Growing up in our Contra, Square, and English dance communities, I’ve always danced both roles, because why not? Children aren’t born with binary gender beliefs — those limits are taught and imposed.

As a cisgender little girl dancing in the so-called “man’s” role, I was repeatedly reprimanded for being in the wrong place or I was physically shoved into the wrong place, disrupting the dance and doubting my belonging. People told me — angrily and with condescension — that I was wrong and unnecessarily confusing to other dancers by being in the “man’s” place. Peers my own age taunted me, wondering why I wanted to “be a man” so often. I learned to expect the snide comments. It honestly has made me pull away more and more from these dance forms that have felt like home my whole life.

A woman at a dance event a couple years ago told me that she didn’t want the gendered roles to change because she goes to dances to flirt. When I asked,  1.) Why she assumed that flirting was only possible within a heterosexual dynamic and‚  2.) Why she felt her flirting was more important than people being condescended and misgendered, she responded with self-righteous anger rather than concern for how others have been hurt. Attitudes and comments based in this‚ all-too-common lack of empathy break my heart.

Decades of this emotional wearing-down are yet another way I’ve been told that because I’m a woman, I don’t belong in a role that men are supposed to occupy.

More recently, hearing callers use non-gendered role terms, seeing more dancers dance whatever role they choose, regardless of their gender presentation … it’s brought tears to my eyes and given me hope that I could begin to feel fully respected and celebrated for dancing whichever role I want, without criticism, without having to defend myself, without risking physical animosity, without having to prove that I’m “good enough” to “be a man.” I am enough, my loved ones‚ are enough, and non-gendered dance terms are a key piece of reducing harm and evolving our communities to respect and welcome ALL of us.

Rachel Fifer