Dragons on the Road…

… A Slightly Fantastic Discussion of Trigger Warnings

“There are things that upset us. That’s not quite what we’re talking about here, though. I’m thinking rather about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming. Our hearts skip a ratatat drumbeat in our chests, and we fight for breath. Blood retreats from our faces and our fingers, leaving us pale and gasping and shocked.

And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this; the past is not dead. There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corners of our lives. We think we have moved on, put them out of mind, left them to desiccate and shrivel and blow away; but we are wrong. They have been waiting there in the darkness, working out, practicing their most vicious blows, their sharp hard thoughtless punches into the gut, killing time until we came back that way.”

Neil Gaiman – Trigger Warning

It’s the beginning of a new term, and I’m thinking about triggers again. Background information: a trigger warning, or content warning is a message on a text to indicate that the material that comes up might be disturbing or distressing. This piece in itself may require a trigger warning, although I’m not entirely sure as I start writing how it’s going to come out.

Trigger warnings have been the subject of debate in academia for a while now: should we put them on our syllabus? Should we offer alternative readings? Are they a way to protect students or are they simply a way of coddling an over-protected student body? Do students gain more from feeling safe then they do from discussing uncomfortable subjects? Are those two ideas mutually exclusive anyway?

I’ve quoted Neil Gaiman at length because of all the discussions of trigger warnings I’ve read his is, well, the best, quite simply; it’s empathetic, considered, and well-balanced. It accepts that we can need protection and yet still be capable of dealing with fear. I will take Neil Gaiman by the hand and walk into dark places because I know that I was given a reasonable choice NOT to go, and because I trust that the journey has both worth and purpose, whatever my emotional reaction to the monsters and madness I encounter along the way. For others, the value of the journey may just not be enough… and that’s ok.

There seems to a basic misunderstanding of trigger warnings in other discussions, particularly among those who advocate for their removal, in that “triggers” are talked about as if they were specific words, concepts or ideas, which may be avoided by the removal of the subject from the discussion. These words are big, obvious, red flag words. They cannot be approached from any direction, but must be absolutely eradicated so as to avoid the possibility of distress. There are whole concepts which some people simply cannot deal with addressing at any time – or at least claim they cannot deal with, the poor, sheltered millennial generation.

But as someone who can get triggered, and as someone whose friends can get triggered, and who has spent a large number of years working with all kinds of people affected by various triggers, I have to say that this is NOT how triggers, and trigger warnings work.

Let’s think of a common trigger that’s not too terrible; let’s try loud, sudden noises. It is fairly common to be triggered by loud, sudden noises. But here I am, saying it again and again:

Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises.

…does this make me some kind of monster? I don’t think so. But if I creep up behind one of my students while they’re getting on with their work and pop balloon behind them… then I am the kind of teacher who doesn’t get invited back for the next term. My point being that triggers can be more about HOW things happen than a blanket avoidance of a given idea.

Point two is that triggers are not all common, neither are they verbal, specific or obvious. It might be a smell. A particular intonation of a particular sentence. A repetition of part of a dream can send you spiraling irrevocably into the pit of panic. No-one’s fault, but unavoidable. It is absolutely impossible to control for the number of things that might trigger someone in any given discussion… which is not an argument against trigger warnings, as you will discover if you can bear with me a little longer.

Point three is that a lot of the things that people get triggered by (and I’m disagreeing with Gaiman here) are because of more overarching issues that are under consideration or mentally present ALL THE TIME. It’s like being a woman walking home alone at night: you may be thinking about the way you’re going, the brilliance of the stars, the fun you just had. But you’re also bearing mind your escape route, whether or not you can run, where the nearest populated area is… you’re conscious of the worst that could happen, because you’re cultured to consider it. People with triggers are cultured to be on the look out for things that might trigger them; wobbling the loose tooth of trauma, reminding ourselves that safety depends on acknowledging the part of ourselves that might, without warning, fall out.

So now we know a little more about triggers, what can we DO about them? I’m glad you asked! We can provide a topical outline of things we’ll be discussing on a given day. We can work out what areas might reasonably be difficult, and take responsibility for discussing them in an empathetic and well-balanced way.

We can be the kind of teachers who, when a student says: “Can I be excused?” will let them go without demanding a public explanation. And when that student comes back and says “I’ve got a problem,” will listen to them and believe them and be generous about making things work. We will know that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, for everybody, and trust out students to responsibly manage the silent days… we will be as kind when we manage the “over-speakers” as when we manage the quiet ones, because not everyone manifests emotions in the same way. We can tell our students publically that they can expect from us not the unquestioning acquiescence that some things are “just too much,” but instead that we will listen, and learn, and work with them to make sure that they can do the same. If we’re dancers in a class where we touch people, we can let people know that opting out, or asking for things to be explained verbally first, is ALWAYS ok.

The content warning is not: “WARNING, WARNING, we will be discussing these DANGEROUS and HORRIBLE ideas, and if you are the intellectually heroic type then RUN WHILE YOU CAN!!!”

It looks like this: “We will be discussing these ideas, in order to explore these topics, and we will be approaching them in these ways.”

And later: “If you have issues concerning the material in the class, or require certain accommodations to maximize your participation, please contact me either in person or by email so that a solution can be found and instigated as soon as possible.”

A trigger warning is not about blanket protection, the eradication of ideas or the inability to cope with danger. It is about offering a reasonable choice as to whether or not the value of the journey can outweigh the physical and mental onslaught of walking a particular intellectual path. It is about offering short cuts, benches, crutches and flying dragons (as steeds or bodyguards) to anyone you ask to walk with you, and being grateful that they chose to come, rather than churlish about how they get there.

Gaiman suggests that we label all fiction of a certain maturity: “Enter at your own risk.” I have to say that it’s never put me off. Every dancer knows that each class carries the risk of injury, but it doesn’t stop us dancing. A trigger warning is not a way of letting people decide to sit out, but a way of letting them come prepared to the table, with all that they can bring.

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An Optional Rotation

Another summer, another round of dance exchanges. Holes worn in all my socks, far too much coffee and trailing dusty footprints behind me home at night. But also another summer of “leads over here, follows over there,” having my arm yanked around and “Wow, you’re great! Have you done this before?!” We all know that’s it’s hard to look young and female on the dance floor.

But this isn’t, actually a post complaining about that, although it is a post about gender in the dance class. This is a practical solution to a problem I’ve heard a couple of instructors talk about: how do we handle role switching in the social dance classroom. Or rather, how can we maintain the optimum balance of friendly and welcoming, opportunity to learn, and amount of material covered when there are two roles in the room?

There are, obviously, multiple schools of thought on the matter. There are those who believe, for whatever reason, that people should pick a role at the beginning of class and stick to it all the way through. Which has the plus side of allowing people to really concentrate on what they’re doing, making sense to new arrivals, and avoiding left/right confusion (which is a real thing that happens even when you switch all the time – it might even happen more, or maybe that’s just me). There are also those out there who, again for whatever reason, ask every couple to switch roles during every rotation, making sure that everyone becomes fluent in the experience and technique of both leading and following, and allowing beginners who would usually wind up leading to relax and follow when they run out of moves – actually, that’s not just beginners either, I absolutely follow when I’ve run out of inspiration.

But what about the experienced dancer who knows that they just don’t feel in the mood for following this class? Or who’s in a class with a snazzy new trick move and wants to learn both sides? What about the lead who wants to try following in the early part of class, but doesn’t feel confident switching as the material gets more complicated? How do we advocate for switching IF PEOPLE WANT IT, while letting people make choices about what they need from their own dance experience? How do we make the most out of classes while letting people try more than one part, whatever their experience level?

Well folks, I have the answer… or an answer… a method of rotation that’s working very well for me in my home scene that I though I would share with you all. It’s very simple. It goes like this: “We will do this thing twice. Put your hand up if this time you want to try it as a lead. Ok. People who want to follow please go and find a new friend to dance with.”

The pros:

  • People can decide whether they want to lead, follow, or switch, and they can change their mind for whenever they want, for however long they want.
  • It becomes as valid to stay in a role as it does to switch, and people learn to make good decisions about what they want from dancing and how they feel about it in the moment.
  • People can dip a toe in a new and scary role without having to commit to a whole class.
  • You get more of what you want out of your dance class, while being exposed to the choice of other things.
  • Classes can go at different paces and people can respond to that as they need to.
  • …. have I convinced you yet?

The cons:

  • People milling about the room in chaos, rather than traveling in neat circles.
  • …. I’m not sure of more.

There is a factor that is neither pro nor con that I’d like to consider: the milling about the room method of finding a new partner means that people may not dance with everyone, and if you have an odd number, there is no guarantee that sitting out time will be evenly shared. Ideally I would LIKE everyone to dance with everyone when they come to class, and I can use words to encourage that: “find a stranger,” “find someone you haven’t danced with yet,” etc. But my class is full of adults and if they want to ignore the hint they will ignore it. Waiting out is something I keep a better track of and I will shift pairs if someone looks like they’re going to miss a consecutive rotation.

As I said, this method is working really well for me in my home scene, and I believe that a number of other instructors have tried it. I’m not particularly interested (in THIS post) in the ethics of switching or not switching, but I would be interested in how it works for you practically. How does it work in partner dance forms that aren’t blues and swing? If you try it out, or if you can think of a strong reason NOT to try it out, either send me a message in the comments or through the Contact page, and let’s keep making social dancing better for everybody.

Shaking the Dancer’s Toolkit

At the Athens is Dancing CORD conference I watched a presentation by Julia Gleich on her Counterpointe project – a series of performance platforms in London and New York for female choreographers making work on pointe. It attracts a delightfully mixed bag: experienced dancers, new choreographers, medium-mixers and bunheads. It also attracts questions: why ARE so few women making work on pointe? What does pointe work mean anyway? And, deliciously, from an attendee who shall remain nameless unless they tell me otherwise: “Why can’t we just scrap the whole “classical” term, just call it ballet and be done with it?” …I had a lot of fun at CORD.

But what DOES pointe work mean anyway? Pain? Sylph-hood? The female, the fragile, the unobtainable? I KNOW that we’ve got past that place… but just in case you haven’t…

There is no good reason for pointe work to hurt if you’re doing it right. With the shoes they make now and the options for padding, combined with a sensible rehearsal schedule your feet should be just fine. If you are dancing all day every day, no matter what kind of dance you’re doing, you’ll acquire foot injuries: blisters, floor burn, ripping off callous… and that’s just for those who dance barefoot! It’s a matter of good technique and sensible protection.

Next.

If you’ve been through a dance degree, and maybe even if you haven’t, you’ve heard about ballet being a thing that women do for the eyes of men. “The Dancer’s Phallic Pointe” is a real article, which probably needed writing, but we have guys on pointe now. We have ballets about more than girl-meets-boy-meets-god/fate/magic/wizard/chickens. We have this, and much more like it.

Ok. Back to the question. What does pointe work mean?

Gleich suggested that we look at the pointe shoe as just a tool – a way of altering the gravitational/frictional relationship of the body to the floor – and this, finally, is where I come to my point(e). The pointe shoe is one fundamental tool of the art form known as dance, just as the caribina is ONE fundamental tool of the art form known as climbing. There are plenty of people who climb without caribinas, and you would look pretty silly if you walked up to a wall with only a caribina as your kit, but if you were putting together a toolbox for the concept of climbing you would expect to see on in there somewhere.

But if the pointe shoe is a tool of dance, specifically associated with ballet, what are the tools specifically associated with postmodern dance? We don’t have fancy shoes or clothes, we don’t have a technique that unites us, or necessarily a technique at all. If you were doing one of those children’s’ puzzles where you match tools to professionals you’d give the doctor a scalpel, the builder a digger, the magician a top hat… and then you’d have to take them back and put all of them, or none of them, on the contemporary dancer.

So my suggestion… the tool of postmodern dance is philosophy. Like the pointe shoe, it is both openly present and subconsciously feeding the art we make. Like the pointe shoe, philosophy changes the relationship of our bodies to the world. Like the pointe shoe, it can blur the edges of what we know to be real.

But also, like the pointe shoe, it can get tired, trite, repetitive. Like the pointe shoe it can lead to doing the same thing over and over, or falling into a habit that becomes a norm that becomes a power structure. Barefoot Martha Graham was rejected as graceless, and now postmodern dance without philosophical content (I put socio-political content under this label as philosophically derived) is citicised as bland and superficial.

Yes, yes, I hear you. All dance has philosophical content because all dance stems from some kind of belief or philosophy about what that dance should look like and how meaning can be represented. You’re very clever. But I’m talking about named philosophers, their tenets passed down from teacher to student until they’re distorted by time and tradition. We don’t remember that pointe work used to be a burlesque act on the seedy stages of Paris because we’ve been told for so long that it’s for white swans and princesses. We don’t remember that contact improvisation grew from the crash and fall of aikido because we’re too busy enjoying the slow smoosh of breathing bodies. And there’s nothing wrong with swans or smoosh. But it confuses the product of the tool with the tool itself, the planks with the saw, the program with the computer.

So we need to be careful. We need to create a counter-point. We need to see where else our tools can take us, otherwise we’ll end up skipping off merrily down a one-way street into the sunset, with Foucault on one foot and Derrida on the other, dragging us down.