It’s really important to address everything that happens in your dance scene. By addressing even the smallest discomforts, you’re establishing two things:
- Reporting matters and you care about the people in your dance community.
- You’re watching and you’re willing to take action which will drive away people with bad intentions.
Multiple dancers have reported hearing answers like “We’ll keep an eye on it”, and have expressed how they didn’t feel their concern was addressed at all. I strongly recommend avoiding this response. Most of the time, if someone has made the effort to report to you, a line has been crossed already and it is easier to address the issue immediately, rather than letting it escalate.
How should you handle it? I’ll discuss here the process that I recommend and explore some alternatives.
I’ll use “reporter” to refer to the person made uncomfortable and “reportee” for the person who made the reporter uncomfortable.
Receiving the reporting
Regardless of how the reporter has contacted you, you’ll probably need to have a conversation with the reporter face to face. Receiving reports can be distressing, so make sure you’re in a good place, and keep the conversation about them. During this conversation make sure to:
- Create a safe environment for them. Make sure you’re out of earshot of anyone, especially from the reportee.
- Validate their feelings and experiences. Don’t doubt their word, don’t tell them they’re over-reacting. Tell them their feelings are okay, that it makes sense and that you understand. Tell them it’s important to you they don’t have this experience in your space.
- Ask questions without pushing or creating a narrative for them. It’s important that you have a clear understanding of what happened so you can make an informed decision about it. Avoid using words they haven’t used themselves. Give them time to verbalize.
- Respect their agency. If they feel their consent wasn’t respected, it’s really important you make sure you respect their consent. If they’re distressed, it might feel natural to give a hug or touch, but make sure you ask for verbal consent first.
- Give them agency! Ask them what they want to happen and what would make them feel better and safer.
- Ask about how much they’re willing to do and disclose. For minor events, I prefer the reporter to have a conversation with the reportee with an organizer as backup. I think it’s more powerful. It empowers the individual and the community to talk about their boundaries. So you can ask “Would you be willing to have a conversation with them with me as backup?”. If they’re not willing, I’d ask if they’re willing to have me disclose to the reportee what happened and who reported them.
Deciding what to do
As an organizer, you have a responsibility to the reporter, the reportee, and the community, and it’s up to you to mitigate everyone’s interest.
As much as possible, try to accommodate for what the reporter asked for. If the reporter asked for nothing to happen, I tend to still have a conversation with the reportee, because it’s likely it will happen to someone else, and you want to keep the community safe. On the other hand, if the reporter wants the person banned forever from every dance scene because they dipped them without asking first, you might want to tone down the request.
Mitigating people’s biases
This gets a bit complicated. You won’t always get a chance to see direct evidence of the reported behavior. I encourage you to always believe the reporter. I also encourage you to take action. However, something you might want to take into account is the reporter’s bias, and then make a decision about whether or not to act.
I’ll try to make an assessment of the situation and observe the reportee’s behavior. If I hear a report of a creepy woman asking people to dance, and I see an old woman verbally asking people to dance, politely and only once, I might not go have a conversation with her. If I hear the report there’s some shady characters that are lurking around and I see a black dancer in a mostly white environment acting like everybody else, I’m probably not going to act on that report. If I hear that someone is super awkward and doesn’t really get eye contact signals and I realize they’re on the autism spectrum, I’m probably going to handle it in a very different way than I might otherwise.
It’s complicated, and sometimes, we might get it wrong! It’s always helpful to dig for more information, and ask other people if they’ve noticed anything.
While the reporter may experience genuine feelings of distress in those situations, you might create a less welcoming environment if you enforce people’s biases. Don’t overshoot either and excuse bad behavior because a reportee is part of an oppressed group. Have a clear set of values and check if people are behaving according to them or not.
If it’s a minor incident, like not asking before dipping or initiating close embrace, assuming a dance role, a sexist joke, an uncomfortable flirt, asking someone too many times to dance, etc., a conversation might be all that is warranted.
If the incident is more serious, such as a repeat of a minor infraction, inappropriate touching that might have been accidental, or reckless aerials, I’d have a conversation possibly leading to a temporary exclusion depending on the reaction of the reportee.
For the most serious cases of things like sexual assault, repeat serious incidents, rape, or injuries, go for a conversation leading to a temporary or permanent exclusion and remember you can always involve law enforcement if necessary.
Restoration vs punishment
A lot of how our society functions relies on punishing bad behavior to create negative reinforcement. It relies on the idea that negative consequences for one’s action can be a deterrent. It also often times removes the offender from their community; think of things such as going to the corner for a time out, expulsion, and prison. The upside is that the community doesn’t have to deal with that individual and is instantly safer. The downside is that it usually doesn’t address the reporter wants and needs, and it doesn’t allow for growth of the reportee.
The alternative is restoration. It relies on the idea that when someone acts badly, it breaks your community. Someone is hurt, trust is broken, and the community is damaged. In order to restore your community and rebuild trust, you can focus on what the reporter needs to feel better, and you can help the reportee be accountable and change their behavior.
I tend to prefer the restorative process, especially since a lot of the incidents I deal with are fairly minor. I think that for major incidents, restoration can’t be achieve with the limited means of the organizers, and the reportee should be expelled.
Restorative models also take more time and energy, and if you don’t commit to actually following up with people, you’re allowing problematic dancers to remain in your dance community and creating a less safe environment.
What if it didn’t happen in my scene?
It’s a common problem that organizers run into. A dancer is perfectly fine when dancing but acts very inappropriately outside of dance events. Should you address it?
My opinion is a strong yes.
Their behavior creates a hostile environment, including at the dance events, and you run the risk of losing the people who are made uncomfortable by that person and creating a chronic loss of dancers. It is in your best interest as an organizer to address it.
Having the conversation
Having the conversation is never fun, so make sure you’ve run through your talking points. Most people don’t like having those conversations, so prepare for a bumpy ride, but it’s really really important to have them.
Here is the strategy I’ve developed over the years:
- Find the dancer, possibly after dancing with them. Ask them to follow you on the side of the dance floor or to an area where you can have a conversation.
- Express to them that they’re a valued member of the community and you want them to keep coming to your events. This takes away the fear that if they acknowledge their behavior, they’ll be kicked out.
- Report to them they’ve made people uncomfortable. If you have permission, you can describe the event. People are likely to get defensive and deny they’ve done it or that they’re responsible. Don’t engage in arguing about what did or didn’t happen. Focus on the feeling. You can say something like “I understand it might be a misunderstanding, but someone was made uncomfortable, and I’m sure you don’t want that to happen, so let’s find ways to avoid it in the future”.
- Ask if they have any idea about how they could make sure this doesn’t happen again. It will go smoother if it comes from them.
- Offer very specific action items they can use to avoid reproducing their behavior in the future, like “Make sure you ask every time before dancing close embrace”, “Ask people to dance only one time, and say : ‘come find me later’ if you want to dance with them again”, “Avoid jokes about women”, “Ask for permission before initiating flirting”, etc.
- If the reporter had specific requests, suggest them. “You should bring them some cupcakes”. “Please don’t ask them to dance again”. “They’re asking you to offer a sincere apology, and we think that’s a great way to have everyone feel better about it”.
- Make sure they understand and feel like they can do those things.
- Set up a short follow up conversation in a few weeks to check in about how those changes have been implemented.
- Create a friendly moment to wash away the negative feelings about the conversation. Go dance, have tea, chit-chat about their life, and so on.
If the conversation is not the first one you’ve had, I’d probably switch to a firmer tone saying that if the reportee can’t make progress, we might not be able to have them remain in our community. I also will offer some restrictive rules to avoid bad behavior, like “No dating anyone in the dance community”, “No asking any dancer to dance more once”, “No flirting”, “No jokes”.
The follow up conversation is often a quick chat about how it’s been going and if they need support to implement the changes we suggested.
If you want to enforce a sanction following up an incident, make sure you have your facts straight! I tend to recommend a matter-of-fact conversation that doesn’t focus on the person but revolves around their behavior. It’s also really helpful to have the code of conduct to back you up:
“You have done XX to YY and this is not a behavior that we accept here. We impose sanctions against people who break the code of conduct, so we’re asking that you don’t come to the next 4 dances. You may come back starting on MM/DD/YY.”
If your team of organizers is large and changes, it can especially important to keep a record of these conversations.