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