Can’t We Just Dance? A Counterstory

Believing Maria
#2 of 3 in Jam Series; Oil pastel on paper
© 2019 Michele Beaulieux

In this post, I share a counterstory inspired by and following up on my article, “Can’t We Just Dance? Not if We Want to Create Safer Brave Contact Improvisation Spaces” in the Winter/Spring 2020 CQ Contact Improvisation Newsletter. In that article, I explain that to create a culture of consent, we can’t just dance. Instead, I suggest we become active jam citizens and create “safer brave spaces.”

Martin Keogh tells an anecdote about a serial boundary violator whom he calls “Roland” in his article, “101 Ways to Say No to Contact Improvisation: Boundaries and Trust,” recently republished as a chapter in his book, Dancing Deeper Still. Eventually, after multiple interventions, Roland behaves himself. Because Roland stays, Keogh deems the outcome a success even though Keogh acknowledges that during this drawn-out process, many women “were never seen at the jam again.” 

In my article, “Starting By Believing Maria: Responding to Sexual Violence in Safer Brave Contact Improvisation Spaces,” in the Summer/Fall 2019 CQ Contact Improvisation Newsletter, I provided a counterstory—a story with an alternative outcome that represents a moral shift to the dominant cultural narrative. That counterstory visualized how a democratically governed group might have handled Roland’s sexual violations. That scenario, however, was a step ahead of where many groups currently are. It bypassed the reality of poorly run groups with which many victim-survivors like myself are grappling.

The following counterstory addresses the organizational structure of a group facing the serial violator Roland rather than taking it for granted. It is inspired by and follows up on my subsequent article, “Can’t We Just Dance? Not if We Want to Create Safer Brave Contact Improvisation Spaces” in the Winter/Spring 2020 CQ Contact Improvisation Newsletter. In that article, I explain that if we want to create a culture of consent free of sexual violence, we can’t just dance. Instead, I suggest we become active jam citizens and govern our groups in ways that support what I call a “safer brave space.” A safer brave space is a place where being brave is as safe as possible.

Like the story that Keogh recounts, in this counterstory, Roland continues to dance in the group, but this time, the women who feel uncomfortable dancing with him take action:

In the late 2010s, many women who dance at the weekly CI jam in an American city complain about a particular man, Roland, who regularly comes to dance. They say dancing with him is unpleasant because of his lack of awareness of boundaries. 

Two of the women, Maria and Jane, repeatedly discuss their discomfort with the jam leadership. Each time, the jam leaders assure them that they take boundary violations seriously, and then the leaders have a talk with Roland. After a talk, Roland behaves appropriately for a month or two, but he inevitably starts crossing boundaries again, making an off color joke, massaging a partner without asking, or letting his hand linger on a breast. And eventually, another woman complains. 

The cycle repeats itself. Roland crosses boundaries. Women complain. The leaders allow Roland to continue to participate, albeit with various restrictions. Many women stop going to the jam because of Roland. 

The leaders have been running the jam for over a decade. Most people are happy with the way things are going at the jam and grateful for all the work that the jam leaders do. Maria and Jane, however, can’t figure out a way to get their concerns addressed. There is no process for handling complaints about other participants, much less about the leaders.

In researching what to do, Jane comes across an interesting chart: “The Shift from Rape Culture to Consent Culture,” which shows the stages of evolution of CI groups from ignoring and reacting to planning, creating, and, finally, sustaining. It takes Jane just a moment to realize that their jam is in the reacting stage of rape culture. While she knew the situation was bad, putting such a name to it is initially startling. She shows the chart to Maria. After some discussion, they settle into the terminology, finding it affirming. Looking at the chart, they cannot imagine how the group will evolve into safer brave space. 

Maria and Jane realize they need to get creative. Inspired by #MeToo disruptions occurring at other jams in other cities, they try to organize a protest of their own. They invite women who are no longer regular attendees to bring signs to the group’s annual Global Underscore jam, but none want to do it. Maria and Jane scrap the idea.

So after years of tolerating Roland’s behavior and trying to get the jam leaders to take definitive action, Maria and Jane decide to create their own jam. They have heard about other people experimenting with different types of jams. They want their jam to be a safer brave space jam and use the Beaulieu Tools for Safer Brave Contact Improvisation Jams as guidelines. 

Unlike the protest, this idea of creating an alternative space appeals to many of the women who were no longer coming to the jam. The women meet for dinner in each other’s homes to plan their new jam. While Maria and Jane are focused on sexual violence, others have other concerns. Everyone wants to make sure that no one at their new jam will have as much difficulty getting their concernswhatever they areaddressed as they have had. While Maria and Jane believe their own intentions are good, they recognize that that is not enough. So they want to make sure that there is a process for addressing concerns about the leadership, including their own. 

Using principles of democratic structure, they create an organizational charter and structure with shared and rotating leadership that is accountable to the group members. They also outline the expectations of group members.

Next, the women work on safer brave space guidelines for their jam. For reference and perspective, they look beyond the CI community to more structured social dance forms, such as swing and ballroom, which have been actively addressing safety issues for years. They review several different guidelines for writing and implementing codes of conduct for social dances. They end up combining wording they like from several CI jam guidelines that they find in A Compendium of Contact Improvisation Jam Guidelines and Related Material from around the World

Once the women are satisfied with their charter and guidelines, they reach out to people who were uncomfortable or felt unwelcome at the other jam. They welcome anyone who agrees to adhere to their guidelines at their new weekly safer brave space jam.

Maria and Jane are excited that a dozen people come to their first jam. They begin the jam by reading their guidelines and discussing it with the group. They also explain their rotating leadership governance structure and their complaint process. 

And then they dance in safer brave space.

After a couple of months, Regina comes to the jam. She is very sensual in her dance. Howard feels uncomfortable in their duets, especially with her vocalizations. She occasionally strokes herself and him in a manner Howard would reserve for lovers, and she sometimes moans. He thinks she might be aroused and that isn’t a direction he wants to go, and even if he did, it isn’t something he is interested in exploring in a jam. He is a private person who grew up in a traditional family. Complaining about a woman being sexual was not anything Howard ever expected to do, so it takes him awhile but he eventually mentions his discomfort to Maria. 

Maria listens to Howard’s story intently. First, she just lets him speak. Then she asks him some clarifying questions. Maria did notice Regina’s vocalizations but hadn’t been bothered by them. In fact, she was happy that Regina felt free enough to express herself, but she respected Howard’s experience. It had not occurred to her that Regina’s touch might be interpreted as sexual.

Maria discusses the situation with Jane and other members of the leadership team. After consulting Howard, they decide that Maria will talk to Regina. Regina is mortified when she hears about Howard’s reactions to her movement and sound. She says she’s a passionate person and did not intend anything sexual. She wants to set the record straight and so very much wants to talk with Howard. 

Howard agrees to meet. Maria and Jane are also present. The group pays a psychologist trained in sexual violence prevention to attend as well. Howard shares his experience. Next, Regina shares hers. She apologizes for making Howard uncomfortable, but she also wants to be free to express herself. Howard is fine with Regina being expressive. In fact, he enjoys witnessing her dancing. He’s just not comfortable when he feels like her passion is directed at him. Regina and Howard agree that it’s best if they don’t dance together. Howard also suggests that Regina not dance with newcomers, and Regina agrees to that as well. The group decides to revisit the situation in six months.

And then they dance in safer brave space.

© 2020-2022 Michele Beaulieux. This counterstory is licensed under a Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). That means you are free to share it as long as you attribute it to Michele Beaulieux, don’t use it for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I continue to revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration: 7.26.22

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