Part 3: Opportunities for Intergroup Contact

This is the final section of a three-part exploratory essay on gender and contra dance. You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

Copied from Part 1, 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.

One of the ways contra encourages the development of safe spaces is in the way the structure of the dance itself forces participants to interact with each other.

Prejudice is based on fear. Fear is assuaged by one-on-one interactions with members of a group – as Rachel Godsil and her colleagues call it, by “intergroup contact” (p. 49). Contra dance is a textbook case of an opportunity for intergroup contact – if and only if individuals with diverse identities choose to attend.

Contra is danced in long lines where every 30 seconds, you and your partner move down the line to dance with new neighbors. You usually get to pick your partner, but you do not get to pick your neighbors. (Exception: select few dance communities have certain lines of dancers who self-select for a more experienced group, leaving less experienced dancers to populate the other lines. This is destructive for the reasons I am about to mention.) In contra, you get in a line of dancers with your partner, and during the dance you will dance with most of the neighbors in that line. This is in contrast to other social dances such as square dancing, where dancers can self-select the other seven dancers in their small square, or partner dances like tango or swing, where you choose one partner for each dance.

The pattern of contra dance choreography means that you must dance with your neighbors. Even if one of your neighbors intimidates you. Even if your neighbor displays signs of gender trouble (see Part 1 for a review of Judith Butler’s concept) that make you uncomfortable or curious. Before you have time to realize it has happened, you find yourself holding hands with someone who, from the outside, may visually represent an identity that you typically have very little interaction with. You hold hands with these neighbors, put your arms around them for a swing, and work together in unison to follow the flow of the dance. This is intergroup contact. And this has the potential to break barriers of prejudice that exist between many identity groups both in and outside of contra dance communities.

A note on intersectionality

Overall, I experience contra dance as an increasingly welcoming space for people of all genders. I hope this is true in others’ experiences. It is less a space for people of color or people living with disabilities, which is I know something that at least one organization is working to address. While I believe (hope?) that most contra dance communities are welcoming to individuals of color and individuals who are differently-abled, the numbers simply aren’t there. Contra dancing is not as diverse a community as I hope it can become.

The opportunity that contra dance presents to provide intergroup contact is one of the reasons I believe it is so important to make contra dance a more open community for people of all identities. It is an opportunity to further break down barriers of prejudice that exist within even the most well-intentioned communities. Aside from these opportunities to become a better society, I believe it is important to widen our doors to people of many identities and experiences because contra dance is just so darn fun. And everyone deserves to giggle.

Final thoughts

I would love to hear from other dancers if their views of gender trouble and intergroup contact in contra dance are similar to my own.

  • Are contra communities succeeding in being a friendly, safe space for people of all genders?
  • Where can we improve?
  • How can we make our dances more inclusive for people of other identities and groups: people of color, people who are differently-abled, immigrants, people of all body types and sexualities and genders and ages and orientations and nationalities and preferences and personhoods?
  • How can we leverage the inherent structure of contra dance to affect positive social change in our society?

think we are doing well by comparison to other social settings. And I know that we can continue to do better.


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