Saturday, June 18, 2016

Are We Too Sexy for this Dance?

Last night I called a dance in Jacksonville FL that was truly inter-generational.  There were folks ranging in age from 6 to 60s (70s?) with everyone dancing happily together.  Isn't that the ideal we've always wanted in the contra dance community?

I've read facebook posts from many communities saying they're losing young people, especially young women, because contra doesn't feel like a safe space for them. I see responses from the older generation (MY generation) saying "flirting is the contra way" or "if you're not flirting, you're not doing it right' and that young people are being too sensitive, or the young people are just using it as an excuse to avoid dancing with older folks. 

Is flirting really the contra way?  Since when?  Well definitely since I started dancing in 1996.  But I was freshly divorced so flirting was a lot of fun for me!  And I considered it "safe" flirting.  I could do it without sending the message I was going home with anyone but myself. 

I think it's time to make adjustments, and as a caller, I want to withdraw my participation in making contra about sex, even "innocent" sex.  A phrase like "g***y until you can't stand it anymore and then melt into a swing" implies that the sexual tension is so high you just can't keep your hands off each other.  Really?

When you think about it, a phrase like "snuggle-up next to your partner" is creepy if you're talking to a 16 year old girl partnered with a 60 year old man.  "Another beautiful lady coming your way" is not something I want to tell a 7 year old boy about to dance with his grandmother.  Who cares if she's beautiful or not?!  It may not even be a "she" coming your way!

I am using those scenarios as a yardstick to determine how I want to talk to the dancers.  Would I feel comfortable saying that to a small child dancing with an adult?  If not, I say it differently.

If it is true that "flirting is the contra way," do we want to change that? What if it was "community is the contra way."  Callers have a huge responsibility for culture-creation in our community.  We're the ones with the microphones.  If you're a caller, I invite you to examine the language you use when talking to the dancers.  What phrases can you change to make the dance a safer place for all ages? 


  1. I have not heard an **experienced** caller use such suggestive language for some years. However, when a caller does let such language slip in, s/he should be told about it in a constructive manner

  2. I generally try to avoid the emotionally charged language when I'm calling, mostly because I don't like having that narrative imposed on me when I'm a dancer. Sometimes I just want to dance, and if I feel like flirting, it's because I feel like it and not because whoever's at the mic says "It's time to flirt now." The newer crop of dancers also seems to have a much stronger sense of personal boundaries, physical, social and emotional. They're moving the dance community in new directions (as have each new generation of dancers), and I think those directions tend to be healthy ones. Focusing on respect and personal responsibility within our dance communities seems like a great thing to me.
    Kalia Kliban in Sebastopol, CA

  3. I really enjoyed reading this! I must admit that in the past, I have said I would be "sitting this one out" as a way to avoid dancing with older men I know to be overly feely, or who add an awkward unnecessary sexual connection to being partners. I think that it's really great that you have the awareness of how the caller can add in or subtract a vibe of romance to a dance. However, I think that the current 60-70 aged generation is one (speaking from my experience with men of that age) that cannot possibly understand why a young, decent female dancer would not want to dance with them. I've experienced a lot of entitlement and bad direction from partners of that age range, who I believe feel entitled to lead me as the "follower" however they wish, even to a dangerous, unwanted, or unsteady swing or dip. I think that building community, not flirting, as you suggested, is very important, and would be a wonderful shift in the contra dancing community. I wish there was some way of having information available about proper, non-sexual, age-appropriate dance conduct as well. Thank you!

  4. I agree, I went to a dance this past weekend where the caller spoke quite a bit about bidding the man to come hither etc. It was downright awkward. I'm married and the only woman I want to bid hither is my wife.

  5. Writing as an [almost] 70-year-old caller and dancer, I agree with Tara’s sentiment completely. I see it, too.

    I noticed, way back in the 80’s, that dancers would happily [or sometimes not] indulge in mutual [or sometimes not] flirtation without any encouragement from me as the caller. In my opinion, within the contra dance world, the word "Flirt" exiting a caller's mouth is the "F-Word". Thankfully, it is getting less frequent use - at least in dances I attend. But its overuse has done lasting damage. Unfortunately, years of caller-directed flirtation has led some dancers to believe they possess a sort of tacit “permission” to attempt to induce mutual flirtation, even when that creates discomfort for a reluctant or unwilling partner. Unfortunately, this “permission” is something they aren't likely to give up without some serious consciousness-raising.

    To add to the difficulty, the role names "Lead" and "Follow" carry a lot of baggage from couples dancing. That baggage often leads "Leads" to believe that they are driving and that their "Follow" partners are subservient passengers. I understand the wish for neutral words to serve as role names. Unfortunately, as Tara points out, these two role names aren't neutral. Yet, they are gaining increasingly widespread use. In my opinion, it's time for other alternate role names. Either that, or a period of persistent explanation that "Lead" and "Follow" don't actually mean what the rest of the dance world - and the English dictionary - say they mean. To me, it seems pretty clear which of these two options is less painful.