Part 1: Gender Trouble and Contra Dance, An Introduction.

Perhaps it is because I read Bad Feminist last week and feel like I have my feminist superhero outfit on, but I am thinking lately about gendered performance in contra dance. I’ve tackled some of my current thoughts in an essay that I will release in three parts: Gender Trouble and Contra Dance, An Introduction; Gender Trouble in the Dance Itself; and Opportunities for Intergroup Contact. To make sense of the lens I will be using, bear with me through some background on the particular gender theory I’d like to thread through this essay.

Judith Butler argues that our gender manifests in each of us through repeated performances, rather than being an inevitability determined by some magic wand. In other words, we create our gender day-to-day by how we perform it. These performances include ways we talk, dress, move, and interact with the world. Further, Butler dismisses the culturally-determined gender binary as an overly-simplistic fairy tale that divides the human race into male and female categories. To subvert (read: bash with a large hammer) this gender binary, Butler introduces what she calls “gender trouble”. Gender trouble is the performance of gender behaviors that confound and complicate stereotypically binary gender assumptions.

Background over.

All of this cerebral theoretical jargon is included to lead us to my key point: I think that contra dance is a space that can both reinforce and subvert traditional gender performances – often at the same time. Further, I think that in an open dance community, dancers can move fluidly between multiple gender expressions, causing plenty of gender trouble within any given evening or even individual dance.

One final detour for a major disclaimer before we move on: for parts one and two of this essay, I refer to “male” and “female” or “man” and “woman” as being whichever gender a person chooses to present as, regardless of cis- or transgender experience. Gender is a sticky subject, and I am not an expert. So I’ll try to proceed in as respectful a manner as I can with my limited lens & experience. Okay. Anxiety of going public with this essay somewhat taking over here.

The most obvious expression of gender subversion to an outside eye would probably be the unconventional dress code that threads through many contra dance communities. Contra dancers often do not adhere to traditional, gender-binary clothing notions. For example, it is common to see men wearing skirts. For some this may be because, well, twirling is just more fun in a skirt. For others, contra dance may be a safe space to wear whatever they damn well please. Either way, this is gender trouble. And gender-troubling clothing doesn’t stop with the skirt. I have seen all manner of creative, gender-troubling clothing at contra dance events. Women in vests and neckties, men in dresses, all genders in colorful, wild, loose, or skintight fabrics – there is no standard dress code for the folkie community. And this, exactly this, is an example of what contributes to making contra dance a safer space than most for gender trouble.

I will mention a last note on clothing that shows that despite contra dance’s relatively open atmosphere, there are still many ways that the gender binary persists and coexists alongside gender trouble. Dance organizers often encourage women dancing the gent’s role to wear men’s neckties to designate their dance role. This is a performance that could be read either as subversion or as binary reinforcement – and I hope we can hold the space in our brains to do both. The first reading would say that by women wearing neckties, they are causing all kinds of gender trouble and asserting their ability to be whichever dance role – and perhaps by extension, whichever gender – they choose. On the flip side, the other reading could be that this is reinforcing the gender binary by continuing to tie a necktie to the male gender and thus strengthen the knot binding the male gender to the male dance role. Puns intended.

This essay is to be continued with Part 2: Gender Trouble in the Dance Itself.

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8 thoughts on “Part 1: Gender Trouble and Contra Dance, An Introduction.

  1. Glad to see a serious look at this. I almost stopped going to contra dances when women sitting on the sideline said not to worry….I’d find a husband here if I came often enough. Their friends had. They made all kinds of assumptions about me. Then I found that if I danced the woman parts, very large men, whether in skirts or not, were aggressive…so aggressive that I was off the floor and too dizzy to stand afterwards. I know people love these dances….I used to teach them years ago. But now I hate them. If I go it is to hear the music.

  2. First of all, thanks for writing this. Conversations like this are super important. One thing I noticed is that you are still using the gender binary/gender spectrum model. I would challenge you to move outside of these ideas, as it was a bit off putting even though I resonated with a lot of what you said. If you would like to talk about with me feel free to send me a message to talk about it.

  3. One good solution I’ve seen is a dancer wearing a button “I dance both gender roles”. This way, it’s up to both dancers which person wants to dance which role. Very often, dancers offer to dance on the left (male role) or on the right (female role). If they’re experienced dancers, they may switch roles half-way through the dance. This solutions seems quite egalitarian to me.

  4. I’m missing the point a little bit here. If you replace “trouble” by “fluid”, I would say “yes, we know that — old news”. But “trouble” is a bit pejorative, and makes it feel like you are trying to find a problem were there is none. I see only opportunity here: for contra dance to provide a window into just how complicated gender can be.

  5. When dancing the ‘lead’ role that some call ‘man,’ I wear a necktie solely to help dancers orient to space. “Oh, she’s a guy, so I’m in the right spot.” We have a lot of confusion unrelated to gender in Albuquerque, as you know.

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