by Carly Mattox
When the #MeToo hashtag first appeared on Facebook in 2017, I speak from an honest, first-person perspective when I say that I distanced myself as much as possible when I saw my fellow dancers share that they, too, had been victims of unwanted attention. What truly constituted as sexual harassment, beyond its most basic definition? Consent? Power dynamics? Power imbalances? These were the questions on my mind as I pondered my place in this community. Never before has nuance been so important.
What does it mean to reconcile the massive, global movement of #MeToo within a community as small, as tight-knit, as diverse, and at times as elitist, as Dancesport? It’s a community with a dense history, and a legacy of rigidity against social movements. Resistance still exists against same sex couples competing alongside so-called “traditional” couples. Women are expected to conform to the same gender roles that existed when these dances were first conceptualized competitively, when Walter Laird’s “Technique of Latin Dancing” was first published in the 1960s. Ballroom dance has never quite managed to catch up with this world that is such an ever-changing and ever-evolving place.
Competitive ballroom and latin dancing, and social dancing especially, provide a rare space to be physically intimate with strangers, and when an older man who you don’t know begins to feel up your hips as you dance a bachata together, the immediate flinching thought of discomfort is interrupted by a swift rationalization of, This is social dancing, this is what is supposed to happen, and finally, a resigning, I have no control over this situation. I wish I was the only dancer who had this kind of story, I wish that my numerous friends and peers and women across this community didn’t share identical stories. Sometimes it isn’t strangers. Sometimes it is fellow dancers, who we know and we expect to be comfortable with, who slide their hand across your chest in a social rumba, in a crowded room full of warm bodies where no one else seems to notice and yet at the same time it’s as if all eyes are upon you, and all you want to do is slap them across the face and leave, and cry, and yet you stay silent, because, how do you defend yourself in this situation? How do you remain a strong woman when you’re paralyzed with fear and embarrassment?
This problem is not limited to the physical act of dancing, though it is perhaps the most evident and visceral version of the experience. The problem extends to the power dynamics that are often abused within the community. Coaches who take advantage of their students by sleeping with them, where there is an inherent power imbalance, in age, in experience, in respect. In collegiate circles, mentors who utilize their close proximity, the late nights of practice in liminal spaces, with their mentees in order to get what they want.
How do we navigate this world, when coaches and mentors can’t be trusted, when teammates and fellow dancers turn their backs and avert their eyes, when reputations hang in the balance, when the art of dance, which can be beautiful and vibrant and exhilarating and an opportunity to meet strangers on a uniquely intimate level, is violated by those who seek to abuse their position in this community?
We trust women. We listen to them. We believe them. We owe this to them.
We believe women when they say they have been taken advantage of in this community. We give their stories the benefit of the doubt. We allow their voices to be heard.
We do not operate in a community where a simple whistleblow will cause ripple effects. This is the effect of an imbalanced system. Those in power will always be protected. When it comes to us collegiate dancers, with no power whatsoever, our lack of experience and our naivety will always be ignored. However, we will always have each other, and it is our responsibility to lift each other up.
We protect our teammates, our peers, our friends. We recognize when we have played a complicit part in ignoring someone’s story and in negating it.
And we trust in ourselves. We trust in the evaluation of our experiences, our hearts, our ability to heal, to love, to dance fearlessly and heedless of those who seek to render us powerless.