Sexual Assault, Power and Partner Dance

A lovely blog post was posted recently presenting that communities need to be aware of how power dynamics can perpetuate sexual violence and starting some thoughts on what communities can do. I’d like to build a tangent around the survivor that has nothing to do with social capital. This is the story of the tragedy of sexual violence in communities that form their identity around physical contact. (Content warning: this is gonna get sad, folks.) I’ll tell it from my story, but I’ve heard echos of this from many other survivors.

So here’s the situation: you discover this divine experience called partner dancing. You fall in love. If you were like me, you were intoxicated by allowing your brain to turn off and just follow. Or maybe for you it was access to normalized physical contact, and a type of intimacy that is difficult to access outside a romantic partner. And then there’s the emotion of the music that you can tap into and it can take you on a cathartic journey like you’ve never experienced before. Practically transcendent!

Before you realize it, you are, for all intents and purposes, addicted to the unique experience that partner dancing gives you access to. Thankfully your local(ish) community of fellow addicts gives you access to feeding your cravings on a regular basis. Yay!

Now, hopefully for the vast majority of you, this next part didn’t and doesn’t happen. (Although statistically it’s not unlikely.) Somewhere in the midst of a multi-year smorgasbord of dancing I came to realize I had been raped. My dancing glee took a dramatic halt. There were many factors feeding into the halt, but the broadest and most permanent has to do with a fundamental issue between dancing and sexual assault.

Sexual assault is a violation of trust (among other things.) Generally an assaulter has earned their subject’s trust enough to get them into a situation they can’t get themselves out of. It’s also a violation of trust that’s often in a personal and/or intimate context.

Partner dancing requires close personal contact, and can be intimate. Also, particularly on the follow’s part, it requires trust; trust that my partner isn’t going to lead me to do things that would hurt me, or do things to me that are inappropriate under the guise of leading a “mistake.” And the social construct for this trust is that one party asks the other to dance, and with that mere phrase all that trust is placed on the line.

While this seems like a relatively reasonable exchange, in the phases of my healing where I was most tapped into how utterly obliterated my trust had been, it was an unfathomable situation. It was as if I’d set my boundary as a line drawn in the sand a foot away from myself and my assaulter had looked at that line and promptly bore a hole straight through the ground all the way to China causing the planet to implode in on itself. And then someone asks me to dance and I’m like, “but, there’s no planet. OMG WTF ARE YOU CRAZY OR SOMETHING?!” For someone standing on solid ground the question “would you like to dance” is totally reasonable, but when there is no ground below your feet it sounds very far from reasonable.

This is the situation survivors face when they attempt to go partner dancing. Their trust was violated in an arena they thought was safe and now it is impossible to get a sense of safety and trust in even mundane circumstances. And especially in something as personal and vulnerable as partner dancing.

And yet, as a dance addict I CRAVE precisely what I don’t have access to. You would not believe the number of wailing, sobbing therapy sessions I’ve had because my “survivorship” gets in the way of me being able to access that unique experience of partner dancing. Furthermore, this is one of those situations where you can’t go back, you can only go forward. My experience of dance as a blissful smorgasbord is a bridge that burnt down years ago. I’ve built a new bridge. I can dance (even with perfect strangers) just fine. But this is a very different looking bridge. It’s far less simple, straightforward and gleeful. There are more moving parts, more intention and effort on my part. And while “glee” is a rare emotion, I do find happiness and bliss while dancing, albeit less frequently.

My point is: let’s say it’s a perfect world and I have ALL THE SOCIAL CAPITAL. And I come forward publicly, and the community is supporting, and my assaulter is addressed in all the ways that are healthy for me and promote growth for them. In this perfect dream world absent of any and all rape culture, dancing is still going to be a painful struggle for survivors. Survivors are going to disappear. Survivors are going to need a maddening mix of support to know they are included, and yet also space so that they can heal. Survivors are going to have to go on their own individual journey to figure out how to access dancing again, and it’s quite possible that the journey will be too hard and they’ll choose to do other things.

This does not mean that efforts to address rape culture are all for naught. The conversations currently happening in dance communities are key for reducing the barriers that survivors face and helping give them reasons to stay. And not all the barriers are external; plenty are internal. Survivors will always need support. I hope the picture I’ve painted helps bring awareness and deeper understanding to a survivors experience (while also acknowledging that every survivor’s experience is different.)

If all this was too heavy for you, here: have a pallet cleansing cute cat video!