Ruthie Byers


Update 2018-11-22: This blog is no longer updated. I've removed posts that were no longer of interest or that I no longer feel proud of, which means I can highlight here the most interesting things I wrote.

    Contra Dance Bookings and Gender

    I promised a while ago I would write a post analyzing gender in the context of contra dance bookings. This post keeps that promise. I was hoping to be able to draw more interesting conclusions, but alas, my dataset was too small to do so with any confidence.


    Women called 47% of dances in my sample, and were about a third of musicians (weighted by gigs). This is compared to a baseline of about 54% women in the Bay Area contra dance community.

    There are a few trends you can find if you break this up into subgroups, but they seem to be mostly driven by a few outliers, so I won’t point them out. Overall, the sample size is small and dominated by a relatively small number of very active people, so it’s hard to draw conclusions from the sort of small-percentage-point differences between subgroups that I was able to find.

    Implementation Notes

    I obviously don’t know the genders of every person in my dataset. My dataset contains people I’ve never met with non-gender-signalling names, people who I know or suspect have identities different from what one would guess based on their names, and many many people who I only know from seeing perform. Most of the gendering was done using a name-to-likely-gender mapper I found on the internet. I special-cased several people who (a) had ambiguous names and unambiguous presentations or (b) had unambiguous names but I have reason to believe that the lack of ambiguity is misleading.

    People who I believe to be neither men nor women were counted as half a man and half a women. I realize this may not accurately represent the genders of those people, and I’m sorry they’re misrepresented in this statistic.


    I have access to exactly one statistic on the gender ratio in the Bay Area contra dance community in general, which is that 42% of attendees at this year’s non-gender-balanced Balance The Bay were men and 54% were women (the rest declined to state). This matches my anecdotal impression that there are slightly more women than men in the community.


    It’s clear that men both call and play a disproportionate number of dances, but it’s hard to tell what to make of these statistics without a lot more context. The gender disparity could reflect a difference interest, or skill, or confidence, or perceived skill, or availability, or any number of other things.

    One interesting note is that these statistics only reflect the people who had enough of all of those things to play at least one dance over two years, which cuts out the vast majority of potential contra dance musicians and callers. I was playing folk music for more than 10 years before I first played for a contra dance; some of that time I was playing other styles, some of it I was too busy, and most of it I didn’t have the skill yet. To better understand why we see big gender disparities, I’d have to compare the number of people playing or calling gigs to the people who request to be booked, or the number of people at slow jams or callers workshops, or compare those actively playing dances to those who have played at least once.

    See full post with comments

    Who gets booked in the Bay Area, Callers Edition

    Here are the top nine most-booked callers (tenth was a four way tie, so I’m omitting it here).

    • Erik Hoffman (32)
    • Lynn Ackerson (27)
    • Kelsey Hartman (27)
    • Susan Petrick (22)
    • Warren Blier (19)
    • Yoyo Zhou (18)
    • Kalia Kliban (17)
    • Eric Black (15)
    • Susan Pleck (11)

    Most of my observations about this data involve comparing bands and callers:

    • There are a lot fewer unique callers than unique bands or unique musicians (35 callers compared with 130 local musicians in 109 local bands)

    • More callers than bands had large numbers of gigs– 4 bands had more than 10 gigs, while 14 callers did (but 34 individual musicians had more than 10 gigs, and I’m not sure what the better comparison is).

    • How much turnover is there among callers? This is hard to get a good sense of from only two years, but the short answer seems to be “not much.” As far as I can tell, no local caller was booked for the first time in the second year of my analysis (of the two local people booked in the second year but not the first, Dean Alemang was billed somewhere as having recently moved from another part of the country, and Karen Fontana is a longer time caller who just didn’t happen to call between October 2013 and October 2014). In contrast, more than zero new musicians made their contra dance debuts in the bay area in the second year of my analysis.

    • 278 of the 388 events I analyzed (or about 71%) had local callers (local includes all parts of the bay area and Monterey, but not as far as San Lois Obispo). Bands at 274 of the 388 events had at least one local member, but only 243 had entirely local bands (most of the partly but not entirely local bands were Rodney Miller and one or more local musicians).

    • Calling seems to be a pretty gender-balanced activity, unlike music, which is male-skewed, and frankly, unlike most activities.

    See full post with comments

    Who Gets Booked in the Bay Area, Music Edition

    I recently spent roughly 20 hours on airplanes had time to take on a silly useless project. So I took all of the Bay Area contra dance schedules for the last two years, converted the information into csv format, and made pretty pictures of the results. Since there’s a lot of stuff there, I’m commenting on music related things in this post. I will comment more in future posts.

    All the pretty pictures can be found here. Mouse over to see details for a particular dance.


    The top ten most booked local bands to play in the Bay Area (with number of gigs) are:

    • StringFire (23)
    • The wiNgNuts (16)
    • The Rosin Doctors (14)
    • Uncle Farmer (13)
    • The Crabapples (9)
    • The Raggedy Annes (8)
    • Swing Farm (7)
    • Common Ground (6)
    • Erin Shrader, Richard Mandel (6)
    • Whimsical (5)

    Things I find interesting here:

    • One band, Peak Nouveau, was booked nine times, eight of them for the San Jose contra. Although it clearly had more gigs than some bands here, I didn’t feel like it counts as a commonly booked band in spirit, so I didn’t include it in my list.

    • Some out of town bands were booked six or seven times in the last two years (these were bands that did multiple tours where they played multiple gigs each tour). Although these are clearly commonly booked, it didn’t make sense to compare them to local bands, since for local bands the limiter for booking is likely to be interest from dances, whereas out of town bands are almost certainly constrained by availability. More on out of town vs. local bands in another post.

    • The frequency of band bookings drops off pretty steeply. The top band plays more than twice as often as the the fifth most commonly booked band, and the fifth most commonly booked band plays almost twice as much as the tenth.

    • This list shows totals over two years, which undercounts the popularity of bands who weren’t playing for that whole time. In particular, Uncle Farmer started playing a lot fewer gigs around here when Mike Sokolovsky moved back East, and Common Ground played their last gig about a year ago (although some of the members still play together under another name).

    • Musician overlap in the top bands is small. Only one person plays in multiple bands (Charlie Hancock in the Raggedy Annes and Swing Farm). Lots of musicians play in multiple bands (see below) but mostly not in multiple very popular bands.

    • Most bands substitute musicians only occasionally, and many will use alternate names on a schedule if they are not appearing with all canonical members (e.g. The WingNots is the wiNgNuts with Darcy Noonan instead of Christie Hubbard). StringFire is the outlier. StringFire always includes Erik Ievins and Patti Cobb, but has appeared with no fewer than five configurations of fiddlers. They may have an advantage booking since they need only one of the four fiddlers who appear in the band to be available to book a gig.


    The top ten most booked musicians in the bay area over the last two years are:

    • Chris Knepper (51)
    • Charlie Hancock (40)
    • Ben Schreiber (33)
    • Rodney Miller (29)
    • Erik Hoffman (24)
    • Patti Cobb (23)
    • Erik Ievins (23)
    • Topher Gayle (22)
    • Will Wheeler (19)
    • Christie Hubbard (19)

    Things I notice here:

    • All of these people are local except for Rodney Miller. Rodney Miller hangs around the bay area a lot, and plays gigs with local musicians in addition to his big-name out of town bands, so he gets a lot more gigs than bands who show up like once a year and play several local dances and then leave.

    • Only two of the top ten people are women (Patti Cobb and Christie Hubbard). More on this in another post.

    • You can think of there being two ways to get on this list, one is by playing in a lot of bands, and the other is by playing in one really popular band. Chris Knepper played about a fourth of his gigs with his top booked band, the wiNgNuts, whereas Erik Ievins and Patti Cobb only appeared with StringFire (the middle is well represented alsa). Here are the most booked musicians, in the same order, but with number of bands instead of number of gigs. Note that “bands” here is different from “named bands,” since some musicians are booked without particular band names (e.g. “Rodney Miller and Charlie Hancock”)

    • Chris Knepper (23)
    • Charlie Hancock (18)
    • Ben Schreiber (15)
    • Rodney Miller (17)
    • Erik Hoffman (8)
    • Patti Cobb (1)
    • Erik Ievins (1)
    • Topher Gayle (8)
    • Will Wheeler (5)
    • Christie Hubbard (4)

    Where I got this Information

    I generated the statistics here from publicly posted schedules from

    • Bay Area Country Dance Society
    • North Bay Country Dance Society
    • Traditional Dancers of the Golden State (Hayward Contra)
    • SF Queer Contra

    Queer Contra booking information was suplemented by personal email from Margaret Pigman.

    My processed schedules are in the *.csv files. You should be able to open them with your favorite spreadsheet program. There’s some syntax to the band info; you can probably figure out how it works. The code I used to process them is also in the repository.

    See full post with comments

    More Discoveries about Listening

    It’s been a bit more than a year since I’ve been thinking about how to listen better. It’s hard to attribute any particular successful conversation to the things I’ve learned, but I haven’t been afraid that I’m dominating a conversation as often, and I’ve had some good successes learning interesting things from other people, and I have been able to help friends who needed to get something off their chest, and done a good job. That being said, I still think I have a ton of space to improve, and my successes are disproportionately with people who seem to like talking anyway.

    Here are some more recent additions to my explicit knowledge about how to be a good listener.

    Listening takes energy

    I think of listenining as being pretty passive, but if the person I’m talking to isn’t very talkative, it actuall takes me more attention to keep the conversation in their court than to talk about myself or just drop the conversation. When I’m listening to other people, I need to work to assimilate new information, and persistance and creativity to keep asking them questions with non-trivial answers. When I’m talking about myself– well, I’m usually saying things I’ve said before, or at least understand well.

    Ask about what I’m most interested in

    This seems obvious, but it took me a while to figure it out. I started out trying to find questions that would bring out things that the person I was talking to knew about and I didn’t, or the things they found most interesting, but I often didn’t know what to ask, or found that the conversations petered.

    First of all, I come up with different topics by thinking about what I’m interested in. I’m often interested in pretty mundane parts of people’s lives– what are their communities like? Why did they choose to live where they do? How do they make friends? These aren’t the most “interesting” things that people think about, at least in an intellectual sense, but they’re parts of people’s lives I find interesting to learn about, and as a bonus, basically everyone can talk about the answers to these questions.

    I also find it easier to come up with follow-up questions. If I’m genuinely interested in what we’re talking about, I don’t need to do any complicated calculation to decide what to ask next, I just ask the next thing that pops into my head.

    Conversation structure

    I obviously haven’t given up talking about myself or things that I’m interested in entirely, but I have noticed that even my well-balanced conversations have changed structure. I’m more likely to spend a while asking someone else about an experience they’ve had or something they know about, and then switch modes and let them ask me questions. In my mind, this has become the “interesting people poking at each-other” mode of conversation, and they’re some of the most enjoyable conversations I have.

    See full post with comments

    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.

    See full post with comments

    Learning to Listen

    I’ve noticed particular people being good at listening, both in very casual and very personal situations. I am not one of these people, but would like to become one. I’ve asked some people what they do and I’ve done some practicing and this is what I’ve learned so far.

    Ping-Pong Conversations

    A friend posted this article about having conversations on facebook. It framed conversations in a way that helped change how I think about them:

    The response a person gives to what someone says can take two forms: the shift-response and the support-response. The support-response keeps attention on the speaker and on the topic he or she has introduced. The shift-response attempts to set the stage for the other person to change the topic and shift the attention to themselves. Let’s look at an example of the difference between the two:


    James: I’m thinking about buying a new car.

    Rob: Oh yeah? What models have you looked at?


    James: I’m thinking about buying a new car.

    Rob: Oh yeah? I’m thinking about buying a new car too.

    James: Really?

    Rob: Yup, I just test drove a Mustang yesterday and it was awesome.

    In the first example, Rob kept the attention on James with his support-response. In the second example, Rob attempts to turn the conversation to himself with a shift-response.

    Previously, each time I spoke in a conversation, I thought of myself as contributing to the body of thought that had been shared. I hoped that the people I was talking to would be reminded of interesting things that they thought, and so contribute back. I like this idea, but it doesn’t usually create interesting, balanced conversations.

    This article helped me see conversations as games of handing control back and forth. Every time you speak you can either take the conversation or hand it back to the other person, possibly with a gentle idea of where it might go.

    This shift was especially helpful in helping me not talk about myself too much, because it gave me something to replace the things I would have said about myself. Instead of my stories, I thought about what questions I could ask.

    Choosing questions to ask

    Ask general questions

    “What’s an example?” and “what is that like?” are questions I have started using a lot.


    “I work on boats. I’m the only woman in a crew of over a hundred men”

    “Wow, what’s that like?”


    “I got back my students final projects this week. Some of them were really creative!”

    “Nice. What’s an example?”

    Ask questions about things you don’t know about.

    One strategy I’ve used is looking for holes in my own knowledge in what we’re talking about. Exposing my ignarance helps other people say things that are new to me.


    “I’m really interested in the history of dance. People used to put on gigantic spectacles way beyond what we do today.”

    “What were the performances like?”

    Bring up things you know about them

    It’s ok to bring up things from outside of a conversation. I went on a hike last weekend with someone I had never met before. The person who introduced us told me that he had hiked half of the Pacific Crest Trail. When there was a lull in the conversation in the car on the way there, I said “so I heard you hiked half of the Pacific Crest Trail?” I got to hear a lot of anecdotes about that trip, both right then, and along the trail, and I don’t think I would have heard as many had I not brought it up.

    Bring up things mentioned in passing

    If someone mentions something you think might be interesting to hear more about, but that’s not the current direction of the conversation, you can bring it up later.


    “You mentioned earlier that you traveled to Egypt. What were you doing there?”

    In more personal conversations, people will sometimes purposefully mention something in passing that they want to talk about more in depth. This was pointed out to me by someone else, but after it was pointed out, I realized I had been doing it. If there’s something on my mind, but I don’t feel comfortable just saying so, I’ll bring it up briefly as part of some other topic in hopes that someone will ask me about it.

    I want more advice

    I’ve had some nice successful conversations since starting to think about this, especially with people I don’t know well. I learned about growing up in a small town in central California, enterprise software product management, and the politics of a small town in Colorado, among other things.

    However, this is an ongoing project. I’ve noticed that some people are much more forthcoming than others, and I’m still struggling to talk to people who are shy or uncomfortable for some reason. I’m also way better at safe topics like work or academic topics than at talking about personal or political topics, which also happen to be particularly interesting topics to me.

    If you know things about how to listen well or have conversations better, I am interested in hearing them.

    See full post with comments

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