[Callers] Gender free dances

Alan Winston - SSRL Central Computing winston at slac.stanford.edu
Thu Dec 2 23:17:07 PST 2010

Martha wrote:

> If we callers can get used to "right line" and "left line" being backwards
> from the way we view it, that might work. I rather like the idea of
> architectural details being an indicator (in our hall it would be "street
> side" and "naked lady side", named for the lovely head/bust statues which
> adorn the fireplace on the other side of the hall).

I've been calling gender-free English sporadically for about 10 years, most
recently in Jamaica Plain this September.  Doing this teaches you to think
about the dances globally.  There's all kinds of not-that-old dance
instructions which say "first man turns second woman", which, first, implies
active man and passive woman when we don't want to dance that way, and second,
has a lot of syllables.  "First corners turn right hand", and you've directed 
both to actively do something.

In English, there are a lot of dances where both members of a couple are doing
the same thing, and you can nicely get through all the instructions with "1s",
"2s", "1st corners", "2nd corners".  For gender-free, I usually try to program
mostly dances where I can do that.

But there are some lovely dances where you can't do that, and nobody seems to
have much trouble with identifying lines by landmarks.  In Jamaica Plain, it's
the clock and the window. 

So life is good on the gender-free English side.  Nobody needs to wear a
marker, you belong to the couple you're lined up in, you're on the side you
stood on this time - and the roles are very similar, and nobody feels the need
to swap during the dance, but if they did, it wouldn't be very confusing
because there's no expectation of a particular gender in a particular side. 
(And, indeed, even gendered English skews so much more female that people
largely get over expecting plumbing that matches the role.)

I think things are different in modern contra choreography.  Because so many of
the dances are improper and the roles are typically different (although men can
get chained), it's often helpful to have some kind of signifier.

Line up for an improper contra.  The 'nominal men' are in second corner places,
the 'nominal women' are in first corner places.  "Clocks" would be first woman
and second man, which is not so useful - typically if they're going to do
something, the windows are going to do it too, in modern contra dancing, so you
might as well say "neighbors balance and swing" and get on with it.

Heather and Rose english/scottish style would have you say "right file" for
*that* line and "left file" for *that* line, which sometimes degenerates to 
"righties" and "lefties".  Too many syllables, requires knowing right from
left, requires remembering which line you were in when the dance started, etc.

So I don't think that the geographical suggestion is any help for contra, and I
don't think that the suggestion that people should just deal with whoever they
come across and not fuss about what sex they're supposed to be (which I
heartily endorse!) is actually any help with solving the problem that "bands"
and "bares" solves.  The idea is to have a clear way to assign a role, which
role doesn't have a sex-linked component, so people know where they should be
standing in an improper contra, and so they know who the caller is talking to.
This also gives the caller _some_ chance of being able to see if the right
people are in the right places, which you don't get without external markers.

If you want to dance the band role one dance and the bare arm the next, you
take off the armband.  If you want to switch roles with your partner in the
middle of the dance, you can trade the band.

So *for gender-free contra dance*, bands and bares - put on by the dancer
themself, by conscious decision, for each dance - make lots of sense, don't
enforce gender roles like a tie or a fedora or a head-scarf, don't push the
agenda down the throat as much as arbitrary designations ("hippos and
butterflies"), and are overall a Good Thing that Really Works.  Honest.  I've
seen it.

While I'm pontificating:

While I support the right of people to change roles in the middle of the dance
at gendered contra if they want to, and think everybody ought to just swing
whoever they get (if you're dancing a woman's role at the moment you ought to
take the woman's position in the swing), I also think people who insist on
doing that when it freaks out their neighbors are valuing their own fun more
highly than the comfort of other people there and are behaving in an
anti-communitarian way - which is their perfect right, but it's not an
unalloyed good.

And some of the people who are freaked out are freaked out because if somebody
they're not expecting comes at them they think somebody (maybe them) are in the
wrong place and their anxiety level goes up.  Not homophobia - just hanging
onto the dance by their fingernails.  That's a good thing to be aware of when
you're swapping sides in gendered contra land.

-- Alan

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