Experience Switching to Right Shoulder Round

May 8th, 2024
Contra dance has a figure where two people walk a small circle looking at each other. When it was introduced into contra in the 1970s as a borrowing from ECD, it had the name "gypsy", originally from Morris dancing, but many communities now use "right shoulder round".

In many dance communities the debate over whether and how to switch functioned as a highly acrimonious culture war outlet. I really didn't want our group going through that, but talking publicly about how I didn't want that at the time would have been counterproductive. Now that it's been ~5y since switching to "right shoulder round" and ~10y from the first big online discussions, I think this is probably something I can share some history on.

While I'm sure people had occasionally talked about being uncomfortable with the term, I think the first big online discussion started in January 2014 with a since-deleted post in a Facebook group:

From: Elio Lewis
To: Stuff Contra Dancers Say
Date: 2014-01-20 9:48am

Hey, contra dance callers! I totally just figured out the ideal substitution for that racist-named move! It should be called a "hippie". It sounds similar enough to the offensive term that people will still cue off of it (though I'd note my substitution during the walkthrough), it appeals to a sense of silliness, and it's unlikely to offend anyone. If you like the idea, please spread it around!

The discussion was long and heated, properties it shared with later iterations on other platforms (ex: October 2015, January 2016, April 2016, etc on Shared Weight). There were two main questions, the same ones as in the role terms debate:

  • Should we switch away from the traditional term?
  • If we do switch, what should we switch to?

There were a lot of candidate terms, with a variety of issues, and "right shoulder round" was quite a late addition. The first place I find it written down is March 2018, four years into the debates. (That thread also gives a good flavor of how these discussions tended to go, with a lot of frustration, anger, and people talking past each other.) Looking back at emails, it took about six months for the term to go from unknown to the favorite.

The approach our dance organization took was mostly waiting: I knew that this was something that had the potential to be divisive and that there wasn't a widely supported replacement, and I suspect the rest of the board felt similarly. When callers asked us about terms, I'd write back things like (November 2016):

BIDA doesn't have an official position on it. If you want to avoid using "gypsy" in your calling that is fine with us, though most callers lately have been using it.

Then, in September 2018, I wrote to the BIDA board:

As you might know, there's been a lot of discussion, mostly online, in the contra dance world about moving away from using the term "gypsy". I've been to many events where callers used other terms instead, like "right shoulder round", and among other things these are, being descriptive, easier for newcomers to understand.

I don't think this is something people have asked for at BIDA, though I'm kind of surprised that they haven't; more dances have stopped using "gypsy" than have switched to "larks/ravens". My expectation is there are two ways this could go:

  1. We continue not having an official position. An increasing number of callers stop using "gypsy" on their own, but many keep using it. At some point a group of dancers writes something publicly about how bad it is that we're still using "gypsy" in 2019 or something and there are nasty fb arguments where people feel less like a community. This is enough of a tinderbox that I've been avoiding it in blogging (example: polling people on which alternative they prefer) which is a high bar for me...

  2. We start encouraging callers to use "right shoulder round" if they're comfortable calling that way. After trying this for a while, if it still looks like "gypsy" is going away, we can switch away from it entirely.

As you might guess, I think we should do #2. This would be something like changing bidadance.org/caller-welcome to have, in the "terms" section, something like:
  • If you're comfortable using "right shoulder round" or other descriptive terms instead of "gypsy" we encourage you to call that way.
What do you all think?

(I'm planning to ask all the Beantown Stomp callers not to use "gypsy")

We had a long discussion, but were mostly on the same page, and did end up updating the website and what we wrote to callers. I don't remember getting any feedback from the dancers.

This felt like it was going well, so in February 2019 I brought it up again:

It looks like the dance community has coalesced on "right shoulder round" as a replacement for "gypsy", and I think it's time for us to switch. It flows well, callers are comfortable with it, and as a descriptive term it's easier for new dancers.

Our current caller guidance on "gypsy" is:

If you're comfortable using "right shoulder round" instead of "gypsy" we encourage you to call that way.

I propose we change this to:

We use "right shoulder round" instead of "gypsy". For example, "right shoulder round your neighbor" or "walk around your neighbor by the right shoulder".

NEFFA already doesn't allow Gypsy and their guidance is:

As for the figure formerly known as Gypsy, we use Walk Around, as in, "Right Shoulder Walk Around your Neighbor". You may add, "Maintaining eye contact, if that is comfortable for you." Please do not use other terminology.

Any objections? Happy to talk about this at our next meeting if anyone would like an in person conversation on this.

(If we can move away from "gypsy" without it being a big thing I think that's way better for our community. Unlike with Larks/Ravens and bathrooms this is the sort of change that we don't need to poll on our get buy-in. We've already had many callers using "right shoulder round" and dancers mostly don't notice either way. We haven't yet had a big blowup over this, but other dances have and we definitely could.)

We again had a discussion, mostly around whether there were other terms that would be better than "right shoulder round" but did decide to make this change.

Again we didn't hear anything, so after a few months I wrote a post recommending other organizations consider switching. There was again some discussion of whether other terms would be better, and some pushback to the idea of switching (from dancers in other communities) but it was reasonably uncontroversial.

Looking back, I'm reasonably happy with the relatively low-key way our local community handled this. Lots of discussion on potential terms, mostly online and national; trying out alternative terms until we settled on something that worked; gradually increasing the fraction of our dances where we used the new terms; not making a big deal out of the switch. I recognize I'm risking undoing a bit of this by getting into this now, but I think it's been long enough and we're sufficiently satisfied with where we are that it's ok. I hope you don't prove me wrong on this!

Referenced in: Sev, Sevteen, Sevty, Sevth

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