A personal view by Colin Hume
At May Heydays 2024 there will be a gender-free stream. People who want to dance gender-free will know where to go, and people who don't will know where not to go. If you like gender-free dancing you probably don't need to read this. But if you're one of those dancers who don't want to admit that they're scared of the whole concept and dismiss it with “That's a load of rubbish” or “I'm not gay”, please read on.
Historically English and American country dancing has involved mixed-sex couples — a man and a woman — and you knew which side of a longways set to stand on. Except that we all know that isn't true! In most clubs there are a lot more women than men, and men expect women to dance as men at the drop of a hat, whereas if I get people to switch places for a repeat of “Levi Jackson Rag” the men don't have a clue where to go, and particularly how to swing and where to finish the swing. And if I get people to switch around in “Circle Waltz” I notice many women getting their own back on all those men who love to twirl the women and then dump them! Indeed there are some male callers who have no idea what the women's moves are like and wouldn't dream of demonstrating the woman's part in a figure. If you're one of those, I really recommend trying a gender-free session, where nobody will complain because you're doing it wrong when you dance the woman's part — you'll learn a lot.
There are two ways to call gender-free, and you'll probably meet both of them in this stream.
Different role names
The generally accepted terms are “L
ark” for “Man” and “R
obin” for “Woman”. If you face the caller in a proper longways set, the L
arks are on the L
eft and the R
obins are on the R
ight. The same if you face the other couple in an improper or Becket longways set. Yes I know it's hard work if you've been called a man or woman for your entire dancing life and suddenly you have to remember a new term — I struggle with it too. If I'm dancing as a woman I'd rather be called a woman than a robin. But I'm not part of a minority which has been laughed at and persecuted for a long time. And I'm not a young dancer — never forget that we need to encourage them or there won't be any folk dancing in twenty years' time. They have different attitudes from us oldies, and it's no good saying they'll grow out of it — no they won't! I dance and call at The Round in Cambridge, which has a good number of students and young people, and although when I'm calling I use “men” and “ladies” I stress that these are just roles and anyone can dance either role — and they do, and think nothing of it. Inter Varsity Folk Dance Festival
has been gender-free for several years, and I've successfully called an American Squares workshop there using “Larks” and “Robins”. Gender-free is like smartphones — it won't just go away!
In this there are no role names, just positions. Many callers have been doing this for years in some situations, because it's easier and more inclusive. I would always say “First corners two-hand turn” rather than “First man and second woman two-hand turn”, and “Allemande left your corner” rather than “Left-hand turn your left-hand lady”. Positional calling takes this all the way. Instead of “ladies chain” it will be “right‑hand chain”, or just “chain” if it's obvious from the previous move who's moving forward ready to do the chain. It can take more words in the walkthrough, and I believe it cuts down the available repertoire because positional callers will automatically reject a dance which they can see is going to be hard to call positionally — though positional callers will disagree strongly with me here.
So my suggestion is that you go along to a session with an open mind and see what you think. Don't go in with an attitude of “I'm going to hate this” or I'm sure you'll prove yourself right! In fact you may be pleasantly surprised. Brooke Friendly always calls positionally, but she does it so well that very few people notice. I was once dancing (in England) with a blind woman to Brooke's calling and we got to the end of the set. “Oh, now I'll have to learn the other role”, she said in a worried voice. “No you won't”, I said, “It's gender-free”. So we switched sides. And the first two couples we came to said “Colin, you're on the wrong side”. “No, it's gender-free” I said. They looked bemused.