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.