By Ethan Weinstein
Contra dance callers across New England face a dilemma: as they continue to accommodate requests to de-gender dances, they risk alienating conservatives and traditionalists in the community.
In contra dancing, partners typically line up across from each other, forming two long lines of couples. As the dance progresses, ‘figures,’ or dance moves, repeat, allowing a couple to dance with everyone else in their line. Traditionally, contra involves gendered roles and language, such as the move known as a ‘ladies chain.’
Non-binary dances started popping up a decade ago. Callers refer to “larks and ravens,” “larks and robins,” or “jets and rubies,” rather than “ladies and gents.” Pete Sutherland has been playing contra music since the early ‘70s, when his fellow apple-pickers introduced him to the style of country dance. He’s sad to see the pushback against new, progressive change. “Some callers have stopped calling.” The more vocal opponents take to Facebook to express their frustration. Sutherland doesn’t mind the change, though. It was his peers, the hippies and back-to-the-landers, that first brought a spirit of progressiveness to contra dance.
Contra has been part of New England country life for centuries, but it was not consistently in favor. Its popularity waxed and waned — a romanticization of the American West thrust square dances into the spotlight — and by the time of the Second World War, contra was kept alive almost exclusively by dancers in the backwoods of New Hampshire. The beginning of the counterculture movement in America introduced contra to a larger public. It began in its current iteration in the 1960s and ‘70s; At its center, Dudley Laufman, a farmer-turned dance caller with a die-hard hippie following. Communards, apple-pickers, and draft dodgers trailed Dudley to over 300 dances a year during his peak in the ‘70s.
Dudley loosened up the dances, encouraging people to take their shoes off, dress casual, stomp around, and chat between numbers. Old-school callers like Duke Miller and Ralph Page in the ‘50s and ‘60s would walk over to a disruptive dancer after a song to reprimand them. Excessive noise and unnecessary embellishments were not allowed. Mary DesRosier, a contra dance caller, recalls that “the young kids brought rock & roll sensibility about your body.” She first started dancing with Duke Miller before gravitating toward Dudley dances. In the early ‘70s, Mary was among the first women to start calling her own contras.
The hippies were “a shot of insulin — or maybe heroin — that came into the dance scene and jazzed it up,” says Sutherland, who danced with Dudley in the ‘70s. These kids dealt with disapproving looks and occasional scolding from more traditional dancers who “had no place for hippies,” remembers Ted Levin, Professor of Music at Dartmouth College and a musician in Laufman’s old band, the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra. “There were plenty of people who took [contra] up as a way of giving the finger to what their parents had done,” he says. Dudley welcomed them with open arms.
The acceptance brought by hippies to the contra community persists today. “It’s amazing how multi-generational [contra] is,” says Sutherland. Pete is a product of contra’s ability to defy age and personality differences. He speaks with the slang of a much younger man, proclaiming that he first became interested in the banjo because it sounded “relatable AF.” He’s quicker to compare contra music to punk or metal than square dance tunes. Sutherland stresses that introverts like him can use contra to connect with others non-verbally.
30 years ago, some men started wearing skirts to contra dances. It was a matter of comfort rather than an expression of gender. They tolerated some weird looks and the practice quickly became normalized. Sutherland notes that “part of the hippie experience was to dress how you feel,” to “flaunt that sense of freedom.”
DesRosiers has witnessed frustration with the new trends in contra dance. As a dance caller, dancers come to her with their problems. “A lot of men these days don’t want to dance in a line next to a man wearing a skirt, and you could say that’s their problem, but I’ve got to take care of everybody.”
In her forty years calling dances, DesRosiers has catered many to the LGBT community. “I think having LGBT dances is a terrific move, where it’s gender non-binary.” She has enjoyed learning a new style of calling, taking normative gender roles out of her dances. That being said, DesRosiers believes there’s a time and place for these changes, but all dances should not have to make the switch.
As a music teacher as well as a musician, Sutherland has seen the way contra’s quirks attract marginalized youth. Many of his banjo and fiddle students are “weird kids, … kids that have something they haven’t felt safe about expressing.” Contra has traditionally allowed all kinds of people to express themselves. The necessity of space like this strikes him as contra’s beauty. “The scene is exploding in terms of diversity. Pretty much everyone accepts that and welcomes it.”
Norwich caller and dance historian David Millstone situates the issue of gendered language in contra dance history. “You can’t look at dance in any way separate from the society in which it exists. Dance is a reflection of the surrounding culture. It fills the needs of that culture.”
Language changes constantly. In the ‘80s, callers stopped referring to ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ dancers — the two delineations within a dance — and switched to ‘ones’ and ‘twos.’ A decade ago, dancers pushed to stop referring to a certain move as a ‘gypsy.’ “The g-word,” as Millstone refers to it, became the first problematic language question in the contra community.
Switching to gender neutral language may make some people more comfortable, but Millstone insists changing terms is more nuanced than that. At a typical dance, the majority of dances are contras, but well-versed callers like Millstone like to mix things up with an occasional square dance or english country dance. This is part of the fun of calling, drawing from a deep reservoir of dances, some of which may not have been performed for decades. But squares and English country dances prove far harder to de-gender. Dancers insisting on switching terminology and de-gendering dances may have to accept a limited repertoire of dances and callers.
Millstone expresses frustration with some dancers’ insistence that terminology must change. He points to certain communities that haven’t switched terms to prove his point. “The Association of Gay Square Dance Callers has a note on their website about terminology, and they say ‘we choose deliberately to stay with ‘boys and girls,’ it works for our community.”
Millstone pairs with other men while dancing when need be, filling the traditionally female role. “I’m happy lining up, dancing with another guy. When the caller says ‘ladies’ chain,’ I happily stick out my right hand,” but he admits he cannot put himself in the shoes of, say, a transgender individual.
Millstone believes the current political turmoil contributes to frustrations on both sides: “More than one person has said to me, ‘with Donald Trump as president, the oceans rising, the ice caps melting, and everything else that’s happening in the world, do you really want to be putting your energy into preferred personal pronouns?’ And one response to that is, ‘in a world where all those awful things are happening, this may be one area where people feel they have some agency.’ They can take a stand and fight for a moral principle.”
“People are voting with their feet,” he continues. The Glen Echo contra dance in the D.C. area, once famous for being the largest contra dance on the east coast, now sees dwindling numbers due to dancers protesting either new language or the persistence of old language. A longtime dancer at the Montpelier contra dance, after a long dance hiatus, found the new changes in language frustrating. “The organizers believe that this is the inevitable trend in the contra dance world. We see it going downhill altogether, but more tragic is the notion that a traditional contra dance is no longer politically correct, because traditional makes the LGBTQ dancers ‘uncomfortable.’”
Peter Thompson is the committee member responsible for hiring callers for the Norwich dance series. He takes the question of gendered language seriously. “As a committee, we have decided for now to leave the terms used in calling up to the callers,” Thompson says. Thus far, only a single caller has opted to use “Larks and Ravens,” which received little backlash from the dancers in attendance. The question of language continues to be raised at every quarterly committee meeting, Thompson says. Callers typically inform the crowd about the night’s terminology and welcome feedback from anyone who feels uncomfortable.
Millstone insists that dance organizers can no longer ignore the issue of traditional, gendered language. “Someone’s not going to feel comfortable,” Millstone laments. “It’s hard seeing communities split around this issue, and I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
Despite the controversy, the Norwich dances show no sign of losing popularity. Dancers young and old continue to swing each other ‘round inside Tracy Hall. Millstone and Thompson credit the Dartmouth Outing Club for introducing local students to the dances. They often come by the van-load, some touting flowing skirts. Contra has weathered centuries of change, and throughout the Upper Valley, this change is on display in real time.
Ethan Weinstein is a student at Dartmouth College studying English Literature. His nonfiction has been featured on 3:AM Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, and is forthcoming from Punctum Books' Lunch Review.