men in question are straight, because it shows that any physical contact between men, even the open relaxed contact of the dance, is regarded with contempt in that group. Similarly, when two men who are sitting out split up two women who have already stood up to dance together, this creates a homophobic atmosphere as it implies that women dancing together is acceptable only as a last resort.
These behaviours may all be different in their motivation, but the effect is the same: dancers feel unsafe, disrespected. Often newcomers who experience these behaviours don’t come back the next week; why would anyone take up a hobby where they feel unsafe? Below, I discuss some possible measures that dance organisers and callers can take to tackle problematic behaviour.
Things organisers can do
There are several things we can do as organisers (and as dancers and callers) to help to create a safe dance environment.
Encouraging an environment where boundaries are respected
We can gently set expectations: that dancers should respect one another’s boundaries and dance so that others feel safe and comfortable. Here are some ways to do that:
- Posters — here are some examples that you can use or adapt. Other examples are linked to at the bottom of this page.
- An etiquette guide / code of conduct. Here is an example — feel free to adapt. Other examples are linked to below.
- Callers can be asked to re-enforce these messages. When choosing who to book, organisers can choose callers who use the language of consent while calling and create a good atmosphere.
This educates everyone about what is acceptable and can help dancers feel comfortable and safe. Creating the right environment should prevent most problems, and prevention is better than cure.
Ensuring that, if something happens, it can be reported
We can ensure that if a dancer experiences some inappropriate behaviour, that person feels that they can report it, and knows how to do so. Here are some things we can do to help with that:
- Some way of identifying the organiser(s). For example, the organiser might introduce themselves at half time. If you have a committee, you might have a board near front desk with photos of the committee so dancers can recognise who they can speak to. Or the committee might wear badges.
- Feedback forms (paper and/or online). As well as collecting general feedback (“did you enjoy this evening?”) you can add a question about whether dancers felt safe and respected. Here is a sample which you can adopt / adapt.
- A published complaints policy. People may be more comfortable making a complaint if they know what will happen if they do. Here is an example you can use or adapt.
No one likes to think of having a complaints procedure (of all things) for a dance. But you might think of it like a fire extinguisher: you hope it will be useless, but it is still good sense to have one around especially when you are partly responsible for the safety of others as well as yourself.
Taking the steps above might give you peace of mind as an organiser, if it means that you know that if there are any problems, you’ll hear about them. Dancers will know that if they need to, they can report problems and what will happen if they do.
Ensuring that if something is reported, action can be taken
We can have a plan for what action we will take if a problem is reported. The first step would be to have a quiet word, with a more formal procedure which can be used if the quiet word isn’t effective.
Again, what’s needed here is a complaints procedure. The purpose of this would be to make sure the you as an organiser have a plan to follow (making a disagreeable situation more tractable). It should also mean that dancers who have been victims of inappropriate behaviour will know that it won’t happen again. Dancers who are accused of inappropriate behaviour would be treated fairly (while problematic behaviour should never be tolerated, no one deserves trial by gossip).
You might also want to have a plan for whose job it is to take action. Is it
- You, because you’re the only person involved in organising? (if so, how will you balance this responsibility with the other things you need to do on the night, or to put it another way, is it time to delegate the tea-making?)
- Any member of the committee (if so, how will you make you’re all on the same page about this?)
- Safety Reps, ie stewards with specific training, for larger events and festivals. (if so, how will these people be trained and supported?)
- Someone else?
A final note: dealing with these problems is stressful for everyone involved. Organising an event, especially a big event, can be stressful if rewarding at the best of times. So it might be worth thinking about how you as an organiser will look after yourself and others involved in dealing with these problems.
Things that callers can do
Use the language of consent when calling
This may well be something you already do. Essentially it means, as you give instructions during the walk-through or when people are forming up sets, you keep encouraging dancers to respect one another’s boundaries. Here are some examples:
- “Swing in a mutually acceptable fashion.”
- “Offer your hand high if you want a twirl, low if you don’t.”
- “Turn that cloverleaf around at a speed that is comfortable for all of you.”
- “You can go round once or twice round if you and your partner both want to.”
- “There’s a variation you can do here [explain variation] — check with the rest of your set if you’re all comfortable doing that.”
- “Swing at a speed you are both happy with.”
- “Anyone can ask anyone to dance. You can say ‘yes’ or ‘no thanks’.”
You can also set a good example by not pressuring people to dance when they don’t want to. When you need one more couple to form a set, it makes sense to keeping asking a few times. But if the only people sitting down clearly do not want to dance this one, “one more couple”ing them until they cave in sets a bad precedent.
These sites are developed with swing and other forms of social partner dancing in mind, but have relevance to folk dancing:
One option to encourage friendly and appropriate behaviour is posters. Here are some examples which have been used elsewhere.
Codes of Conduct / Etiquette Guides
Dayton Folk Dance (this one is written hilariously)