Contra: Changing Role Terms

February 10th, 2023
In contra dance there are two roles, which were traditionally called "Ladies" and "Gents". A lot of people are currently trying to move the community over to calling the roles "Robins" and "Larks", to make it clear that anyone can dance either role. BIDA, the dance I help organize, switched in 2017, and since restarting dances in Spring 2022 all the Boston dances are gender-free. A recent discussion on the sharedweight callers list, however, brought up some past times people tried to change the mainstream role terms, and I wanted to look into this more.

In the early 90s, there was a push to move from Gents/Ladies to Men/Women. For example, here's Myrtle Wilhite's 1993 essay, "I am not a lady":

You may notice that I don't write or call dances with ladies in them. This is distinctly classist language in the fabric of contra terminology which not only implies upper vs. lower class distinctions ('woman' does not), but encourages submission for the women ("now, act like a lady!!!"). I preserve the clarity of the call with "women" for ladies and "men" for gents (same number of syllables), and in my calling years I have never had any misunderstandings about it. (As you might guess, I don't call "...and trap that pretty little girl" in square calls either.)

To the rejoinder that "the figure is called a ladies chain", I reply that the name of a figure is "chain", and that the gender discrimination only determines who is to cross the set. After all, there are "men's chains".

To those who reply that this is "traditional wording that shalt not be altered" (was that the eleventh commandment?), I remind them that this is THE FOLK PROCESS after all, and I'm allowed to try different things, thank you. If the wording didn't work, it wouldn't work, but it does. Of those who spontaneously noticed, I had only favorable comments from men and women alike. (I wonder after writing that how many ruffled feathers there will be--good excuse to make a feather pillow...)

So, I'd like to suggest that you refer to the woman's role consistently by the term woman or women, and the man's role consistently by the term man or men. And if you don't think that other choreographers are likely to agree with this editing, I would really like you to at least preserve the terminology in my dances/dance descriptions. If you choose not to do this in your own calling or dance choreography, you make your own choices, and I applaud your right to do exactly that. [1]

Unlike the switch to Larks/Robins, this was something that happened, as far as I can tell, at the level of individual callers. This makes sense: if you are expecting to hear "Ladies" and you hear "Women" you're not going to be too confused, hearing "Robins" is a different story, which means communities generally have chosen to either continue with gendered terms or switch to specific gender-free terms. I don't think this ever got to where "Women" and "Men" were close to the most common terms.

Sometime, I think in the mid-2000s, this started to go the other way, where progressives started to push for Gents/Ladies instead of Men/Women where using intentionally archaic terms could make it clearer that these were roles anyone could take on during a dance and not references to your gender presentation. For example, in 2016, before going gender-free BIDA's caller welcome page had:

Dance Roles and Gender
  • While our dance isn't gender-free it's common for people to dance either role.
  • We would appreciate it if you could let dancers in the lesson know that "lady" and "gent"" refer to roles in the dance, not your actual gender, and anyone can dance any role. Please avoid calling in ways that imply men should dance the "gent" role and women dance the "ladies" role. Primarily, don't use man/woman in calls. So "ladies aleman left" not "women aleman left".
  • We're happy for you to call gender-free if that's your preference. Let us know in advance so we can include it in our publicity and figure out which terms to use.

Here's hoping that with the level of community effort that went into choosing Larks/Robins these terms will serve us well for a long time! [2]

[1] Myrtle is no longer in the active in the dance community, and her book, "Lullaby of the swing: And other contra dances, tunes, waltzes, and essays" is out of print. I found an archived Geocities page, however, "last updated Mon Jul 14 15:13:26 CDT 1997 by William J. Watson". This is the same William Watson who's still active in the community, and while his 1997 email address bounced I was able to find a more current one. When I wrote to him he was kind enough to look for his copy and send me the essay.

[2] There was also a more minor switch where we moved from "Ravens" to "Robins". See the note at the end of this post.

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