A lark and a robin against a background of dancersPhoto collage by Anna Gilbert

Larks & Robins: Why Gendered Terms Feel Oppressive to Me

By Allison McKenney

A while back, I was at a contra dance, and I mentioned to someone the growing practice of using non-gendered terms for dance roles, usually “larks” and “robins” instead of “gents” and “ladies.” She was baffled by the idea, and I tried to explain why it is so important to many of us LGBTQ+ people, and especially us trans people. But I don’t know if I did a good job of it in the moment. So here is my latest attempt to explain why this is so important and personal for me, hopefully better than I did then.

I’ll speak first about what it’s like as a trans person (a trans woman in particular), since I can speak from personal experience there. I’ve heard cisgender (non-trans) women say that sometimes they have to dance the “man’s” role and be referred to as men or gents, and they don’t have a problem with it. The difference is that, for me, the experience of having to live as and think of myself as a man for six decades was a painful one. I wouldn’t have transitioned if it hadn’t been, and I know many trans people feel the same way. If I get referred to as a man, I re-experience that pain. It feels like being kicked in the stomach. I doubt that most cis women have that kind of reaction.

And it is painful. I mostly dance the “lady’s” role, especially at dances where gendered terms are used. I will occasionally dance the “gent’s” role if there happen to be more dancers who can only dance as ladies, since I’m an experienced dancer and believe I have a responsibility to make them feel included. However, when I do so and the word “man” is used to refer to me, I notice that all the joy gets sucked out of the dancing. I feel forced back into the painful role I was stuck living in for so many years, and the dancing becomes a duty rather than a pleasure. Sometimes it is so bad that I end up leaving after that dance. Being referred to as a “lark” doesn’t have any of those associations or effects. Moreover, the terms “ladies” and “gents” are both a problem for many nonbinary people. The non-binary people I know are deeply uncomfortable being referred to as either term.

While the comfort and inclusion of trans people like me should be argument enough for non-gendered calling, we’re not the only ones affected. Gendered terms implicitly reinforce the assumption that men are supposed to partner with women and women with men. If you’re a lesbian, like I am, or a gay man, the “men” and “ladies” terminology keeps reminding you that your orientation is abnormal, which is the message we get all the time already in the world outside the dance. If the caller uses non-gendered terms like lark and robin, it allows you to feel comfortable no matter what gender you or your partner are. You’re no longer playing a gender role in a celebration of heterosexuality, you’re just a person enjoying dancing with other people.

Back before COVID, I participated in a dance weekend where the dances were taught and called without using gendered terms. Anyone could dance with anyone, and we did. I no longer had to worry about all the nonsense around gender and orientation, and it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. We were just people, being ourselves and enjoying one another and having fun.

I have never felt so free.

Allison McKenney lives in the NYC area and has been dancing various kinds of country and folk dance since 1975. She is also a back-bench musician who occasionally sits in on open band nights to contribute the obligatory wrong notes.

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