What do I do with my power?

A 21 year old white male shoots and kills 9 peaceful African American churchgoers.

An ill-informed group equates racial appropriation with the transgender experience.

A town strong-arms a decision to turn a public green space into a parking lot.

Injustice takes many forms. In the face of such selfishness, bigotry, hatred, ignorance and disrespect, I feel small and powerless. I feel the cynicism that has come to be such a regrettable hallmark of my generation. I feel like the only “right” reaction is to cry out, thrust out the picket sign, and place myself on national television to decry the degradation that has overtaken our societies. And in the same breath I know that that is not me.

So what do I do from my place of privilege? What do I do with the skill set and passions that I possess? (Some days I feel as though I have no skills at all but a bullheaded will. Even if that were true, wouldn’t it be enough to make some small change?)

Dancing is one of those forms of power and privilege. The fact that I have the free time, available transportation, and expendable income to spend on dancing is a manifestation of my privilege. Communities of dancers are often communities that can wield significant social, economic, and political power.

Some may question whether social change should be the responsibility of social dance groups. I say, if not here, then where? Where do we draw the line between our pleasurable activities and the activities that “really matter?” Equality, justice, and integrity should fundamental to all aspects of our lives – at least, these are things I strive for. For me, this includes both inner and outer expressions of rebellion, community, and integral values. Communities of any kind are compilations of individual power, and can be used to make positive change in our world.

I am inspired by authors who use fantastical settings and compelling characters to explore our societal ills.

I am inspired by dancers who believe that we can blend pleasure with powerful change.

I am inspired by advocates and ninjas and providers who put it all on the line for what they believe in.

What are you inspired by? What do you do with your power?


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.

Social Justice in the Buckle of the Bible Belt

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Kentucky dirt roads

“What were your impressions of today?”
“My impressions are that if I’m not careful, I might move to Kentucky.”

Almost as soon as I crossed over the border from Tennessee, the landscape changed. There were more hills. Thicker trees. It reminded me of home in Vermont.

The weekend was spent drinking tea, eating garden-fresh veggies, walking, and discussing matters of social justice. Berea is a unique place. A small city of about 14,000, it boasts a lively artistic community, the first abolitionist church in the south, and the liberal arts Berea College. It is a hub of progressive thinking located in the buckle of the Bible belt.

On Saturday afternoon we went to a panel on community policing and police brutality. It was hosted by Berea College students and featured four community panel members, including the city mayor and the chief of the Berea police department. The dialogue in that room was incredible. There were high tensions due to recent events in Ferguson, MO, which is just under six-hour drive away. This being the first meeting between the Berea police chief and the Berea college students, it could have been an ugly conversation. In fact, I’d say that in most communities it would have been an ugly conversation. But there was a stronger force held in the room than anger or frustration or sadness or fear: respect. All parties ultimately respected themselves and each other to such a degree that real, productive dialogue could occur.

I couldn’t help but think back to events that I have witnessed in Albuquerque over the last several years, with a police force that now has a national reputation for excessive brutality. There is so much anger in Albuquerque over the killings at the hands of APD officers. How could some of the earlier conversations gone differently if all participants agreed to the same rules of conduct that were followed in Berea this past Saturday? Could they be implemented now, or is there such a thing as it being “too late” to expect respect?

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Sunday afternoon concert by Dr. Javier Clavere

On Sunday morning I attended the worship service at Union Church, where Rev. Kent Gilbert (also my wonderful host for the weekend) preached a powerful sermon on forgiveness. Stakes were high here, too, because the church is working hard to pass a fairness ordinance in the city that would protect LGBTQ individuals against discrimination due to perceived gender identity or perceived sexual orientation. The final public hearing on the ordinance was Tuesday. No one knows how the city council will vote.

These kinds of communities are so inspiring. Rev. Gilbert told us in his sermon about how back in the early days of Union Church, many men couldn’t attend the Sunday service. They were too busy riding shotgun around the church – literally, riding around with shotguns at the ready – in case anyone decided to attack the anti-slavery church in a slave-holding state. Shotguns aside, how much have our politics really changed?

I left Kentucky wondering when I could return. And I haven’t even mentioned the new English Country Dance series, the Berea College professor who played all of Mozart’s sonatas in a weekend, or the lively contra dance in Lexington. All of these things make up what a community should be: joyful living, plus a fierce drive to work towards social justice and equality for all. Someone get me an “I ❤ KY” tshirt or something, because I’ve gone ALL fangirl.