Medievalist, storymaker, theatre director, folk dance teacher, BBC / AHRC New Generation Thinker

Good Dancing and Writing: Making Conference Dances Safe and Inclusive

Death being the most harrassy dance partner. Pierpont Morgan Library, Book of Hours (MS Imago Mortis).

He koude songes make, and wel endite,

Juste, and eek daunce, and weel purtreye and write.

Description of the Squire in Geoffrey Chaucer’s General Prologue, ll. 95-6.

Last month a colleague wrote to the Gender and Medieval Studies steering committee asking for guidance for conferences to appropriately handle instances of sexual harassment occurring at conference dances.  This taps into of a discussion the folk dance community has been having for a few years now, so I wanted to share this experience and spread advice for any organisers considering having a dance at an academic conference.

I am a big fan of conference dances.  After a day of exciting discussions, new ideas and complex papers the idea of letting your hair down, throwing ridiculous shapes on the dance floor to hits whose lyrics would not pass scrutiny in any of our classrooms and to just be a little bit silly – is brilliant.  I’ve even made contacts on the academic dance floor who have turned into project collaborators and friends.  Being able, like Chaucer’s Squire, to ‘daunce’ as well as ‘write’ has its benefits.  However, I’m increasingly realising that my initial, idealistic view of the conference dance – as an ultimate equaliser in which postgraduates and professors can dance very ineptly together – is nonsense.

The same power structures operating in all other aspects of academic life are still present on the dance floor.

This can make it very difficult for anyone experiencing harassy behaviours at a conference disco to know how to deal with it.  It’s often harder to deal with than the sort of dance harassment, groping and physical intimidation all young women are taught is ‘normal’ to experience when out clubbing.  It’s much harder to say ‘no’ to a dance partner, call a bouncer to help eject someone, or use defensive dance moves which overtly tell someone to get out of your personal space when that person may well be a valuable mentor, a future colleague, or assessing your job application in a few months’ time.

It’s also important to recognise that the conference dance is a highly exclusive space.

A disco carries with it decades of baggage about gendered behaviour and dance roles; not to mention being a physically challenging space to occupy if you have disabilities, fatigue or suffer sensory overload.

I’ve been involved in organising dance events in the folk dance community for a few years now, and recently there’s been a lot of helpful literature produced about

a) Stopping and responding to harassment on the dance floor


b) Making dance events more inclusive.


I therefore thought I’d write these into a post for anyone organising a conference dance about how to make their dance floors safer, more inclusive spaces.  Some of the following is drawn from these websites, which have really helpful resources:

Also check out the Medievalists with Disabilities network’s free online guide to making conferences more accessible:  

Procedures to combat and deal with harrassment on the dance floor

1. Having clear guidelines about what constitutes good behaviour on the dance floor. Make sure these are included a) in the conference programme, ideally next to the dance listing; b) visible on the walls of the dance venue; c) prominently on the conference website and d) in conference packs.

Examples from other dance disciplines:

Laura Riva’s excellent, easy-to-understand breakdown:

Guidelines for contact improv dances, which rely on trust between dance partners:’s%20Wed%20Dance%20Jam%20Safe%20Boundaries.pdf


2. Have clear guidelines about procedures for dealing with harassment.

These should include:

  • A reiteration about what is acceptable dance behaviour, highlighting that harassment constitutes any behaviour you are not comfortable with and did not consent to. The  is a nice easy way to break this down.
  • A clearly identified and easy to find person or group to report to.
  • A description of how to report any incidents.
  • Reassurance that any reports will be taken seriously and dealt with anonymously.

Ideally these will easily fit on a piece of A4 that can be stuck to the walls of the venue.  Make sure they are included a) in the conference programme; b) visible on the walls of the dance venue; c) prominently on the conference website.  Also, tell people when they come into the venue what the policy is and ask the DJ to make an announcement during the night.


3. Make sure reporting problems is easy to do.

  • Make sure the appropriate staff are clearly visible. The most immediately visible people are usually those on the front door, the DJ, and the bar staff.  If it’s not any of them, how will those people be able to quickly contact the person you need to report it to?  How do you make that person visible?  Make sure all staff and volunteers in the building are trained and can signpost people to the correct staff member.
  • Make sure there are multiple ways of reporting harassment. There are lots of ideas of how to do this here,  including a reporting box.  Using the conference twitter private messaging service could also work.  Oxford Folk Weekend use a sign to help people discreetly report problems.


4. Respond quickly. If someone reports something, trust them, and follow it up immediately.


Tools to make conference dances more accessible

1. Have clear information about what to expect in terms of access, floor, lighting and noise. A note of where the toilets and nearest quiet spaces are can make a real difference.

Here’s an example from Coventry Zesty Playford:

Here’s a checklist to help assess a venue’s accessibility:

2.  Supply earplugs on the door. They don’t cost very much, and can mean someone who would otherwise not be able to stay in that space can last the evening.  It’s also worth checking the sound levels: a lot of discos in student unions will automatically go for the higher sound levels, but is this really necessary for a conference dance?

3.  If you have a ceilidh or any kind of taught dance, consider going gender free. There’s so much written work at the moment outlining why this is a good idea and I can provide a full bibliography if requested, but here’s are some links:

A good ceilidh caller would be able to discuss options for this.


Anything else?

 If there’s anything you think I have missed here, or you know of any other dance resources, please send me an email and I’ll try to include them.

Happy dancing!