How going “gender-free” is changing the Victoria Contra Dance community

This past Saturday night, I was at my local Victoria Contra Dance, dancing “gender-free”.

Aside from the pandemic years, I’ve been attending these dances for 15+ years. When I go, I’m there solely as a dancer. In earlier times, I was part of a Celtic band that played for the dancers. Miss those days, yet I’m happy for what’s now. And what’s now isn’t the way things used to be.

If you’ve never been to a contra dance, let me set the scene with this 1-minute video snippet (from our last Halloween dance):


From gents and ladies to larks and robins

In days past, dancer roles, for men and women, were referred to as ‘gents’ and ‘ladies’.  Following an international trend, gender-free terminology, ‘larks’ and ‘robins’, has been adopted by the Victoria Contra Dance.

With the arrival of larks and robins, a younger demographic is at the dances. There’s more gen Z and millennials. That’s a good thing. The younger generations up the energy level. They are more fluid on the gender identity front. They are fun to dance with (huff puff). And, in parallel with a new generation of musicians, its all about new ways, regeneration, without discarding the older crowd. Cross-generation community fun. Love it.

Going gender-free

Here are some reasons for going gender-free (via Toronto Contra Dance):

  • “Gents and Ladies” are just roles and anyone can dance any role, but they sure sound gendered. For people whose gender doesn’t match the role they want to dance, this can be actively off-putting.
  • People can choose the role that is more comfortable for them (for example, due to physical limitations or personal preference), or can dance both roles freely, without the worry that someone will tell them they’re in the wrong place and try to “fix” the “error.”
  • People can choose to dance with any other person on the floor, eliminating the problem of having “extra” people of one gender who have to sit out a dance.
  • “Gents and Ladies” is unwelcoming to LGBTQ+ dancers because those terms come with gendered and heterosexual associations/expectations. We want to be welcoming to everyone.

What does it mean to this old-timer?

My long-time habit was to dance in the men’s traditional role, gents. It’s a habit, hard-wired. Swings and spins and all that stuff, no problem, I know my role, and how to do it (roughly speaking).

For part of Saturday, I was dancing the other/partner side. Yes, it was disorienting. Yes, my mind and body were racing to catch up, and sync. It was engaging mind-body sport. I’m sure the next times I role flip, it’ll be easier. Maybe not flow state easier, yet the learning journey is rewarding, too.

When I was in my advocacy role at Quadra Village Community Centre, respecting individual gender expression was a vital component of being an inclusive, welcoming community.

I’m glad that the contra community is adapting to the times, new ways. The alternative is disheartening: dwindling (aging) attendance, questions around the dance society’s sustainability, ennui.

Times change. Social constructs matter.

I’m up for welcoming unfamiliar territory.


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