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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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.