Ruthie Byers

Gender Free Dancing is for Everyone

Berkeley’s mainstream contra had its first entirely gender-free dance this week. Erik Hoffman, who calls that dance about half the time, used “larks” and “ravens” to refer to the traditional gents and ladies roles, and he’s announced that he will continue to use non-gendered language in the future. Guest callers will still have their choice of language, but my guess is that many of them will try larks and ravens.

Gender free contra has been a thing for a while–just a little longer than I’ve been alive. But, as far as I know, it’s separate always from just contra dance. The people who do it seem to be different from those attending mainstream contras (although there’s certainly some overlap). There’s a separate national umbrella organization for gender-free contra dances, Lavendar Country Dance Society. And you certainly wouldn’t go to a contra dance and expect it to be gender free, unless it was specifically advertised as such.

In addition to being separate, most gender free dances are also advertised explicitly as LGBTQ events. The Bay Area organization is called “Queer Contra.” The Boston area dance has the tag line “Boston Gender Free Contra Dance for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Folks and Friends!”. The NYC area dance, Village Contra makes it through its home page without any “LGBT,” but it appears three times in their one paragraph history blurb, and one of their FAQs is “Are straight dancers welcome?” so I think that was just an oversight.

I don’t say this to accuse the gender free community of being unwelcoming to straight people (they aren’t), but to point out that it seems like no one thinks straight people are interested. Which is kind of ridiculous. The advantages of dancing both roles, or dancing your non-traditional role, apply to everyone. For example:

  • The two roles are fun and rewarding in different ways, and more people will get to do both

  • You can dance with everyone, including, for example, same gendered friends who you bring to a dance, or very good dancers of your gender

  • Learning both roles makes you better at each individually

  • You can switch roles back and forth during the dance or do shadowplay/shenanigans/chaos more easily

And gender-free communities have advantages that you don’t get by just dancing both roles in a traditionally gendered setting: These communities are more welcoming to people who are bothered by gendered language

  • You cause less confusion by dancing non-traditional roles

  • Weekends never have to exclude people of a particular gender in order to maintain similar numbers of each role

  • More people to switch roles back and forth or do shadowplay/shenanigans/chaos with.

  • Even if you don’t dance both roles, more people to dance with

Having Berkeley Contra be gender free means that a lot of people who wouldn’t have sought out a gender-free dance will start to experience these advantages. Regular Berkeley dancers will find themselves at a gender-free dance just by going to their local dance. New dancers will come to their first contra and choose a role without reference to gender. Dancers from other places who come through town will dance with us to non-gendered calling, maybe without expecting to, and they’ll come back to their home communities with less of an assumption that all dances are traditionally gendered.

I think this change is a big deal, not just because I like gender free dancing and want to see more of it. I think this is a bigger and more important change than, say, the creation of another gender free dance. Berkeley Contra is a gender free dance that’s a gender free dance for everyone. Not just queer people. Not just young people. Everyone.


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