Consent in Flow Arts and Dance Communities: A Resource

In 2009, my family moved to Carrboro, North Carolina. At a live music brunch one day on the lawn of the local co-op grocery, I saw Beth Lavinder spinning inside her hoop – arms, hair, a whoosh of fluid beauty. I watched, mesmerized. A lifelong dancer and former dance teacher and choreographer, I was familiar with scripted movement, pointed toes, graceful lines. Watching Beth hoop that day, what affected me most was the feeling that I was watching someone else’s internal experience manifest through external movement. What she was doing was clearly for her, transforming her, and yet I stood several feet away, planted in the mulch, observing.

Later that year, I signed up for beginner hoop classes with Ann Humphreys, and over the coming year managed to attend occasional classes by Ann, Beth, and (occasionally) Jonathan Baxter. Over the coming years, I drifted into and out of my hoop practice, and managed to add in classes with Julia Hartsell, Brecken Rivara, and Bonnie MacDougall. Through these incredible hoopers and humans, all of whom I’m honored to call friends at this point, I learned about ecstatic dance. I was intrigued but nervous, and ultimately attended when invited by a friend, although it took me years from first intrigue to first dance.

Over the almost-three years I’ve been involved in the ecstatic dance community, I’ve learned so much about movement and bodies, consent and boundaries, and authentic community. A long-time sexual health educator, rape crisis responder, and support group facilitator, I was already no stranger to conversations about consent, boundaries, touch, sexuality, and communication. I came into my ecstatic dance practice with an already-established personal growth practice and journey of self-awareness, as well as a solid knowledge base around power dynamics, communication and boundaries, trauma and the body, and gender dynamics.

Through my ecstatic dance practice, all of those things were deepened, expanded, and focused. Through ecstatic dance, I learned more about my own body, my own boundaries. Every dance is a metaphor for a snapshot of my own social and emotional journey, bringing me insights about how I connect with others, with myself, and with my source. Every dance is a practice in freedom of self-expression in proximity to others, and many dances become exercises in discovering my own boundaries, sometimes before they are crossed, and occasionally after.

Each partner dance is an opportunity to learn how to read others’ edges, and practice the wisdom of engaging intimately, quietly, and authentically in ways that honor others’ boundaries to the extent that I’m able to understand them.

And as is to be expected in a practice of nonverbal shared space, especially one in which solo embodied movement, contact improv, or sensual partner dance is the norm, boundaries are going to be encountered on the dance floor and in the dance community, especially in those dance communities for whom the community itself becomes a space for exploration, community, and shared social experience beyond the movement practice. When your dance community becomes your primary (or at least a significant) social circle, trust built on the dance floor impacts our non-dance interactions and relationships, and trust built or harmed outside of the dance floor impacts our interactions and sense of safety on the dance floor.

This interplay of trust is part of the learning of life, part of the blessing of community, and something intentional, small, tight-knit communities would do well to hold with sacred purpose. This goes for dance communities (ecstatic or otherwise), activist communities, small queer communities, flow arts communities, and any intentional communities brought together by shared purpose, especially where embodiment and sensuality are part of the purpose.

Over the same time that my involvement with the flow arts and dance communities have deepened, two other shifts have happened — one social/cultural, and one personal. First, over the past year a handful of communities I’ve been connected with have had to grapple with how to handle consent violations. At times, they’ve handled these gracefully, with tender care, and at other times less gracefully, less thoughtfully. Some within these communities have remained beacons of awareness and integrity; others have struggled or re-enacted harm through thoughtless words or perpetuation of oppressive cultural norms in their words and behaviors.

As these shifts happened, I also experienced tremendous personal change and growth. I completed an interdisciplinary Masters degree that focused on global human rights, social justice, and gender theory. I ramped up my consent and sexuality teaching, taught at a major flow arts festival, and began independent consulting. I moved from nine years of part-time direct services work in the movement against sexual violence as a hotline responder and support group facilitator into a new full-time position. In the new position, I provide training and support to direct service providers who work directly with survivors of sexual violence, domestic violence, and human trafficking. One other perk of the new position was the intense acceleration of both my knowledge base and teaching skills. It is expected that employees at my agency will be top-notch experts in the field, certainly at the state level and ideally at the national. Because of this, a portion of my hours each week is dedicated to webinars, reading, training, and continued development of expertise in every area of sexual violence prevention and response, and I’ve had the opportunity to attend several intensive regional and national conferences to build my professional understanding and skill set.

I’ve worked in a variety of capacities with communities, community leaders, and survivors within the flow arts and dance communities. I’ve listened. I’ve learned. And I’ve continued honing my skills and deepening my awareness. I’ve learned how my movement practice informs my consent, boundaries, and trauma work. I’ve learned how my sexual violence work informs the way I view boundary violations within my movement communities. And I believe I have a unique perspective to share to help sexual violence advocates better understand embodiment principles while helping those in movement-based, intentional communities to better understand the dynamics of power-over, gender, intimacy-based violations, boundary-crossings, and sexual/gender abuse and assault.

It is from this perspective that I am now offering this resource, free of charge, as it is developed, on my website. Much of this is my own personal, creative, intellectual work to emerge out of years of experience working directly with survivors of harassment, stalking, assault, and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Much of it is informed by my experiences with community, intimacy, and touch experienced within my own movement communities. And plenty of it is influenced by authors, teachers, and thinkers within sexual health and activist communities, and these will be clearly credited where referenced. I have started with a series of basic articles, and will update this page with new articles as they are written.

I am available for consulting to help community leaders and advocates with thinking through ways to implement these ideas to create safer communities, for online and in-person training of community consent advocates to take the burden off of community founders and planners, and to come lead consent workshops for children, teens, and adults at your events and festivals. If you have questions about this resource or the ideas within it, please reach out. I look forward to continuing the dialogue toward creating safer spaces within flow arts, movement, and dance communities.

Warmly and with shared intention,

Christy

Resources:

I: Movement Communities and Vulnerability

IIa: Gender, Sexual Violence, Power, and Control Part One: Why we need to learn about broader trends in gender, sexual violence, power, and control

IIb: Gender, Sexual Violence, Power, and Control, Part Two: Gender, patriarchy, and sexual violence

IIB: Gender, Sexual Violence, Power, and Control Part Three: What do we mean by “rape culture”? (coming soon)

III: Edges, Boundaries, and Stretching (coming soon)

IV: Community Consent Promotion Models and Considerations (coming soon)