Safety in Dance Circles

By: Loolwa Khazzoom, Founder, Dancing with Pain

April 9th, 2008 • Dance for Natural Pain ReliefPrint Print

In one way, freestyle dance events are ideal for those in chronic pain to explore moving our bodies safely: Given the lack of formal structure, we are not expected to dance with any specific body part in any particular way. Paradoxically, it is that very lack of structure that can undermine our safety in dance circles.

I have been to many freestyle dance events in the United States and abroad. They characteristically draw a crowd of people who are spiritual, passionate, and very present in their bodies. They also characteristically draw a crowd of people who seem oblivious to the personal space of those around them.

Given that there are no rules on the freestyle dance floor, that lack of awareness goes unchecked. As a result, it is potentially dangerous for those of us with sensitive bodies.

People have banged into me or stepped on me, without so much as noticing or apologizing. They also have rubbed up against me or grabbed me without any visual, physical, or verbal cues that it was okay to enter my personal space in any way, shape, or form.

Once, for example, I was doing handstand, when a man I’d never met came up and grabbed my feet. Out of nowhere. At times, that behavior not only has made it impossible for me to continue dancing that evening, but has jacked up my pain levels and left me limping for days following the event.

Initially, I saw it as a mysterious contradiction: How can those who are on the mind-body path be so obtuse when it comes to honoring people’s boundaries? I have since come to see this head-scratcher as a result of social confusion between the concepts of “boundaries” and “barriers.”

Those who are drawn to dance, bodywork, yoga, and the like generally embrace freedom of expression, seeing it as the manifestation of inner divinity. In addition, they generally strive to break down false barriers between mind, body, and spirit and between ourselves and others.

Super groovy concepts that I too embrace.

The thing is, there is a way to engage these concepts without steamrolling over other people’s space. Bottom line: “Know before whom you stand.” This is my little twist on the Biblical quote:

Respect each person as a self-contained, autonomous unit. That’s not a negative barrier — like the inability to recognize one’s inner self. It’s a positive boundary — the ability to recognize someone else. A boundary is a discernment, a container, something that creates shape — like a cup that enables us to hold water, and therefore, to drink.

When we know someone wants us to be all rubbing up against them, well, that’s fabulous. Rub away. But when we don’t know they want it, we can’t just assume they do. It’s the same as with sex: The act itself is neutral. It’s how we use it that defines whether the experience is consensual or an act of violence.

I know that people in the world of “contact jam” (who are largely attracted to freestyle dance circles) enjoy the freedom of touch in that world. My understanding is that people in that world are open to pretty much any touch by anybody. Even getting banged into is seen as the beginning of a dance.

I think it’s perfectly legitimate to create a space where, at the outset, participants know that those around them will be coming up and touching freely. The thing is, unless and until that agreement is established as the operating principle of a given dance circle, it is unfair and unsafe to impose it on others.

I also think there is a way to be totally open to touch while still being discerning, and that there is a way to communicate with people while dancing — to ensure that the dance is mutual. As I expressed previously, I don’t see limitations as barriers. I see them as doorways to new forms of expression. But more about that in another post.

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