Over the past year there has been a strong effort to make West Coast Swing competitions gender neutral, meaning men can compete as followers and women can compete as leaders. This degendering of competitions has raised a lot of questions, caused many concerns, and stimulated plenty of debate about the purpose of competitions, the logistics of how we implement competitions, and even the definition of roles in the dance. To shed some more light on this subject, I’ve asked a few different leaders of the degendering movement to share their perspectives and insights here on this blog. Each week this month I will post a different guest blog, and at the end of the series I will share my own thoughts on the issue.
This week’s guest is none other than Kelly Casanova, a two-time U.S. Open Swing Dance champion, chief judge of such prestigious events as Seattle Easter Swing and Boogie by the Bay, and an outstanding instructor, promoter, and community leader here in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2004 she was inducted into the National Swing Dance Hall of Fame and in 2006 she was inducted into the California Swing Dance Hall of Fame. She has also been a member of the World Swing Dance Council and has served on the Executive Advisory Committee of the U.S. Open. She has been a strong advocate and long-time leader for eliminating gender discrimination in West Coast Swing competitions, and below she shares her experiences over the years with this issue. For more about Kelly, her background, and her classes, please visit her website.
In 1981 I started teaching West Coast Swing at The Avenue Ballroom in San Francisco. The owner, Joel “Oz” Koosed, had set a precedent of referring to students as “leaders and followers” and I have continued that practice for over 30 years. I immediately saw the value in learning both parts and have encouraged my students to learn, at the very least, the basics as both lead and follow. Although I have always encouraged students to learn the “opposite part,” the numbers have exponentially increased in the last 10 years. In my classes there are generally more women than men who opt to learn the non-traditional role; I think this is because there are normally more women at dances than men, and this way the women know they will always be able to dance socially. Unfortunately, I know of several areas in the country where students are not allowed to take class in the non-traditional role, and during the early years of my teaching in other areas of the country my use of “leaders and followers” was not always well-received by either the promoter or the students. My experience in teaching has taught me that beginners form their attitudes towards non-traditional role dancers according to how their instructor reacts to men requesting to follow and women requesting to lead. If the teacher treats the situation as normal and valid, the students follow suit; if the teacher is uncomfortable, then so are the students. One of my favorite teaching moments occurred at the SwingOut dance in Oakland. I asked the leaders to form a line against one wall, and the followers a line against the opposite wall. It was impossible to identify the lines based on gender as both lines held an equal number of men and women. It was a wonderful moment!
When I started attending conventions there were no division levels – just one “Jack & Jill” where everyone entered regardless of age or skill and I don’t recall anyone asking to compete in a non-traditional role; it wasn’t even on the dance community’s radar. Sometime in the early ‘80s the Invitational level was established and that was the only separation of contestants. Since there were not very many conventions each year (and no points!), conventions were more about social dancing, sharing knowledge, and spending quality time with friends than concentrating on competitions.
Once the dance community created leveled divisions I suggested to several members of the World Swing Dance Council (WSDC) that we allow contestants to lead and follow in whatever division they were qualified to compete in regardless of gender. As you might suspect, my suggestion wasn’t well-received. I continued to lobby to eliminate gender discrimination, believing that working within the system would provide me more access to the people and organizations who could make the changes I wanted to see in the community.
In 1998, a promoter suggested that if I considered it such an important issue, I should “put my money where my mouth was” and run my own convention. So I did. In 1999 I ran Swing Break. Although I had over 800 attendees, I got a huge amount of flack for opening my “Luck of the Draw” contests to male followers and female leaders. Those competing in a non-traditional role took their competitions very seriously, and several non-traditional competitors placed in or won their divisions. Despite the positive competitive results, the ensuing social backlash was so intense I was only able to run the event one additional year. At the time, I was a single mom and if the event failed it could have resulted in me losing my house. As a result, I decided that rather than compromise and offer traditional Jack & Jill contests, I would rather not put all the effort required to operate an event if I couldn’t do it in a way that I thought was ethical.
Although I was discouraged that the community did not embrace my wish to end gender discrimination in competitions (the term “degendering” had not yet been coined), the good news was that after Swing Break more events allowed non-traditional couples in their Strictly Swing divisions. This was because one of the major arguments against ending gender discrimination was that competitors shouldn’t be “forced” to dance with someone of the same gender. The argument at the time was that degendered Jack & Jills would “force” people to dance with someone of the same gender, while Strictly Swings would allow competitors to choose their partners. We all need to remember that all of this was occurring at a time when some companies and the military would remove members if they were “out” and some people thought that it was unfair to put people – especially our soldiers – in jeopardy of losing their jobs over a dance contest. Apparently many people at the time could not understand why someone who was heterosexual would want to dance in a non-traditional role, and therefore the practice was inaccurately labeled solely a LGBT issue.
I spent the next 14 years lobbying “behind the scenes.” The only tangible result I can identify from those efforts was a loss of work for being labeled a “troublemaker.” (During this time I was also lobbying for stricter swing content clarification in rules, which was equally controversial.) In the spring of 2014, I wrote a letter to the National Association of Swing Dance Events (NASDE) formally requesting that they remove gender restrictions from all contests. I received a response that no action would be taken “at this time.” Tired of trying to work within the system, I decided to start a petition and take the issue more public. My daughter, Samantha Buckwalter, encouraged me to substitute an online petition for a paper one (which I had planned to personally take to conventions). Since my computer skills are below the newcomer level I turned to Jonathan Jackson for help. I had recently discovered his Degendering West Coast Swing Facebook page and knew he also cared deeply about the issue so it was a good fit. He took my petition and put it online. In less than 24 hours we had over 1000 signatures. I don’t think I reached that many people working one on one in the previous 25 years! The petition helped continue the conversation and helped advertise the issue. As a result of the efforts of many people and organizations and some very courageous promoters and clubs throughout the US, there are now about 16 events that I know of that have committed to opening up their competitions to male followers and female leaders.
My experience as a first time novice lead at Swingtacular in San Jose was very positive. Kudos to Ben McHenry for having the courage to step up! All my partners were very gracious and accepting. Since I had never competed in a Novice division before (I went directly from the one contest Jack & Jill format to the Invitational level), it was a very special experience for me. The only negative feedback I received was when I went to look at the postings to see if I made finals. A woman, who didn’t know who I was or that I had competed in Novice as a leader, complained to me that it “wasn’t fair” that so many women made Novice finals as leaders because her boyfriend had “worked a really long time to make finals and would have made it if the women hadn’t taken ‘his’ place.” I asked her how long he had worked to make finals and she said, “Almost a whole year!” I smiled sympathetically and said, “Tell your boyfriend patience pays off. I have been working 30 years for the opportunity to make Novice finals.” 🙂
I have had no difficulty judging or Chief Judging competitions where non-traditional competitors compete. The only issues I have had are logistical such as re-writing rules that are out-dated to make sure the contest are fair. For example, many events have allowed Strictly Swing couples to switch roles during their competition. The problem is that some competitors have tried to game the system by registering in their weaker role and then switching to compete in their stronger role. An example of this is when an advanced male leader who also competes as a Novice follower registers in an Intermediate Strictly Swing contest with a woman who leads at the Intermediate level and follows at the advanced level and then they compete in their traditional roles for the entire dance. They registered as an Intermediate lead (her) and a Novice follow (him), but competed as an Advanced lead (him) and an Advanced follow (her) in an Intermediate division. Not exactly fair to the other competitors. Since it is the competitors’ job to test the boundaries of the rules, new rules need to be written and their intent clarified. Due to the complex nature of the issue, it can get confusing, but it is not impossible to address. Another issue that has been raised is the possibility of non-traditional competitors “mocking” their role. Although I saw inappropriate behavior of this type happen 20 years ago in a few contests, all the non-traditional role competitors that I have seen in the last year have taken their competitions very seriously and I have not seen this to be an issue.
I’m optimistic that the decisions reached by NASDE and the WSDC during their meetings at the US Open over the Thanksgiving weekend will result in a shift in policy on this issue. I believe, as I have for several decades, that it is only a matter of time before non-traditional competitors are a non-issue in our community. I do find it interesting that the Lindy community, which supposedly represents our roots and the “older” form of swing, has had non-traditional competitors in their community for many years without any controversy, and that it is the WCS community, the more “progressive” style of the dance, that seems to have a difficult time with the concept. What I have chosen to take away from all my experiences with this issue as a social dancer, competitor, teacher, judge, chief judge, and promoter is that if you really feel strongly about an issue it is worth working towards change even if progress doesn’t come as quickly as you would like. I may not have been able to have had the opportunity to lead competitively at the peak of my career, but my daughter has that opportunity – and that fact alone makes all my efforts worthwhile.