How might Contact Improvisation (CI) groups respond to teachers who are known to troll? And by that I mean teachers who consciously and systematically search for sexual partners among students. I wrote two counterstories—stories with alternative outcomes that represent a moral shift away from the dominant cultural narrative—that imagine how CI groups might deal with such teachers. These two counterstories re-envision the following anecdote that Martin Keogh added to his article, “101 Ways to Say No to Contact Improvisation: Boundaries and Trust” when he republished it as a chapter in his 2018 book, Dancing Deeper Still:
There are also the Contact teachers who troll. A friend was hosting one of these well-known teachers to lead a workshop in the Boulder community. I asked her, “Are you aware of this teacher’s history?” She responded, “We told him we are aware of his behavior and gave him the condition that he not get sexual with any student during the workshop, OR groom the students for afterwards. He accepted these conditions.” It was brave and necessary for her to be this clear.
For Keogh, the anecdote shows a positive example of how the CI community can deal with a teacher who repeatedly makes sexual advances on students. I disagree and show alternative ways the situation might have been handled. In “Just Say “No” to Teachers Who Troll: Counterstory #1: Uninviting” published in the Contact Quarterly CI Newsletter, I imagine the conversation I might have had if a friend had told me what Keogh’s friend told him: that they had hired, albeit with stipulations, a teacher who was known to troll.
In this blog post, I step even further back and imagine the meeting in which Keogh’s friend and her fellow CI group leaders were planning the workshop. I envision how they might have decided not to hire a teacher known for trolling. We previously met the group leaders—”Maria,” “Jane,” and “John” in two other counterstories: “Starting by Believing Maria: Responding to Sexual Violence in Safer Brave Contact Improvisation Spaces,”and “Can’t We Just Dance? A Counterstory.” In those counterstories, they were responding to a situation with a dancer named “Roland” who repeatedly violated women’s boundaries.
In the counterstory below, Maria, Jane, and John are planning their group’s next workshop, and “Cam”’s name comes up. This time, we see them work through how to deal, not with a dancer who violates boundaries, but with a teacher who does. While specifically about creating a culture of consent in CI, it explores concepts applicable to many groups in which people participate voluntarily and risk vulnerability. And while inspired by reality, the names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this counterstory are fictitious.
Maria: I’m so glad it worked out for us all to meet after the jam today. We don’t have much time to figure out our next workshop.
John: Yes. Good to see you.
Jane: So to get right to business: jam leaders have been addressing safer brave spaces in pre-jam classes, but it feels like a bit of a mish mash. I’m thinking that bringing in an outside expert would be helpful. We could benefit from some teachers who have studied consent, who really know what they’re talking about.
Maria: That’s what I was thinking, too.
John: Me, too. Great minds think alike! … Cam is a popular teacher, and I bet he’d draw a good crowd. I just went to his workshop and he talked about consent. He used Martin Keogh’s Two Rivers exercise to help people explore the relationship between “yes” and “no.” I thought it was insightful.
Jane: Well, that’s not exactly my favorite exercise. That’s from his dreadful “101 Ways to say ‘No'” essay.
Maria: Oh really? Is that where that exercise came from? I never read that essay. The title tipped me off that it would be bad. Sounds like I was right.
Jane: You definitely were. How did Cam present the exercise? Did he emphasize how to say “no”?
John: Come to think of it … Yes, he did. I didn’t even register that.
Jane: It is helpful for people to learn boundary setting, but I don’t want to start out with that. I want to start by teaching people to listen for consent.
Maria: If we focused on teaching listening, there would be less need for people to say “no.” That’s why I didn’t want to read Keogh’s article. The title—“101 Ways to Say ‘No'”—gave his stance away. Emphasizing saying “no” just leads to victim-blaming.
John: Agreed. Man, this is embarrassing. It’s easy to get sucked into First Rule thinking.
Maria: Yes. It takes a while to shed the CI world’s “take care of yourself” ethos.
Jane: It’s not just CI. It’s everywhere. It’s our social default to blame victims.
John: You think so?
Jane: Yes. It’s called the just world hypothesis.
John: What’s that?
Jane: We want life to be fair. We want to believe that people deserve what happens to them. That victims somehow bring on their fates. That way, if we don’t do the stupid things they do, bad things won’t happen to us. We can continue to feel safe.
John: That has a certain logic.
Jane: … a certain messed up logic.
Maria: We have to work hard to accept that life isn’t fair.
Jane: Yeah, like it’s not fair that the Two Rivers exercise gets trotted out as an example of how to teach consent….
John: Well, couldn’t it be adapted to include listening for consent?
Jane: I suppose, but I don’t know that it’s the best exercise even for that. You’re asking people to lie on the floor and let people touch them.
Maria: I did it once, and I felt trapped. All I could think as I was lying there was—no offense, John—this is something a man came up with.
John: I’m sorry.
Jane: Why not have people standing? So you can back away if you’re uncomfortable.
Maria: Yeah, that would be better. I’m on the floor, and then I’m supposed to put my hands over my head to signal that two people—the “two rivers”—can touch me anywhere they want? No thank you!
Jane: And Keogh has two rivers—not just one—so they can “chaperone” each other. That’s the word he uses—chaperone— when he describes the exercise. He basically acknowledges that things could get out of hand.
Maria: Oh really? I hadn’t realized that was his logic for two people. I just felt teamed up on.
Jane: Keogh doesn’t spend any energy talking about how the rivers might listen beyond responding to the three arm positions: yes, no, and sorta.
Maria: There’s no nuance.
John: Now that I hear all this, I can see that the exercise is problematic. When I did it with Cam, I thought we had some good discussions. People appreciated the permission to set boundaries. They felt empowered.
Jane: I’m not saying that’s not a good thing.
John: Yeah, but you’ve given me a whole other perspective on it. Thank you.
Jane: It’s upsetting that this type of information gets promoted. There are actually people who have studied consent. There’s a whole body of research on preventing sexual violence. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to apply the existing knowledge to CI.
Maria: Agreed, but I have another more serious issue with Cam. Have you not heard about him hitting on students, John?
Jane: Right. That’s the big issue with him.
John: I hadn’t heard that. What happened?
Maria: I don’t want to rehash it all. Let’s just say he’s done some creepy things.
John: I didn’t know.…
Maria: I cringe just thinking about him. Yuck.
John: As a white man defending a white man, I don’t have much standing here, but we do have to be careful acting on a rumor.
Maria: It’s rumors, John. Plural. There are multiple reports. Multiple women.
Jane: He’s crossed a lot of lines.
Maria: Many, many lines. Not that I think it should require multiple incidents …
Jane: Wouldn’t it be great if we got to the point where it took just one …
Maria: It’s wild to me that you wouldn’t know, John. I thought everyone did. I guess the whisper network runs in a female circuit.
John: Yeah, I guess so. I really had no idea. I don’t know him well but he seems like a nice guy to me. In fact, I was thinking of trying to set him up with a friend. But I agree: I don’t want to bring in someone who’s going to put people on edge.
Maria: And put them in danger.
John: Right. Totally.
Jane: o.k. Good. And just to be clear—we might get questioned—we’re not acting on a rumor. We’re not kicking him out. That would require more discussion and procedure. We’re just not hiring him. We’re not choosing him among myriad choices.
John: Right. And also to be clear, I wasn’t saying we should hire him. Frankly, the exercise issue is enough of a problem for me.
Jane: Thanks. And just to drive our decision home with one final point. No offense, John, but our last three outside teachers were white men. I’d like to learn from people who can bring other perspectives. I’d like to give our platform to some new voices.
John: I agree.
Maria: So before we got derailed with this discussion of Cam, I was going to say that I had put together a list of potential teachers. I made copies for each of us.
John: Oh, I’m sorry.
Jane: Oh wow, Maria! Thanks so much! This is great!
John: Yes. Thank you!
Maria: I listed teachers who I know have been working toward creating a culture of consent in a safer brave sort of way.
Jane: As opposed to a 101 ways to say “no” sort of way??
Maria: Yeah really. Right.
John: Did you vet the teachers on this list in any way?
Maria: I didn’t list any teachers that I’ve known to troll. So Cam’s not on the list and neither is Ed. But they wouldn’t have been on the list anyway because they espouse the first rule. I haven’t done anything beyond that.
John: Well, that’s a start. I did know about Ed, and somehow he’s doing a lot of teaching these days.
Jane: Yes. It’s just infuriating.
John: There shouldn’t be any established teachers known for trolling. How did we even get to this point?
Jane: That’s a good question. In some ways, I think it goes back to the decision not to copyright contact improvisation, so there’s never been a governing body. Each group is on its own. We can do our due diligence and be vigilant, but it doesn’t mean other groups are.
John: Good point. But even in disciplines that have centralized governing bodies, teachers hit on students.
Jane: Yeah, but some groups are worse than others.
Maria: That’s why I want this workshop to help us create a culture of consent.
John: Agreed. I’m sorry, but I’m still reeling from this revelation about Cam. I feel like a fool for being so clueless. Not to make it about me, but I should have known about this, too.
Maria: That’s true.
John: Something is seriously screwed up that we’re relying on whisper networks.
Jane: So you’re thinking we should have something more formal?
John: I guess.
Jane: For starters, I think we need to make people comfortable coming forward.
John: Yes. Definitely. That would be a start.
Maria: And we need to teach consent. So can we get back to figuring out our workshop? We don’t have much time.
John: O.k. but one last thing. I think it would be good to explain our expectations to potential teachers. We can explain that we want our teachers to support our organizational goal of creating safer brave spaces.
Jane: That would be good.
Maria: That’s what we want the focus of this workshop to be. And all the teachers on the list have done work toward creating a culture of consent. So if we could take a look at the list….
Jane: Thanks so much for putting this together, Maria.
John: Yes. Thank you. I’m sorry, but I just want to finish my thought. I’m going to take a look at the teacher contract template that we’ve been using. I want to make sure that we’re clear about what we expect from teachers: both what they’re teaching and how they treat students. I think teacher guidelines would be helpful both for teachers and for us in hiring and evaluating them. It’s always good to set expectations upfront.
John: And then part of our vetting can be whether the teachers meet our guidelines. Teachers like Cam and Ed would immediately be ruled out.
Maria: That’s kinda what I already did with this list.
Jane: But I can see that it would be good to formalize it.
Maria: O.k. It would be great if you’d look into that.
John: I’m going to investigate reporting options, too. We cannot be relying on whisper networks.
Maria: Sounds good. But to get back on track—as I keep saying, we don’t have a lot of time—what do you think of this list?
Jane: I would like to get a teacher from a marginalized group. We need to be paying them to educate us.
Maria: A lot of people have been doing a lot of unpaid emotional labor for a long time.
John: And we’re still pretty clueless. At least I am.
Maria: Well, there are people of color and cis and trans women on the list. Also some gay people and gender-nonconforming people. And a deaf teacher, too.
John: This looks like a good list.
Jane: Yes, this is great, Maria!
John: I’m afraid, though, that the ones I see here don’t have the name recognition to attract attendees.
Maria: Yes, it’s a catch 22. Groups keep hiring well-known teachers and don’t give others a chance.
John: I hate to say it, but Cam would draw a crowd.
Maria: Well, I hope not for much longer.
Jane: I could just imagine people boycotting and picketing our workshop.
Maria: Wouldn’t that be great! Why haven’t people been protesting him?
John: I didn’t mean to hire him, I just mean there’s a financial aspect here, too.
Maria: Well, if we have to dip into our reserve fund, that’s what it’s there for. I’d like to believe that our community would step up to the plate on this issue.
Jane: It’ll be on us to make the case for these newer teachers and their workshop. Some of these teachers have done a lot of work on community accountability and creating a culture of consent. Their credentials are compelling to me …
Maria: We’ll need to get creative with our marketing promotions.
John: I think we can do it!
Jane: Sponsoring a workshop on consent in CI with a teacher from a marginalized group will be an important thing for us to do. And I think the community will recognize that.
Maria: I hope so. Let’s each agree to see what we can find out about the teachers on this list and decide who we’d recommend. And then how about we meet again, same time and place next week?
Jane: Sounds good.
John: We can cross our fingers that we each select the same teacher as our top choice.
Jane: That would make things easy!
John: And I’ll review our teacher contract before then, too. I’ll try to email you my thoughts in advance.
Jane: That sounds good.
Maria: Yep. Thanks, John. See you two next week.
Jane: Good Bye.
Thank you to Still Point Theatre Collective Salonathon for bringing the story to life and to Carol Mudra and Ellyn Bank for their comments.
© 6.27.2020 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.