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For a couple weeks now, I’ve been moaning about writer’s block. I need to write tons of things, you see, from blog posts for this site to blog posts for my new sex education site, not to mention writing assignments and lesson plans for the class I’m teaching, and conference papers and proposals. Oh, and I want to write a book or two.

The words just aren’t coming, though. I make time to write and then stare blankly at the screen, or that time evaporates into other things. I gave myself a little time to stew and focus on other things, and then I began thinking about the problem. What I realized is that I’ve been writing this whole time, I just haven’t been writing the things I’ve supposed to write.

The past few weeks – hell, months – have been pretty stressful for me. I’m sure the stress alone has zapped some of my writing energy, but then I figured out that I’ve been writing about my emotions more than usual. I’ve been reaching out to friends a ton, in emails and Facebook messages. I’ve been journaling about my feelings and experiences, and making to-do lists galore.

It’s a small thing to realize, but I find it incredibly helpful to figure out that I haven’t entirely lost my writing mojo, I’ve just been redirecting it therapeutically. Hopefully as I continue to process this stuff, I’ll get back to writing more frequently, and maybe even writing the things I’m supposed to write… on time, gasp!

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This semester, I’m teaching a class I designed on Body Art. It’s cross-listed in anthropology and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies, but it’s really a folklore class (surprise, surprise). One concept that my students have really latched onto is the idea of audience, and the first audience for any expressive display being the self.

Photo by Curtis Claspell.

Me wearing a shawl from Kamakhya Temple in Assam, India. Photo by Curtis Claspell.

The main text we’re reading is The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India, by Pravina Shukla, a professor of folklore at Indiana University (who was also one of my mentors while I was there for my PhD). I assigned this book for a few reasons: it’s well-written and is on the whole a beautiful book, it lays out the study of body art as a genre of material culture quite clearly, and it foregrounds the study of both daily dress and special occasion wear.

A lot of students came to my body art class expecting to spend the whole semester talking about tattoos and other permanent or extreme body mods. We will certainly discuss those things, but I’m also trying to give my students vocabulary and concepts for studying the daily clothing choices that surround them. I’m assigning a handful of fieldwork projects, for example, that could include looking at tattoos and piercings, but will mostly be about observing the clothing of people around them. I like to think that I’m giving them tools to critically interpret the visual culture of clothing, in order to perhaps be a bit more savvy about brands and advertising and the commodification of bodies.

Body image is one topic that I’m looking forward to discussing with my students. We’ve talked about the idea that when you get dressed in the morning, you’re the first audience for your stylistic choices. Your entire life history, your sense of body image, your self-esteem, your struggles with your weight… those all are foregrounded when you decide what to wear when dressing to go out. This is one area where my class design dovetails nicely with gender studies: women and men get radically different social messages about what’s appropriate to wear, and what’s considered “normal” for outfits and attractiveness.

One thing I’ve noticed when thinking about audience and body image in conjunction is that we are usually harder on ourselves than others are. If I’m trying on an outfit, I’ll probably notice imperfections and inconsistencies that no one else would see. I’m seeing the accumulation of my years of body image anxiety that no one else sees when they look at me, since I manage to appear outwardly confident (sometimes intimidatingly so). If I am my first audience, I am truly a harsh critic… and while I haven’t done the research on this yet (though now I really want to!) I’m guessing this trend is true of many other folks. It’s probably gendered, too, from what I gather based on informal conversations with friends and fellow dancers.

So if the self is the first audience, I wonder: do we owe it to ourselves to be kinder audiences? Do we seek fault with ourselves so that we can beat others to it? When do we allow ourselves to see the most beauty in our self image? Are there links between allowing ourselves creative freedom in body adornment (c’mon, who else still plays dress-up?) and feeling more satisfied with our body image?

The semester’s only just begun, so I hope to dig a bit deeper into these topics with my students. But I also hope to start some dialogue with the wider world, because we all could stand to be a little kinder to ourselves, and to see ourselves as beautiful.

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As readers of my blog know, I’m thoroughly in love with American Tribal Style® Belly Dance (ATS for short). I’ve written about why it’s interesting from a folklore studies perspective, how its unique fractal structure makes it distinct from other belly dance styles, and how it helps address cultural appropriation issues by veering sideways of the debate and not trying to be authentic. I’m also – cards on the table – a certified ATS instructor and a Sister Studio to FatChance BellyDance® (the creators of the style).

So if ATS was created in the 1980s as an improvisational belly dance format by FatChance, and has since become a standardized dance language worldwide, what’s ITS?

ITS stands for Improvisational Tribal Style, and it refers to the multiple dance languages and dialects that have emerged from ATS and evolved into their own improvisational dance cue systems. The language metaphor remains useful, since just like languages, we can look at tribal style improv as a series of historically interconnected communication systems. Some of them are mutually intelligible, and others are not.

Tribal Belly Dance Family Tree

The tribal belly dance family tree pictured here reminds me of the charts we used in the historical linguistics class I took at Berkeley. There’s a clear sense of lineage, influence, and ancestry.*

So with ITS, you end up with this rather fascinating case study of interrelated dance forms that have become immensely popular worldwide. I could list my favorite examples of ITS sub-styles for days, but instead I’ll get to my main point:

ATS is to ITS as Impressionism is to Neo-Impressionism

What do I mean by that? If you’re an art history nerd like me, you’ll know that Impressionism started in the 1870s as an artistic movement that related to light and color differently than was then in vogue. About a decade after the start of Impressionism, a related movement called Neo-Impressionism took off, altering the aims of Impressionism but still definitely borrowing from the movement’s momentum and techniques. And then, depending on who you ask, there was the Post-Impressionist movement, which referred to a lot of the same artists as the Neo-Impressionist title, but also might’ve been more of a time period than a coherent movement.

Anyway, we could linger on the details, but the main part of the metaphor that I want to access is this: ATS is like the Impressionism of the contemporary belly dance scene, since its arrival shook things up and laid the groundwork for other types of innovation in the belly dance world. ITS built on the developments of ATS, pushing farther in some ways and recursing in others.

My problem is this: when I talk to someone who’s into ITS who doesn’t know a thing about ATS, it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around. It’s like talking to someone who’s nuts about Seurat and is trying to paint in his style, but has never heard of Monet.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a nerd about history, but that makes me go WTF. Know your dance history, folks! Not only does it make performances more visually interesting when you can trace the evolution of movements over time, but it also helps us understand where we fit in the ever-changing dance world. How much are we bound by tradition, and where does creativity fit into the particular genre of dance we’ve chosen to explore? What kinds of artistry are most available to us? I’m not trying to be snotty about how ATS “came first” and thus is more legit; as I’ve blogged about, I don’t really care about the origins of cultural phenomena because there are so many other questions that are more interesting to me.

For me, understanding where things come from (as far back as we can feasibly determine, anyway) and how they’ve changed over time deepens my appreciation of them. And as someone who practices this art form, I think it’s an important way to show respect, sorta like a “know the rules before you break them” attitude when it comes to the act of creation (not that I’m advocating breaking any rules here).

As always, I love feedback and would enjoy hearing other dancers’ thoughts on this metaphor.

 

*Hungry for more tribal dance tidbits? Deep Roots Dance has collected an excellent sampling of links about the history of tribal belly dance.

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Hooping at GenCon 2014. Photo by Curtis Claspell.Remember how I said I was taking the summer off? Yeah, that didn’t so much happen. Well, it did but only in one sense.

I was intent on resting from the near-burn-out I’d been suffering as a result of the academic job market and other career-oriented stress, and I did manage to do that. As I chronicled in my blog post series over at Conditionally Accepted, I need to move in a direction that’s better for my mental health and my overall life goals, and that means reevaluating my relationship to academia.

So far, so good. I only did a little academic work over the summer, such as prepping my fall course, revising a couple essays for publication, and reviewing manuscripts for journals.

The rest of the time, I danced, traveled, read, cooked, exercised, and socialized. I took on paid writing work, taught dance classes and performed at both paid and community gigs, and took steps toward increasing my knowledge of the professional sex education world. So there was a lot of self-care interspersed with work (most of it non-academic in nature).

I selected this picture because of how it visually represents the whirlwind of activity that my summer became. Performing belly dance and fire dance at a yoga festival? Check. Roadtripping to Philadelphia to hang out with my folklore/foodie friends? Check. Rock-climbing with my husband and leveling up my climbing skills? Check. Performing for thousands of people at GenCon? Check. Learning new hoop tricks and dancing with LED hoops? Check. Plundering my local farmers market for tasty foods to cook and/or preserve? Check. Seeing my parents, grandparents, aunt, sister, and other relatives? Check. Meeting tons of new people at flow arts festivals, conventions, and sex education workshops? Check. I’m sure I’m leaving things out, too, because there was just too much cool stuff happening this summer to recount in one blog post.

So, this summer’s been a good reminder that there’s life outside career angst, and that taking time for myself and my personal goals can be incredibly healthy and uplifting. Now I’m off to teach my first Body Art class of the semester, and with that I’ll plunge headlong into whatever the fall holds for me.

When a friend shared a link to Why We Care About Other People’s Sex Lives, a look at the evolutionary psychology behind ideas of sexual morality, I was skeptical. As I’ve ranted about to anyone who will listen, I have a hate-hate relationship with evolutionary psychology and related fields such as literary Darwinism. They’re just so… essentializing. Ugh.

But the above-linked article caught my interest. The author looks at a number of recent studies about how people judge casual sex. In one instance: “Even after controlling for variables like age, religiosity, and political affiliation, the study authors found that people who saw female financial dependence on men as more common were also more likely to negatively judge promiscuity in both sexes.” Why does this occur? I’m not inclined to go with the evo psych reductionist reasoning that women are less horny than men but simultaneously more calculating; instead, I’d like to draw some parallels between sexual and economic principles.

What do sexual morality and financial dependence have in common? The concept of limited good. As folklorist Alan Dundes explains in this interview about evil eye beliefs: “The idea is that many peasant societies have what anthropologist George Foster refers to as the concept of ‘limited good.’ There’s only so much wealth and health. So you want to conceal your wealth because people are going to wish that they had it, otherwise you’ll lose it.” Dundes goes on to argue that expressive culture (in this case, folk belief about the evil eye) reflects a society’s underlying worldview of paradigm about economic exchange.

So when we have an economic system that commodifies certain kinds of social and sexual interactions (such as marriage) by directly tying them to one’s ability to survive and thrive, it’s not surprising to see that same attitude reflected in a society’s sexual attitudes. The fear about not enough potential (and desirable) spouses to go around (hence not enough access to married-life-resources) affects beliefs about sexual practices, turning sex into a commodity when really, it doesn’t have to be that way. We know from the non-monogamous emotion of compersion (feeling joy when someone else feels joy) that it’s possible to react to sharing your partner with another with positive, constructive emotions rather than destructive, possessive, jealous ones.

I sometimes wonder how sexual behaviors and stereotypes will change in my utopian vision of the future, wherein we move from a limited good economy to one where marriage isn’t required to obtain health insurance, citizenship, or other concrete goods. Will sex ever be de-commodified? I’m not sure, but I hope we move more in that direction.

Oh, and there’s another, simpler idea that I’d like to extract from the essay on sexual morality: the notion that a society’s attitudes about sexuality can (and perhaps should) change over time. The authors of Sex at Dawn (which I review here) also implicitly explore this concept. What I like about the idea that attitudes about sex are always evolving is that it recognizes that sexual behavior is always culturally constructed. Our ideas about sex are always changing due to a confluence of various factors: the ways in which we have sex change, our social paradigms (some of which explicitly relate to sex) change, and our scientific understanding of sexual functioning is always evolving too.

Basically, there’s always been an amazing diversity of sexual practices throughout human history. In my mind, that’s as it should be. There is no one way to have sex. There is no universal, monolithic meaning of sex. The only thing that’s universal about sex – other than it happening to continue humankind’s existence on this world – is that I believe sex should be considered among the list of universal human rights.

So, let’s keep up the dialogue about sex and society. Hopefully a greater understanding of how these paradigms intersect and influence one another will lead to more tolerance and progressive social change.

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Indy Tribal (my ATS® group) at Middle Eastern Mayhem, 2013. Photo by Rachel Penticuff.

I’ve been belly dancing for half my life, so by this time I’ve had the opportunity to view a lot of belly dance performances. While I enjoy watching most of the styles out there, I’m particularly drawn to American Tribal Style® (or ATS) for a lot of reasons, some of which I’ve detailed here.

But while at a local belly dance event recently, viewing the various other dance styles in an evening performance, I realized yet another reason why ATS appeals to me: the micro structure of the dance mirrors and facilitates the macro structure of the dance. It works a lot like a fractal, if we extend the concept metaphorically a bit. Specifically, in ATS, if you don’t understand how the individual dance moves work, you won’t be able to perform in the improvised group structure.

If you’ve ever seen a dance group perform, and not just belly dance, there’s a good chance it was choreographed. As in, someone mapped out the moves in advance and everyone had to memorize when precisely to do what (and then practice… and practice… and practice). The concept of choreography includes individual dance movements (what a person’s body is doing in space, and to what timing) as well as the individual’s place in the formation or larger group.

As you might imagine, generating, learning, and rehearsing a choreography is a lot of work. But one interesting feature of this performance strategy is that there are points in it wherein the individual dancer’s body movements don’t matter that much. If the entire formation is static (nobody’s moving to a new position in the group at that moment), then a single dancer’s mistake or bad posture doesn’t ruin the show or mess everyone up. It might look bad, or at the very least inconsistent, but it won’t throw everything to a grinding halt.

In contrast, in ATS, every dancer must know how to execute every move accurately. This is because our group improvisational structure features a rotating “leader” (the dancer in view of everyone else who is responsible for cuing the next move) with one, two, or three followers. It’s a common practice to have the most confident dancers lead the most, and to let the less confident dancers follow more than they lead (since as ATS dancers learn quickly, competently cuing moves while leading is a whole separate skill set than just following the moves someone else cues). The less confident leaders can gain practice and experience leading in class, where it’s a low-pressure environment, and slowly begin to lead more in performances (which are more high-stakes than classes or rehearsals).

So let’s say the leader cues into a basic eight-count move in an ATS performance. If a follower misses the cue and arrives into the move a few counts later than the leader, that’s fine, it happens. If the follower totally misses the cue and doesn’t do the move at all, it might look weird, but that happens too sometimes. But when the leader decides to create a more complex formation than having everyone simultaneously facing the audience (such as a fade, or an inward-facing circle), if the follower doesn’t understand the basic movement structure, then the whole formation will fall apart. And it won’t be a “recover in 2 counts” thing, it’ll fragment and it won’t be pretty.

This is part of the reason I love teaching, practicing, and performing ATS: like a hologram, or fractal, or a crystal, understanding the micro structure of the dance facilitates understanding the macro structure of the dance. While in another belly dance style, say, cabaret, you could stick an individual into a four-person choreography who doesn’t know how to shimmy or step on the beat and have it not ruin the whole dance, in ATS that wouldn’t fly.

For these reasons, pulling off an ATS performance of even the most basic moves is very impressive! I’ll watch beginner ATS groups all day with a dreamy smile on my face. I love the more complex moves and complicated formations too, of course, but I remain in awe of all the work that goes into learning the basic moves, the formations to move in, and the difficult-to-articulate process by which dancers sync up with each other and learn to move together.

If you’re curious what this looks like, here’s an example of an ATS dance I performed with my troupe. Yep, it’s all improvised. We’d run the piece a number of times and performed it already twice in different cities. We knew who would lead which section, but other than that, which moves would be cued when was up to each leader. Maybe I’m biased but I think this performance came out well in part due to all the practice we put in, and in part because we have good rapport with one another.

I’m curious: are there other dance forms, or art forms more generally, that are fractal in the same that ATS is? Where learning the smallest component of technique is essential to practicing or understanding the larger concepts that flow outward from it?

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Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

One of the things I love about my family is that they take an active interest in my career and hobbies. So when I flew into L.A. to see my folks, my dad handed me a big box of newspaper clippings, related to literature, folklore, dance, sex education, and so on.

Among them was an opinion piece from the L.A. Times about a recent piece of California legislation, SB 967. This would mandate, among other things, that all California universities include the following language about sexual contact that occurs on campus:

  • An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by a complainant.
  • Prohibition on an accused perpetrator using self-intoxication or recklessness as a defense.  It would also not be a defense if the accused failed to take reasonable steps to ascertain consent.
  • An explicit provision that an individual is unable to give consent for sexual activity if the individual is asleep or unconscious; incapacitated due to drugs and/or alcohol; or unable to communicate due to a mental and/or physical condition.
  • A preponderance of the evidence standard in the determination of disciplinary action.

And so on. So far, so good, right?

Well… no. One of the opinion pieces, published in the Sunday June 1 L.A. Times, thinks that an affirmative consent standard is not only unlikely, but also unsexy. He writes: “The legislation’s affirmative consent requirement doesn’t apply just to sex. It covers all physical contact for which consent is required by a college’s sexual assault policy, like intimate touching. In real life, such contact is welcomed after it begins, not affirmatively consented to in advance.”

I hope y’all see that this is really problematic. This statement exemplifies the sex-negativity prevalent in our culture, specifically the idea that having to obtain consent by explicitly asking for it is un-sexy. It’s not hard to see where this idea comes from; in practically every Hollywood flick the characters experience mind-numbing chemistry, kiss, and wind up in bed together, with nary a word spoken.

Is it really all that terrible to have to ask for someone’s consent before touching or kissing them? Would it really be so soberingly un-sexy to say something like, “Hey, I’d like to kiss you. How do you feel about that?” Apparently, yes, there is no greater boner-killer than verbally obtaining consent.

What’s even more  troubling is that this opinion was expressed by Hans Bader, an attorney and former U.S. Department of Education Lawyer. In other words, the people making our laws don’t think obtaining verbal, explicit consent is sexy or feasible.

Another person, Sandra Perez, wrote in to say: “Legislation in Sacramento essentially would mandate that a would-be Romeo obtain an express opt-in before proceeding to bed with his sweetheart, as if any such target of Romeo’s desires doesn’t have ample opportunity to communicate her unequivocal wish to opt out.” This is another WTF comment, since it both assumes that men are always the initiators of sexual contact (which is a harmful construct of performing idealized masculinity) and that there are never coercive situations wherein women – or men – don’t feel safe saying no.

I’m saddened and disturbs that both of the quotes in this opinion piece reinforce negative, harmful, and untrue ideas about consent. Whether or not you’re in California and hence potentially affected by this law, I recommend reading up on consent and figuring out how to make it a more prominent part of your conversations and your practices. So here are some links:

Please read and consider passing on these links. I’m aware that there are more sophisticated (often feminist) conversations happening around consent, specifically problematizing the notion of “enthusiastic consent (and this discussion too), but hey, we have to start somewhere.

P.S. June is  Adult Sex Ed month! Consider this post a contribution!

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Me in the Carmel Public Library, looking thoughtful (as I feel now). Photo by James Moriarty.

I’ve been talking about this idea to a handful of folks, and now I’m implementing it: I’m taking a real summer break. This has some implications for how I comport myself online and in the rest of life, so thought I’d explain those here.

Like many scholars, I’m a highly-driven, passionate, disciplined person. This can have its downsides, though, like when I work myself into stress-induced illness or don’t make time for the relationships that are important to me. I went straight from high school to undergrad to grad school, and since starting grad school I did “everything right” to try to get a job as a professor, which meant spending almost every waking minute on activities that would enhance my CV. Even after finishing my PhD, I remained in “production mode”: doing extensive research, publishing, and presenting while also adjuncting and freelance writing.

In other words, I’ve never really had a break or a vacation since starting grad school. Even on trips, I had an article to be working on. Or a conference proposal to write. Or a syllabus to finish. Or grading, grading, grading.

This summer will not be the true break I wish it were. I am not going to be doing absolutely nothing (in fact, I fear I am incapable of doing nothing unless forced to by circumstances outside my control). I am going to be nurturing my dance community, visiting my family, maintaining friendships/relationships, and doing freelance writing to bring in some money, because hey, one of the downsides of adjuncting is that there’s no guarantee of summer employment and it’s not like you can claim unemployment either. Like many, I feel that contingent work has begun to make the rest of my life feel contingent too.

Since reflecting on normalized weekend work in academia, I’ve been facing the real prospect of burn-out. What’s the point of working so hard for so little reward, I wonder. I’ve enjoyed the decade+ journey of becoming a professional in my field but I’ve spent 3 years on the job market only landing local contract teaching gigs (which I do find fulfilling; they’re just not full-time work hence not long-term sustainable). I love what I do, but do I love it enough to keep doing it when it takes an obvious toll on the rest of my life? When I find myself writing so many qualifications, so many “yes, buts” when I describe my experience, how am I to deal with this deep ambivalence, this weariness over a layer of hurt/frustration? (Curious why academic rejection seems to hurt so much more than other kinds? read this crowd-sourced list for some insight)

I am taking to heart some of Rebecca Schuman’s suggestions about how to recover from academia, including the notion that making space to de-tox might help. And that might involve limiting contact with the kinds of people and pressures that academics normally encounter. If I can’t afford to travel to more than one or two conferences per year, do I really need to be seeing ads for them? If I can’t justify time to work on unpaid academic writing projects because I’m either working on paid writing to bring income to my household, or domestic tasks that I voluntarily take on because I’m not the breadwinner so I feel I should… do I really need to be seeing those CFPs? That sort of thing. And, if I am being honest with myself, I want to be happy for my colleagues that are succeeding in academia, but it just makes me feel bad about my own failures. There, I said it. It’s shallow, and it’s selfish, but every post I see from a recent graduate about getting a job reminds me that I’m lingering in adjunct-land, which is not what I had envisioned for myself. And wondering why they got the job and I didn’t is unproductive, since I won’t ever know.

We all know that the academic job market is cruelly arbitrary, lacking in transparency, cult-like, and drawn-out to the point of making planning the rest of one’s life an absurd impracticality. Describing the hiring process to non-academics makes it sound ridiculous beyond words. Knowing these things makes me feel somewhat better about my “failure” to get a job, but still. I feel pretty crummy about my situation and I’m trying to change that.

To that end, I’m going to remove many of the academics I follow from my Twitter and Facebook lists, unless you’re more on the post-ac/alt-ac side of things, or unless I follow  you because you’re a friend first, and an academic second. It’s nothing personal, and I may restore y’all once the fall semester starts and I’m feeling excited about the course I’m teaching, and once I’m doing… whatever it is I’ll be doing in the fall in addition to teaching. Which is hopefully something I’ll figure out this summer.

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My post Claiming the Title of Sex Educator recently went live at MySexProfessor, and in that vein, I’m going to start posting more sex education and sex research content here at my personal blog. I’ll begin with a post about how we talk about deviance and consent, and where these subjects (maybe surprisingly) intersect.

There’s a journalistic account going around about a young man who identifies as a pedophile in that he’s attracted to children, but he has never acted on that attraction. In fact, he’s actively seeking help in order to keep from acting on it. Pedophilia is one the most taboo and reviled sexuality topics in our society, and I like how the interview humanizes the man. It’s worth a listen if you have the time (it’s around 30 minutes long).

The story got me thinking about how we tend to talk about sexual deviancy. The more taboo a topic is, the more likely the discussion of it is to be framed in terms of morality or wrongness. In other words, stigma has an incredibly polarizing effect on discourse.

But you know what? Pretty much any sexual act has the potential to be just as “deviant” as the most stigmatized and taboo acts out there. This is because every sex act that involves more than one person hinges on consent, and even the most innocent-seeming act can become a violation if consent is lacking.

This is where the “would you do it to/with a pet?” question comes in. Think of something you might do to, say, a cat or dog as a friendly gesture:

  • Hug
  • Pet
  • Feed
  • Walk or play with

You don’t have to ask your cat or dog whether you can interact with it in a low-key, friendly way, in a manner that presumes some familiarity but does not transgress the animal’s bodily boundaries or cause it pain. Similarly, you usually don’t have to ask a friend consent before hugging her, or offering him food, or shaking zir hand.

Then think of some other activities, which you would NOT do to your pet. These could involve forcibly penetrating it, or beating it. Why would those actions be wrong? Because your pet cannot consent to sex with a human, nor to receiving pain. Animals think differently than humans and we haven’t figured out how to bridge a lot of those gaps just yet. Humans, on the other hand, are capable of communicating with one another about marvelously complex things, including giving and receiving physical pain in the pursuit of pleasure as with kink/BDSM, or choosing to enter into sex work.

My point here is that if it’s not an act that you would feel okay doing to an alive-and-feeling being that is incapable of communicating consent — it is potentially a “deviant” act. Being kissed without consent can be an invasive, horrible experience. Having sex without consent – that’s called rape.  Whether it’s the most vanilla thing in that world or as taboo as it gets, any partnered sexual activity has the potential to be traumatic if its occurs without consent.

Obviously the pet analogy falls apart at some point. Some people enjoy sloppy wet dog kisses, and the dogs seem to enjoy them right back. The activity of wrestling with one’s pet may cross into rough play, rougher than you’d do with a non-consenting human. I just wanted to come up with a metaphor that would resonate with people, that would make you think about the activities which require explicit consent and the activities that do not.

The flip side is that if any act, no matter how innocent or well-intended, can become monstrous when it occurs without consent, then any deviant/taboo/bizarre act can be seen as okay if consent is granted. Or at least, I’ll see it that way, and encourage others to have an open enough mind to do so.

Once again: if you’re a consenting adult, I support you doing anything. Consent should always be communicated, negotiated, and re-negotiated, so the more we read and talk and write about it, the better!

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Teaching at the Winter Bazaar (March 2014); Photo by Curtis Claspell

I didn’t enter dance or academia expecting to love teaching, but I’ve found myself teaching dance and teaching college-levels classes for almost a decade now each, and enjoying both opportunities a bunch. The more I teach dance, though, the more I find it necessary to reflect on the role of the teacher, and what kind of trust she must build with her students.

Perhaps the academic classroom is so structured that this question didn’t really enter my mind until I began building a dance community that has me teaching and rehearsing multiple days a week. Being in sustained contact with my dance students, both in person and online, has been a unique experience. And it’s not that I don’t adore and benefit from contact with my college students, but there are many boundaries there that don’t exist with my dance students. I socialize with my dance students, and even party and (gasp) drink with them. They’ve been to my home, and I’ve been to many of their homes, for practices, craft nights, movie nights, and so on. We carpool to events. We’ve worn each other’s costumes for performances, and gifted each other costume items and snacks and caffeinated beverages. Very few of these activities would be appropriate for me to pursue with my college students, but I don’t feel they cross a line with my dance students. In part this is because dance in our community is a hobby (whereas one’s college performance arguably has a more “real” impact on one’s life), and in part this is because the student-teacher relationship in a dance context is often less power-laden than the student-teacher relationship in an academic context.

The interesting – and unique – thing that’s happening to me in the dance classroom these days is that I’m having to ask my students to put immense amounts of trust in me, and I’m struggling to prove myself worthy of that trust daily. Belly dance is intimately connected to body image, which for many women in American culture, is a fraught topic. One of the major reasons I perform belly dance is to challenge expectations about ideal feminine beauty. So, the first challenge I face in asking students to trust me is that I’m basically saying, You are beautiful as you are, and you will be beautiful when you dance. We receive so many mixed messages from our capitalist culture that I’m not surprised that this message might be hard to swallow.

Since I’m trying to build a community based on the radical notion that women’s bodies in motion are beautiful, regardless of one’s age or build, I have to ask my students to trust me when I tell them that they can do this. American Tribal Style® Belly Dance is particularly well-suited to making women look good when they dance, in large part thanks to the richly layered and customizable costumes. For some women, just taking that first step and signing up for a belly dance style requires trust. For others, taking classes is fine, but then baring their bellies (which I don’t require) or dancing in front of others is what’s tough. In order to encourage them to take a chance on me as an instructor, I try to cultivate an upbeat, cheerful teacher persona. I encourage questions and I never shame anyone for not picking up on a move right away, or needing to ask the same technique question again, or whatever. Shame has no place in the belly dance classroom, or any classroom, really.

(on a related note, though written in reference to the academic classroom, I agree with this professor’s statement: “Education is about students. It is about caring for them, pushing them, helping them, working with them rather than against them. Take a good long look at your reasons for being in higher ed. If students are not at the center, you are doing it wrong.”

Further, since practicing belly dance often comes with the hope of eventually performing it, I’m having to ask my students to trust me when it comes to evaluating their readiness to perform. This is where it gets really tricky. I’ve hopefully established that they can trust me to be their teacher and to build up their confidence… but now I have to objectively evaluate whether they’ve mastered a certain skill-set enough to confidently perform it on stage. Performing introduces so many variables that dancers must be comfortable with the basic movements. If that stuff isn’t committed to muscle memory, there’s so much that can go wrong. It’s never, like, catastrophic when someone forgets or messes up a move on stage, but I try to prevent that from happening because it can be unpleasant, and I’d prefer for my dancers to associate pleasant memories with dancing.

So the weird duality I’m noticing here is that I have to ask them to trust me enough that I can be responsible both for building up their confidence, and for gently criticizing their shortcomings. I try to approach this tension with an air of humility; after all, I’m not perfect either. Goodness knows I could always use more practice, and when I’m traveling to a city where there’s another certified ATS® teacher, I try to go in for classes so that I can get technique corrections or new ideas.

Hopefully my students recognize my intentions and trust me, and hopefully they understand that when I correct them, it’s all in service of building their confidence back up again when they can grasp a concept correctly. Getting us all dancing together – which takes a ton of work! – in turn builds the community. And the stronger and more loving our community is, the better we are as dancers, and as people. Seeing my dance students flourish in this community is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced, and so muddling through the cognitive dissonance of how to build students up while encouraging them to better is well worth it.

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