January 2020

Switch: Consent and Gender Non-Conformity in Social Partner Dancing

Fusion-as-Activism is political project that centers gender non-conformity and consent by transmuting these political beliefs into aesthetic and actively enforced social values.

by Dr. Fenella Kennedy

“Would you like to dance?”
“Would you like to lead, follow, or switch?”
“Are you comfortable in close embrace?”
“How do you feel about being dipped?”
“Are you comfortable?”
“Can I lift you?”
“How did that feel?”
“I would love to dance with you again.”
“Thank you.”

This imagined exchange is one that might occur over the course of one dance within the Fusion social partner dance community. Fusion is an improvised social partner dance that emerged in the United States during the 1990s and is now practiced around the world—although predominantly in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Fusion draws its step vocabulary from a free blend of other dance forms, rather than codifying steps of its own. While this dance remains largely unstudied in academic circles, it has a growing presence in the United States and Europe.

While many social partner dance styles involve highly disciplinary realms of structured floor patterns, codified steps, and competition-based leveling, fusion invokes radically queer-centered, emergent, improvised dances that inculcate norms of active consent, body-positivity, and gender non-conformity.  In this article, I explore how Fusion offers the opportunity for dancers of all sexualities and genders to disrupt the heteronormativity stereotypically associated with partner dancing and instead engage in a radically queer praxis based around platonic, intimate, consensual collaboration. While fusion already exists conceptually as a philosophy, an aesthetic, and as a creative practice, I make the case for Fusion-as-Activism: a political project that centers gender non-conformity and consent by transmuting these political beliefs into aesthetic and actively enforced social values. Fusion-as-Activism allows queer-normative values and empathy to flourish in a community that is not perceived as overtly queer-led.

Fusion is usually organized around local weekly classes and social dances, and around national and international weekend festivals called “exchanges” where hundreds of dancers come together to take classes and to dance. While no-one has yet made the case for “Fusion-as-Activism,” the evidence for such an inclusion in the discourse surrounding this style is proliferate—the foundations of fusion instruction were centered in activist practice, resulting in a manifestation of political values in classrooms, in organizational policy, and on the dance floor. Conceptualizing Fusion-as-Activism involves a recognition of the active choice to inculcate political values in the practice of a dance community, regardless of who happens to be dancing.

Would You Like To Dance?

Writing collaboratively with international fusion instructor Mark Carpenter in 2019, I described fusion as a “Two-Branch Model:” on one branch are dance techniques, while on the other are techniques of collaboration, co-creation, and communication.[i] This culture of combination makes it difficult to describe the aesthetic of fusion dancing, which tends to shift from year to year and from location to location. Nevertheless, there are three prevalent schools of thought that summarize how dancers and instructors tend to explain fusion:

  • “Fusion-as-Philosophy: Dancing in a way that expresses the music using whatever capacity for dance and movement the dance partnership has at its disposal.” Fusion as philosophy understands fusion as a way of using various creative elements – movement, space, time, energy etc. – to co-compose a dance with your partner.
  • “Fusion-as-Fusion: The deliberate mixing of two or more defined dance styles.” Fusion as fusion focuses on the specific application of pre-existing dance techniques and styles to create an aesthetically and musically satisfying experience between dancers who may not share the same vocabulary.
  • “Fusion-as-Aesthetic: A dance form having its own aesthetic, culture and movements.” Fusion as aesthetic prioritizes emergent, improvised movement found in the shared principles of connection and creation between dancers.[ii]

Adding Fusion-as-activism does not detract from these conceptual models, but instead offers a means of explaining the consent-based and queer-normative culture of fusion as a deliberate political strategy. This culture has not arisen by accident, but is the result of deliberate pedagogical, organizational and aesthetic choices, and thus other dance styles wishing to cultivate queer-normativity in their scenes must also deliberately address the active dissemination of their values.

Because fusion did not emerge—as many social dance forms have—from a national or cultural dance community the pool of foundational fusion instructors is relatively small. Many of these instructors were – and still are – engaged in conscious community building, creating horizontalist, gender positive, and sex positive community spaces concordantly with their travels around the United States and Europe as dance instructors. Historically, a major influence on the history of Fusion-as-Activism is a community organization called Recess Productions, a West Coast-based company led by Justin Riley. Recess creates:

participatory arts and dance events for the purpose of enriching and strengthening our community around our core values: Radical Inclusion, Liberatory Politics, Localism, Empowerment, Building Networks of Community Support, and Expression.[iii]

While Riley’s leadership has recently been called into question,[iv] his influence of the Fusion-as-Activism mindset, and the influence of other activist instructors, is still very much evident in the culture and practice of the fusion community: through role fluidity, consent-based social and physical norms, and a social value system that privileges expression and connection over codified norms of performance.

“Would You Like To Lead, Follow, or Switch?”

Like many other forms of social dancing, fusion divides the role of the dancing couple into “leads” and “follows.” Unlike other social dances, however, fusion has consistently and persistently striven to separate these roles from gender, gender performance, or sexual attraction. There are various methods of incorporating this new social value used in pedagogical practice around the country, these include: insisting on the use of “lead and follow” in classrooms instead of “men and women;” or replacing the terms entirely with neutral language—“trees and squirrels” is common. Teaching couples model role switching or non-normative role selection, while some instructors teach both roles solo. One debate in the community is whether everyone should always learn both roles or whether they should select their desired role (often by use of a hand sign) for each classroom exercise and through every change of partner.

Through these classroom practices, we can understand Fusion-as-Activism as a method of building what Ben Spatz defines as “techniques” —individually researched tools for performing a desired task or “practice.”[v] Unlike the broader version of dance “techniques” as physical requirements, Spatz sees techniques as a way of performing and researching new modes of everyday living, including new explorations of gender. He writes:

The fact that binary gender is very common across cultures need not be taken as an endorsement of its value, because the most obvious technical pathway is not necessarily the only one or the best… technique is structured epistemically—as knowledge—and … it is therefore possible to discover new, unknown pathways, even in areas that are thought to be well explored.[vi]

Classroom practices that separate dance role from gender disrupt pre-existing pathways of gender and sexual performance and create new avenues for relationships based on creativity, curiosity, and desire.

During dance events, this value of role non-conformity is also worked into the logistics of event organization and marketing. For example, the event policy for DJX (short for DJ Experiment), a monthly dance and bi-yearly international fusion event based in Philadelphia, states as part of its attendee safer spaces agreement: “When you ask someone to dance, let them know if you’re wanting to Lead, Follow, or Switch, or ask their preference. If someone asks you to dance and does not ask your preference then present your preferred role before you start dancing.”[vii] While policies from other organizations might be more explicit about why this requirement exists, the DJX policy focuses on behavioral change, not individual values. In this way, the organization subverts the expectation that such a practice is a political value choice and instead inculcates an action-based norm of role fluidity.

In practice, social status and recognition of virtuosity is given to those instructors and dancers who can confidently dance both lead and follow, again conflating a political value with aesthetic skill. The practice of alternating role from song to song is normal, as is sharing one dance within which both dancers trade roles fluidly or attempt to strike a balance of both leading and following simultaneously.

In this instructor demonstration from The Fusion Exchange in San Francisco, 2012, Justin Riley and Ruby Rambeau use a variety of stealing moves to smoothly alternate roles seven times across a minute and a half-long dance.[viii] The role switch usually happens on the transition in from an open position turn—the following partner adjusts the re-connection to take on a leading posture. Beyond the disruption of gender norms implied in a community where switch dancing is normative, the typical introductory statement of “would you like to lead, follow, or switch?” sets the tone for the consent-based improvisation of partnered movement that I argue is another strand of Fusion-as-Activism.

“Are you comfortable in close embrace?”

Because of its history and practice as an omnivorous dance form, one expectation of dancers at a fusion event is that they will engage in improvised movement with partners of radically different experience, skill, cultural knowledge, and embodied technique. This means that it is taken as a given that dancers will not come with the same expectations of how the dance will function: an Argentine Tango-trained social dancer is likely to collect their feet together between every change of weight, while an American Blues social dancer will let the non-stepping leg drag down from a relaxed hip. A Brazilian Zouk social dancer may incorporate leads of head movement that are alien to a dancer used to the head remaining erect on the spine. Shifts of direction may be communicated through the alignment of clavicle to clavicle, or through shifts of the arms or pelvis. One of the skills of a fusion dance partnership—the second branch of the Two Branch Model described above—is a wordless negotiation of these differences so that effective communication can occur between partners. Building this skill set embeds a compassionate and collaborative embrace of difference as central to the ethos of the fusion community.

In his 2013 article for Research in Dance Education, international social dance instructor Joseph DeMers describes one technique developed for facilitating this conversation, which he calls frame matching. Frame matching is a technique for: “creating, maintaining, or changing tension between partners with posture and tone, in order to lead and follow energy and direction. Changes in tension are made to create rhythmic variations in moves and movements, and are communicated through points of contact.”[ix] In the years since this article was published, fusion dancers in particular have shifted the way that frame matching can be used. Lead-initiated frame and tone changes are still common, but in practice there is now a greater demand for articulacy and agency from follows in communicating changes of posture and tone. In the video described above, Riley and Rambeau use changes in posture and tone to switch roles, but it is also entirely possible for a follow to shape the dance conversationally without actively switching to leading. Such subtleties of connection are difficult to communicate but lead to exciting and aesthetically appealing dancing.

In a video shot by David Keogh, dancers Piper Short and Rose Crespo have moments of role clarity but also of ambiguity, as well as times where the follow is in control of how the movement shapes and progresses.[x] The intense attention to visual and kinetic clues from each dancer is palpable in their expressions and especially noticeable in the dynamics of their partnership, which often involve pausing, listening, and sinking in.

Another subset of tone and posture changes, however, is as a taught way to communicate discomfort in, or refusal of, uncomfortable connections and movements. Certain dance styles with a strong influence on fusion practice, particularly Blues dance, employ a torso to torso connection called close embrace—in fact a sub-genre of fusion called “micro fusion” habitually takes place in a whole-body connection of torso, head, and limbs. Together with the separation of dance and role, fusion challenges heteronormative dance values by insisting on active consent from both partners to improvised movement and teaches multiple strategies for what to do if that consent is not present. In addition to a verbal “no,” tactics taught in classes include stepping out of the connection (change in posture) and using tension in the follow’s left arm to prevent proximity (change in tone). Thus the same techniques that add virtuosity to a dance connection are taught at a partnership level as a communication of active consent.

At an organizational level, the majority of events require verbal consent to weight-sharing moves, including lifts and dips, or the moves that Richard Dyer refers to as “relations of dependency… when one dancer is in a position that she or he (but nearly always she) could not maintain without the support of the other.”[xi] Dyer equates these moments to the act of, or desire for, sexual consummation, and as such the stereotype is that they will be performed instinctively, and without words. But there is no space in fusion for this narrative of being “swept up” in the moment, or in the whirl of sexual attraction—no myth that consent to dancing is consent to any kind of increasingly romanticized contact. Fusion requires that escalations of proximity and risk are negotiated verbally in advance, can be denied in the moment, and should be affirmed afterwards to ensure the comfort of both parties. Lessons and community policies reinforce that consent on the dance floor should never be understood to mean consent to physical touch or romantic/sexual interest once the dance is complete. In this way fusion ideally replaces male dominance and the urgency of desire as a sexual analogy within dancing, with a consensually negotiated, decidedly non-heteronormative experience of collaboration between equals of any gender.

There is much more to be said about Fusion-as-Activism’s pedagogical, aesthetic, and community-building practices, but I hope that this article serves as groundwork for further exploration of how fusion achieves these aims—and perhaps more interestingly, how it remains susceptible to systemic patriarchal biases. Grassroots organizers can draw on the tools described here as ways of challenging heteronormative practices in their own communities and dancers and dance analysts can perhaps use some of these frameworks as a map for shifting the performance and reading of partner dance away from analogies of heterosexual desire.  

Dr. Fenella Kennedy is an Assistant Professor of Dance in the department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Alabama. Their research draws from discourse analysis and critical theory to investigate dance’s articulation of social and political values. Kennedy’s work has been published in Dance Chronicle, and heard at conferences across the United States; they also travel around the country teaching workshops in social partner dance. Kennedy’s choreography has been commissioned for MINT Gallery’s queer performance series, for the Ohio State University School Touring Company, the Alabama Dance Repertory Theatre and for the Attic Queer Performance Series in Helsinki, Finland. In their spare time they run the popular dance blog The Headtail Connection.

Further Reading

[i] Mark Carpenter and Kennedy, Fenella, “Fusion: The Two-Branch Model” The Headtail Connection, June 15, 2019, https://headtailconnection.wordpress.com/2019/06/15/fusion-the-two-branch-model/.

[ii] Aimee Eddins, “Fusion Dance: What is it? Why do we Dance it?” The Dancing Root, Oct. 17, 2017, http://thedancingroot.com/what-is-fusion-dance/.

[iii] Recess Productions, “What is a Recess?” Accessed Dec. 26, 2019, http://www.recess.dance/missionvalues.html.

[iv] In 2017 all the women and non-binary organizers quit Recess Productions, announcing publically that: “Each event is built on the backs of a team where burnout, peer pressure, and unethical labor practices are the norm. Recess also falls painfully short of committing to and realizing the progressive, safer space that it has made its brand.” Documentation of this conflict and the ensuing accountability process can be found at https://erinadamsblog.weebly.com/documents.html.

[v] Spatz, Ben, What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research. Oxon: Routledge, 2015.

[vi] Spatz, Ben, p. 186.

[vii] Benjamin Chou, Emiliano Estevez, and Erin Henegan, “Safer Space Policy,” DJExperiment, October 2019, https://www.djexperiment.org/safer-space-policy.

[viii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3EXV-56lww&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0BnkITcBz7zelgBd9GhDLSSXoyIBnMhLR46IH5QACDMD6QTncQ6QU2h-4.

[ix] Joseph Daniel DeMers, “Frame Matching and ΔpTed: A Framework for Teaching Swing and Blues Dance Partner Connection,” Research in Dance Education 14, no. 1 (2012): 71-80.

[x] Keogh, David. “Rescue Me: Xam Volo.” Vimeo. 2019. https://vimeo.com/343063808/0c3e2ecbe7?fbclid=IwAR3AMd54_b9FNlTpTCoAmX20rvEi9q3OPVRAzPBijqhLv9IGtB9C11nX-3w.

[xi] Richard Dyer, “I Seem to Find the Happiness I Seek: Heterosexality and Dance in the Musical,” in Dance, Gender and Culture ed. Helen Thomas (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 49-65.

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