Someone could make the case that I came into the world dancing — my tiny newborn fingers clutched into fists and arms bent at the elbows, quickly shaking from side to side into a shimmy of sorts. At least that is what my father keeps telling me. And I can tell you for a fact that there are very few days since my birth where dancing has not occurred.
I suppose that is what is what happens when you are born into the Efik ethnic group, a people whose melodies and movements mimic the rhythms and waves of the Gulf of Guinea. I guess it explains the confidence I have when I naturally respond to music whenever it is within ear’s reach, knowing full well what my body is doing and being completely in control of how it is done. When I am dancing alone, I am autonomy in motion.
But then came emerging adulthood.
I started my new chapter as a university student and finally turned 18, the magical age that permitted me to go to most clubs in America. And as irony would have it, I avoided clubs like the plague. I did, however, go to a couple of my university’s dances, attending them with the assumption that acting a fool and moving the music wouldn’t include a man attaching his pelvis to me without my permission.
I was right.
A couple years ago, I also attended a dance at a national science conference for undergraduate research students with a final dance to celebrate all of the wonderful scholarly work that was presented by us students. I came to this celebration with the same assumption I had at my school dances since we were a bunch of classy, scholarly folks.
I was wrong. Twice. And twice, I was beyond furious.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that my body being present on the dance floor was an invitation for men to do whatever they wanted with me. I did not know that merely walking from one side of the dance floor to the other was “asking for it.” I did not know that it was acceptable that in my struggle to get away from the first guy and telling him to stop, having him grind on me without my permission was supposed to be something I enjoyed as the words “you know you liked it” left his lips. The truth is I didn’t like it. I hated it, actually. And though I was fortunate to have gotten out of the clutches of the second guy who violated my personal space, I was just as angry. The behaviors of those men did not flatter me or make me feel desirable. Instead, I felt like a slab of meat, their plaything with which they could do whatever they liked. They didn’t ask for my name. They didn’t ask if I would like to dance with them. They didn’t acknowledge that I was a human being. Instead, they demonstrated rape culture, behaviors and practices that normalize the stripping away of women’s agencies at the expense of whatever a man wants to do with the woman much like rape does — much like when I’m walking out and about and men call me endearing names but call me more derogatory names when I ignore their harassment. Much like how I have been slut-shamed for some of the clothing I’ve worn while others who know me well praise how well put together my outfit looks, leaving me a bit confused as to what modesty really is.
The rape culture conversation has been very present in talks of modesty, slut-shaming, and street harassment. But I have never encountered a conversation about the normalization of it on the dance floor where so many men grab women and grind on them with the assumption that this is want they want. My main motive was to dance in the company of my girlfriends at the conference. Dancing with friends is usually my main motive whenever I’m on the dance floor anywhere. I cannot be the only woman in those spaces that wants to dance with little body contact. I cannot be the only woman that would like to be asked if I want to dance before a man even touches me. I cannot be the only woman would rather dance with a man who makes sure my comfort comes first unlike those two men I encountered. And I wish the third man who actually did all of these things was the rule, not the exception.