Calling a Gendered Series Gender-Free

On my summer tour with Kingfisher the organizers of one dance told me that their group would tolerate Larks/Robins for role terms, but preferred Ladies/Gents. After talking it over with some other callers and dancers and weighing the factors (What will feel best for me? What will be best for the dancers? What will be good for contra dance in general?) I opted to call Larks/Robins.

A lot of callers dislike series that use “caller’s choice” role terms. They want organizers to take responsibility for making what’s often a fraught decision so the blowback doesn’t land on callers. Personally, I’m pretty sympathetic. In some cases a community may genuinely not have preferences – they’re just happy to be dancing. Or if they do have preferences, as in this case, often it turns out that callers are the most opinionated people in the room (and boy do we have a lot of strong opinions) and it’s more practical to let them choose rather than eliminate a large swath of the performer base – especially since for some dances there’s a limited group of performers to begin with.

It has to be done well, though, as this dance did. They were clear with me on what the likely response would be if I called Larks/Robins, getting as specific as telling me that a few dancers might mildly object, but the evening overall would be fine. This gave me the information I needed to make an informed decision and prepare for the dance.

Crucially, they advertised the role terms in advance so dancers attending knew what they were signing up for. This is the number one thing any series with different terms at different events must do. Never take your dancers by surprise – it creates an unpredictable and antagonistic relationship with the series and, if new terms are being tested out, unpleasant surprises will deepen resistance to those terms.

Knowing what to expect, I did a few things differently to forestall any terminology-related conflicts, set dancers at ease, and leave everyone feeling good about the evening. This community has a separate gender-free series, so I knew Larks/Robins would be at least somewhat familiar to the crowd, but I assumed there would be at least a few dancers who weren’t used to it – maybe even be a few who had never danced to Larks/Robins calling at all. And some, I imagined, would be familiar, but disapproving.

The Intro Spiel

First, I gave a little spiel at the beginning about the terms I would be using. It went something like this:

I’m used to calling dances using “Larks” and “Robins” and that’s what I’ll be doing tonight. I know some of you are more familiar with “Ladies” and “Gents.” If that’s you and you’re feeling a little uncertain about Larks and Robins, I promise I will be gentle, and I encourage you to think of it as an experiment testing how good your contra dance skills are when you’re hearing unfamiliar words. I also encourage you to listen to the syllables and not the words: “Larks” and “Robins” have the same number of syllables as “Gents” and “Ladies”.

For beginning dancers, who have no background in what Ladies/Gents might mean at a contra dance, I think it’s best to use the “Larks are on the Left and Robins are on the Right” mnemonic. But for experienced dancers transitioning from Ladies/Gents, the syllables are the thing to point out. And as I looked out over the crowd during this spiel, I did notice some lightbulbs going on in the minds of some of the dancers, which was gratifying to see.

I used this spiel again on a later dance that did caller’s choice role terms. In that case I wasn’t warned that the dancers might be resistant to Larks/Robins, but I noticed some hesitation when I started teaching using them, so I deployed my intro just in case.

Positional Notes

Second, during walkthroughs, I added positional-style notes to my teaching. In a moment following a neighbor swing on the side instead of just “Larks, allemande left with each other” I said, “Larks, you have your left hands free for an allemande left with each other.” Even if a dancer didn’t immediately recognize that they were a lark, they could check if their left hand was free to recognize when a call applied to them.

Short Prompts of Figure Names, Not Roles

As callers prompt a dance, they shorten calls as they go, getting dancers used to remembering the figure on their own and testing how quickly those dancers pull it from their memory – a step toward dropping out completely and allowing the dancers to groove to the music alone. Usually I shorten a call like “Larks allemande left 1½” to simply “Larks!,” dropping the figure name, knowing that if I say which dancers should do something those dancers will search their memories for what they are supposed to do.

Since a lot of these dancers wouldn’t immediately recognize their role with unfamiliar terms, I did the reverse of what I usually did and dropped the role term but kept the figure name, “allemande left!”

Fewer Role Terms

In general, I relied less on role terms to identify dancers, when it was possible to drop them without increasing my wordiness. For example, when teaching a box circulate, I might usually start by identifying the two sets of dancers who are about to do different things, saying, “Larks, you’re facing out of the set” and “Robins you’re facing in, looking at someone’s back.” This time, knowing some dancers could be thrown just by hearing role terms, I simply said, “Some of you are facing out of the set” and “some of you are facing in, looking at someone’s back.”

Reducing role terms means reducing the amount dancers get used to hearing those terms to refer to themselves, so as far as building the skills of responding to Larks/Robins calling, perhaps that’s not the optimal strategy. But, as far as I see it, my most important job as as caller at a contra dance is to make sure dancers have a good time. And if a few dancers who don’t usually dance gender-free leave thinking, “I went to a Larks/Robins dance and it wasn’t too hard and wasn’t too bad!” then I think that’s a win for gender-free calling.

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