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.

Camping alone

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The lighthouse at Elk Neck State Park, MD.

I only camped four nights during this month-long trip: once in the Arkansas Hot Springs National Park, once along the Blue Ridge Parkway outside of Asheville, and two nights in Elk Neck State Park in Maryland. By and large these were uneventful, peaceful sojourns.

Camping in Maryland was the exception.

First of all, it was $27 a night for off-season camping. $27. A night. Yep. Secondly, you were required to camp on their tent pads, but the tent pads had such hard-packed dirt/gravel that I spent twenty minutes and bent four stakes when I tried to stake down with a hammer in preparation for the oncoming storm.

Then there was the storm. The afternoon of my first day in the park, the weather prediction was 30% chance of rain in the early evening. I thought, okay, no big deal. A little rain never hurt anyone. I staked down my tent as best I could and went to sleep.

At 2 a.m. I woke up thinking I was about to take a ride on Noah’s arc. In one corner of the tent, the vinyl bottom was floating up from the ground – I couldn’t tell whether from wind or water. I pushed it down several times with my hand like you might test a waterbed and got similar results. I stuck my hand outside the tent. It was just wind.

It was a noisy night. OnceI realized sleep was out of the question, I made excellent progress on the sock I was knitting.

By morning it was still gusting and blowing. I figured that packing up camp at 7 a.m. in the rain wasn’t any different from packing up camp at 1 p.m., so I spent an hour wrestling my tent, pad, sleeping bag and various items into my car. A ranger drove by three separate times, windows warmly sealed up against the now-horizontal rain. I could have thrown a bent tent stake at them. You’re enjoying watching this, aren’t you, you dry person you?

Gear in trunk, I drove to the camp exit and took advantage of the overhang at the registration center to rearrange some of my gear out of the driving rain. A ranger came up to the window. I thought, oh, that’s nice, she wants to see how I did in the storm. I rolled down my window.

“Hi there, I was just using your overhang to repack some of my gear out of the rain. I stayed over the past two nights.”

“I know. I saw you staying at site 165. It wasn’t paid for.”

I stared at her. There were two occupied sites in the whole place. And she was telling me I stole her $27 camping?

“No ma’am, I was in site 168. See, I have both nights’ receipts right here.” I held out the two large, manila hangers with the numbers “168” written right below today and yesterday’s dates.

“I saw you there.”

“I’m sorry, I paid already.”

She pursed her lips at me. I wished I had a tent stake again.

“I’m pretty sure I saw you in 165.”

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Drying myself out at a diner after a wet night in Elk Neck State Park, MD.

One of us got our numbers mixed up. I’ll go ahead and say it was probably me. But I was so mad that the rangers had offered zero help during the storm, zero interest in saying hello to one of the three campers they had in the whole park, and now, sitting in my car absolutely soaked to the bone, with my two receipts for some equivalent but one-digit-off camp site – I lost all patience. And I drove away.

So, ladies, beware – the dangers of camping alone lie not in aggressive strangers but in bored and vindictive park rangers. Let it be known.

For the record, sites 165 and 168 are both the same $27 dollars a night.

A rhythm to the road

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Yoga to soothe and reenergize

If I’m not listening to something on the car stereo, I love listening to the lull of the road. Strips of rough pavement separate the smoothly paved parts, and the car thumps predictably between the two like a baby carriage over cracks in the sidewalk.

There is a rhythm to traveling. When you hit the right pace, days flow by while time is suspended, not essential in the way it is essential when other people are counting on you to be somewhere at a certain time.

This rhythm varies by trip. On this trip, the pace I liked best was two nights in each location. One night to get my feet grounded, one night to explore. Enough to take a breath without diluting the mystery a new locale holds in the air.

It is a bit trickier to find this rhythm when on tour.  It takes some of the flexibility and spontaneity out of the traveling to have booked gigs on specific dates – although it is a tradeoff balanced by the benefits of meeting such wonderful communities along the way.  I could only keep that pace up for so long, however, and two weeks ago in Asheville I crashed. I was inexplicably exhausted, and slept like a teenager for four days. I suppose I can only say – it happens.

Tea shops are great for this kind of fatigue – I spent two days in Dobra Tea in Asheville. So are kind friends who let you stay in their houses longer than planned (thank you, Rick!). So are blank journal pages and yoga pants.

I keep pushing on. Keep pushing north.

Joy: A Waterlogged Travel Log


Morning joy and dance in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Yesterday I put my feet in the ocean for the first time in over a year. Technically it was the Potomac river, but it had sand and seashells and strong waves and felt like the ocean except for the fact that you could see land on the other side of the water.

A few days ago while camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I encountered a fog so thick I had to stop driving.

When I go to bed every night, my sheets feel damp and the pages of my book are clammy.

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Mist in the Blue Ridge Mountains

I’m still drinking water like I’m in the desert. I’m visiting lots of public bathrooms.

In short, water is everywhere. I keep warily eyeing the trees and ponds and rivers that I see now on a daily basis. I don’t trust them. I half expect them to disappear. I suppose after four years in the desert, I can’t quite let myself believe that I am really back in the forests to stay. That no one is going to make me leave.

That I may once again think that it is unremarkable to be surrounded by green things.