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Gender Free Dancing

I feel a need to explain “Gender Free” dances and I think that the best way to do so is to explain my experience at the Tuesday night Jamaica Plain dance in Boston, Massachusetts.  One night in November of 2002 I brought a dozen British dancers to the Gender Free English Country Dance.

Before we went to the dance I explained the ground rules.  You do not ask anyone to dance with you.  You simply line up for the next dance.  If you line up in the “woman’s” position you play the woman’s role; if you line up in the “man’s” position you play the man’s role.  But many of you know that in many-many English Country Dances, and in many Contra dances, there are no “gender specific” roles.

It is not a “man” or a “woman” who is told to set & turn single, or cast off below one, or to dosido.  Both people are simply executing a move together.  No one is “in charge” (the standard male role); no one is being passive (the standard female role), no one is being guided, manipulated.

There are times when one member of a twosome is being addressed, but in English Country Dancing the reference is often to “first corners” or “second corners.”  Sometimes the caller did refer to the “line with their backs to the window,” but such references were seldom needed.

Not needing to “ask” someone to dance was a wonderful blessing to several members of my visiting dance group.  British ladies are not used to asking men to dance.  In England there is often a break after a dance.  Women are escorted back to their seats and then, after a few minutes, someone comes and asks them for the next dance.

The American habit of  immediately after a dance pouncing on the first available male was difficult, almost impossibly difficult, for the quiet,  reserved ladies I brought over from England.   When they were turned down, and several were turned down for a dance, they were crushed.  They weren’t used to asking; they definitely were not used to being rejected.

They loved the protocol at the gender free dance.  No fuss, no bother, no fear of rejection.  No mad scramble.  You walk to the line, find a spot, dance with whoever is opposite you.  One woman who was having a particularly hard time getting partners thought this was the most wonderful way of finding partners she ever came across.

Then there was the actual dancing.  In general, the level of ability was quite high: almost everybody was a good dancer.  A few of the dancers were particularly good.  In the penultimate dance of the evening one member of our group who has been dancing for at least forty years told me he had just danced what was probably the best English dance of his life.  I saw him; I saw his partner.  Both are excellent dancers.  They were dancing smoothly, beautifully.  It was hard not to notice them.  They were a beautiful dancing couple.

All the members of my group thought it was one of the best dances we attended in that twelve day period of dances.  The caller was excellent.  He chose simple, beautiful, flowing dances & the walkthroughs were short.  The group was welcoming.  The whole experience was positive.

Recently, in my hometown, one woman approached me and asked me if I could try to develop “non-gender-specific” calls.  She knows a few members of the gay community who feel uncomfortable at our dances because the calls are gender specific.

Perhaps it is too much to ask all of us to change our whole style of calling to accomodate what is a minority, but we might learn something by attending dances that are aimed at that minority.

Copyright 2003   Henry Morgenstein
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