Monday, May 14, 2007

K'zoo report #1: Love the dance, hate the dance

Bullock thinks it's really weird that we have a dance at the International Medieval Congress. (For those of you who don't know this, it's true, we have a dance. Really.) Frankly, I think it's a little weird, too, but it's also fun. I didn't dance much this year -- mainly because I didn't really want to get all sweaty in my good clothes -- but I had great fun chatting with people and doing people watching. And it's always fun to see some of the, uh, creative styles of dancing some people have. And seeing scholars you respect and even fear do the white-man's overbite helps to humanize them.


There's the ever-present problem of inappropriateness and trying to figure out where the boundaries lies. Last year one of my friends was absolutely horrified by the number of very old men who wanted to dance with her. And I've spent more than one year trying to stay out of sight of certain senior medievalists with other than professional interest in me. There's one in particular who has been hitting on me routinely every year we're both there. One good thing, at least, is that if I use the phrase "my boyfriend," he backs off. So as uneasy as he makes me, at least I know he has some boundaries he won't cross, which makes it easy to get him to back off. He's a good guy at heart and I think his interest in me is actually sincere, if misguided; in other words, he's not going to turn into an ass-grabber.

But the dance makes boundaries a little blurry. I have no doubt that the medievalist above would ask me to dance if he saw me there. Certainly dancing can be a completely platonic activity, especially the way most of use who've grown up dancing to rock do it. There's little touching involved in dancing to rock and pop. But the person discussed above might be asking me to dance for other than platonic reasons. So when he comes to the dance, I avoid him.

He wasn't there this year, so that wasn't a problem. But his case makes me wonder about others. For instance, this year a senior scholar I don't know very well asked me to do the "Time Warp" with him (no, that's not a euphemism -- I mean the song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show). I believe he really was just inviting me to join the fun, and wasn't doing anything untoward, but I said no for all sorts of reasons, one of which was simply because I had my purse with me and I was far away from my table where I might have been able to leave it. But another reason was comfort level. I don't know this scholar well, having only been introduced to him that day, and so my inability to read the situation -- and my knowledge that some requests are less innocent than others -- made me err on the side of caution. But then I worried I shouldn't have turned his request down, that dancing at K'zoo is a form of being collegial.

So, I told this all to Bullock and he said, "That's exactly why there shouldn't be a dance at a conference." Or maybe those of us who like our professional/personal lines to stay intact shouldn't go. But then I do enjoy dancing with my friends with whom I have clear relationships. And I think many of the graduate students really get a kick seeing their profs let their hair down. But then the creeps who horrified my friend last year certainly shouldn't be the ones to ruin it for the rest of us, shouldn't make us (women, that is) feel like we can't go or have to watch how we dress or have to hide from them or whatever. But it's not really the creeps that unnerve me so much as those not-quite-inappropriate-but-not-exactly-professional cases such as what I described above. (I should note, too, that in the case of Mr. Flirty above, not only do I think his interest was sincere, but he also never flirted with me until I was tenure-track professor.) It's always awkward when someone likes you and you don't return the interest, but it's especially awkward when you have a professional relationship. And when there's a status difference, there's obviously still a power difference. And I doubt very much that the male grad students and assistant professors feel quite as conflicted about all of this as I do.

And the dance is not just an opportunity for leering old men to see pretty young things shake their booties (although it certainly can foster that). It really is part of what makes K'zoo a more relaxed atmosphere. It also allows for much easier mingling than a banquet would, and on some level breaks down categories of position, status, and power. Seriously, how can you be intimidated any more by someone you've seen act like a fool on the dance floor? It's awesome!

But then, if I'm still wondering about whether I should have danced the Time Warp with that senior scholar, then there's a problem. Of course, it's a problem that's bigger than the dance itself. It's a problem of gender inequity and sexism that isn't going to go away by getting rid of the dance or by me absenting myself from it. Sigh.

[Btw, future K'zoo posts -- including the one about the Blogger Breakfast -- will be much more cheery and positive, I swear!]


heu mihi said...

I feel your conflict. A friend and I spent the better part of the dance a few years ago dodging this really weird junior faculty member who was hitting on us both pretty heavily; when we tried to make it clear that we weren't interested, he would tell us that we were just misreading his culture and that we should basically get over it. (Believe me, "cultural difference" was not to blame!) However, I think that that particular weirdness would have existed even without the dance. In my experience and opinion, the positive aspects of the dance that you mention ultimately outweigh the negatives--although I agree that they do exist, and that there is the potential for some real Inappropriateness. But the dance is, after all, optional, and there's always the time-honored defense of surrounding oneself with one's female posse. (I don't like the idea of women absenting themselves in order to avoid being hit on--it seems like punishing the aggressed-upon--but cancelling the dance altogether only seems worse.... Okay, this post is getting long, and I could keep arguing in circles, so I'll conclude by saying:)

In the end, I really like to dance, and I have almost 0 opportunities to do so in the regular course of the year. So perhaps I'm just justifying what I find to be a truly pleasurable (and frankly hilarious) end-of-conference/year treat.

Dr. Virago said...

I don't like the idea of women absenting themselves in order to avoid being hit on--it seems like punishing the aggressed-upon

I don't think I said it expressly in my post, but I feel exactly the same way. And I think, in the end, I like the dance more than I hate its awkwardnesss and opportunity for inappropriateness. And yes, it *is* hilarious.

medieval woman said...

I, too, agree with your reflections about the often fraught and usually fun dynamics at the dance. I think that the K'zoo dance, kinda like alcohol, emphasizes one's personality. I.e., the potentially slimy and smarmy are able to be overtly slimy and smarmy - and by extension, I've seen this happen to a few women as well (but this was several years ago). I haven't gone to the dance in years and I wish I had this year - K'zoo changes as we move forward in our careers and I think the dance and all it's social, professional, and entertaining implications must also change, eh? Kind of like you noticing that Mr. Flirty became interested once you became an asst. prof.

Just a question, is the Time Warp a group dance? I can hear the song in my head, but can't picture it...

Anonymous said...

You know, I think I kind of agree with Bullock, that there shouldn't be a dance. But then, I just don't go, because I'm an old fart, and I don't drink and only dance with my old friends from college that I used to get drunk with. I like talking to people and the dance is too loud for that, and I'm a social misfit generally, so me and the dance don't mix.

That said, I agree completely that women shouldn't have to avoid the dance to avoid getting hit on!

But I was saying this to some other medievalists: I think I must attend some entirely different conference, because I've NEVER been hit on at Kzoo. Of course, it may make a difference that I go to lots of sessions populated primarily by women...

(BTW, I e-mailed you!)

AvenSarah said...

I'm sure the dynamics are different for women, but I have a feeling that the problem also exists, in a different way, for (at least the more aware) male attendees of the dance -- how to be sociable without coming across as inappropriate, or smarmy, or pressuring. I've never been to K'zoo, but my husband goes every year, and while he does enjoy the dance, he generally only dances with people he already knows well; it avoids all of those issues, but it means it's not a great place to make new friends.

Dr. Virago said...

MW -- The Time Warp is a group dance, but in a way that the electric slide and line dancing are group dances -- everyone doing the same thing, but no one touching. That said, there is a "pelvic thrust" involved, but you're standing next to people and not doing it at them. So I'm still 99.9% certain that senior scholar's request was purely in fun and friendship, but my first reaction was caution becuase of the Mr. Flirties of the world. Sad.

And Aven -- yes, the lecherous ones ruin it for the nice guys. But tell your husband that I enjoy talking to new people of both sexes at the dance, and then if a group of people go out to dance ("Hey, let's all dance to this!" is a good move to make) there's no ickiness.

But as New Kid says, it's hard to talk -- my voice is still scratchy from the effort. But I was a club kid, so I don't mind it too much.

And New Kid, careful what you complain about or it might just happen next time! :) Generally it only happens to me at the wine hours and the dance, though this year a certain VERY senior medievalist who flirts with me every year at a certain regional conference (where, btw, I'm convinced he doesn't remember having flirted with me before) made a bee-line to sit next to me at a panel. Not exactly flirting, but given his track record, my first thought was "Oh no, I thought I was safe from him here!"

Anonymous said...

I haven't been hit on (ok, that I've noticed..I'm pretty punchy by that time) since the dance changed venues. Since the bar changed from open to cash at that time I think much of the inappropriate choices some attendees have been known to make have reduced in number by a great deal (I've been attending since 1990, I've, too much).

I usually end up with a fuller dance card than I planned because I usually do a few wanders around the floor perimeter just keeping an eye on things (you know, potential safety issues...not whether people are injuring themselves doing the 'Elaine Benes'. I can't do anything about that disaster-in-waiting) and I'm, quite literally, grabbed. This year included a wonderful woman from U. Nottingham, the director of Leeds, and a host of regulars that swear every year I need to save them a dance. :P It's terribly silly. But even back in the day I never felt threatened...perhaps being fat and somewhat intimidating helps.

squadratomagico said...

Although I have been to K'zoo a few times, I never became a regular at the conference and I've never been to the dance at all. It takes me three planes and a bus ride to get to Kalamazoo, which is both the reason I seldom attend and the reason I don't do the dance: I have to get up at 5am on Sunday for the trip home.

So I was really interested to read this post, because I always felt like such a marshmallow for not going to the dance. Thanks for the anthropological observations on the social dynamics there.