I love dancing. I love going out, drunk or sober, and getting my boogie on. There is nothing better for decompressing and relaxing, for me, than getting down to a cheesy 80’s song.
People have described my slightly arrhythmic style as “enthusiastic,” “engaging,” and, tellingly, “all shoulders.”
No matter how much I’ve had to drink, I never dance in a manner which could be described as provocative. I won’t ever grind, I never lower my eyes in a way that could be interpreted as a come-hither signal.
I try not to dance with boys, preferring my all-girls circle.
This isn’t because I don’t want to, or because I think women shouldn’t. Many women dance in an incredible (and sexy way), and I love and admire them for it. Others don’t, and of course that’s fine too.
But I now know that other people don’t feel the same way.
When I was nineteen and had only just been getting together with my boyfriend, I loved dancing, with no reservations.
I would dance with my whole heart, with whoever I wanted, in whatever style I wanted. If I wanted to drop to the floor, I would. If I wanted to swing my hips to the beat, I did. If I wanted to run my hands through my hair, I didn’t hesitate.
One morning, I woke up after a night of dancing. I stretched, happily remembering some of the funnier moments, before getting up to shower.
Briefly I remembered one of my friends, Mike, grinding up against a random girl he was trying to hook up with. It wasn’t the first time I’d tried to speak with him about it, but he (and his friends) brushed it off — boys will be boys.
When I made my way into our shared kitchen, in search of a glass of water, I found instead a group of my friends, standing in a confrontational way, looking disappointed.
There was silence. I swallowed dryly. What had I done? Was there something I didn’t remember?
“Hey….guys,” I said, when it was clear they would not break the silence.
“Girl… you were dancing… really provocatively last night,” said my roommate, Katie finally. “It didn’t look good.”
Was that all?
“I love dancing,” I explained, smiling at them. “It’s really fun. Don’t you?”
Katie sighed. “Yeah, but you know when you dance like that, boys think you’re easy. This isn’t the first time you’ve danced in a really slutty way. We,” she gestured at the mixed group, “felt like you should know that people have been talking. About you. If you don’t stop, we might have to tell your boyfriend about it.”
We are the provocateurs.
She crossed her arms, and gave a sanctimonious little nod. The group echoed her nod.
“But… It’s not cheating. I just like to dance,” I said, smile fading, still thinking I could reason with these people.
“Remember when you got groped by that guy in the club? Just before that, he’d been staring at you when you were doing a slut drop. You don’t think those things are kind of connected?”
My heart skipped a beat.
Mike was there in the circle, too. I still remember looking at him, a little shocked that it was me they’d jumped on, and not the boy who’d been glued to another person, with or without her consent. He had a look of faux-concern on, but I thought detected the tiniest bit of smugness.
People thought I was slutty? For dancing with my hips? For shimmying? And this wasn’t OK?
My friends, when hearing that I was being talked about for dancing in a way that was fun for me, chose to police the way I moved my body instead of standing up for me?
They saw boys objectifying my body and my dancing style and told me I was asking for it?
“Just… don’t dance provocatively,” Katie said.
I nodded silently.
At nineteen, I didn’t know enough and I wasn’t confident enough in myself to stand up for my right to move my body in any way I wanted.
At nineteen, I was young enough to think I would be allowed to go through the world, doing whatever I wanted, without facing consequences for daring to attract men.
At nineteen, I still believed I owned myself more than my boyfriend did.
I truly thought that when a boy touched me against my will, it was not my fault for inviting him to do so.
That day, I learned the world did not agree.
To this day, years and years later, I am too afraid of my own friends judging me for dancing in a way deemed inappropriate. When we go out, I restrict my movement. I don’t make eye contact with boys who are not my partner. I keep my hips still and I keep my dancing as asexual as I can.
I still get groped. I still get men coming onto me, getting offended when I say I don’t want them to buy me a drink. I still feel eyes on me when I go out on any dance floor, no matter what my dancing style is.
In that group of friends, the boys routinely made unwanted advances on girls, grinded on them, tried to kiss them or touch them even after being told no, and somehow managed to escape unscathed in the court of public opinion.
Why? How come women are described as provocative — their clothes, their bodies, their dancing?
Provocative is my least favorite word. It implies the fault is solely on the provocateur, and somehow, it only seems to be applied to women.
I’ve never heard a man’s dress style be described as provocative. What’s more, I’ve never heard his provocative clothes being used to explain his assault, rape, or murder.
While I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid most harassment, especially compared to a lot of other women, this one experience was enough to teach me that ultimately I am held responsible for what boys do to me, what they think about me, how they react to me.
And I’m thin white woman, which makes it a lot easier for me in society.
For example, black women have historically been portrayed as hyper-sexualized in the media (past and present), which leads to harmful stereotypes, and other types of harassment and inequality that white women don’t get.
Meanwhile, fat women get told all the time what they can and cannot wear, and endure public harassment when their clothes don’t meet society’s arbitrary standards. One seventeen year-old girl was recently told by the judge presiding over the trial of her sexual assaulter, that she was probably flattered by the attention because she was fat.
We are the provocateurs.
Tonight, I’m going out to a club. I’ll kick my legs and wiggle my arms and bop my shoulders. I will not swing my hips, nor will I look at the men who ring the club, eyeing us thirstily, to avoid unwanted attention.
I wish I were brave enough to dance without limitations. I wish I could be strong enough to forget what people said about me, or trust that my friends won’t judge me for dancing however I choose, or think it’s my fault if I get approached in a way I did not ask for.
I will support women dancing in any way they want, from the most prude to the overtly sexual. I don’t care if my friends perform the sluttiest slut drops if that’s how they have fun — and I wish I could join them.