[Callers] Alternate Role Terms

Louise Siddons louise at eden2.com
Wed Jan 2 10:07:45 PST 2013

I agree with Maia that there's a difference in "feel" between dancing the lead role and the follow role; that's why women (in my experience) ask each other if they have a preference when they dance together. Also the two roles do different things in certain figures: any dance form that has a fundamental figure called a "courtesy turn" is lead-follow imbalanced: a courtesy turn is by definition a led figure. 

And when you pile up a bunch of figures that involve a certain amount of leading that tends to fall to one role more than the other, then you have a dance where there's a lead role and a following role. (I would include promenades and butterfly whirls in this category of led figures.) Yes, there are dances where the "unexpected" dancer leads these figures, but the very fact that it is unexpected (and that a gents' chain, for example, prompts murmuring and often a "hoho, you didn't expect that, did you?" tone from the caller) supports my point.

My phenomenological experience is that dancers of both genders perceive themselves to be leading when in the role I am arguing is a lead role -- even going so far as to yank their partner into figures (there's a good way and a bad way to lead a dancer into a left-hand star). Maia is right that being in the lead role changes people's dance "attitude" (not always for the worse, of course; but dancing is performance and people tend to embrace that). 

The already-present lead-follow format has encouraged dancers coming from other forms to exploit the existing relationship to add in flourishes that then increase the feeling of lead/follow. Partly because of the structure of the contra dance figures, there are moments (coming out of a swing, for example) where dancers with a little bit of couple-dancing knowledge will find it a lot more natural to flourish by twirling the equivalent of the ballroom follow, rather than the lead. This connects to gender because, as several others have pointed out, the vast majority of the world genders leading and following along male/female lines.

I suspect that the best way to challenge people's gender-based assumptions is to teach them new behaviors rather than -- or along with -- new words. But what, exactly, is the goal of gender free dancing? Do we want both genders to feel comfortable in both roles because those roles are fundamentally different? Because in that case, we're stuck with a binary that is going to cling, epistemologically, to the history of the gender binary (because I hate to say it but many people seem to quite like that gender binary and the behavioral stereotypes that it entails -- especially the young dancers that we often say we would like to attract, and the older dancers who are the core of many communities). 

But if the goal is to encourage people -- and contra dance forms -- to redistribute the lead-follow load so that it is more even, then we should be encouraging choreography that disrupts the mostly-led-by-one-half-of-the-room style that currently exists, and leading flourish workshops that, instead of saying "boys can dance with boys and the boy playing the boy part can twirl the boy playing the girl part," or similar, just teach people to twirl each other. And then, I don't know, use purple and green for the role names?

(Stillwater, OK)

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