The New Sex Ed: Learning to Set Healthy Sexual Boundaries Through Partner Dancing

“Can I use the word “sex” when I’m teaching these high school students,” I thought the day of the event, “or will the teachers kill me!”

Last night, I stood in a high school cafeteria teaching 80 teenagers.

Laughter, movement, and energy filled the room as the assistant teachers and I moved around the crowd assisting students with their frame (partner dancing position), footwork, timing, and technique.

It was awesome and brought me so much joy.

But, it wasn’t until the drive home when one of the assistant dancers said, “I am so happy you talked about how to dance close with someone and how not to.  All of their attention was on you.  All eyes on you when you demonstrated that.”

Earlier yesterday, I thought about touching on “healthy boundaries.”  Can I say the word “sex” in the workshop?  Will the teachers kill me?  I took a moment and asked God to work through me to offer what was of the most value for this event.  It was a big event and I wanted to offer the best.

These are high school kids, and, needless to say, we’ve all been in high school.

Sarah Haykel Latin Dance High School Kids Healthy Sexual Boundaries

And, I have to say, as a grown ass woman, I’ve realized I’m still learning how to define and set healthy   boundaries person to person, experience to experience.  I may not want to hug one person in one moment and the next person I do want to hug.  How do I know that and why?  And how can I say no when I mean no and yes when I mean yes and then let my actions speak for themselves, moment to moment?

How can I respect other people’s boundaries too?

I used to be one of those people that would go in for the hug regardless of what other people wanted or how they felt.  It occurred to me, though, that some people moved away from me when I went in for the hug or seemed uncomfortable with it.  Never in my life had I thought, what do they want?  I was just doing what I though was “nice.”

Then, I adjusted my stance on that and got sensitive to what it felt like the other person wanted or needed in the moment.  If I wanted to hug them, but I got a clear feeling inside myself that they were not open to or wanting me to hug them I wouldn’t hug them and, instead, just say hello or offer a hand for another type of greeting.  I also learned how to ask people for permission, “Can I hug you?”  This is life changing: giving someone the option to say yes or no.

And, I realize that I was raised in a family, on one side, where, whether I wanted to or not, it was expected of me to hug and kiss all of my relatives at a family gathering or else risk offending them and my parents.  It was a sign of respect.  And I can see how this did not allow me to create my own personal boundaries around what I wanted to and didn’t want to do as a child.  So, as an adult, I was still treating everyone like my relatives and offering them hugs to “be nice” even if they didn’t want them or I didn’t want to give them.

This same kind of scenario can happen on the social dance floor.

Some dancers want to pull you in really close right away.  Sometimes if feels good, sometimes it doesn’t.  How do I know that and how can I communicate that in the moment when it can happen so fast?

Sarah Haykel Salsa Dancing High School Students Healthy Sexual Boundaries

As I stood there in this circle of high school students last night, I found an opening to talk about this topic.  We were teaching them the Bachata dance, a sexy, fun, sensual, and romantic dance and style of music from The Dominican Republic.  It seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk about healthy boundaries, but I would have never guessed the words that were about to come out of my mouth next.  I actually stopped myself before free flowing into it.  Then, I took a breath, prepared, and said,

“OK, I’m just going to say this: Let’s talk about healthy sexual boundaries.”

The students all looking at me, no teachers gawked, so I pulled my dance partner towards me and we began by talking about the partner dancing frame.  We demonstrated the closed position in partner dancing where there is ample space between you and your partner.  Then, I talked about how you can dance closer with someone.

All eyes on us.  My dance partner pulled me in closer and we were chest to chest, knees in between knees.  But, with our pelvises still a healthy distance apart, I touched on the fact that we were not “grinding up on each other.”

“Our hips are tilted back and slightly up so that we can keep a respectful amount of space between us.  This is respectful dancing.”

My dance partner talked about our frames and how the woman, or follower, gets to dictate if she doesn’t want the leader to pull her in so close.  “Keep a stronger frame and as a leader it is my responsibility to feel that and respect what the follower wants.”  Like one of the other assistants said to me earlier that night, “I let the girl tell me how close she wants to get.  I can feel if she is not comfortable getting closer by how tense she gets when I attempt to bring her in close.  So when I feel that, I just listen and let her decide.”

I liked this perspective.

I’ve danced with people I instantly felt comfortable being close with and I’ve danced with people that I instantly did not feel comfortable dancing close with.  It is a personal prerogative.  And, I’ve tried various approaches to setting healthy boundaries on and off the dance floor, some more elegant than others!  Still, I know how good it feels to set a boundary and have that be respected and how scary it can feel to say no and set that healthy boundary (Will I offend someone?  Will they not like me anymore?  You can see how this goes back to  my family of origin rituals of having to hug and kiss everyone when I entered a room of my relatives and before I left.  It was a sign of respect whether I wanted to do it or not.)

The basic gist?  How rewarding was it to speak to all of these high school students, who may have never heard anything before about “healthy sexual boundaries,” to have them listen intently and be engaged, and then to respond by trying it out with their dance partners?

It was awesomely rewarding.  I’ll do it again in a heart beat.

Sarah Haykel Salsa Dancing High School Students Healthy Sexual Boundaries

I think that Latin partner dancing is the perfect avenue to teach healthy and respectful boundaries between youth who are getting ready to go out into the world on their own!  What a better way than through an fun activity that is culturally enriching and engaging, challenging, and where they get to touch each other in a respectful way, be close, and experiment with healthy boundaries right there in a safe environment.


Next time, though, I need to demonstrate what it can look like to say no and have them practice both their yes’s and their no’s.

What do you think?

How do you set healthy boundaries on the dance floor in your own life?

Comment below, let’s get this conversation started!

p.s.  Check out our free 5-Day Mindfulness Challenge here.  It’s five simple mindfulness tools that will help you learn how to discern what you’re feeling and be able to make clearer, healthier choices!  CLICK HERE to get this freebie right now!  

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  1. Cindy Pierce

    This is wonderful, Sarah!! Keep doing this work. They are craving that challenging conversation about healthy sexual boundaries. Kids want to know what adults think even though they seem resistant. If we don’t step into that conversation, the cultural messaging wins. I talk to kids about learning how to dance rather than grinding their way around dance floors from middle school through college. They are just going with it because that is what everyone is doing and they want to stay relevant. Grind dancing looks a lot like porn simulation. It usually involves girls bending over and fellas mounting up and grinding on their backside. When adults object, they get defiant about how they “can do what they want with their bodies” and that making that choice is “empowering.” When many girls seem disengaged, either chatting with friends in a circle or texting while some guy is grinding on her backside, it strikes me how so many of these kids will not learn how to dance for a decade because they are so busy defending their right to grind and clinging to what has been normalized. They laugh hard when I walk them through what it looks like and the possibility of being stuck with grinding as your only dance move as an adult.

    In my talks to high school and college students about healthy sexual and social choices, I encourage them to learn to dance – face to face- sooner rather than later. I have heard that some schools bring in a partner dance instructor like you or someone who teaches swing or square dancing to provide structure and practice for students to physically connect without sexual intention, look each other in the eye, and tune into nonverbal cues. These messages convert because they are offered an exit ramp off the mount up grind dance path. Kids always seem to enjoy these opportunities once they are in them and are secretly grateful to be required to participate. Thank you for your great work. I hope more schools bring you in.

    • Sarah Haykel

      This is great Cindy! I LOVE all of the deeper awareness here with kids and teens: empowering to do what they want with their body’s, texting or talking with friends while someone is dancing with them from behind, getting kids to face to face dance, EYE CONTACT, this is a BIG ONE, even for us adults, and picking up on non-verbal cues. Fabulous!

      Thank you again for your well put comment and for ALL the work you are doing TOO to support our youth in these conversations!!!

  2. Lesa

    I met my boyfriend at a dance class. He’s an engineer and not all that comfortable around women in normal life. Dancing let him skip his awkward stage so more women gave him a chance. From my perspective, dancing was a great way to meet guys because it gives you a chance to experience how an individual guy treats the women in his life without even having to give him your phone number!. If he actually pays attention to your body cues as a follow (some guys didn’t AT ALL), if he listens to your verbal feedback (one guy got angry when I told him he was hurting my arm), and, of course, if he dances you into things (I walked off the dance floor when one guy danced me into the 3rd woman and her spike heel caught my instep). The guys I enjoyed dancing with turned into guys I thought about dating… guys that i didn’t enjoy dancing with didn’t even get a second dance. So, yeah, I’d say that there’s a lot that young people can learn from dancing. And actually, back in the days before sex ed was actually a thing, dancing was taught to all young people, I think as a metaphor for how to treat each other in intimate relationships.

    • Sarah Haykel

      Lesa, this is Great! Thanks so much for this feedback and comment. What a great way to judge whether someone is right for you: how they treat you on the dance floor is a good indication of how they may treat you in a relationship, is what I’m getting from your experience and experiment, maybe?!

      Sounds great. And, I love the part about teaching social dancing in school. It is a healthy way to teach us how to be in healthy relationships with others.

      Thanks again for commenting and sharing your experience!



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