I have all but abandoned contra dancing regularly because of deep frustration about the gendered role expectations I was feeling from partners and neighbors at dances. These perceived expectations bothered me on their own but it made me even more uncomfortable how they mirrored gender role expectations and practices in the “real world.” Men who didn’t hide their feelings of entitlement — who said openly that they were signing up for the kind of dance where you get another beautiful woman in your arms every 30 seconds. People dancing as “ladies” in what they called the “follow” role, who leaned back, not supporting their own weight and expecting to be held up, abandoning responsibility for themselves in favor of total control by their “lead” who made all the decisions and initiated all improvisation and didn’t like “back seat drivers.” Partners who were so focused on their dance with each other that they weren’t acknowledging anyone else in the set.
Witnessing so many young women who left the community after repeated unwanted attention from an older male dancer who got to stay because he was established and it was “his dance.” Dancers and callers ‘”correcting” cis folks who chose non-traditional roles, or worse, “correcting” a trans or non-binary person, making assumptions. Men who stopped in their tracks mid-set and refused to interact with another masculine-presenting person dancing in the “ladies role” coming towards them. Women who resolutely “only dance the ladies role because the other side is too hard.” Being forcibly separated from a same-gender partner I actively chose “so that two men sitting out could join in the dance,” being expected to cheerfully accommodate to avoid being rude, or hearing a caller tell my community, “In this dance, women dance with men and men dance with women.” I am a straight cis-woman, but I cringe when I hear gendered role terms because of the extra layers of gender role baggage they carry for me. I don’t want to be called a “lady” or “woman” and be reminded of all of the real-world layers of expectation packed into that — I just want to dance as myself for the love of dancing and connection. I am much more comfortable dancing in spaces that have a sizable cohort of people who are happy dancing any role or with any person. It feels so much more like a community and less like a pressured dating scene where I’m being measured up as a desirable feminine dancer!