Gotta get back on the horse sometime.


From behind the mic at the last full evening I called: David Kaynor’s Friday night dance in Greenfield, MA.  June 19, 2015.

It took about eight months, but I finally miss calling. That’s 241 days. Or in midwife time, I am 34 1/2 weeks along, with a due date right around the corner. HOORAY! I’ve missed feeling excited about calling for dances.

I’ll admit, when I stopped calling last summer I was pretty exhausted by it. There were lots of practical reasons why I needed to stop when I did, not least of which was that I was starting a major transition to a graduate program that would at times threaten to take my sanity. (Quick aside: Good call, eight-months-younger Danielle. You were right.)

Looking back, though, the single biggest exhausting thing was not related to a time crunch at all: I was emotionally drained. Specifically, I was drained by having to win over a new crowd each night. Starting in August 2014 I called in 12 different states, and never called at the same location more than once. This went on for 10 months. By the end of it, I was wiped.

The difference comes down to the home-team advantage. When I started calling in New Mexico it was to a close community of friends who had become like family. They were excited to see me up there and enthusiastically cheered me on. It was easy. They were always happy, simply because I was one of them.

Not so when you’re an out-of-town caller. I’m not suggesting that dance communities are unfriendly towards visiting callers – on the contrary, dancers, musicians and organizers all across the country have warmly opened their homes and their dance floors to me. It’s just that whenever you walk into a new dance as a visiting caller, the dancers don’t yet have a reason to trust you. You have to work to earn their trust and good will. And it’s hard work.

I have found this work to be the most difficult of anything else involved in the tasks of calling. There isn’t anything you can really practice, exactly. Yes, you want to be prepared, call an interesting dance, read the crowd and all that. But winning over a crowd has to do with so much more than doing a technically-proficient job.

A new crowd reads absolutely everything you do as a visiting caller. They notice what you wear and how you introduce yourself. They watch whether you dance on stage or stand calmly by the mic. They pay attention to whether you tell jokes or stories, whether you are verbose or terse. It matters how friendly you are before the dance and during the break, how comfortable you look up on stage, whether you seem to be having fun or not, whether you remember people’s faces and names who you’ve met earlier in the evening.

I do it too, if I don’t know the caller. What reason do I have to trust them until they give me one?

So other than the old adage that time heals all, what else has changed to reset my dial from burned out to fired up? Answer: dance weekend fairy dust.

This past month I’ve attended two events that gave me the fuel I needed to feel the love again. I got a boost in caller’s courage at the Ralph Page Legacy Dance Weekend, and got a big warm East Coast community hug at the Flurry Festival.

Last month I attended the Ralph Page Legacy Dance Weekend in Durham, NH on a caller’s scholarship. (Shout out to the awesome scholarship committee!)

The weekend was so many kinds of wonderful – heartwarming, encouraging, exciting, relaxing, stimulating, thought-provoking, challenging, reassuring, hilarious, confidence-building, rejuvenating, and above all, sweet as pie. Afterwards I felt more connected to the tradition of American folk dance than I ever have before. It reinvigorated me to get back up behind the mic to share these rich traditions with modern communities. Conversations with other callers gave me the information, context, and inspiration to move forward as a new caller. I was reminded that I could contribute my own “flavor” to the melting pot that is the ever-evolving folk tradition.

Then this past weekend I finally attended the Flurry Festival in Saratoga Springs, NY. It lived up to all the hype. The workshops were great, the dancing was fantastic, and best of all, I realized that I know people!!! There were friendly faces all over to dance and chat with. It was encouraging to realize that I am indeed gaining ground in finding community here in this north east corner. Maybe I am succeeding in putting down roots among these beautiful humans, after all.

And finally, both of these weekends highlighted how lucky I have been with wonderful mentors. I’m not sure how aware they all are of the impact they’ve had on me. I think this will merit its own post in the future, but for now: thank you, kind caller mentors. You have helped more than you know.

Maybe I’ll even stare down the barrel of a microphone in 2016. Go for gold, eh?


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.

Part 2: Gender Trouble in the Dance Itself

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

In addition to gender trouble in contra dance via clothing, there is also gender trouble in the physical dance itself. One example is in choosing dance partners. There is a growing subversion of “traditional” dance roles in contra dance. The traditional expectations that still dominate most American social dancing is pretty much what you’d expect: man dances with woman, man leads woman, blah, blah, blah. To the excitement of many, several social dance types are currently turning this on its head – including contra dance.

In contra, many dancers dance with whichever partner they please, regardless of gender presentation. There is even the occasional pair of people who join at the hip and move through the dance as one “person.” This brings to my mind Native American two-spirit identities, and also reinforces the fact that gender is multifaceted in different ways for different people, period. To facilitate the process of finding other dancers who dance outside the binary dance roles, some dancers wear buttons on their shirts that read “I dance both roles.” And it doesn’t matter who asks who to dance. Ladies’ choice is such a thing that it is not even mentioned as a thing.

The gender-free contra dance movement is an important trend which in some ways formalizes subversive aspects that exist within contra dance. Formalizing gender trouble into advertised events creates a happy cycle where more people hear about gender-free contra, thus using it more in regular contra events, thus spreading the love of gender-free dancing to new folks who may then attend the formal gender-free events. Voilà, the mechanism of social change.

Lastly and importantly for gender trouble, contra dance provides an opportunity to overtly change one’s own gender performance multiple times in an evening. Each individual dance is a chance to perform gender in a different way, whether by dress, partner choice, dance role, or other creative expression.

However, gender trouble is not universal among contra dancers. It is certainly possible to get by a whole evening of dance with the reinforcement of stereotypical gender norms, where women let men do all of the asking and leading. Some dancers prefer this for their own experience of the dance event. Full disclosure: I’ll admit to often being one of them, which is a preference and privilege in part influenced by my presentation as a cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied young woman. Despite this preference, there is ample opportunity to mix it up when I wish. I can find a same-gender partner, or a gender-nonconforming partner, or dance the role of the gent, or be the one asking others to dance, or switch dance roles with my partner multiple times during the dance, or… the list goes on as long as there are creative and diverse dancers to perform gender to their own personal pleasure. Gender performance is possible in the very way that we move our bodies across the floor; for example, when confined to the role of “lady” or “follow,” I can express my role as entirely passive, or I can assert my own creativity into the spaces that exist within the choreography. I can blend and switch and meld and loosen and strengthen and create as I please. Such is the beauty of the body.

Contra dance provides opportunities both subtle and overt for fluid gender performance that few other areas in my life provide. It seems so common to me to find gender trouble (again, Judith Butler’s words, not mine) in contra dance that it is almost as if we are moving towards a time when an individual’s gender trouble is no longer subversive within the contra dance; instead, contra dance communities can start to serve as subversive, gender-troubling bodies within broader American music and dance culture.

This essay is to be concluded in Part 3: Opportunities for Intergroup Contact.

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.

First snow

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Steamy windows at the Bennington, VT contra dance

It seems fitting that I called my first Vermont contra on the night of the first snow. I drove there with flurries coming at my windshield, and drove back seeing white margins to the slick road. And I felt so totally at home in this chilly corner of the country. It’s going to be a great winter. Or, as my dad puts it, an “epic season” – let the snowboarding commence!

Calling-wise, it felt good to be back behind the mic. I was pretty pooped after the grand journey, and took a month off to settle into New England. Now I’m excited to be making new ties in the surrounding community.

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Spare Parts with Eric Buddington

Tonight’s dance was full of excited beginners who made me excited to be there. I know I’m doing my best when I laugh so hard watching the dancers laugh that I almost miss a call. Sifting through my box to find the dances I want continues to be less efficient than I would like it to be, though. I think it’s time for a purge, to get rid of dance cards that I know I’ll never use. Like spring cleaning. With snow on the ground.

Life is good.