Visual Role Markers

February 1st, 2017
contra, gender
Traditionally contra had two roles, "Gents" and "Ladies", where men danced the "Gents" role and women the "Ladies", and so you could tell what role someone was dancing from their appearance. This had some nice aspects:
  • The caller can easily see whether dancers have gotten mixed up, and fix things if need be.
  • Other dancers can more easily tell which person they're supposed to be interacting with (your neighbor is always opposite gendered, the other person in a ladies chain should be female, etc).
  • Partnering is easier, because someone who only likes to dance the "Lady" role just needs to look for someone male they'd like to dance with.
But there were also a bunch of problems, that have been becoming more of an issue over time:
  • Sometimes two men or two women want to dance with each other.
  • Some people aren't male or female, some others have an ambiguous gender presentation.
  • Sometimes two opposite gender dancers want to dance "swapped", in the opposite of the roles you would expect from their genders.
  • Some dancers want to switch gender as they go, or dance to dance.
Within the contra community, especially in less conservative areas, there's been a slow expansion here to where people now generally view "Gent" and "Lady" as roles anyone can take on. If I as a male-appearing person want to dance the "Lady" role, all I need to do is confidently be in the right place at the right time. Instead of using my gender to figure out what role I'm dancing, people use my position. This is called "positional dancing" or "dance with who's comin' atchya."

Typically new dancers go with the dance role that matches their social gender, and don't try dancing the other role until they know what they're doing. This works pretty well: the caller and experienced dancers can figure that if they see new dancers gender-swapped that they could use help. But it also means that new people are pushed into dancing one role, even if they would rather dance the other. Plus it pushes people into cross-gender partnering and, in the lead-follow style, into men-leading women-following. And while it doesn't seem weird to me at all anymore to be referred to as the "Lady" when I dance that role, some people never get comfortable with the idea of being referred to by the "wrong" term.

The solution I think makes the most sense here is to switch to a different set of terms for the roles, ones that don't reference gender. I like "Larks/Ravens" for "Gents/Ladies" for several reasons:

  • "L"arks start on the "L"eft, "R"avens start on the "R"ight.
  • Clear difference in sound
  • One-syllable replacement for one-syllable "Gents" and two-syllable replacement for two-syllable "Ladies".
  • Currently used successfully at six dances.
If we fully separate dance role from social gender, however, how do we handle newer dancers not being experienced enough to dance positionally yet? For example, each time people swing they should end with the "Lark" on the left and the "Raven" on the right, but new dancers often end up the other way. This can suddenly throw you into needing to do a different set of choreography, which makes things even more confusing for new dancers. If I see a male-female couple where both people look new and confused, and they're standing with the woman on the left and the man on the right as I come towards them, at the very least I'm going to be strongly aware that they might have gotten swapped. I might ask quickly about roles, or be attentive for a sudden look of confusion, but mostly I'm aware something might need fixing. If anyone not only can dance either role but actually does, then this doesn't work.

One solution for dealing with this is to have one role wear some kind of visual role indicator. Historically, gender-free contra dances have used armbands for the (historical) "Gent" role and called the two roles "Armbands" or "Bands" and "Barearms" or "Bares". The main problem with this is that the armbands get in the way if you want to switch roles from dance to dance, or between dances, plus they look kind of silly, so experienced dancers often don't want to wear them. But this means you can't tell the difference between someone who doesn't want to wear a band and someone who is trying to signal what role they're dancing by not wearing a band.

A clear solution to this is to have different colored bands for the two roles, and a culture of "use them if they're useful to you". Weirdly, for such a simple idea I hadn't heard anyone propose it before yesterday. New dancers, and experienced dancers that want to make it clear what role they're dancing, can wear visual indicators, and if someone doesn't have an indicator then you just figure they're probably in the right place. This also means that if you only want to dance one of the roles you could wear the appropriate indicator, and people can take that into account when asking you to dance.

Since it's widely known that ravens are black, people could tie on short lengths of black flagging tape to indicate the "Raven" role. Most people don't have a clear association for the color of larks, out of the colors of flagging tape that are widely available (non-fluorescent)yellow probably makes the most sense. Flagging tape is what the "Band" / "Bare" gender free dances already use, and is very cheap. [1]

I was previously opposed to markers, on the grounds that they were annoying and dancing positionally still works reasonably well with new dancers, but having markers for both roles removes my objections and moves me into the "good to have them available for people who want them" camp.

Update 2017-10-06: when BIDA switched we didn't end up trying role markers at all; we just dance positionally.

[1] If each dancer needs 1.5ft, and twenty dancers per evening decide to use markers, then a $26 (shipped) case (3,600ft) comes to $0.22/evening and a case lasts for 120 evenings.

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