Mar 2024 – Fostering a Culture of Consent on the Dance Floor


By Lindsey Grayzel

This winter, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to travel to a number of regional contra dance camps. The combination of top musical talent and a hall filled with die-hard dancers induces nothing short of euphoria for me. Everyone is moving to the beat, flourishes abound, and the eye contact can feel downright seductive. As the weekend moves on, some dance partners may discover people they want to dance closer with, and for some, traditional swings may morph into pivot swings or dancing in a close embrace. In the days since I’ve returned from Supersonic, I’ve been reflecting on the communication skills, both verbal and through body language, that allow dancers to navigate intimate dance encounters and leave all parties feeling empowered to ask for, accept, AND reject offers for dance intimacy. 

PCDC strives to create a culture of consent at our dances. It is a core part of our community values. When two people dance together, the level of intimacy in the encounter must default to the comfort level of the person who wants the least intimacy. Hopefully, this sounds like common sense to you. When one person is looking across the room, it should be obvious that this person is not interested in more dance intimacy. But dance intimacy exists on a continuum, and navigating more nuanced scenarios requires skill, vulnerability, and a commitment to taking care of each other and ourselves. I am well aware that there are bad actors in the world who may try to take advantage of nebulous scenarios to push for intimacy even when their dance partners do not desire it. I firmly believe however, that these bad actors are fairly rare. Much more common is a failure of two people with good intentions to communicate their boundaries, or to recognize the communication. My fervent hope is that our dance community can be a place where clear communication of boundaries is the norm. With clear communication, those partners who desire greater dance intimacy will find each other; those who do not will feel empowered to say no; those whose asks are rejected will be glad to know that their dance partner is taking care of themselves; and bad actors will be easily identified and dealt with if communicated boundaries are violated. 

Navigating Fraught Waters
Discussing dance intimacy can feel awkward and vulnerable for all parties. We need to get over it. The best cure for awkwardness begins with open acknowledgment. The better you know your dance partner, the easier your conversation is likely to go. My recommendation is to broach these topics with people who you already have some degree of rapport and connection with. If your partner refuses to engage on the topic, or their answers are confusing or hard to read, then assume the person is telling you no, they do not want close intimacy during the dance. 

Verbal and Nonverbal Cues
When in doubt, use your words. Verbal communication wins every time for clear communication, while nonverbal cues can more easily be misinterpreted or even missed altogether by an oblivious dance partner. 

Now that we have adopted the role terms of Larks and Robins, our community has gotten quite good at talking about which roles we wish to dance, and if we are interested in swapping roles during the dance. Before the dance begins is a good time to follow up that conversation by asking your partner about flourishes, injuries to be wary of, and yes…the boundaries of dance intimacy. It’s often difficult to answer these questions with a simple yes or no. We may not know what we are comfortable with until we are doing it, or we may change our minds. All of this is perfectly normal and why it’s important to also use and pay attention to the nonverbal cues of our dance partners. 

What follows are a few observations I’ve made, along with concrete suggestions to navigate these fraught waters with both verbal and nonverbal cues. 


Verbal ask: “Do you like eye contact?”
Verbal yes: “I love it!”
Verbal variable: “Sometimes, but sometimes it’s too much.”
Verbal no: “No, it kinda creeps me out.”
Verbal acceptance: “Great! Thanks for telling me.”
Body ask: Make eye contact
Body yes: Make eye contact
Body no: Break eye contact
Body acceptance of no: Break eye contact



Verbal ask: “Do you like pivot swings?”
Verbal yes: “Yes”
Verbal variable: “Maybe? Let’s try one and check in.”
Verbal no: “No”
Verbal acceptance: “Great! Thanks for telling me.”
Body ask: Initiating dancer moves their feet to the 1-2 rhythm of a pivot swing
Body yes: The other dancer matches the rhythm to engage in a pivot swing
Body no: The other dancer continues to dance a traditional swing
Body acceptance of no: Initiating dancer reverts to a traditional swing 


Verbal ask: “Would you like to dance close?”
Verbal yes: “Yes, that sounds good.”
Verbal nuance: “How close? I’m not sure.”
Verbal no: “No”
Verbal acceptance: “Great! Thanks for telling me.”
Body ask: Initiating dancer slowly pulls the other a little bit closer while giving a questioning look, maybe an eyebrow raised as if asking with their eyes, how do you feel about this?
Body yes: Smile, nod of the head yes, pull towards the initiator 
Body no: Frown, pulls head back, pushes arm straight to put distance between dancers
Body acceptance of no: Smile, step back and resume normal distance

Is my partner oblivious or a bad actor? 
If you find yourself in a position where your dance partner doesn’t seem to notice your nonverbal communication of “No,” then amplify your communication with a shake of your head and a clear, verbal “Don’t do that.” If your partner continues to ignore your communication, please report the interaction to the PCDC volunteer. If you feel comfortable doing so, you are also encouraged to communicate your disappointment to that person directly. Ignoring other dancers’ boundaries is not acceptable behavior on the dance floor and PCDC has a commitment to address such behavior.   

For additional reading on building a community of consent, see Kathy Story’s article, “Building a Dance Culture of Consent,” in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of Footnotes.