A Guide to Navigating Sex in the Contact Improvisation Culture for those in Positions of Power

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, organizer or committee member. These are well defined leadership roles but, even if someone does not have a direct leadership role, they still may have power and influence as a result of the dominant culture who affords them power due to their defining characteristics. For example, a tall, able-bodied, athletic, typically good-looking person who is an experienced dancer who excels in lifting technique might have a kind of “rock star” status, whether they chooses it or not or is even aware of it. Another example is friendly more senior person who has been going to the jam for 20 years may be seen as a “caretaker of the space”, which would hold some power in the group. Please note, power is not a bad thing. However, those who have it I believe have a responsibility make sure they do not use their power over others in a detrimental manner for their own personal gain.

Let’s say you are in a position of power and there is someone at a dance jam or class that you are attracted to.  How should you proceed?

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 or if they do enforce their boundaries there is a price to pay for doing so.  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 lift or pursues them romantically. Or maybe they are not confused but are instead frightened of repercussions that may occur if they say “no”. 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 often face repercussion when they stand up for their boundaries. Sometimes as well power imbalances are fabricated or elevated through deceit, bullying behaviors and/or attempts to undermine someone’s community connections or confidence in themselves.

In situations where consent and boundary setting 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 blog post Rules as the “First Rule of CI” and explains that this rule encourages self responsibility; that we each are responsible for taking care of ourselves. 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. However, I feel it does not shed light on the complexities of power issues. I believe it is the  responsibility of community leaders to educate themselves about power imbalances and act with according responsibility above and beyond the idea that we if we each take care of ourselves it will all work out.

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.

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 consent processes.
  • 5 means you think there is a possibility that consent processes and boundary setting 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 that consent processes and boundary setting will be  compromised. 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 consent processes?    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 consent processes?      Score:_________

You are a person of influence in the community where they dance, and they have been going to the dance 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 consent processes? 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 consent processes?  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 consent processes?      Score:_________

They rely heavily on you for advice, wisdom or expertise. How would you guess this affects consent processes? 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 consent processes?    Score:__________

The person is a student of yours in a weekend workshop. How would you guess this affects consent processes?    Score:__________

You are one of 20 teachers in a large contact Festival they are attending. How would you guess this affects consent processes?    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 consent processes?       Score:__________

You have been dancing CI for many more years than they have. How would you guess this affects consent processes?       Score:__________

You have a higher degree of skill as a CI dancer than they have. How would you guess this affects consent processes?      Score:__________

There is an age gap between you. How would you guess this affects consent processes?  Score:__________

You are from a group that is given societal privileges that they are not.  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.  How would you guess this affects consent processes?    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 consent processes?  Score:__________

List a power imbalance issue not yet listed above:________________________________. How would you guess this affects consent processes?   Score:__________

This is a sub category of question in the quiz that looks at if you have  unconsciously or consciously worked to fabricated or elevated a power imbalance through power abuse tactics.

You have lied to them, threatened 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 consent processes?  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 consent processes?  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 and boundary setting in a prospective relationship. This score does not indicate that a power imbalance exists or does not exist or if it will cause harm. It instead indicates your guess at the level of risk. A higher score, 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 your best guess at the level of risk that a power imbalance exists, there are still situations in which pursuing a sexual relationship should 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 you are acting out is causing harm 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 this score is only 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 might affect consent processes 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.

Do not rely on its answers to guarantee a good outcome. Instead use this quiz and its suggestions as a way to open up the conversation within yourself and/or with another.

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 between 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 of 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 welcoming  components to them. Knowing the culture in which you are navigating a relationship within is key so you can uphold community agreements. Familiarize yourself with the guidelines or guiding principles of each dance jam or event. This is especially important for teachers and dancers who travel 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 place you visit.

Recommendations
A score between 0 to 4
You have guessed that there is a low to moderate risk that power imbalances will negatively effect a relationship. Remember do not make yourself the expert on what is happening for another person. You have made a guess and now its time to bring up the subject by asking for their opinion on the issue. Have ongoing conversations about power imbalance issues with this person to further delve into the topic. Observe an affirmative or authentic consent practice and obtain consent each step of the way if both of you mutually decide to pursue the relationship.

Affirmative Consent
involves going forward with sexual activity only when a “yes” is given. The reasons for the “yes” can vary and can include because someone enthusiastically wants to, because they want to give to their partner, because they are trying to get pregnant, because they want to explore an “edge”, because they are a sex worker who is doing their job etc. The idea with Affirmative Consent practices is that is raises the bar. One does not just proceed until a “no” is expressed but one instead watches and listens for the signs of a “yes” in order to proceed.

Another framework is Authentic Consent developed by sexual educator DR Nadine Thornhill. She explains that:

Authentic sexual consent is an agreement that is motivated by peoples’ sincere desires to have sex for reason that may include (but are not limited to) pleasure, exploration, generosity, love, baby-making or because it is their job.  Authentic consent can be enthusiastic it can also be optimistically awkward, a means to and end or entirely transactional. But at its foundation it’s always about folks agreeing to have sex because it is about what they want. 

Both these models involve proactive communication and mutual agreement to go-ahead and with anything less than to be considered as a “no”. Both these models raise the standard for consent. One does not just proceed until a “no” is expressed but instead is called upon to listen and feel for the “yes” before proceeding. This higher stand for consent practices helps reduced the chance of power abuses.

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. Observe affirmative or authentic consent practices as you “new” normal if you are not already doing so. In cases of significant power imbalances, it is especially important to proceed step by step and only when an affirmative “yes” is given, involving proactive communication and mutual agreement. A commitment to continued discussion, planning, and checking-in is advised.  See further ideas at the end of this post about how to minimize the risk that power imbalance issues and/or patterns will cause harm.

A score of 10 and up
There is a high risk that, due to power imbalances, consent processes will hindered. Therefore in this situation, you are asked to not pursue sex or a romantic relationship. Proceeding could 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. Being a woman has, at times, put me in a position of disempowerment 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. I benefit in many ways from the privileges the dominant culture gives me. I am middle class and had access to higher education yet I am an artist in a society that undervalues the arts. I also have 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 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 him 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. We also have power imbalances in relation to finances. My husband is an engineer and I am an artist. This means there is an earning differential that potentially leaves me feeling disempowered. He and I have ongoing discussions to attend to the risks involved in all these power differentials. It is a work in progress.

Take a moment to think and or write about the intersecting power issues involved 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 toward, 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 or a certain sexual identity. 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?  Do you use tactics to increaser power imbalances with the aim to increase your chances with them? These can include withholding important details, lying to them, gaslighting, isolating someone from people they trust, destabilizing their sense of self-esteem with a mix of excessive compliments and/or critique , or causing them to solely rely on you for support or advice. 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 needs 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 and individuals you have hurt.

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. And should be an ongoing practice. 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 and talking about 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 views as “good looking”. 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.

Grab a note book and work to name some of your power imbalance patterns
*One way to illuminate your patterns is to asses a number of past relationships using the above quiz.
* remember power imbalance patterns happen on a gradient scale. That means we all have them to varying 
degrees.

The burry Zone
Okay after having done the quiz and assessed you power imbalance patterns lets say you and your prospective partner have mutually decided to proceed into the blurry zone. What I mean by that is that you have both determined that there are power imbalance issues and/or patterns at play but you have mutually and affirmatively decided to proceed any ways.

Here are some ways to minimize or dismantle the risk that these power imbalance issues and/or patterns will cause harm.

  • 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 imbalances.
  • Name power imbalance patterns you have identified in yourself.
  • Create a plan together to minimize the risk of the power imbalances you identified. Write out this plan on a piece of paper and put it up somewhere that your see regularly (like your fridge).
  • Familiarize yourself with consent practices and literature such as The Wheel of Consent,  Consent Crew, Nadine Thornhill and Hannah Witton
  • Follow Affirmative or authentic consent practices in which you only proceed when “yes” is given that involves proactive communication and mutual agreement.
  • Seek affirmative consent each step of the way. This involves pausing to do check-ins.
  • Provide the opportunity for informed consent by being honest with them about details of your situation and your past. 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.
  • Own your role in the systems that work to create 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. For example, this might mean adopting a NVC practice for challenging conversations.
  • For the beginner scenario, let time pass before proceeding so they can gain experience and thus lessen the senior/beginner dancer power imbalance.
  • If the beginner scenario involves a dance partnership, 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.
  • 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.
  • Instigate a mutual “ cheering for a no” practice. This involves actively supporting or cheering each other on in moments of saying “no”. Do this because you understand that them being able to say “no” to each other is fundamental to a healthy relationship.
  • Instigate a practice  of encourage and supporting each other in forming opinions that differ from each other.
  • Support your partner 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 decide to withdraw from the teacher role to 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.
  • Seek individual and/or couple counseling with a professional therapist in cases where power imbalance issues are beyond your ability to tend to.
  • What are some ways you can think of minimizing the risks of a power imbalance that are not listed above:

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.

References
Hannah Witton (2021). “Why Enthusiastic Consent’ Doesn’t Work for Everyone / Modal of special consent. https://youtu.be/UreZfOT54Bw
In this YouTube video Hannah Witton definition of affirmative consent includes various reason for why people say “yes” to sex.

Nadine Thornhill (2021). Quote defining Authentic Convent is from her Instagram account https://www.instagram.com/nadinethornhill/

Author
Kathleen ReaKathleen 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. 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
www.reasondetre.com
www.the-healing-dance.com

2 thoughts on “A Guide to Navigating Sex in the Contact Improvisation Culture for those in Positions of Power

Add yours

  1. I really appreciate the conversation that this article opens, so thank you for writing and sharing it.

    One thought about this: “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, destabilising their sense of self-esteem or causing them to solely rely on you for support or advice.”

    Manipulation can also come in pretty packaging that is hard to identify as negative. For example, when I was new to the CI community I was introduced to a male teacher who praised me, singled me out for special attention, and told me that I had special gifts. I enjoyed that attention and it gave me a boost of confidence. When he later discovered that I am queer and not a potential sexual partner, he subtly withdrew his positive attention towards me. I didn’t even recognize this as manipulative or harmful behavior for many years, but over time I saw this individual do similar things with other women when he visited our community. Eventually I realized that this kind of behavior is manipulative and bad for the community. While I don’t feel personally harmed or feel like consent was violated, I can say that my trust in that particular teacher has been undermined, and I do not recommend him to others or wish to study with him again. It has also made me think very carefully about how I behave as a teacher–how I bestow praise or attention, what motives might be underlying my choices, and how to make sure that I’m not using my position as a teacher to fulfill a need that should be met in a different way.

    Anyway, my main point is that manipulation doesn’t necessarily look like anything harmful on the surface, which is why it’s so hard to identify and counteract.

    Like

    1. Hi Heather. Great point. And I have had similar things like that happen to me. i have added a question to the quiz.

      “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:_________”

      Thank you for your input.

      Like

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