Intimacy and consent in the dance studio

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Physical touch is unavoidable in dance, but how do you ensure that no boundaries are crossed? NINA LEVY explores a delicate issue.

From the formal arrangements of a classical pas de deux, to the fluid weight of body-on-body in a contact improvisation session, to the playful partner work of swing dance, touch is an integral part of many dance forms. It’s also a teaching tool, an efficient and accessible way to convey feedback to a student.

Until recently, conversations about touch in the dance studio tended to focus on reducing risk by minimising the use of touch. But touch is part of dance practice. At both a practical and artistic level it is inextricably linked to the artform and its future. It isn’t possible, or desirable, to remove it from either educational or professional contexts.

And that is where consent comes in.

How does consent relate to dance?

You’ve probably heard about the concept of consent in relation to teaching young people (and older people) about respectful relationships. In 2023 consent education became mandatory in Australian schools.

In relation to dance, consent has the potential to enable touch to be used safely in both educational and professional settings. It’s a simple proposition –

In a rehearsal room, however, that’s not always simple to enact, as David McAllister, former artistic director of the Australian Ballet and newly appointed guest artistic director of West Australian Ballet, points out.

“In the choreographic process, it’s trial and error,” he says. “You can’t theorise how a lift, or promenade, or move is going to go. You have to actually do it.

“[Consent] has to be part of dancers’ training … but it’s up to the ballet master or choreographer to make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable.”

So how do dance leaders ensure that dance spaces are consensual?

Tips for creating a consensual space

In order to create a safe space, whether for educational or professional purposes, you need to create a consent culture in the studio long before touch is brought into the equation. Here are some tips from Molly Tipping, a Feldenkrais practitioner and consent educator at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.:

1 Open ears and open mouths

“Consent culture requires what I call ‘open ears and open mouths’, which basically means you've got to be listening, and you've got to be talking,” says Tipping.

“Unless there is conversation going on you have not created a consent culture because then dancers are just doing what they're told. And 'doing what you're told' may become non-consensual because it's not a choice. Consent is about choice. It's about conversation. It's about negotiation.”


2 Three choices

When she teaches, Tipping gives students three options about how they receive feedback.

"The options have to be given ahead, so the participants can decide how they wish to engage," she says. “So I give my students an opportunity to pick whether they would like touch feedback and verbal feedback, just verbal feedback, or no public feedback in the class."

3 Transparency about what is required

Tipping acknowledges that the method described above won’t work for every type of class. It may not be physically safe to take contact corrections out of a class or it may be a class that cannot be completed without contact, such as contact improvisation or pas de deux.

In this case, dancers must understand that by signing up for the class, they are also consenting to a range of activities that involve touch.

4 Bite-sized steps

While touch is a pre-requisite for some classes or choreographic processes, the person leading the class or rehearsal can “titrate the classes into bite-sized pieces of learning”, says Tipping.

“They can pause and be in conversation, and build skills slowly, so that over the course of the semester or rehearsal period, the dancers arrive at the skill set they need,” she explains. “It is the job of the teacher to break learning down into bite-sized pieces, and to make sure that learning occurs with conversation included.”

5 Make consent an opt-in process

Ideally, says Tipping, you want to frame opportunities to dancers so that they choose to opt-in, rather than having to opt-out. She gives an example: “Instead of saying to a dancer, ‘Can I use you to demonstrate?’ you say, ‘Who would like to demonstrate?’ and you choose from those who volunteer.

6 It’s okay to say no

Dancers need to know they have the option to say “no”, if something isn’t comfortable for them. “'No’ and ‘maybe’ have to be as welcome as ‘yes’,” says Tipping. “If ‘no’ is frowned upon, if ‘no’ is punished, even indirectly, you haven't got consent culture.

7 Make change welcome

For those of us who belong to a generation where we never questioned the concept of touch, these concepts are very different to how we were taught. “Welcome the idea that what we did in the past, and assumed to be best practice, may need to be looked at and improved,” suggests Tipping. “There may be other ways to achieve the same outcome.”

8 Pause

“Start putting pauses in your class to ask dancers questions about how they are going,” says Tipping. “Make sure you’re checking in.”


9 Dealing with ruptures in consent

While the aim is to ensure that the studio is a consensual space, you should have processes in place about what you will do if there is a rupture in consent, says Tipping.

“Have repair and recovery processes in place – whether publicly, privately or anonymously,” she says. “Dancers should know that they are allowed to speak honestly about their experiences in the class. But they all need the option of private disclosure, where they can come and speak to you outside of the studio. And you need to have the option that they can disclose anonymously. You might have a box that they can leave a note in, or you might have a third-party person that they know they can talk to.”

PART 2: Working in the professional space: How do we handle consent when scenes involve sexual intimacy?

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