The theory of change is a concept used in activist groups to describe some form of flow chart to subdivide a larger objective like “make my dance community safer” into smaller, easier steps.

I will discuss here different strategies to implement change in your community.

If you’re an organizer

Implementing change will be much easier if you’re an organizer and have control of the space. You can use the kit and print posters, talk about your new code of conduct, and start having conversations with people! Let’s look into more details about how to go about it.

Role modeling

A big part of our dance culture and etiquette is built through role modeling, via veteran dancers. Newcomers will most likely emulate the behavior they observe, so it’s really important to role model the behavior you want to have.

Even better, enlist some allies! Talk to instructors and regular dancers of your community and ask them to change their etiquette to fit your new value system. For example, if you’d like to have less assumptions about dance roles and gender in your community, you can tell your regular dancers “Hey, we’d like to make this environment more welcoming for all dance roles and genders. It’d be really awesome if you could help us by asking ‘May I lead you?’ when you ask people to dance, especially to new dancers. Do you think you can do that?”. It’s also really good to have your values be reflected in the classes that you give, so talk to the instructors too!

If your dance scene hires traveling instructors, it’s also great to talk to them to ahead of time to make sure they will also role model your values!

Find help

Organizing dancing is a lot of work, and dealing with safety takes additional time and emotional energy that you might not have. It also requires to have someone available at any time to react quickly, and organizing can make you a busy bee, impossible to catch! There are likely people in your dance scene that are willing to help with this and can relieve part of your work load from you!

It’s also really helpful to have individual conversation with other organizers and regular dancers to help spread the good word.

Communicate, train and enforce

Make clear announcements through multiple media sources about changes in policy (at the dance and through social media).

I am a big advocate for happy, silly games to teach and train new habits. Lots of people feel awkward about using words to ask for consent, and being silly helps to push through the awkwardness and normalize good behavior.

Example of games you can play after the mid-dance announcements:

  • If you’d like to encourage people to say no to a dance: everybody has to turn down the first two dances that are offered to them. The goal is to get as many “nos” as possible and the winner gets a jam. This encourages people to ask many people to dance, hear a lot of “nos”, and take them lightly and move on to the next person. It also takes away the negative feelings of hearing “no” by making it something you look for!
  • If you’d like to encourage people to use their words to fix the dance: during the next dance, challenge everyone to find an arbitrary thing to ask for during the dance. Make it silly and create fun dances with requests like: “please don’t touch my left arm”, “please no spins”, “I only want to dance in close embrace”, “I want to use minimal tone”, “I only want to connect the left hand to the right hand”, “no moving forward for me”, “no spinning clockwise for you”
  • If you’d like to encourage non-gendered dance roles: challenge everyone to dance with someone with the same primary dance role and switch throughout the dance.

You’ll also need to have gentle but firm conversations with people who have been in your scene for a long time and have developed bad habits. It is harder to have people who have behaved one way for a long time commit to change than to teach newcomers. You’ll need to find the right balance between patience and firmness! Good luck =)

If you’re not an organizer

This is by far the most common situation I encounter. Someone who is not an organizer wants to create a safer space in their community and doesn’t know how to do that. Let’s be real, it’s hard! Here is my advice.

Talk to the organizers

Talk to the main organizers and explain what you want and why you want it. As in most situations where you want to get something from someone, I suggest you use 3 main lines of argument:

  1. Explain why it’s important
  2. Explain how it would benefit them
  3. Solve their problems

Why is it important? Because society is full of violence and oppression, and we can create a transformative space where people can treat each other better, and hopefully carry that into the outside.

How would that benefit the organizer? Many scenes suffer from a poor retention rate, especially of young women. Creating a safer space is likely to help grow the community by creating a safe and welcoming environment.

Solve their problems. Organizers are often too busy to take care of it, have no idea what to do about it, or are conflict avoidant. Redirect them to this website and/or offer to take care of it while keeping them in the loop.

In my experience, most of the time the organizers are either passive about it or push back on the idea. I think most of the time, offering to deal with it yourself is the best way to create change. If it works, great! If it doesn’t…

Become an organizer

Yeah, that sounds like a lot, but sometimes it’s better to start a dance from scratch that incorporates all the values you want rather than changing an existing scene incrementally. People who agree with your values will self select, and you can teach newcomers good behavior right from the start. You can also carefully choose your team of organizers to be on board with your values, and that’s a lot less work than convincing people about why safer space are important.

Design your own dance space! It’s work, but so very worth it!

If the main organizers aren’t on board, and you don’t have the resources to start your own scene…

Short circuit the organizer

I don’t have a lot of experience with this, and frankly, the ethics of it are a bit murky to me, but here are a few ideas about how to create a safer space when the organizers aren’t collaborating. I think some can be really problematic, so proceed with caution, but also know you always have options!

Role model and find allies

As I’ve written before, role modeling the behavior you want is powerful, like asking people their preferred role, asking consent before close embrace, and asking people of the same gender to dance. It can feel terrifying to challenge the status quo, but it’s really empowering. Also, you get used to it, trust me =)

Be the change you wish to see!

Communicate with newcomers

Often times, bad behavior is targeted at newcomers and exploits their lack of knowledge of the etiquette and the dance to take advantage of them. Don’t find yourself in a missing stairs situation. Inform newcomers about who is safe to dance with and who they should be careful about. It may be frowned upon because it might be perceived as trash talking and gossiping, but if the organizers aren’t doing anything about it, I think it’s preferable to keep newcomers safe.

Interrupt dances

If you see someone who looks very uncomfortable during a dance, I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s totally fair to go interrupt the dance and check in on them. Ask, “Are you okay? Do you need a break?”. If they’re okay, they’ve lost 15 sec of dance, not a big deal, but if they’re not, you’ve gotten them out of a very sticky situation.

You run the risk of becoming annoying, and if you get 9 out of 10 wrong, you might want to tone down your radar, but I’m pretty sure most people can spot a person in an uncomfortable dance.

Exclude folks

If the organizers aren’t collaborating and someone has been a threat to the dance community, you can gather a decent group of people and tell them they’re not welcome anymore. It can help if you have law enforcement as a backup.