Contact and Consent

By Vivek Patel
  • Patel / Photo courtesy of Patel

I was sexually assaulted on the dance floor two years ago.

I was dancing at a contact improvisation festival with this guy and we were having a great time. We were flowing, playing and experimenting. I felt a good connection between our movements.

After dancing for about five minutes, he suddenly grabbed my crotch during a lift. I was shocked. I was in disbelief. I thought I must have imagined it. It wasn’t an accidental brush by, which often happens in contact improv. This was a grab. I was so stunned that I denied my own reality.

Inwardly I froze.

Outwardly I ignored it and just kept dancing.

I felt helpless to end the dance or to say anything.

He kept grabbing and fondling me throughout the dance.

I am a heterosexual male. I do not face sexual harassment or assault very often. I painfully wondered: is this what women and transwomen experience on a regular basis?

This man did not have my consent to touch me that way.

My silence was NOT my consent.

To this day I feel regret and shame.

For not speaking up

For not ending the dance.

When I got back home, I shared the experience with female friends. I mentioned that, in a way I was grateful for it because it gave me a small clue what women face. I was quickly informed that I had no idea of their pain, and this one experience, as unpleasant as it was, did not even scratch the surface of what women go through all their lives.

I took the message to heart and deepened my commitment to learning, practising, teaching and writing about consent issues, especially in the contact improv community. I began to look at every interaction as an opportunity to practise consent. To listen deeply to myself and others and to respond.

There is a common view that focusing “too much” on consent ruins the flow and freedom in a dance. I disagree with this thinking.

Instead of seeing consent as an obstacle, let us see it as deep listening, moment by moment to the quality of our relating. This attention to consent creates the environment of trust necessary to experience profound levels of exploration and connection in contact improv dance and perhaps all relationships. Respect for consent and boundaries is essential for safety.

If I know my NO will be respected and if you know I am actively listening for your NO, we can both relax and explore the dance, right to our edges.

The essence of a consent-based interaction is to seek the yes and the no with equal enthusiasm, to receive the yes and the no with gratitude and to respond to both with respect.

It also means honouring our own yes and no. This is where we need to be aware of our needs, desires and boundaries and be able to communicate them effectively. This allows us to hear our truth and listen for someone else’s.

Recently I was being lifted onto my partner’s shoulder during a dance. I was pouring my weight onto her in increments. Each step along the way, I was literally asking the question, “Is this okay?” and receiving an answer from her body.

With each ten per cent or so I would ask the question and receive another answer. My body would respond and then ask again. The answer was yes all the way along, so I kept falling onto her shoulder and had a beautiful lift.

I asked her if she remembered the lift and told her of my experience. She mentioned that the listening, asking, answering and responding conversation we had during that moment really stood out for her. It was amazing how clear the communication was and she remarked that it made her feel safe. She could clearly feel me asking and feel her body responding. The whole thing probably took less than a second.

This is a consent interaction. Listening, asking, answering and responding. When both people in a dance, or any relationship, are interacting this way with each other, the creative and connecting potential is limitless.

My assault experience made me feel unsafe. It took me a long time before I could relax when dancing again. In response I’ve deepened my commitment to living a consent-based life. I believe that a higher level of respect will result in a higher level of freedom.



This article was originally published in the May/June 2018 twentieth anniversary issue as part of the anniversary feature “Provocations.”

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