Gender Roles in LGBTQ* Square Dancing
Preface - CALLERLAB dancer naming
From the CALLERLAB Basic and Mainstream Definitions (March 17, 2010) Part 1: Ways of Naming Dancers:
Boys / Girls
- Boys Run
- Girls Trade
- Men Circulate; Ladies Trade
- Cloverleaf; Ladies Lead Dixie Style to a Wave
- All 4 Ladies Chain
- The Boys are those dancers who initially squared up as the left-side dancers of each couple. The Girls are those dancers who initially squared up as the right-side dancers of each couple. The terms Men, Gents, Gentlemen, and Guys are synonymous with Boys. The terms Women, Ladies, and Gals are synonymous with Girls.
- No matter the actual genders of the dancers, those who initially squared up on the left-side of each couple will play the role of Boys; right-side dancers will play the role of Girls.*
- Some callers emphasize that in square dancing the commands are all given to the Boys. They say that the Girls have to pay attention and do the opposite action. In modern teaching, choreography, and patter that statement is misleading and generally not true. Most of the calls are defined without reference to gender. Most of the commands are given to all the active dancers. Callers should teach and call in a way that doesn't perpetuate this myth.
*emphasis on the first Comment is ours.
Usage and History
The square dance calls used by LGBTQ* Modern Western Square Dancing (MWSD), the kind done in all IAGSDC member clubs, use the standard square dance gender identifiers of Men/Gents/Boys and Women/Ladies/Girls as explained above. There are historical as well as practical reasons for this dancer designation convention.
In the early days of MWSD (the 1950's), long before the advent of gay square dancing, the lack of standardization meant that dancers were often unable to dance at the club across the street. These days, standardization is worldwide, so it is not only possible to dance across the street, but anywhere in the world. Step into a square in Tokyo, without a single person in the hall being able to speak a word of English, and dance!
IAGSDC square dancing is a component of the larger square dance world, and operates in many ways akin to that of its larger counterpart --- standardization being one of these. The most obvious aspect of this is the naming convention for the roles played by the dancers when they participate in a square. While in the early days of gay square dancing, there was a move by some callers to discard the "boy/girl" convention in favor of something else, this never achieved widespread acceptance, and disappeared within just a few years.
Anyone of any sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression may dance either gender role at IAGSDC square dances. Women, Men, Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Bi, Trans, Queer or Questioning may each choose to dance the “boy's part” or the “girl's part” in the dance. These terms are technical labels for dance roles, rather than referring to physical attributes, biology, or gender identity. It is common for a square at an IAGSDC square dance to be comprised of same sex couples, as well as those being "gender correct" as well as "gender opposite." It is of note that since the inception of gay square dancing in the late 1970's, these naming conventions have been used without causing major offense.
Historically for IAGSDC clubs, the use of conventional gender role terminology as used in the larger square dance world facilitated the recruitment of callers and dancers from the larger (straight) square dance community. Callers can call, and dancers can dance without having to learn a whole new set of terminology. It also allowed the use of records, dance tapes and teach tapes from the larger square dance world, which was a common way to learn to dance in the early days of gay square dancing. The "transportability" also works the other way, with the standardized terms allowing those who call or dance in the LGBTQ* community to easily call or dance with other groups.
Unlike many other dance forms, MWSD is a continuously called dance, with its own "language" by which to convey critical second-by-second information in a tightly ordered and compact manner. "Square Dance" has its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax, with the caller being a "Native Speaker" of Square Dance. So while dancers don't "speak" Square Dance, they can "understand" Square Dance --- which is very much an "international language." The practical implications of this is that there is a strong pressure for the IAGSDC variant of the activity to retain the standard dialect, with occasional movements to deviate never gaining sufficient traction to take hold.
Conventions for squaring up vary among IAGSDC clubs. Unlike their non-IAGSDC counterparts, dancers often join squares as individuals without previously finding a partner. Often they hold up their right hand and stand in the “boys spot” if they wish to dance the “boys part” and are waiting for a “girl” partner; or hold up their left hand and stand in the “girls spot” if they wish to dance the “girls part” and are waiting for a “boy” partner; or they hold up both hands and may stand in the center of a couple's spot if they are bi-dansual and are willing to dance either part.
In the 1980s, some IAGSDC clubs used arm bands, bandannas, or some other signaling device to identify one of the dance gender roles (usually the boys). But this convention has been dropped in most clubs and classes. Also in the 1980s some clubs offered vests to be worn by dancers in a “pilot square” for visiting (straight) callers who were less familiar with calling for LGBTQ* squares. But with the hard demarcation between gay and straight square dancing having largely disappeared, and the familiarity that straight callers now have calling to gender-mixed squares, this convention has also been dropped.
For dancers just beginning to learn, most clubs and teachers strongly recommend that they dance and learn only one part (gender role) through the entire series of classes until they graduate at Mainstream or Plus. It is then easier, and often encouraged, to go on and learn the “other part.” The main reason for this is that there are a sufficient number of “sex dependent” (role dependent) calls to make switching roles during a beginners class difficult for most students. These sex dependent calls include: Allemande Left, Right & Left Grand, Weave the Ring, Right & Left Thru, Ladies Chain family, California Twirl, Star Thru, Slide Thru, Swing and Box the Gnat. While this often has the result that a beginning dancer may spend weeks or months dancing only one part, it is worth noting that (as one caller likes to put it) "this isn't a life choice."
The ability to dance either part is referred to as being “bi-dansual” --- an adaptation of the term bisexual (the "B" in LGBTQ*). A useful skill, as exemplified by the sagely words of Woody Allen, "The good thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chance of a date on a Saturday night." With the gay square dance equivalent being, "The good thing about being bi-dansual is that it doubles your chance of being able to join a square."
Some clubs offer an intensive “blitz” lesson so that new graduate dancers unfamiliar with doing so can learn the “other part.” This not only offers the "doubles your chance" advantage discussed above, but also allows dancers to become better "all-position dancers." This is because almost all parts of all calls can be done by either the the men or the women. However, some calls are traditionally called from formations with boys in certain positions and girls in others. For example, Relay the Deucey is typically called from parallel right hand ocean waves with the men on the ends and the women in the middle. So while those who aren't bi-dansual less commonly get a chance to practice the "other part," bi-dansual dancers are able to do so all the time. Some believe that bi-dansual dancers are better dancers.
Amongst LGBTQ* square dance clubs, most dancers are strongly encouraged to be bi-dansual at Plus before moving on to learn Advanced.
Some confuse the beau/belle terminology introduced at Advanced with that of dance role gender identifiers. Beau and belle are positional terms - referring to left hand and right hand temporary partner associations at a given moment in a sequence of calls. In a squared set, those dancing the "boy's part" are beaus and those dancing the "girl's part" are belles. If a caller said "Girls U-Turn Back", then everyone in the square would be a beau. These terms should never be used in place of gender role identifiers.
The terms "lead" and "follow" are sometimes used in other dance forms to identify dancer roles, as in LGBTQ* Country & Western couples dancing. But in MWSD very little leading or following is part of the dance actions, and unlike in couples dancing, decisions about what to do next are left up to the caller and not the individual dancers.
Nevertheless, a few gay square dance clubs and callers use the terms “lead” and “follow” when referring to dance roles, especially when finding partners and creating couples as a part of "squaring up." Those terms are never used to identify those roles during the actual dance, as those words themselves appear in call names and dancer identifiers with very different meanings. Were they to be used for gender identification, they would create unnecessary confusion.
For example, common calls that would then become confusing include:
- Leaders Trade
- Follow Your Neighbor
- Lead Right
- Follow Thru
Existing calls with substituted terms would become equally so:
- Put the Follow in the Lead for a Dixie Style to an Ocean Wave
- Four Leads Follow Your Neighbor
- Follow Your Neighbor and just the (Leads/Follows) Spread
While the words "lead" and "follow" appear in some MWSD call names, the terms "leader" and "trailer" also have specific meanings, as dancer identifiers when two dancers are in tandem with each other. The "leader" in a tandem might, as circumstances allow, be someone dancing the "girl's part" or the "boy's part," hence the added confusion if "lead/leader" were to be overloaded.
It is interesting to note that in Ten Years IAGSDC: A Collection of Pages From Our Memory Book (see document #4), early clubs did use the "lead/follow" terminology at least to note the dance abilities of their membership, though it is not clear if those terms were ever used in teaching and calling.
Terminology in other LGBTQ* dancing
Unlike gay square dancing, the terms "Lead" and "Follow" are routinely used in LGBTQ* couples dancing - e.g., Country & Western, Swing, and Latin dance forms --- which likely explains their common, but not universal usage in the squaring up aspect of gay square dancing.
The LGBTQ* Contra dance community has chosen to eschew gender identifiers in their dances. LGBTQ* contra dances are said to be “Gender Free” or “Gender Role Free”. Early groups used the terms “Bands” or “Arm Bands” for the role traditionally danced by men and “Bares” or “Bare Arms” for the role traditionally danced by women, often using actual arm bands to help signal who was dancing which role. More recently the terms "Larks" and "Ravens" have been adopted (Larks start on the Left, Ravens on the Right) by both LGBTQ* and other contra groups. While the terminology used by the contra caller is thus “Gender Free,” the dance roles and actions remain the same (e.g., in a Box the Gnat, California Twirl, or Swing). Experienced contra dancers can usually dance either part, and sometimes swap roles with their partner during the course of a single dance. At least one LGBTQ* contra group also used the "lead/follow" terminology.
There is a similar "Gender Free" tradition in LGBTQ* English Country dancing which does not use gendered terms in calling and dance role identification. The terms “first diagonals”, “second diagonals” and sometimes “right file” and “left file” are usually sufficient.
Leaders/Trailers and Boys/Girls are defined in the CALLERLAB Basic and Mainstream Definitions. Leaders/Trailers are further expanded on in the Advanced Definitions. Belle/Beau are defined in the CALLERLAB Advanced Definitions. See callerlab.org