I remember the distress of female friends who missed-out on attending balls, weekends, or weeks at Pinewoods, because gender-balancing policies (requiring a 1:1 balance of men and women) locked them out. In those days, there was often extra space at events, or empty beds at camp, while enthusiastic dancers were stuck at home. The presence of those ‘extra’ women would have created an unacceptable imbalance. To cover expenses, organizers sometimes offered ‘gigolo scholarships’ — free admission to a few males, since each additional male would allow adding a paying female. It sounds crazy now ! At the time, though, many dancers of both sexes fervently defended such policies, as the only way to ensure that partnering would be enjoyable. Gender balancing was the tradition, promising that special events would be “magic.”
In the 1980s, when some of us (younger dancers) advocated to reform this policy, it was threatening and disruptive. People believed that excluding people based on their sex was unfortunate, but necessary — that any change would destroy something precious and irreplaceable.
I’m grateful that our local group engaged with the controversy, and wrestled through a lengthy process, with multiple community meetings (and more than a few tearful pleas on both sides). The good news: with all voices heard, we found a compromise that everyone could approve, reducing the gender barrier without losing the ‘magic’ atmosphere of our annual ball. A few years later, as partnering expectations evolved, this formerly red-hot issue simply melted away. We just enjoyed dancing together.
Change is hard, especially when it seems to threaten something that we treasure. In this case, it turned out that a balance of genders was not as essential as it once seemed. But, each generation finds a new point of friction with the old traditions — it has happened countless times before (read the apoplectic 19th century reactions to waltzing), and will surely keep happening in the future.
I’m glad that in the 1980s our dance communities engaged with new and diverse views, emerging stronger and more inclusive. My hope today is that calls for new language can be viewed as a healthy evolution, rather than a dire threat to something precious and fragile. Groups and individuals that welcome and engage with diverse views are most likely to thrive in the years to come.