History of Larks/Ravens

June 10th, 2019
Many dances have switched to Larks/Ravens and more are in the process of figuring out whether it would be a good fit for them. How did we come to be using these particular terms, out of the range of possible terms?

For a long time the most common gender-free terms were Bands/Bares. These started around 1989 when the Jamaica Plain LGBT contra dance wanted something that didn't reference gender. They decided that the former gent or left-hand person would wear an armband while the former lady or right-hand person would have a bare arm. They called the roles "armbands" and "barearms" or "bands" and "bares" for short.

Several other LGBT contras start using "bands" and "bares" over the following decades, while mainstream dances continued using gendered terms.

In the early 2010s some mainstream dances started thinking about whether they should switch to gender free calling. I apparently wrote about this in 2011 but I first remember this coming up at BIDA in 2012 when a dancer asked if we could switch to Lead/Follow. I wrote the following to our board:

I don't like that we're using gendered terminology, but I also don't like calling the traditionally female role the "follow". And I don't like the idea of changing our terms to something incompatible with other dances. Retreat topic?

Switching to Lead/Follow was contentious because there's a significant portion of the community that doesn't think of contra dance as a lead dance. You might think that since people had been dancing gender-free for years with Bands/Bares we would use that, but this was unpopular both because people didn't want to wear role signifiers and because the terms were hard to distinguish. Our dance had several discussions and at least in 2013 I (incorrectly, even at the time) thought Port/Starboard was the most popular alternate set of terms.

BIDA tried out Bands/Bares with flagging-tape armbands at a dance in March 2013, and it was a fun experiment, but not fun enough that we wanted to switch.

In 2014, Frannie Marr and Susan Michaels were trying to figure out better role names for calling at community dances, and came up with Larks/Robins. Having the Lark on the Left and the Robin on the Right was a lot better than earlier terms that had been arbitrary, and the two terms sounded clearly distinct over the mic. Susan tried that out at a dance at a girls school, and it went well.

At the same time, Laura Gorrin, Margaret Pigman, and Yoyo Zhou of Circle Left, the gender-neutral contra in Oakland, and Erik Hoffman of the mainstream Berkeley Wednesday dance were looking for new terms. Circle Left had been Bands/Bares, but they wanted to move away from visual signifiers, while Erik wanted to switch from Gents/Ladies to gender free calling. The Circle Left organizers happened to be talking to Frannie, who suggested Larks/Robins, or Larks/Ravens to avoid the conflict with "Mad Robin". Both Circle Left and Eric decided to switch, and Berkeley had its first Larks/Ravens dance on 2014-12-17.

There continued to be a lot of discussion and experimentation around terms at many dances. The Hampshire College group experimented with a series of terms at their dances, and Ron Blechner assembled a spreadsheet based upon various suggestions and criteria they compiled together. His March 2015 post summarized the state of things as:

Jets / Rubies - gemstones
Jets are black semi-precious gemstones. Hence the phrase "jet black".

Jets / Rubies satisfy all of my above stated criteria, except not having a left / right pairing. They even sound cool.

And they've been used by at least half a dozen dances in the Northeast US and Pacific Northwest with positive feedback.

Larks / Ravens - birds
Don't like the fact that "jet" sounds too much like "gent"? Okay, there's the terms being used by Circle Left contra in San Francisco. The terms, on paper, do even better than Jet / Ruby.

Lark = L = Left, Raven = R = Right.

The downsides:

  • Some people don't like animals as terms.
  • "Lark" is spoken with a closed mouth with no hard consonant at the
  • front of the word, so it can get a bit mumbly.
Oaks / Maples - trees

Don't like either of those two choices? The third choice rates about the same as Jets / Rubies. Perhaps not as "cool" sounding, the words are crisper than Larks / Ravens, and are a good choice for people who don't like mishearing "gent" instead of "jet".

In early 2017 there were five west coast dances and one east coast dances using Larks/Ravens, three east coast LGBT dances using Bands/Bares, two east coast dances using Jets/Rubies, and two east coast dances using Leads/Follows. I posted on FB asking what people thought of BIDA switching to Jets/Rubies or Larks/Ravens and got a range of responses.

Around this time Jets/Rubies started to lose favor on the East Coast: while it had a short-term advantage of being easy for dancers used to Gents/Ladies to remember, it had a long term disadvantage of sounding gendered. As advocates realized this, most of them stopped pushing it and instead moved to Larks/Ravens.

At BIDA we did some trial dances and polling, and switched in mid 2017. The LGBT dances that had been using Bands/Bares started moving to Larks/Ravens as well, and by late 2017 there were eight dances using Larks/Ravens, now bicoastally, and only a few using Bands/Bares, Jets/Rubies, or Leads/Follows.

By early 2018 Larks/Ravens was clearly the most popular term, eleven dances had switched, and we were trying to convince others to switch. Dances have continued to consider whether switching is a good fit for them, and we're now at twenty six switched, about six decided to switch but not moved over yet, and many others having discussions on it.

Looking at the data that backs trycontra.com there are about 413 gender-free nights of contra dancing a year, out of 5,936 total, so gender-free dancing is at 7%. It's been a long process, but I'm excited that we have something that's working well.

Update 2022-06-20: in 2019 there was a lot of discussion about "Robins" as a replacement for "Ravens", primarily to avoid the conflict with the Tlingit moiety. Over the next two years most dances switched, and I think by this point they all have? BIDA switched in 2022-04, between when I wrote this and this, though we'd had on our website that callers were welcome to use either for a while.

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