I want to talk about Larks and Ravens. I know that there is lot confusion and controversy about the current push to switch to non-gendered terms. I know that a lot of people who prefer it to stay ladies and gents have mentioned feeling attacked when they express that opinion. I in no way mean this to be an attack, but as a person that this very directly affects, I want to share why this is a topic that makes me shake and cry as I read comment threads and why it keeps me up at night.
I have heard people viewing this as one of the many ways that organizers and callers are just trying to be ‘pc’, but in reality it is that they are finally listening to an uncomfortable minority. I’ve been asking if we could move to non-gendered calling for years but generally got a response that amounted to, “I have no attachment to gendered terms, but not enough people care for us to rock the boat.” But there are finally organizers who understand why it is so important to making the community welcoming and inclusive, and some wonderful allies who are willing to spend their time and energy fighting to help create this change. So I wanted to tell my story to help put a face to this issue and to explain why people want this change.
I started dancing in Seattle in 2007. This is my community. It is one of the only places where I have danced regularly. It is thing that made my move to Seattle feel welcoming. It is what I was homesick for while lived in India, and it is what made me choose to move back to Seattle when I was done there. And it no longer feels like a community that accepts or welcomes me. It is no longer a place I look forward to going. And it is entirely because of the culture that is created by gendered calling. Because as much as we hound on the idea that ‘it’s just a role’, words do matter, and they help shape our culture in subtle and hard to see ways.
I, like most cis-gendered women, started my contra career dancing the ‘ladies’ role. Eventually, I was introduced to the concept of switching – originally for the purpose of helping me avoid the people who made me uncomfortable – but also as a form of play. I fell in love with the idea and worked to get good at both roles. For a long time, I could easily view them as roles that I would slip in and out of. Throughout this time, I would invite my queer friends who dance (many of whom have been doing contra for decades) and have them tell me that our community was ‘too gendered’ and they ‘felt uncomfortable’ and so they weren’t willing to come. I tried to convince them that it ‘wasn’t that bad’, and that ‘lots of people switch’, but they had been lucky enough to have experienced dance communities that weren’t like this and so they chose not to come.
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For a long time I really didn’t quite ‘get’ what made them so uncomfortable. I was lucky enough to be straight passing and dancing within the cultural norms enough of the time that I really didn’t notice the ways in which gendered terms affected the community. (That and the fact that I’m often more than a little bit oblivious to the social cues around me.)
Somewhere along the way, I realized that my prefered dance role is the ‘gents’ role. Switching is actually my preference, but if I’m going to dance an entire dance in the same role, I would strongly prefer it be the ‘gents’. I can tolerate about three dances an evening entirely as a ‘lady’ before I’m really not having any fun. And there were enough people around that enjoyed that too that generally I could get away with it.
And then a couple of years ago I had an experience that really woke me up to the way that my choice was viewed by the culture of my community … and it broke my heart. It was the week after Folklife and I was dancing with a friend – in fact the same friend that taught me how to switch in the first place. I was dancing the ‘gents’ role and he was dancing the ‘ladies’. We were coming out at the end and there was a pair of new dancers coming in to meet us. And they used gender clues and screwed themselves up. We managed to fix them and send them on their merry way. But then my partner said to me “I forgot, you (plural you, not me specifically) shouldn’t swap after big events when there will be a lot of new dancers.” And it hit me like a punch in the gut. Here was a person who I thought ‘got’ it, who actually viewed me dancing the ‘gents’ role as optional – a way to play, or a flourish – instead of the way I choose to experience the dance. It was as though this person I trusted shouted in my face “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!” My way of wanting to be part of this community was something I should be willing to stop on regular basis because it was ‘confusing’. His flippant comment, although not intended to hurt me, still had the consequence of making me feel completely unwelcome. It made me start to notice all the ways that the gendered calling sets up a gendered culture – and that often hurts anyone who doesn’t fit within that dominant culture.
As much as we like to espouse that they are just role names, it doesn’t work that way; our culture has too much gendered programing for it to happen. By using gendered terms we are unconsciously setting up a “norm”, and that is subtly reinforced through a variety of ways that people react when someone is breaking that “norm”. I frequently dance with men where we spend an entire dance with me dancing the ‘gent’ and them the ‘lady’. Many people refer to this as ‘swapped’. Even that term is loaded with gendered implications. It implies that by picking those roles we are breaking the norm and that therefore that there is a norm to break.
It is all the little things that add up. Here are examples of things that I, or people I know, have experienced in our community. People scowl at you because you are in the ‘wrong’ role or refusing to swing you. They say things like: “You’re in the wrong place”, “Can you please just dance the other role”, “There are so many men sitting out, why don’t you [women] go dance with them instead”, “You don’t look like a gent”, “You confuse the new dancers when you do that”, “Only physical men should be gents”, ”I just don’t feel the same connection swinging with a woman”, “Wow, you’re actually a good lead”, “Now all you gotta do is swap genitals!” Each one is little in and of itself, but when you experience them all evening long, every time you come dancing, it communicates a very clear message. No amount of “it is just a role name” can make up for the fact that all of these off-handed remarks and experiences very clearly say, “You are outside the norm, you don’t belong here.”
But the thing I personally find the most exhausting is the implied expectation that I’m going to dance the ‘ladies’ part unless I spend my energy to say otherwise. There is a subset of the community that I know swaps or that knows I prefer to dance the ‘gents’ role, but otherwise the gendered culture of our dance means that the majority of people who ask me to dance (especially if I’m on the sidelines) make the assumption that I’m going to dance the ‘ladies’ role and the onus is on me if I want otherwise. When it is time to find a partner I know I have four options: chase down someone I know will dance with me the way I want and hope they don’t already have a partner, accept someone’s request for a dance and forfeit my dance preference, accept someone’s request for a dance with the caveat that I dance the ‘gents’ part, knowing that this might make them upset at me, or sit out. All of these choices require that I do the brunt of the work and, personally, I just don’t have that energy anymore.
Switching to non-gendered terms helps shift that culture. It creates the expectation that an invitation to dance is an invitation to jointly set the understanding for what that means. “Would you like to dance? What role would you like?” There stops being a “wrong place” for someone to be standing when they line up for the dance. It helps our brains stop trying to use visual cues for ‘who my neighbor will/should be’ and to just dance with whomever is there. Our brains have been trained for generations to have associations with those gendered words and so intuitively we still look for those clues even when we know consciously that those clues might be wrong. It helps make it so that new dancers are more likely to start with either role, regardless of their gender. And it helps make it a safe place for people who don’t fit the gender binary. We have transgendered and non-binary people who have been or would like to be part of our community, and right now it doesn’t feels safe to some of them.
I know that some people are arguing for ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ instead of ‘larks’ and ‘ravens’. As much as I would like it to be otherwise those terms come with a lot of baggage. For one thing, they are taken from partner dances that truly have a lead and follow. As such they inherently have an implied power dynamic. There are already people who think that their job as a ‘gent’ or ‘lead’ is to decide what the other role does. Especially with less experienced dancers it is easy to fall into the trap of, ‘I will twirl you’ rather than, ‘I will offer you a twirl and you can accept it if you want it’. That situation is one that easily causes unintended injuries. And it would be different if contra was actually a lead follow dance, but it’s not. It’s a called dance where everyone is following their own set of directions. If I’m dancing the ‘lady’ role, I’m more than capable of being everywhere I’m supposed to be, even if my partner decided to zone out to the music and pick their nose. They aren’t leading me, that’s the callers job. This is a topic that has been extensively discussed in many other contra communities. Additionally, the role names of ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ have their own gendered baggage too. The majority of partner dances have a long history of very defined gender norms that are only beginning to see changes. There are whole TED talks about this issues. Because of this, I don’t think this switch would actually bring about much cultural shift.
Do I think that switching to Lark and Raven will magically make everyone decide to learn both roles and be happy dancing either? No, but I wouldn’t want it to either. The same way I get to have my preference for being a ‘lark’, everyone else can have role preferences too. What I want is for all options to be part of the cultural ‘norm’. I know that there are plenty of LGBTQ+ people in our community for whom this isn’t an issue. But I know for me and others it is.
The amount of emotional energy it takes for me to come dancing currently drastically outweighs the joy I get out of it. I know people come and go in the community all the time and me leaving will just be one more example of that. But honestly I don’t want to leave; I want this community to feel like home and be a place that brings me joy again. And so this is how I’m choosing to fight for that.
I know that one of the things that I valued and I think many other people value is how welcoming our community it is. And I want to try to help people understand that right now it doesn’t actually feel very welcoming to some people. If we want to create actual change that helps the culture of community be more accepting and welcoming, we need terms that don’t have a history of gendered culture norms.