This post is part of a resource for flow arts and movement communities to address issues of consent and boundaries. You can access the full resource here.
Every movement community is different. This seems the most obvious place to start when considering how boundaries, violations, and safety factor into community dynamics.
The Flow Arts Institute (FAI) defines “flow arts” in this way:
Flow Arts is a general term used to describe the intersection of a variety of movement-based disciplines including dance, juggling, fire-spinning, and object manipulation. The broad category Flow Arts includes a variety of pursuits that harmonize skill-based techniques with creative expression to achieve a state of present-moment awareness known as Flow. Common forms of Flow Arts include Poi & Staff spinning, hula hoop (or “hooping”), juggling, sphere manipulation (or “contact juggling”), and fan dance. New props and expressions are emerging all the time as flow artists cross pollinate with martial arts, yoga, circus, belly dance, and beyond.
The “state of present-moment awareness known as Flow” is a phenomenon articulated and clarified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, and explored in his many writings, which include the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi observes that most of us are familiar with the flow state — the sense of complete absorption in an activity that can lead to an altered state of consciousness and experience. The writer deep in the flow of words, the dancer swept up in the emotion of the performance, the musician lost in the resonance of sound and vibration — these are all examples of spontaneous flow state. Further, his research shows that flow exists in the state between what is easy and what is too challenging. That is to say:
The ideal level of difficulty for achieving flow state during an activity is something that is above your current skill level, but not by so much that you get frustrated and discouraged.
As noted by FAI, people have embraced different ways of intentionally pursuing the flow state through movement practices, including hooping, poi, contact staff, dragon staff, buugeng, levi wand, juggling, and dance. Within flow arts communities are people who have learned the techniques primarily for performance or fitness value, those who came into it specifically for deepening flow experiences toward personal healing, and those who came in through performance or fitness and later on developed an appreciation for flow.
Specific vulnerabilities for consent violations within flow arts communities include:
- Power imbalances between individuals or roles within communities;
- The fact that flow arts attract people seeking healing;
- The fact that flow artists are frequently entering an altered state during their flow arts practice or are intentionally exploring vulnerability in the container of the movement space;
- The fact that while flow arts is not about sexual preference, style, or orientation, that many within the flow arts communities are also engaged in LGBTQ, kink, or polyamory communities and thus norms of touch and intimacy might be diverse in flow communities;
- And the fact that physical touch is explored, complete with partner dance, contact improvisation, weight-bearing practices, lifts, and sometimes strong lead-follow dynamics, and often in nonverbal spaces.
1. Power imbalances between individuals or roles within communities
Within flow arts practices with props, there is little physical contact between practitioners, and minimal physical contact between teachers and learners. This does not mean that there are not vulnerabilities flow arts teachers, community leaders, festival organizers, and performers should hold in mind.
Across all forms of flow arts, prop and dance, power dynamics can play a role in perceptions of consent.
These will be addressed more thoroughly in the next section, but briefly it is important to remember that there are power differentials inherent in teacher/student, organizer/attendee, leader/community, performer/fan, and longtime performer/teacher and new performer. This isn’t to say that a flow arts teacher can’t have a relationship with an adult student that is entirely consensual, or that a long-time performer enmeshed in a particular flow community can’t have a relationship with a starry-eyed newcomer that is navigated with intention and attention to balance. It is simply to say that in our awareness of inherent and perceived power imbalances we are better able to avoid their pitfalls.
2. Flow arts attract people seeking healing
In addition to possible power imbalances within communities, flow arts frequently attract people who are seeking healing through embodied connection. In learning to surrender to the patterned movement of the hoop, a hooper can learn lessons of release and spontaneity that help heal embedded patterns of control and perfectionism. In allowing themselves to experience the pleasure of a dragon staff rolling along arms and chest and neck, flow artists can experience pressure and touch in non-threatening ways as they move fluidly to ensure a new body part ready to receive the roll in every moment and at each turn. Through having the designated space of ecstatic dance to practice moving their body joyfully, sensually, wildly, taking whatever pace brings pleasure and presence, the dancer might heal patterns of bodily shame, trauma, and inhibition.
Some people are drawn to flow arts for the precision and practice, for fitness or a new performative skill, but many a drawn to its potential for deep, soul-level healing through embodiment.
While people at every level of healing have agency, power, and voice, those skills might be developed to different extents, used to different degrees in different circumstances, and manifest differently with different people. Someone who is learning to find validation from within themself might be more susceptible to the influence of another who offers validation freely. Someone who is learning who they are at their core — the blueprint before the imprint shifted their self-understanding — might be more susceptible to the influence of another who offers modalities and esoteric knowledge around self-exploration.
And to be clear: healing is not linear. I am not in the business of branding one person “more healed” than another, as we each carry our unique set of gifts and strengths, as well as a unique pattern of wounds, fears, scars, blessings, privileges, and opportunities. We didn’t all start our healing journeys at the same baseline; we don’t all grow and heal along the same trajectories. What is easy for one recovering person to say no to might be difficult for another; what is hard for one person to discern about a situation might be obvious to another. We are each simultaneously teacher and student, healer and wounded, and using the skills we’ve developed so far to navigate our lives. There is no prize for (or truth in, honestly) having graduated from all your coping skills, no award for being open to every experience. We each set our boundaries wherever feels most comfortable, and we each navigate them with whatever skills we have in that moment.
When many dancers and flow artists view their flow communities as a primary space for self-exploration and healing as well as social connection, these communities will have a solid proportion of people open to new views of self, in need of deep healing, and desirous of social connection and acceptance. This is the kind of vulnerability that flow arts communities would do well to hold with intention and awareness.
3. Altered state during flow arts practice and intentionally exploring vulnerability in the container of the movement space
On many occasions, I’ve encountered or ended hoop practice, fire spin, or ecstatic dance breathless, body buzzing, floating, elated, ecstatic, altered, and expansive. I’ve felt my skin vibrate to the point of wondering if it were no longer solid. I’ve noticed my own energy expand and open, and noticed energetic shifts in those around us.
While this altered state of flow and connection is clearer, sharper than my everyday awareness and is absolutely clearer than an altered state from, say, a buzz from alcohol or other drugs, it is still an altered state, and as such could be treated with a little extra intention and gentleness.
Additionally, I know that part of the draw of ecstatic dance for me and many friends I’ve talked to is the opportunity to explore vulnerability, connection, and intimacy in a controlled and safe environment. For someone else interested in similarly exploring, this can be another healing opportunity offered by the dance. For someone with a history of unintentionally soggy boundaries, or with the intent of finding vulnerable members of a community to exploit, this creates susceptibility — albeit susceptibility that can be reduced through intention, awareness, and structure by community leaders and members alike.
4. Varying norms of touch and intimacy are frequently diverse in flow communities
In my time in flow arts communities, I have certainly encountered a solid number of straight, monogamous people for whom norms around touch and intimacy are fairly traditional. I’ve also met monogamous, straight folks who are extra cuddly with platonic friends, for whom spooning, holding hands, laying a head on a friend’s lap, or tender massage are within the range of normal for their platonic friendships. I’ve also met a handful of kinksters, queer folks, and a people whose relationships follow any one of a variety of nonmonogamous models, from polyfidelitous demisexuals to swingers, from sex positive solo polyamorous people to sex critical polyams in complex polycules of love and partnership. I’ve met teachers of tantra, sex workers, people in a period of intentional celibacy, and those for whom dance is their primary source of touch and affection in between partners.
What this means is:
We each come to our flow arts community, and to its dance floor, with a variety of expectations and norms around touch and sexuality, and that they might not always match up.
This isn’t to say that anyone’s expectations around touch and sexuality is right or wrong — the tantra teacher is no more evolved than the periodically celibate, the solo polyamorous free-lover is no more right or wrong than the married, monogamous couple. We each walk unique paths, suited to our own backgrounds, awareness, spiritual makeup, and intentions. It does mean that without a shared community language and expectation around touch and consent, boundaries are more likely to be crossed, unintentionally or otherwise.
5. Physical touch is explored and often in nonverbal spaces
In contact improvisation and many forms of social partner dance, talking is allowed, and is one of the many ways people navigate boundaries, safety, and clarification of movement.
Ecstatic dance, on the other hand, is frequently held as a nonverbal space, in which consent cues are read through body language and nonverbal cues.
This is often an important opportunity to learn to read nonverbal cues, AND it is often an opportunity for boundaries to be misread. While some body language is similar from one person to the next, each person brings their unique embodiment to consent interactions. For example, one person might freeze up when excited, and another might freeze up when triggered or frightened. At a consent workshop I attended last year, I was partnered with another consent educator for an activity in which we were to read each other’s body language. At one point, I threw my arms into the air, waved one leg, and grinned widely to show enthusiastic consent; she read my consent as questionable because I looked like I was shrugging. Sometimes nonverbal cues can be misread.
Next up: Gender, Sexual Violence, Power, and Control, Part One: Why we need to learn about broader trends in gender, sexual violence, power, and control