On January 22, 2015, my friend and fellow Lindy hopper Sarah Sullivan posted an account of sexual harassment experiences with Steven Mitchell when she was a teenager. Since then several named women came forward with similar experiences with the world renowned and respected swing dance instructor.
The response on the whole is overwhelmingly positive, with blaming victims and rape apologists in the minority.
For some actual conversations, Yehoodie and the SwingNation hosts (Nicole Zuckerman, Manu Smith, and Rik Panganiban) host some excellent panels with event organizers, teachers, and key people in the global scene here, here, and here.
The conversation is still ongoing, and I feel like there are more articulate people saying what needs to be said. But I wanted to share two personal stories concerning sexual harassment in the swing dance community.
Before I go any further, neither of these stories concern Steven Mitchell or anything as triggering as rape or sexual assault.
However, I do think that the call for Codes of Conduct is much needed for scenes and events alike not just for cases as serious as “rock star” taking advantage of people that their status allows them but also for cases that people tend to brush off that are still jarring to deal with.
As a College Scene Leader in Florida
I put on several events over the course of my career as president of the Swing Dance Club at Florida State University. And for the most part, we had a spotless record in terms of reported sexual harassment situations. I say “reported” because I am not so naive as to assume it never happened. We unfortunately did not have a Code of Conduct to refer to or to reference to newcomers and I don’t know if that would have changed anything.
However, during one event, a friend of mine told my best friend and co-president that a boy had approached her in the designated blues room and in conversation had mentioned that he had named his private parts. This is considered verbal sexual harassment under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And I knew that as scene leader, I would have to address this before it got out of control or happened again.
Unfortunately, the club did not have a Code of Conduct and I did not know how to properly address the situation. I asked both advisers and a prominent male dancer that many locals looked up to to accompany me, but no one could commit to a time and I did not want too much time to pass before the incident became too distant to be relevant. So I took it upon myself to confront the boy and what resulted was an awkward conversation that ended in a stern warning that if it happened again I would have to take formal action.
Every now and then I think how I could have handled it differently. Also, an even more terrifying thought, how many times had something like this happened without my knowledge?
In this instance a Code of Conduct could have:
(1) Provided me an outline to follow to address the situation and hold myself and my fellow officers accountable to react to it.
(2) Been announced at the beginning of the event and other times locally to let dancers know that it is their right to report it to us so that we can handle the situation.
As a Dancer at an Event
I have traveled for dance a lot.And for the most part I enjoy each event to varying degrees. However, there is one instance where I was personally sexually harassed that definitely affected the weekend for me.
I was dancing with a lead who I knew but was not close to. (He was from a different city, so we rarely crossed paths.) During the dance, he would lead me into belt slides (a move I generally loathe), but instead of sliding his hand around my waist/belly area, his hand skimmed my breasts.
First time, I brushed it off. This was an accident, surely he didn’t do this on purpose. Second time, I was a little alarmed. Third time, I stopped him, still giving him the benefit of the doubt. I do not have the largest breasts, maybe he did not know what he was doing. So I told him as delicately as I could “Your belt slides are a little high” and I gestured where he was touching me.
Now the right reaction would have been a look of horror and an emphatic “I am so sorry! It will not happen again!” and continue dancing. Instead, he said something that might have retained an apology (I don’t remember what), continued dancing, and then lead me into a free spin then stopping me by touching a finger to my forehead and asking me “Is this too high?”
Needless to say this was petty and childish and I just resolved never to dance with this lead again. There were plenty of leads at the event that I could dance with and he wasn’t a part of my usual group of friends.
However, driving home from the event and recounted my story with some outrage, my best friend said that she had the same experience with the same lead (too high “belt” slides over the breasts). Now with my friend, who has bigger breasts then myself, removed all doubt in my mind that this move was on purpose. I was furious.
But it did not even occur to me to go to an organizer or contact anyone after the fact. There was no knowledge that anything would have been done about the situation and I did not know who I would even begin to approach about it during or after the event.
In this instance a Code of Conduct could have:
(1) Allowed me the knowledge that I could approach someone (specified or otherwise) that I was being harassed.
(2) Prevention from the lead from harassing any number of follows at the event (at least).
Notifying event or dance attendees that there is a safe space for grievances allows the people to voice discomforts and be able to continue to enjoying themselves. Otherwise a bad experience might cause individuals or entire groups to be alienated from the event(s) and refuse to attend any future dates.
Some scenes have gone on record saying that they don’t want to create a Code of Conduct because it might discourage people from coming back or traveling to other dance scenes because it’s pointing out what might happen to them. To which I say, this is not the point of a Code of Conduct.
A good Code of Conduct will provide guidelines for organizers on how to handle different levels of possible inappropriate behavior (which they don’t have to advertise at the beginning of every event). And it will provide attendees with the knowledge that they are being protected and will be heard should they be made uncomfortable.
I know a lot of people had already said what they had to say. And some people might even be tired of talking about this. But the conversation needs to continue if we want to improve our community.