Today I’d like to talk about a surprisingly contentious topic: contra terminology. Because contra is a called dance, the names of the roles are more important than a dance like swing or blues where they’re only ever stated to politely ask a new partner if they prefer to lead or follow. In recent years there has been a push to use more inclusive terms that don’t artificially constrain new dancers to a single role like the gendered terms “gents” and “ladies” do.
The most popular pairing—and the one I personally prefer for its utility and phonaesthetic—is “larks” (“l” for the left hand role) and “ravens” (“r” for the right hand role). I am aware of at least 27 dances that have switched to this terminology, and more are considering it every day. In case you’re interested, here’s a great list of gender free contra dances. Outside of the dances that specifically request that callers use gender free terms, a number of callers have started writing their own dances this way, or using positional calling which accomplishes the same goal but may be more work for the caller.
The argument that I’ve mostly heard for why the gendered terms should be kept is generally some variation of “it’s tradition”. However, contra traditions change frequently. The Hey For Four is a relatively recent addition to contra that was adapted from English country dancing, but in the not so distant past it would have been considered a violation of “tradition”. Clapping after a Petronella, or many of the flourishes that we like to perform every time we dance are also violations of contra “tradition”. Why should we keep a phrase but be perfectly happy to change or add entire moves and flourishes to a dance?
Even if we accept “tradition” as a valid argument for using the gendered terms, we must also accept that the gendered terms are not inclusive of everyone, or encourage new dancers to self-select the role that corresponds to their gender identity. This makes some new dancers shy away from the role they may prefer, or risk feeling entirely unwelcome when the contra community insists on calling them by gender roles that they may not identify with. Is a tradition that’s demise won’t fundamentally change how we dance really worth alienating an entire group of people?
I think we would all agree that one of the great things about contra is that everyone wants to make new dancers feel welcome. However, we can’t force a new dancer to feel this way; it’s up to them to decide what makes them feel included or not. When there’s a choice between a “tradition” that isn’t a fundamental part of the dance and making someone feel welcome, I’ll choose to make new dancers feel welcome every time. Learning a new term is the most minor of inconveniences for me that may prevent a much bigger harm. Please be considerate of your fellow dancers and begin using gender free terminology; it won’t take long before “larks” and “ravens” feel just as natural as “gents” and “ladies”.