I wrote this article for members of the contact improvisation community who have positions of power within their community. Their power can derive from being a teacher, organiser or committee member which are pretty clear leadership roles. But sometimes, even if someone hasn’t chosen a direct leadership role, they still may have power and influence as a result of the dominant culture giving them power due to certain defining characteristics. For example, a tall, athletic, good-looking young man who does really fancy lifts will often be given “rock star” status, whether he chooses it or not (or is even aware of it). Or a friendly older person who has been going to the jam forever may be seen as a “guru” or “caretaker of the space”, even if they are not a teacher.
Let’s say you are in a position of power and there is someone at a jam or class that you are attracted to. In this post-#metoo era how should you proceed? Maybe you already understand that your position of leadership in your community may create a power imbalance that can blur or confuse consent practices.
Let me give you an overview of how this can play out. In a sexual or romantic relationship where there is a power differential between two people, there is a risk that the person with less power may feel a reduced ability to enforce boundaries. The lines that separate what is okay from what is not okay can become blurry. For these reasons, relationships with power imbalances have a higher risk of leading to hurt and even abuse. In a student/teacher relationship, the teacher inherently has power over the student. This can make it hard for the student to figure out what boundaries they need to assert when the teacher “muscles” them into a complicated lift or pursues them romantically. Power imbalances don’t just happen in the teacher/student relationship. They can occur when there is a gap in age, experience level, ability, or level of societal privilege and standing. Groups that face systemic “isms”, such racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia etc., as well as groups that are underrepresented or made to feel invisible may also feel disempowered when facing the task of standing up for their boundaries. Sometimes power imbalances are fabricated or elevated through deceit, threats, or an attempt to undermine someone’s community connections or confidence in themselves or their beliefs.
In situations where consent becomes blurry due to a power imbalance, I think the tenet in Contact Improvisation that we each are responsible for protecting our own boundaries falls short. CI blog writer, Richard Kim refers to this idea in one of his posts as the “First Rule of CI”, the “Only Rule”, the “Fundamental Principle”, or the “Guiding Rule” and explains that its shorthand version is “take care of yourself”. Richard goes on to discuss that while it supports the safety of the practice it is sometimes used as an excuse for not being proactive when it comes to preventing abuse.
I feel “take care of yourself” is a valuable concept that should continue to be promoted, but that it does not shed light on the complexities of power issues. I believe it is the responsibly of community leaders to educate themselves about power imbalances and act with according responsibility. People of influence can aim to act with integrity in regards to their power in tandem with supporting the “First Rule”. The two concepts can coexist.
To act with responsibility in regards to power sounds like a good plan, but what does it mean? The following is a quiz that helps you guess at whether power imbalances may be at play in a potential relationship. Following that, I provide recommendations and then a list of possible actions that can help minimize the risk that power imbalances will lead to abuse. There is also space provided for your own thoughts so that the quiz becomes a platform that generates introspection and new ideas.
The Quiz: Is there a power imbalance?
Is there a person you are considering entering a relationship with? If so then ask yourself the following questions and rate the level of possible power imbalance issues on a scale of 0 – 10.
- 0 means you guess the situation does not at all affect their ability to give consent.
- 5 means you think there is a possibility that their ability to give consent may be blurred as a result of a power imbalance.
- 10 means you believe there is a clear power imbalance and as a result, there is a serious risk the person will not feel empowered to assert their boundaries. This score also indicates that due to potential power imbalance issues you believe proceeding is not advised.
- If the scenario does not apply, just put “NA”.
The person is a student of yours and you are responsible for giving them a pass or fail grade that will affect their academic standing. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:_________
The person just began studying Contact Improvisation a few days ago and they seem to be “star-struck” by the form and have not yet acclimatized themselves to jam culture and the social scene. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:_________
You are a person of influence in the community where they jam, and they have been going to the jam for six months or less. They are part-way through the process of acclimatizing themselves to the form and the social scene. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:_________
The person is in a distraught emotional state or alternately has “zoned out” as a way to cope with stress or emotional intensity. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:_________
You have lied to them, or undermined their community connections or their confidence in themselves and their beliefs to increase your influence over them. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:_________
You have complimented and flattered them to the point that they may be relying on your attention for a self-esteem boost or much need reassurance.
How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:_________
You are acting as a mentor in an officially assigned manner. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score: _________
You play a mentorship role in an unofficial capacity. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:_________
They rely heavily on you for advice, wisdom or expertise. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score: _________
The person is intoxicated. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:_________
The person is an occasional student of yours in open community classes. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:__________
The person is a student of yours in a weekend workshop. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:__________
You are one of 30 teachers in a large contact Festival they are attending. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:__________
Your standing in the community means that you could have influence over their contact improvisation social life and/or career. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:__________
You have been dancing CI for many more years than they have. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:__________
You have a higher degree of skill as a CI dancer than they have. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:__________
There is an age gap between you. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:__________
You are from a group that is given societal privileges that they are not. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Those in a position of privilege often may not even be able to see that they have privilege. An example of this would be a white person claiming, at first thought, that there is no racism in their jam community. Or a man claiming at first thought that women do not face sexism at Contact Jams. We offer that you consider this question with some in-depth introspection and possibly consult outside sources. Score:__________
The person is from a group that is unrepresented in the Contact Improvisation world and you are from a group that is well represented. How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:__________
List a power imbalance issue not yet listed above:
How would you guess this affects their ability to assert boundaries? Score:__________
Adding up your score
Please add up all your answers. The score will offer you a guess at whether power imbalance issues may influence the process of consent with the person in question. This score does not indicate that a power imbalance exists or does not exist. It instead indicates your guess at the level of risk. With a high score, there may not necessarily be an issue. It is possible for an empowered person to give clear consent even when it might look like there is a high risk they may not be able to do so. Alternatively, a low score does not necessarily mean there are no power imbalances. Due to trauma or unseen issues, there may still be a large power imbalance at play.
Even though your score indicates a guess at the level of risk, there are still situations in which pursuing a sexual relationship should just automatically be a no-go. This should be the case when upholding community agreements indicates so, when power abuse tactics have been used, when the power differential is extreme, when an insidious power imbalance pattern is causing harm, when anything less then enthusiastic consent is given and/or when an altered state is impairing decision making (including intoxication, star-struck states, and emotional upset or zone-out). You are welcome to go back and adjust your scores at this point to reflect this.
If your score is your best guess then how should you proceed? The important part is that you do not make yourself the expert on another’s personal experience. In keeping with this idea, you may start the conversation something like this “I am a more experienced dancer (or insert power imbalance issue you have guessed might exist) and I was wondering how you feel this affects your ability to set boundaries with me?” This can then be the starting point for conversation in which all parties are supported in naming what might be occurring for them. One suggestion is that you fill in the quiz and then have your partner or prospective partner read the answers and tell you if you guessed correctly. Even so, power imbalances might make it hard for the person with lesser power to speak up.
Use this quiz and its suggestions as a way to open up the conversation within yourself or with another and do not rely on its answers to guarantee a good outcome.
I believe there is some degree of power imbalance in any relationship. There is no situation in which they do not show up. The idea is that mild power imbalances carry a low risk of causing harm and profound power imbalances indicate a hard line that should not be crossed. In bewteen that is a whole grey area that needs to be worked-out and attended to by both parties.
Also, above and beyond any recommendations made in this quiz, please act within the community agreements that hold in the Contact Improvisation community in which you are practicing. For example, if you are a CI professor in a college setting which stipulates that professors must not have relationships with students then you will need to uphold that agreement. Another example would be that some CI jams clearly stipulated that their venue is not a place to find sex partners, while other festivals such as Touch&Play have many sex-positive components to them. Knowing the culture in which you are navigating a relationship within is key so you can uphold community agreements. Familiarising yourself with the guidelines or guiding principles of each place you are dancing in is especially important for teachers and dancers who travel internationally to different events. I suggest that you do not carry a set of personal guidelines in your suitcase that you apply to all situations but instead require of yourself to learn about and uphold the community agreements of each jam or community you visit.
You scored 10 on one of the quiz questions:
If you scored 10 on even one question in the quiz then adding up the rest of your scores is not needed. You have already come to the conclusion that a specific scenario represents a serious enough risk that proceeding is not recommended.
A score between 0 to 4
There is a low to moderate risk that power imbalances will interfere with the process of obtaining consent with this person. Even though this might be true, please educate yourself on best practices for consent and obtain consent each step of the way as you pursue the relationship. I suggest observing an enthusiastic consent practice in which an enthusiastic “yes”, involving proactive communication and mutual eagerness is a go-ahead and anything less than that is considered a “no”. As I said above, a low score does not indicate there are no power imbalances. There might be ones that are not easily seen and named from an outside view. The best thing is to start a conversation about the possible power imbalance issue that might arise between the two of you.
A score between 6 to 9
There are potentially significant power imbalances issues and it is recommended that you have a thought process (on your own) or in discussion with the party involved. You will need to arrive at a decision about whether to proceed. In many cases, it might be advised that you do not proceed. If you both mutually decide to proceed, I suggest that you create a plan together to minimize risks. I propose that enthusiastic consent practice be the new normal. In cases of significant power imbalances, it becomes especially important to proceed step by step and only when an enthusiastic “yes” is given, involving proactive communication and mutual eagerness. A commitment to continued discussion, planning, and checking-in is advised.
A score of 10 and up
There is a high risk that the person, due to power imbalances, will not be able to give clear consent. Therefore in this situation, you are asked to not pursue sex or a romantic relationship. In many cases, proceeding will cause great harm to the person in question and legal repercussions for yourself.
Intersecting power issues: The complex picture
We are all a mix of intersecting power imbalances. For example, I am a teacher in my CI community. This role affords me a position of power in my community. I am also a woman. My CI community cannot avoid the “soup” of systemic sexism that we all stew in regardless of whether we realize it or not. And so being a woman has, at times, put me in a position of disempowerment in my CI community even though I am a well-known local teacher. Developing writing skills and finding the bravery to write about consent issues in the CI world has made me a target for harassment but in recent years has also put me in a position of influence worldwide. I am also a white person who society affords privileges due to systemic racism. While I do not support racism I do benefit in many ways that I probably don’t even realize from the privileges the dominant culture gives me. This plays into my leadership role within my community. I am middle class and had access to higher education yet I am an artist in a society that undervalues the arts. I also identify as having high functioning autism. People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are a misunderstood and often invisible group in the CI world. I am an aging woman in a youth orientated culture. As I grow older, I am increasingly disempowered and made invisible by the dominant culture except for those moments in which the tables turn and my age is seen as a sign of wisdom. So, as you can see understanding how my position of power plays out in my community relationships is complex.
I have been talking about intersecting power issues within a person but there are also intersecting power imbalances that occur between partners. I will use my husband and myself as an example. I have been teaching CI for 19 years and have a greater level of CI skill and experience then he has. This has caused him to feel disempowered at times within our dance relationship. I, therefore, make an effort to support his autonomy as a CI dancer and I admit when we first met I did not always reach this ideal. At the start of our relationship, when he was a newcomer to CI, I “bossed” him around always trying to teach him skills instead of just dancing with him and letting him find his own way. Looking back I think that I was not acting with integrity in relation to my position of power as a teacher. Once I stopped doing this our dance relationship became stronger and more enjoyable for both of us. My husband is an engineer and I am an artist. This means there is an earning differential that potentially leaves me feeling disempowered when making financial decisions together. He and I have ongoing discussions to attend to the risks involved in this power differential. It is still a work in progress.
Take a moment to think about the intersecting power issues inovled in your unique situation. What might they look like?
In the case that you and your prospective partner have complex intersecting power imbalances, I suggest that you both take the quiz and then use your answers and results as the starting point for discussion.
Do you have a power imbalance pattern?
In looking at your past romantic partners or at those you tend to give romantic attention towards, can you identify a pattern of engagement that is related to power imbalance issues? I am not talking about patterns of attraction such as the tendency to be attracted to people with red hair or people who play the guitar. These types of preferences do not hold the risk of power abuse. I am referring towards the tendency to use, or gravitate towards, certain power imbalances as a way to increase the likelihood that you will have influence over a potential partner. For instance, do you tend to target attention on people very new to Contact Improvisation? Or do you tend to withhold important details of your situation from prospective partners or lovers? Or do you tend to try to hook up with people who are vulnerable due to emotional upheaval? Once a pattern is named then you can ask yourself some questions. Why do you tend to repeat it? What level of risk does this pattern pose for your community and to those you are in a relationship with? What would need to occur to shift the pattern? Sometimes just becoming aware of a pattern is a significant step in unwinding its hold on you. In other instances, therapy with an experienced professional might be needed to find the root of the issue. In cases where a power imbalance pattern has caused great harm to your community, you will need to consider both therapy and what amends can be made to your community.
It is especially important for those in positions of power to reflect upon their power patterns as part of the process of leading with integrity. I suggest that you refrain from good-people/bad-people thinking in which you think good people do not have power imbalance patterns and bad people do. Instead, I offer that we all have power imbalance patterns, and in owning them we have the ability to minimize or neutralize the risk they pose.
I am going to “jump” first to lead the way. Through assessing my past history I can see that I tend to shy away from dating people who would score high on mainstream attractiveness ratings. I think this is because I feel insecure about my looks and risk feeling disempowered if I dated someone that society afforded privileges to based on their “good looks”. It has been my not-so-evolved way to ensure my insecurities do not leave me with the lower hand. Okay, I went first now I offer that it is your turn. One way to illuminate your pattern is to asses a number of past relationships using the quiz.
Name some of your power imbalance patterns:
What might be involved in a plan to minimize or dismantle the risk of a power imbalance in a relationship?
- In many cases deciding to refrain from pursuing a relationship will be the only appropriate way to reduce the risk of power imbalance abuse. This should be the case when upholding community agreements indicates so, when an altered state is impairing decision making, when power abuse tactics have been used, when the power differential is extreme, when a power imbalance pattern is causing harm and/or when anything less then enthusiastic consent is given.
If you have come across a power imbalance “grey” zone and both parties have decided to still pursue a relationship here are some ways to minimize or dismantle the risk.
- Have a conversation about power imbalances with the person you are in a relationship with or whom you wish to enter into a relationship with.
- Name the power imbalance.
- Name power imbalance patterns you have identified in yourself.
- Own your role in the system that created the power imbalance. Yes, this might mean talking about privileges that the dominant culture gives you.
- Develop and practice strong listening skills as well as other relational skills.
- Create a plan together to minimize the risk of the power imbalances you identified.
- For the beginner scenario, let time pass before proceeding so they can gain experience and thus lessen the senior/beginner dancer power imbalance.
- Provide the opportunity for informed consent by being honest with them about details of your situation. This can include your expectations and intentions; whether you are in this for the long term or you just want it to be short-term or casual; describing your constellations of friends or lovers; the disclosure of STD status; and any other details you feel are significant. Once these details have been communicated, the person has the power to decide whether they want to proceed with a clear understanding of what they are entering into.
- Move to an enthusiastic consent practice in which you only proceed when enthusiastic “yes” is given that involves proactive communication and mutual eagerness to do the proposed activity.
- seek enthusiastic consent each step of the way. This involves pausing to do check-ins or re-asking the question with each new activity.
- Keep the conversation ongoing. Discussions about power imbalances and consent are not one-time things that you can checkmark once done. They are ongoing conversations.
- create a schedule for check-in conversations in regards to power imbalances.
- Familiarise yourself with other consent practices and literature such as The Wheel of Consent or the Consent Crew.
- Instigate a “no” practice which involves actively supporting or cheering for another person’s “no”. Do this because you understand that them being able to say “no” is fundamental to the health of your relationship with them.
- If the relationship involves a dance partnership, teach and support boundary setting skills such as saying “no” to a dance, ending a dance at any point and how to re-direct aspects of the dance.
- Encourage and support your partner in following their own instincts and in forming opinions that differ from your own.
- Support them in being the expert on themselves.
- If you are a dance teacher, support and encourage them to study with other dance teachers or organizations.
- If you are their dance teacher you can mutually decide to withdraw from the teacher/student roles to remove or minimize the risk of power imbalance issues.
- Make a commitment not to use manipulation techniques that potentially increase your power over someone. These can include withholding important details, lying to them, gaslighting, isolating someone from people they trust, destabilizing their sense of self-esteem or causing them to solely rely on you for support or advice.
- Take an active role in your community to address systemic power imbalance issues. This could involve starting a women’s or men’s group, or POC or queer-friendly jams, or hiring an expert to provide training on racism, sexism, ableism, and other isms. It could involve providing diversity scholarships to visible and invisible minorities.
- Seek individual and/or couple counseling with a professional therapist in cases where power imbalance issues are beyond your ability to tend to.
- Think of your own ideas for minimising the risks of a power imbalance: _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Use what you have learned from this article in all different types of relationships
Although I have been talking about sexual and romantic relationships, it can be useful to have conversations about power imbalance in regards to all types of relationships including dance-floor partnerships, creative partnerships, co-teaching relationships, family relationships, friendships, mentorships and the student/teacher configurations. For example, many of the points in this article can be used to navigate power imbalances in partnerships occurring solely on the dance floor. When work is done to support clear consent, dancers can, through agreement, explore power issues within a dance. They may do so because it is enjoyable for them or because there is something to be learned from it. I want to surrender while you move me around. Yes lets! Let’s wrestle and see who wins. Sounds good! Can you contain me for a moment so I can see what it feels like? I can do that. These spoken or unspoken consensual agreements, within a dance, to expore power themes are actually more available when consent is clear.
Create a plan
Created a plan with your partner or prosptive partner
In the space below design a plan with your partner to minimise or dismantle the power imbalance risks and/or patterns that you have identified. This plan can include things like the agreement to cheer when your partner says “no”, planned check-in dates or commitments such as the intention to take a non-violent communication course together.
Create a plan for self-refelction and development
Work can be done within a partnership or on your own. Maybe you do not currently have a partner to work with, or you feel that some solo work could benefit your current partnerships. Come up with some thoughts, intentions or plans that will help you enter into a personal journey in regards to power imbalance issues in your life.
Kathleen Rea danced with Canada’s Ballet Jörgen Canada, National Ballet of Canada & Tiroler Landestheater (Austria). Kathleen has taught at School of Toronto Dance Theatre, York University and Niagara College. She is a faculty member of in the dance department at George Brown College, teaching Contact Dance Improvisation. She has choreographed over 40 dance works and been nominated for five DORA awards. Her film Lapinthrope, co-produced with Alec Kinnear won Gold Award at the Festival Der Nationen (Austria). Kathleen is also a recipient of a K. M. Hunter Choreographic Award and is a published author (“The Healing Dance”, Charles C. Thomas). She has a Master’s in Expressive Arts Therapy and was a Registered Psychotherapist (CRPO) with a private practice for 16 years. Recently Kathleen graduated as a Brain Advancement Coach. In January 2015 Kathleen became a candidate teacher of the Axis Syllabus. She is the director of REAson d’etre dance productions who produces the Wednesday Dance Jam, the Contact Dance International Film Festival and the Moved by Natural Forces Retreat. Recently Kathleen premiered Men’s Circle a dance theatre play that she wrote, directed and choreographed that tells the story of a men’s therapy group. “…The vulnerability we are often taught to erase in men is fully realized throughout the piece in a variety of gorgeous choreographed modes” Bateman Reviews. Kathleen is the founder of the Contact Improv Consult Culture Blog and has written many articles for the blog