Saturday, March 7, 2015

Why I started calling "Lead" and "Follow" for contras

Apparently there's been a recent explosion of conversation among contra callers about what terminology to use when calling, and an online poll on the topic. I haven't read all of the conversation yet myself, but I just helped launch a new dance series in Philly using the terms "lead" and "follow," and a number of people have asked why I made that decision. I thought it would be helpful to explain some of my thinking.

Before I begin, I should note that the decision wasn't made in a vacuum - my housemates Patrick and Shane suggested it, and we had several conversations about it before our first dance. This post, however, is about my own personal reasoning. Also, this gets kind of academic, so if you want the short version it's this:

(1) When starting a new dance, we had a rare opportunity to start our terminology from scratch without confusing new dancers or having to overcome the standard usage of the series, so we went for it. We didn't make an announcement about it or call the dance "gender free," we just did it.

(2) "Lead" and "Follow" are at least somewhat descriptive of the roles, easy for me to remember as a caller, and intuitive to many dancers (especially those who dance other styles).

The long version follows.

Goals of Word Choice

There are a slew of different goals that callers have in mind when choosing which words to use. We want to communicate clearly and concisely. We want to make all dancers feel included, whatever their background or experience level. We want the calls to contribute to the atmosphere and make the dance fun. We also want to connect this dance to a greater tradition and larger community of folk musicians and dancers. We're performers, but also teachers and representatives of the community.

The use of gender-prescriptive language can make some dancers feel less welcome, but can also affect the overall atmosphere of a dance. On the other hand, many callers feel that they are able to most effectively communicate and connect to the tradition of the dance by using the language of gender.

I don't think that these various goals are necessarily competing with each other, but they all need to be considered.

Prescription and Translation

So this brings us to my first main point, which may surprise some people - I don't think that using the terms "gent" and "lady" is problematic on its own. There are two different roles in contra dancing, and noting that one is the traditional "gents' role" and the other is the traditional "lady's role" doesn't enforce gender as long as it's clear that each role can in fact by danced by anyone. The word "gent" just becomes a code word for one of a roles, rather than prescribing who should dance the role. The dancers can translate the term "gent" in their head to mean "the person who ends swings on the left" or some other equivalent description.

That said, I find the calling habits of many or most callers problematic, because that isn't the end of the influence of gender on their language. Many callers will use the words "gents," "men," and even "boys" interchangeably, and use "he" and "she" to describe individual hypothetical dancers dancing the roles. They will make coy references to the assumed gender of the dancers by saying things like "women are always right" or "I emphasize the 'gentle' in 'gentlemen'" or even "the women go to the center and the men start salivating."

When we talk about the atmosphere of the dance and making dancers feel welcome, this is what we're really concerned about - language that prescribes a gender (and gender-specific behavior) for a dance role. I would strongly encourage callers who use any terminology for the roles to think about the impact of all the language they use when teaching and calling. The choice of terminology is neither the only nor the most important choice made by a caller when it comes to making dancers feel welcome and comfortable.

That all said, the use of gender-neutral calling terms, all else being equal, seems like an advantage on its own. If I think of the terms "gents" and "ladies" as just code words for the roles, why not pick code words that lack a gender association? Or what if we could just skip the translation step altogether?

"Lead or Follow?"

So assuming we're going to use gender-neutral terms of some kind, the next question is: which ones? There are a lot of options that have been proposed, such as "elms and maples," or "jets and rubies." There are dances that distinguish on the basis of who wears an arm band. The basic reason I didn't want to use any of these is that they seem too arbitrary.

"But Bryan, weren't arbitrary terms the point? We're trying to eliminate the gender associations of the traditional terms!" Fair point, straw-person, but remember what I said about translating code-words above? If the term has no relationship to the role at all, then what happens in dancer's heads is that they translate "jet" into "gent" (and then into something more descriptive, like "person typically on the left"), and the terminology starts to feel like an exercise in covering up gender associations, rather than a means of eliminating them.

So like I said before, why not skip the translation step altogether? When I started thinking about gender neutral terms, there was one point that kept resurfacing in my head: No matter what terms were being used by the caller, if I wanted to ask another dancer which role they preferred, every time, at every dance, I would use these words: "Lead or follow?" I think most others who dance both roles in contra ask the same question. The same words appeared on the first generation of "I dance both roles" buttons worn by many dancers.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew, in my heart of hearts, that the roles in contra dancing are "lead" and "follow," and that every other term used by callers is a translation. It's true that compared to most other social dances, the roles are more equal, and that many moves don't require a "lead" because they are choreographed and performed autonomously. However, the distinction between the roles, aside from happenstance starting positions, comes out when executing flourishes, which are typically initiated by the person in the gent/elm/left-default role. That's called a lead.

There is no inherent gender association of the terms "lead" and "follow", and there's nothing demeaning about dancing the "follow" role (it's a real skill to be able to listen to another dancer's movements). I understand that some dancers specifically appreciate the relative equality of the roles in contra (I do, too), and want to distinguish the relationship of the roles in contra from the roles in couple dances such as swing or blues. By the same token, however, using the terms "lead" and "follow" in contra makes the dance more intuitive to those with couple-dancing experience. In Philadelphia, many of the young dancers who are interested in contra are also blues dancers, and to them it would seem strange for us to use any terms other than "lead" and "follow." Many of these same dancers dance both roles in blues.

I am aware of arguments against the use of "lead" and "follow" in contra, and to play devil's advocate I tried to raise these arguments when discussing terminology with my fellow organizers. In the process of trying to make the point, the arguments all felt forced coming out of my mouth. So I decided to give "lead" and "follow" a shot.

The Result

This is the most important point, in my mind: using the terms "lead" and "follow" just worked. In our first dance, new dancers and experienced dancers all picked the terms up and danced without apparent confusion. As a caller, once I got used to it, the terms felt totally natural. The thing that really surprised me is that aside from one or two people saying "Hey, I appreciate the gender-neutral calling," we didn't even get feedback about it. There wasn't a big debate. There wasn't a divide between the progressive and conservative dancers. Everyone just danced.

Many of the considerations above will vary from community to community. There are reasons why our dance in Center City Philadelphia was able to use the terms so smoothly, and anyone else having this discussion about their own dance series needs to consider their local culture. As far as Contradelphia is concerned, though, we are sticking with "lead" and "follow," and perfectly content with it.

-Bryan Suchenski

Monday, January 19, 2015

Contradelphia! And New Dances!

Time for an update in the life of Bryan-the-Caller. I've been calling more and more frequently, and just over a week ago my housemates and I launched a brand new dance series in downtown Philadelphia called Contradelphia, which was a success by every measure: there were 80+ dancers at our very first event and lots of energy in the hall, and the new dancers all seemed to get along fine and stay the whole evening.

One thing that was interesting for me as the caller was our decision as a group to use gender-neutral calling. Traditionally, contra dances are called with a "gents" role and "ladies" role, but anyone can dance either role. Given the fact that not all gents-role-dancers are men, a lot of people in the community have discussed using gender-neutral terms, and for Contradelphia I went with "lead" and "follow," because those are the most common terms in other forms of social dancing. What ultimately surprised me was how easily the dancers accepted the new terms. I took Shane's advice and made no announcement about the terminology - I just started using the terms in the beginner's workshop as though they were standard, and then started calling that way when the dance began. I made it easier on myself by selecting dances early on that had very few gender-specific moves, so that most of the time I could rely on familiar terms like "neighbor" and "partner," and let myself ease into the words "lead" and "follow" over the course of the night.

Another thing that was interesting for me was calling a relatively new dance I'd written in an audience made up largely of new dancers. Once again, it went more smoothly than I expected, and I have heard that a couple other callers have called my most recent dance, so I figure there's enough interest for me to post the choreography up here:

Winter is Coming, by Bryan Suchenski

A1. Balance the ring, Gents roll neighbor away across the set*
     Balance the ring, Gents roll partner away along set
A2. Balance the ring, Gents draw neighbor to their side and swing

B1. Ladies chain across to Partner
     Promenade across the set and loop counter-clockwise to face new neighbors**
B2. Ladies gypsy R
     Partner swing

*At Contradelphia I called this as "Leads roll your neighbor away across," but I trust the reader to translate terms as appropriate for their calling situation.
**This is the same progression as in Sharks in the Pond. I usually pause after the chain and ask dancers to look on their left diagonal to identify their next neighbor before doing the promenade-loop. The loop is to each dancer's left, but on at least one occasion dancers growled at me when I told them to "loop left," so now I say "counter-clockwise." This progression ends the dancers one space to the right of where they started, along the set (hence, it's a rightward-progressing becket).

The name of the dance, of course, is a reference to Game of Thrones, and at least one person I encountered responded to the name, quite adorably, "I keep hearing people say that phrase, but it sounds so mean and ominous!" The original choreography for this dance I settled on six-months ago was much more complicated and included a promenade-into-revolving-doors progression. The concept there was to start with a dance that felt open and bouncy and gradually became intimate and partner-focused (the transition toward Winter, in my head). Some of that feeling was kept in the final version.

Meanwhile, prior to Contradelphia I had started thinking about gender-roles in contra dances by focusing on gender-specific moves, the most egregious of which is the ladies chain. Although there exists a move called the "gents chain," it is called very rarely because it begins with the opposite hand that the ladies chain does (the left-hand), and feels backward, which means that no one in the room knows how to do it properly and it feels awkward for 90% of the dancers. I decided it was silly to have a separate "gents chain" and "ladies chain," so I wrote two dances, in which two moves were separated from their gender roles, and renamed them the "left-hand chain" and "right-hand chain":

Ambidexterity, by Bryan Suchenski

A1. Long lines, roll away (gents in front of P)
     Ladies LH chain to N*
A2. Circle L 1/2 and N swing
B1. Ladies RH chain to P
     Pass through across, turn R and promenade single along set
B2. P gypsy and swing**

*This is the move often called "gents chain." It is identical to the typical ladies chain, except it begins by offering the left hand across to the other lady, and the courtesy turn ends with the lady on the left. For the courtesy turn, the rule remains: right hand to right hand, left to left, gents back up, ladies go forward. Let dancers practice the new chain a couple times.
**To face their partner, ladies should turn over their right shoulder to begin the gypsy on the side of the set across from their new neighbors.

Equivalent Exchange, by Bryan Suchenski
Becket (starts in lines/4)

A1. Down the hall, turn alone, back
A2. Gents RH chain to N*
Star L
B1. New N balance & swing
B2. Give and take to ladies side
P swing, end facing down

*The converse of Ambidexterity - here the gents are performing the move typically called the "ladies chain." It is identical to the ladies chain, in every way, except executed by gents, with the ladies courtesy-turning them. That means that gents end up on the right, and ladies on the left. Remind dancers not to "fix" this or they'll end up in the wrong place after the star!

Of the two, Equivalent Exchange is my preferred dance to call, both because it's easier for dancers to pick up and, in my mind, more directly confronts the typical role restrictions. I've called it at Pinewoods Camp and elsewhere, and any reasonably open-minded audience should have no difficulty with it.