Twenty Years of Coming to Terms: Shifting from Disempowerment to Activism and Systemic Thinking
Twenty years ago, I attended my very first Contact Improvisation workshop. My teacher, Karl Frost, skillfully twirled and swooped me around his body, and I felt a sense of connection and freedom I did not know was possible. The sky opened and a choir of angels sang, and in that moment of life-changing epiphany, I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to Contact Improvisation. And that is exactly what I have done. But something else happened that day that will forever be intertwined with my Contact Improvisation epiphany. The other feeling was not an epiphany at all… it was the opposite. I participated in something that I didn’t want to do, but only figured it out partway through.
From the first day of the workshop, Karl Frost paid a lot of attention to me. He always seemed to be close to me and picked me frequently as a dance partner or someone to demonstrate with. Our dances felt sensual. I sensed he was attracted to me, but I was not sure how I felt. I was so swept away by my contact dance epiphany, it was hard to sort out how I felt about the attention he was giving me. We ended up hanging out at his place that night. He told me he sensed from dancing with me that I had trouble connecting intimately with people and he could help me. We fooled around for a bit and I was increasingly not feeling good about it. Finally, after some time I was able to act on this feeling and get myself out of there.
The next day one of the workshop one of the organizers approached me and gave me a warning. She told me I should stay away from Karl because he had a reputation for pursuing women in questionable ways. It was a “broken step” warning that had reached me a day too late. The “broken step” is an analogy that describes situations in which the only protection against someone known for abuse is an underground whisper-chain from one woman to the next that essentially passes on a warning about avoiding the “broken step” on the staircase. Everyone in the community keeps on walking up and down the stairs making sure they avoid that step. They pretend nothing is wrong. No one posts a sign or works on fixing the step or even talks publicly about the step being broken.
Over the years whenever I thought back to my Contact Improvisation epiphany, I always felt a sense of “ick” because it brought me back to the memory of what had happened between Karl Frost and myself. But it was an “ick” without words or understanding. I knew in my gut that something had been off about the experience, but I could not exactly describe why I felt this. And so, I told myself it was not a big deal and that it had been my fault for getting myself into a situation that felt uncomfortable. I tried to forget about it.
Shortly after Karl’s workshop, I returned home to Toronto from abroad and started my own Contact jam. Although I did not fully understand the dynamics of what had occurred with Karl, I knew I did not want situations like that to happen at my jam. And so, I created boundary guidelines that provided a clear description of what was expected and what was not allowed at my jam. At some point, my guidelines were posted in a compendium of jam guidelines from around the world and they stirred up controversy and anger towards me. The specificity in my guidelines went against what is often referred to as the “one rule”, the “first rule” or the “golden rule” of Contact Improvisation in which the guideline “take care of yourself” is considered to be so powerful and all-encompassing, no other guidelines are needed.
Over the years, Karl and I had occasional contact via email. Once he emailed me to check in about a person I knew from my travels who had a reputation for boundary crossings and had signed up for one of his workshops. He also emailed once to tell me he was going to be in Toronto and wanted to know if I could set up a teaching gig for him. I said yes and arranged a workshop. There is a saying: “that which is denied in oneself will be repeated in various ways”. Just like the organizers who brought Karl to teach my first Contact Improvisation workshop, I was taking on the role in the system of bringing a teacher to my community known for blurry consent practices. A few days before the workshop, Karl told me his travel documents were not in order and he could not come. But this did not save me from being implicit in other ways in supporting the system that allows these types of things to happen.
There were times at the Toronto Wednesday Dance Jam when I sensed that a high-profile dancer seemed to be taking advantage of someone’s newcomer status. A feeling of hopelessness at not being able to do anything about it would overtake me and I looked the other way. For many years, people often made fun of, didn’t follow or never bothered to read the Toronto Wednesday Dance Jam guidelines. During this time, the main protection against predator behaviors was a whisper-chain about the “broken step”. One of the hardest parts for me about this story is the fact that I was culpable in letting the pattern repeat. Yet I am not alone in this. We all play/played some role in supporting the system. I am sorry to all those people that were hurt as a result of my lack of understanding and action.
Then something happened that took me off my path of denial. A woman messaged me from across the world saying she needed help. She felt there was nobody she could talk to in her community, and after reading my jam guidelines she decided I would be a safe person to go to for support. I agreed to help her. To my surprise, she needed help with a situation with Karl Frost. She told me that Karl Frost was pressuring her to have sex and she did not know what to do. She said that he questioned whether her “no” was related to a fear of making intimate connections. She had contacted me not knowing that I had faced a similar situation with him. What a crazy coincidence, I thought! But now in piecing this story together I see it was not. I got hurt and then wrote guidelines to help prevent others from being hurt. She read the guidelines and sensed in the space between the words that I would understand her story. It was a chain with one link connected to the next all the way across the sea.
We set up a time to speak on the phone. But I doubted my ability to offer her support. How would I explain it to her when I had trouble explaining it to myself? So, I started doing research. I entered a scary world of words I usually shied away from because they described and gave validation to a hurt I did not want to admit I had. I did not want my beautiful and extraordinary discovery of Contact Improvisation to be tarnished by words that were painful for me to own. But this was no longer just about me. It was about another person who needed help. I learned about power imbalances, gaslighting, predator techniques such as targeting vulnerable people, undermining someone’s confidence, creating dependence and setting oneself up as the expert. For the first time, I had words to describe what had happened between me and Karl. I came to understand that Karl as my first Contact teacher had a position of power over me. I was a complete novice who had fallen in love with the form in an all-at-once epiphany moment without fully understanding what CI was or what it entailed. I came to that workshop with the internalized social assumption that enjoying sensual touch meant I was agreeing to sexual activity. I did not yet understand the range of sensual to platonic touch that CI can offer that need not involve sex. I was also in an altered state; a contact dance “oxytocin-high” without the practice and know-how about how to navigate such a state. As a beginner, the “first rule” to take care of yourself was not sufficient because I did not yet understand the form or have any CI boundary-setting skills. Karl then swayed the power imbalance more in his favor by telling me that he sensed I had trouble being intimate with people and that he could help. He fabricated a problem and then set himself up as the expert who could rescue me from this “failing”. I understood that all these aspects rendered me vulnerable to advances and had blurred my ability to give consent to sexual activity.
I told the women my story from this new perspective. We found strength in each other’s stories and a validation that the sense of “ick” we both felt in our guts was real and had a basis. I was shaking after the phone call. Some 15 years after the fact, my interaction with Karl was finally landing in my body.
This was prior to the #MeToo movement. Every woman I knew had some type of similar story, yet we only told these stories in private. When the #MeToo movement started to spread, a wave of people began telling stories publicly. I made a social media #MeToo post that included my Karl Frost story without using his name. All the comments were very supportive except for one woman who publicly called me out. She asked me why I didn’t say his name. She said that by not saying his name I was letting it happen to other women and that I was part of the system that allowed these things to happen. Then she said, “it was Karl Frost wasn’t it?” I never confirmed her guess and I deleted that thread in order to protect Karl and out of fear of the career-killing backlash that I might face if I started naming names.
Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne created the term himpathy to describe the “inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior”. My protective feelings toward Karl and other powerful men in the CI world were a symptom of himpathy. I thought, “my goodness, what will happen if we just start naming names?” It felt aggressive. To say his name, I would have had to override conditioning that requires silence. I did not want to ruin someone’s career. My balance of empathy and care was skewed. I was not considering that in these cases it’s the person’s behaviour that is hurting their career not the person who reports it. I was not considering the many careers that have been ruined due to someone never being able to realize their potential as a Contact dancer because a painful newcomer experience left them feeling disempowered or scared them away from the form. I was not considering the weight of silence on the people expected to keep it. To dismantle himpathy one must balance empathy for a transgressor with empathy for the people hurt. This can bring up painful introspection. It might crack away at the wall of denial built around a hurt that is ongoing or occurred in the past. It may lead to seeing ways in which you have been culpable through passive or active measure in supporting the system. For many years I avoided these uncomfortable truths.
I pondered my options. What she had accused me of was true. I came to this realization with a sense of compassion for myself. I could see that I was stuck in a system that was disempowering. I understood well the risk a woman faces if she comes forward with a name. There are so many historic examples of the character attack and violence that can happen when a person on the lower end of a power imbalance steps forward to speak their truth. I knew it was a dangerous thing and gave myself compassionate-allowance for the amount of time it was taking me and permission that if I did not feel sufficiently safe and/or supported I did not ever have to name a name.
I started to think about contacting Karl in person and seeing if there was a chance to process what had occurred between us. I had this intention, but somehow the draft of an email broaching the subject never got finished. It was always on my to-do list but I never seemed to get to it. I was scared. I did not want to get hurt more. My fear and sense of lack agency were insurmountable for me. At that time, I simply lacked the capacity and support that would have enabled me to take the route of corresponding directly with Karl.
And so I picked another route. I poured myself into activism. I started the Contact Dance Consent Culture Blog and I wrote the article “The Newcomer Experience in Contact Dance Improvisation” to educate the CI community about ways to support newcomers in having a successful entry into our community. In that post, I told my Karl Frost story under the veil of a make-believe cautionary tale of how things can go wrong. It was my way of getting my story out without naming a name. It was my brand of activism with the capacity and bravery I had at that moment.
I also wrote “A guide to navigating sex for those in position of power in the Contact Dance World” to educate both sides of the story about how power imbalances can blur consent for sex. In the research I did for this article, I learned of the term enthusiastic consent. This involves going forwards with sexual activity only when an enthusiastic yes is given, with anything less being a no-go. Following this standard, the situation between Karl and myself would have never happened. I remember that night, I had “maybe” and “not sure” written all over my body language.
When I published both the newcomer and navigating sex articles, I thought to myself, “this is for you Karl”. I hoped that either my writing would help cause a seismic change in CI culture that would make taking advantage of power imbalances to obtain sex no longer tolerable, or that Karl might even read the posts and recognize himself in them.
I was going along this path up until a friend messaged me about a report on a calling-in process that had occurred with Karl Frost. In it, they said that he seemed willing to take feedback and was interested in change and repair. I also saw that Karl had created a blog to document his process of questioning his past behaviors. There was a post about an arbitration that had occurred between a women and Karl in which he took ownership of his behaviors. Due to #MeToo and the work of many, a seismic change was occurring in the Contact Improvisation community. What used to be tolerated was no longer okay. It was encouraging that the “no longer okay” part did not have to be a whole pile of shit blowing up that divided a community and left further injured souls in its wake. With this news, I finally found the faith and bravery required to write this blog post.
As I was writing this post, I could feel my body’s physical reaction. I felt a freedom to breathe. I felt a relief of pressure I did not even realize my body was holding because it had been so constant over the past twenty years. This shift in my body brought me to another truth. Yes, the initial hurt came from a blurry moment of consent in which a boundary was crossed. But the second, third, fourth, fifth (and so on) hurts that arrived out of my interaction with Karl came from processing what happened within a system in which:
- a kind of “rock star” power is given to male CI teachers who are then not called to task if they abuse this power.
- beginners are thrown into the “pool” without any introduction about what the CI form is about or how to assert boundaries within the form.
- many CI beginners have similar stories
- I was not able to recognize power imbalance abuses due to lack of education about them.
- power imbalance abuses felt so normal, when they occurred, I thought that is just the way it is.
- I felt a sense of hopelessness about being able to prevent it from happening to others
- there was no viable support or system in my community to address the issue.
- saying that it was “no big deal” was part of what was expected of me.
- silence was expected of me
- I would likely have faced intense backlash and vilification by my CI community if I had spoken up.
- to be part of the community I was required to support the system by stepping over the “broken step” and looking the other way.
When people say, “suck it up” or “c’mon, it wasn’t that bad” or “just get over it already”, they are not considering that a large part of the hurt was caused by the system the boundary-crossing happened in. A boundary crossing can leave a wound, large or small. But the reason the wound may fester and get larger rather than heal can be due to the related injuries caused by trying to process the trauma within a system that is invalidating, disempowering and even requires one to become one of its supporters in order to join the club. When you make a person culpable for the continuation of the system, they become so embedded in it that it is unlikely they will ever find their way out.
Fortunately, many of us have found our way out. I am writing this today due to a change of consciousness riding on the work of many brave people speaking up and telling their stories. Abuses of power do not happen in a vacuum. They are supported by a system. And to find the way out, we each need to evaluate and shift our role in the system.
After I finished writing my first rough draft of this post, I sent it to Karl Frost. After twenty years I finally wrote that email. Karl responded with an apology and acknowledgment of the pain he caused me, and he offered to enter into a process with me. I have taken him up on his offer and we are currently working to schedule a time to speak.
Please note although I have chosen to enter into process with Karl I think it is important that survivors of abuse never feel pressure to enter into resolution process with someone who crossed their boundary. Thank you to Sarah Gottlieb for the reminder of the importance of naming this, as those reading this post might feel pressure to do so from how my story is concluding.
Thank you to Amy Kingwell, Ellah Ray, Jo Kreiter, Keith Hennessy, Vitali Kononov, Misha Bonaventurea, and “C” who took part in various ways in the Bay Area process that Karl Frost took part in.
‘Himpathy’ Is a Societal Illness. But at Least We Have a Word for It