Gender-neutral partner dance

All of the kinds of dance I do are partner-oriented — you are usually dancing with a room full of people, but there is one other person with whom you are dancing the most, and they are called your "partner".

Traditionally, one person in the partnership is called "woman" and the other person is called "man", even if this isn't who you actually are.

Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT traditional that this IS who you are. The tradition is only that this is what you are called. For one, through history there have often been more women than men at dances, so women have always danced with other women as partners. And there have always been groups of people who believed that dance should be single-sex to avoid cooties or sexual impropriety or whatever, again thus dancing with same-sex partners despite rampant heterosexuality (including many groups of men dancing together). And there have always been gay people, and there have always been intersex people, and it's always been the case that many of these people have been involved in dance (just like everyone else). Bit by bit, one way or another, it has NEVER been the case that partnered dance has invariably involved one man and one woman.

Anyway, I think that these gendered role names are not merely inaccurate but actively problematic for a large number of reasons, not all of them political, and I wanted to write this web page to explain

(You can skip certain bits below if you're allergic to left-wing politics, but many of the points are not political at all, and many of them are only partially political in a way which can't easily be separated so I decided not to attempt to write separate non-political and political sections.)


Many forms of partnered dance have a history which includes their use in courtship (dating).

But dance is its own reward. Just as music addresses an innate human desire (or perhaps need), movement to that music is a form of participating in the music which enhances your enjoyment of the music while also taking that involvement in a new and rewarding direction. This includes dance, but also includes simple movements such as tapping your toes to the music, or walking in time to the beat. So this is just about as universal as music itself.

So there have always been people interested in dance with no interest in courtship (the disinterest in courtship has many obvious possible reasons).

Nowadays, folk dance (e.g. English Country Dance, Scottish Country Dance, Modern American Square Dance, and other kinds of dance I do) is generally seen as completely separate from courtship even when partnered — no more a matter for courtship than is playing bridge together or any other social activity (any of which could, of course, lead to dating in appropriate circumstances; but almost all of the time does not).

But these courtship origins have led to some odd practices from time to time which can cause discomfort and other problems. The further away we get from the courtship-related legacies in folk dance the better, stronger, and larger of a community we can become.

And to be clear, there have also always been gay people involved in dance, including in partner-oriented dance even under a presumption of heterosexuality. Because we all want to dance.

Problems with gendering in partner dance

If dancing is for courtship (e.g. the quotation possibly-apocryphally attributed to George Bernard Shaw that "dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire"), and if heterosexuality is presumed, then in partnered dance we might expect that one person would be a woman and the other person a man.

All of the forms of folk dance I do have this historical presumption. If two men or two women are dancing together, one of them is traditionally called "the woman" and one "the man", even if just as role names for the dance.

And the dance roles for the two partners are often at least slightly different in terms of what you have to do, thus in teaching and calling and discussion we often need to refer to the role names. So the names are very visible.

Odder still, if a woman and a man are dancing together, there's a presumption as to which role which of them will do. In Scottish Country Dance, there are many more women than men, so it's common for two women to "have to" dance with each other, with one of them dancing "as the man", so women get used to dancing both roles. Men have the privilege of only having to learn one role (the roles are not all that different, but there are some differences; dancing always the same role is easier). Worst of all, the expectations mean that men never get to dance with other men as partners.

I'm there to dance, and to dance with people; I want to dance with everyone.

Still, it seems that this needn't necessarily be a problem. We just need to acknowledge that "woman" and "man" are just role names when it comes to dance; we can say that everyone is welcome to dance either role; you can be a woman or a man or both or neither; anyone can dance with anyone as partner.

This turns out not to be good enough. It's a big step forward, but it doesn't completely eliminate the problem.

Here are some of the problems which this leaves.

• Strangely, if you say that a dance role is a man (for example), people still assume that that dance role is for a man. Well, it's not really that strange when you put it like that! A man dancing that role is dancing where he's supposed to be, and a woman dancing that role is an interloper, however much we assure everyone that that's ok. It might be ok, but it's still a temporary aberration.

• A great number of men will assume that it is inappropriate to dance the woman's role (for a variety of reasons).

• People are not free to choose the role they prefer. Although a woman would be permitted to dance the man's role from time to time, there is a strong expectation that she will dance the woman's role when possible. Men are usually even less free to dance the woman's role from time to time unless there are more men than women at the dance. If a couple consists of one woman and one man, it is very unusual in dances with gendered role names for them to dance the roles opposite to what they are. All of this means that people are not free to choose the role they prefer. And since the roles are somewhat different, many people do prefer one role or the other. In some forms of partnered dance there are "lead" and "follow" roles, in which case MANY people prefer one or the other.

• Women who just want to dance may be discouraged by their experience with other dance scenes with gender expectations where there are many more women than men who want to dance. When they hear about our dance, and then hear that there are roles for women and roles for men, some will reasonably assume that some women will get left out. Significant explanation is required as to why this is not so, and this explanation doesn't reach everybody.

• Many people in our society are uncomfortable with being misgendered. In some circles, calling a man a woman is a popular insult. Women are used to the negative consequences of being in a culture where maleness is default and thus often bristle at being collectively called "men" rather than "people"; this can extend to the dance floor. Members of sexual and gender minorities have much experience in being deliberately misgendered as an expression of hate (e.g. homophobes calling a man female because he is gay, or misgendering of trans people).
So, many people don't like being misgendered in dance teaching even though it's all just because of the traditional names of the roles.

Why does it matter?

I think that all of these points are not just theoretical but have a real impact on dancers and on the dance.

To the dancers, these problems make some people uncomfortable; they restrict what some people can do; they make people try fewer things (dance only one of the two possible roles). I have flourished as a dancer in large part because I have been involved in so many things, and so many aspects of so many things, and dancing both roles in all of the kinds of dance I do.

For the dance, people who have less fun or are otherwise less engaged in the dance are more likely to drop out (less likely to come back), and some of the problems I discuss above lead to people not even trying the dance in the first place.

Some of the issues I identify you may be inclined to discard as affecting a small minority. I don't actually think that any of the affected groups are small, and I think many of them aren't even minorities; but even if they were, I would still want these people to dance with us (too) and I want them to enjoy it. For both of the above reasons.

We all would like to think that we can rise above mere words; that calling a role a "woman" shouldn't mean that a man is less likely to dance it or to feel less comfortable or welcome in doing so.

Well, this simply isn't true. I have often been "corrected" for being on the "wrong" side in a dance, and often people try to "fix" this, sometimes quite aggressively, once involving actually physically pushing people around. The gender expectations do make it difficult for me to dance as I want.

I'm a man, and if a particular man doesn't want to dance with me for whatever reason, that's fine. But if a particular man does want to dance with me, it's very uncomfortable to have someone else trying to "fix" us and possibly actually pushing us physically around. If I held these views any less strongly I would simply give up and dance always the "man" role, to the detriment of my own dance experience, and, if I could be unhumble for a moment, to the detriment of some male dancers who want to dance with me and can learn from dancing with me.

And to the detriment of my dance teaching. I am teaching some people how to dance the "woman" role, so surely I should have experience dancing that role.

Last but not least although perhaps most controversially, there really are people who aren't comfortable in standard gender roles. There are people who are not wholly female nor wholly male in a variety of different senses. There are people who might be one gender but feel that they have an other-gender "side" which they want to express, through dress, manner of speaking, or other behaviour. These groups of people are a larger fraction of our society than most people realize, and for one, as humane people we should want them to have the same social opportunities as everyone else (such as dance), and for another, we can't afford to exclude this whole category of people from our dances if we want our communities to thrive.
Such people can feel welcome at gender-neutral dances in a way that they don't feel welcome at gendered dances. If you aren't male or female, and they tell all the males to line up here and all the females to line up there, you can't participate.

What's the alternative?

Obviously, the alternative is to avoid role names which have gender meanings or connotations.

People have been working on this and experimenting with this for a while.

In some forms of partnered dance, there is a "lead" and a "follow" role. These are terms which describe how the dancers interact, and whose responsibility it is to improvise to the extent that that's called for in that particular dance form, and so forth. They are not gendered terms. So they can be used instead of "man" or "woman", thus making more people feel free to choose their preferred role rather than an assigned one.

In Modern American (Western) Square Dance, there is no lead and follow, but the gay square dance community often uses the terms "lead" and "follow" to refer to the two dance roles, in a way which I feel is reminiscent of how we often use plurals in English to avoid gendering. That is to say, lead and follow are misnomers there, but the inaccuracy has no gender consequences, hence their use.

On the other hand, some communities have soundly rejected the terms "lead" and "follow" because of their connotations. These words do not have gender connotations, but they have specific dance meanings which are incorrect for many kinds of dance.

A great many people have tried simply coining new terms from scratch, to avoid any connotations. The Contra dance community and some others seem to be settling on the terms "Lark" and "Robin" (formerly "Lark" and "Raven"). The 'L' word is for the role of the person who starts and ends on the left, and the 'R' word is for the role of the person who starts and ends on the right. For contra calls, in which the traditional styling is to address the dancers as "gents" and "ladies", these additionally have the same number of syllables as the words they are replacing, so rhythmic calls do not need to be rewritten. I feel that this solution works extremely well.

It's easy to say that "Robin" means "woman" and "Lark" means "man". This is dangerous and should be avoided. At a certain point we end up with gendered role names all over again. The point has to be that anyone is free to dance either role; the point has to be that Lark does NOT mean "man". (The difference being that it's much more difficult to argue that "man" does not mean "man".)

In English Country Dance, there's a movement called "positional calling" or "global calling" which, amongst its many virtues, avoids role names altogether. Sometimes this leads to longer explanations of dance moves; but it turns out more commonly to lead to shorter and clearer explanations, as they cleverly rethink dance instructions.

I'd also like to explain here why I have such a great dislike for the use of things such as sashes or neckties to indicate women who are dancing "as men". I think that this does nothing to advance a gender-neutral approach to dance roles, and in fact hinders it. The sash or other marker says that this person is dancing in the "wrong" role, and hence normalizes the expectation that there is a role they should be dancing in. It means that we still evaluate everyone's gender to decide which role they should be dancing, with an additional complication thrown in which makes it all more difficult, not easier. The way forward is to decide that we should not be focusing on people's gender or our perception of their gender as a part of dance. Anything which increases the focus on gender is a backwards step.

Some interesting things which happen in gender-neutral partner dance

First of all, in my experience, gender-neutral dance role terms really work. More people come out to dances, more people try both dance roles, and no one objects to others' choice of dance role. I'm recalling a group of women who didn't regularly do this sort of dance who came out to a dance together and said that they understood from the gender-neutrality that they would all be able to dance there even though they were all women. (Yes, we all know that they could all dance anyway, but many beginners don't.)

And it's amazingly freeing to be able to discuss with a new dance partner which role who is dancing without a constraining presumption, especially if your preferences are not in accordance with that presumption (which in my case is that I don't want to dance only the "male" role, but in many people's cases is more simply that they just have a particular role preference which might not be correlated with their (apparent?) gender). (And it's not a tedious discussion; it just takes a moment, especially if one of you is fully flexible — I ask which role they want to dance, and if they say "either one, how about you?" then I just choose.)

And the gender-neutrality sends a clear message to people with more complicated gender identities that they are welcome at the dance, and that they are welcome to be themselves. No one is evaluating their gender to decide which dance roles they are allowed to take, or presumed to want to take, or having any need to evaluate their gender at all. It's okay that we can't slot their gender into a dance role. You definitely see more such people at a gender-neutral dance, quite possibly because they've felt unwelcome at other dances for the reasons I discussed earlier (although also possibly because they are also at some of those other dances but they feel the need to disguise themselves as one gender or the other there).

But an aspect which I think is quite interesting (not the most important, but possibly the most fascinating) of gender-neutral dance roles, because it's the most subtle, is its effect on other role-associated rules.

All of these dance forms generally have various defaults for how you interact with other dancers, such as that when you pass another dancer you pass by the right shoulder unless the dance says to do otherwise. These rules allow you to dance smoothly without collisions or hesitation.

One of these rules involves hand-holds. Especially if you take hands with people beside you, whether in a line or in a circle, basically one person's hand has to be cupping upwards ("offering" the handhold) and the other person's cupping downwards ("accepting" the handhold). So there are generally rules as to who does which, so that we can just simply and immediately reach out for a hand-hold and take hands without fumbling or adjusting.

Here are the traditional rules in Scottish Country Dance:

Here's the complete set of gender-neutral rules:

This rule is amazing. It works in all of the combinations — two people beside each other, any number of people in a circle, in a two-hand turn with your partner across the dance, in a line of any number of people along a side. It is so much simpler than the traditional rule, and once you're used to it you never make a mistake.

So I think that this is interesting. A similar question arises in a "figure eight" figure, for those readers who know this, as to who goes first. The gender-neutral rule is that the person on the right goes first. This works when any two people encounter each other, whether same role or opposite.

One further thing:
In most of the dance groups I'm involved in, when we assemble for the next dance, the first thing you do is to find a partner. We line up in various set formations depending on the kind of dance, but the partner-choosing happens before you join a set.

But it doesn't have to be like this. Even if the end result is the same, this doesn't have to be how you form the sets.

The alternative is to make set-formation primary. In some groups, when we take to the dance floor for the next dance, you stand in an appropriate place for the role you want to dance, and then other people join your set and partnerships are formed that way. In some such groups, you just go to the set and see who your partner is. In more such groups, you scan the nascent partial sets and decide where you want to fit in based on whom you want to dance with. But there's at least some presumption at least on the part of the people who go to the sets first that they want to dance with everybody and will be delighted with whoever stands next to them or across from them or whatever makes that person be their dance partner.

This manner of set formation doesn't have to have anything to do with gender-neutral dance, but it seems to be a similar kind of mindset and to occur in some of the same places.


Let's dance! All welcome.