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Gender-Free Role Term Usage

January 26th, 2017
gender, roles, contra

Historically contra dance has used gendered terms for the roles, primarily "Gents / Ladies", but also some "Men / Women" and "Boys / Girls". In the late 1980s the Jamaica Plain dance, founded as a queer contra dance, switched to "Bands / Bare(arm)s". The idea is that dancers in the historically "Gent" role would tie armbands on, and the calls could be to the people with armbands or with bare arms. [1] When other queer contras formed they used "Bands / Bares" as well, but mainstream contras continued using gendered terms.

Over the past five years or so there's been discussion about whether non-queer dances should switch to gender-free terminology as well. A big limitation has been objections to the "Bands / Bares" terms. Lots of people, especially the kind of people who care about role names, want to dance positionally. Armbands get in the way of positional dancing, and if you're not using armbands then the terms make less sense. Plus the terms are pretty similar sounding.

I surveyed the Shared Weight callers list to ask what terms were being used for regular dances. What I found was that while an enormous number of alternate terms have been proposed, there are only three that seem to be catching on: "Larks / Ravens", "Jets / Rubies", and "Leads / Follows". We currently have:

[EDIT: new chart is here.]

~310Gents / LadiesVarious
6Larks / RavensCircle Left, South Bay, Berkeley, Hayward, Village Contra, LCFD Dance Camp (west coast)
3Bands / BaresJP, Western Mass Gender Free, LCFD Dance Camp (except west coast)
2Jets / RubiesPortland ME, Montpelier Contra Exchange
2Leads / FollowsHampshire College, Brooklyn Contra

"Larks / Ravens" seems to have taken over the Bay Area: maybe half the dances there have switched? Aside from that there's not much of a pattern, except that most (3/5) of the queer dances are still using "Bands / Bares" and maybe we could group Portland and Montpelier as "Northern New England".

Should we say that "Larks / Ravens" has won, and we should try to all switch to those terms? Or should we leave it a while longer first and see what happens?

(Once there is a clear consensus on terms I'm planning to start pushing dances to switch, starting with BIDA.)

Update 2017-01-31: I posted on FB asking if people had thoughts on BIDA using these terms, prompting a substantial discussion.

Update 2017-03-21: All the Bands/Bares dances have switched to Larks/Ravens.

Update 2017-10-06: BIDA switched to "Larks / Ravens" in June, and YDW used "Larks / Ravens" this year as well.

Update 2017-10-19: The Sebastopol dance has decided to switch to "Larks / Ravens", starting with their next dance (January). The Montpelier Contra Exchange, which was "Jets / Rubies", has ended. The Hampshire College dance, which was "Leads / Follows", may or may not be defunct. A more up-to-date chart is now here.


[1] Lots of details and history in Chris Ricciotti's "Welcome to Gender Free Dancing: a Historicsal Perspective" (pdf).

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