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.
Looks like a faith-based crusade where you’re right and no one else’s views or opinions are valid. Someone who doesn’t agree with you is close minded and homophobic. I dance with same sex every week and have no issue with it. But I also don’t try to pressure others to do the same, I don’t have an agenda that I am pursuing. You have pushed this issue for 30 years! And during that time no one has said anything that would dissuade you from pursuing this issue? Narrow minded tunnel vision and you are absolutly certain that you are right and nothing can deter you from that path. Things like this should be a personal choice but it looks like you will never stop until you have convinced everyone else to see it your way. The large majority of male and female dancers are not interested in dancing with the same gender, you have no respect for this because, like an evangelist, you are so convinced of your own righteousness. Stop trying to pressure everyone else to your way of thinking. When most people don’t agree with you, maybe it’s because you’re not right. Ask yourself ‘what would change my mind about this issue?’ If you are not able to answer this question then you are closed off and impervious to anyone else’s opinion.
Thanks for your comments and sharing your opinion with everyone. I’m glad you are okay with dancing with people of the same sex and I think many share your views. However, I don’t think you understood the point of Kelly’s article. First of all, she is not saying anyone who opposes degendering of competitions is homophobic. As cultural context, she pointed out that homosexuality was a sensitive issue at the time of some of her efforts. And it should be noted that homophobia has been and continues to be one of the reasons people oppose same-sex dancing. But just because it is a reason doesn’t mean that it is the only reason, nor that everyone who opposes degendering is a homophobe. More importantly, I don’t believe Kelly at any time has said that everyone must learn the other role and/or dance with people of the same gender. Her efforts have been to make it possible for those who do want to switch roles, but that is different from making everyone comply. (Similarly, just because homosexuals are allowed to marry doesn’t mean everyone has to marry someone of the same gender.) Kelly has been fighting against discrimination and restriction (not allowing people to do something) and fighting for equality and opportunity (allowing people to do something). As you pointed out, there are many who do not want to dance with the same gender, but that doesn’t mean people should be prevented from dancing the non-traditional role. I have lots of students who try the other role and it improves their understanding of partnership and the dance. At the same time, I do have one student who will not dance with other men, and I don’t force him to. It’s not my view, but it is his preference and I respect that. And if you knew Kelly, you would know how respectful she is of different opinions. But here’s the thing: Just because someone doesn’t want to dance with someone of the same gender doesn’t mean that someone of the same gender should not be allowed to dance in the other role. Degendering is not about forcing people to do things they don’t want to; it is about making it possible for people to do what they want to.
And in the future, please identify yourself when commenting on this blog so we know to whom we should address our replies.
Hi wcsdncr! Thanks for your interest in this subject. I really appreciated Eric’s reply below and agree with his comments. In addition, I would like to clarify something you addressed. Just because I prefer to go to many dance venues and afford myself the opportunity to dance with as many people as possible (and actively encourage others to do the same) doesn’t mean I don’t respect an individual’s right to limit the venues they attend and limit the people they want to dance/interact with-regardless of their reasons for doing so. All I’m asking is that someone like myself is not limited socially or competitively by the restrictions/preferences of someone else who has a more narrow range of people they prefer to dance with.
Kelly (and Eric), I have two remarks to add to this conversation. Before that, let me emphasize that I fully support the idea that people should be allowed to dance with whomever they want to.
However I do not agree that this premise would logically lead to de-gendering jack and jills.
I see two aspects of the de-gendering movement. One is the LGBT/gender identity/personality aspect. This, I feel is a very legitimate base to allow people to choose their roles regardless of their gender.
The other aspect is what Kelly brings up: the liberal/non-limiting-vs-limiting argument. While we live in a relatively liberal society, it is not at all obvious why in every single issue the liberal approach should be the best. In fact there are many-many aspects of life in which the non-liberal viewpoint is what we take for granted.
For example: I’m not allowed to walk into your home without your consent. Why? Why should I be limited to my own home, when yours is what I really want to see? Sure, there are many people who would feel discomforted by strangers entering their homes, but there are also many who would love a more communal living style. **All I’m asking is that someone like myself is not limited by the restrictions of someone else who has a more narrow range of people they prefer to share their home with**. And there are a million such features in our society where “liberal” would sound outright crazy, let alone be the norm.
So what I want to ask you in response is why are you bothered by being competitively limited to a single role? And this leads to my second remark. Warning: it will come off as rude.
There is a paragraph in the OP that I find very off-putting It is probably the biggest reason I oppose full de-gendering compared to, say, when everyone can choose a role and only dance in that forever) The critical paragraph to me sounds like this:
“Yeah. Last month I participated in the spelling bee in my son’s preschool. It took some convincing that they should allow me to enter, but I told them that when I was in preschool we didn’t have spelling bees at all. Can you imagine how great it felt to take second place?!”
It feels that some people, including yourself, are in need of a constant validation, so much so that your going out of your way to trample on other people’s feelings to get it.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic (and nice to hear from you again!).
To your point about degendering being a liberal philosophy, I agree with your overall statement that liberal is about liberation, or removal of restrictions. However, the example of something like walking into someone’s home treads on other issues, namely ownership and privacy. The house belongs to someone who paid for it, and therefore they have a right to control it and maintain its privacy. Jack & Jill contests are not owned by any one individual; they are “the commons” (to use another philosophical term). When it comes to the commons, all have equal access, and while someone may prefer for it to be otherwise, the fact that they do not have ownership of the commons does not allow them to limit access of anyone else.
To your second point, I agree that people often compete to seek validation, so much so that they trample on others’ feelings. But how is competing in a different role any worse than competing in any role at all? Plenty of people compete in their traditional role for validation and will hurt others’ feelings to win. Should we not allow anyone to compete at all because they want validation and accolades?
And again, your analogy of the spelling bee is problematic. While I get the sentiment, this is not a spelling bee, which is intended for students of a certain age. Jack & Jills are open to all, with the exception of age-limited categories. The analogy to the spelling bee would be a 20 year old All Star competing in a Master’s J&J and winning, but that’s not allowed for precisely the reason you stated: it’s not fair. And by the way, your whole argument assumes that someone who is more experienced in a given role is automatically better at the non-traditional role, which is not only untrue, but the numbers support it. (Stay tuned for more on this in a later post!)
And isn’t it sad that the father of the child only took second place?? Who beat him?? 😉
Yay for reasonable discussion!
I think you reverse cause and effect when you claim that my house analogy fails because of other issues – ownership and privacy. At some point in history we’ve enacted laws that protect ownership and privacy of our house exactly because people wanted such privacy and valued it. Even now there are mini-societies where these things are non-existent (e.g. the kibbutz).
When we want to decide between two possible policy options A and B, the one that has less restrictions is not necessarily the better one. If A is the option to not have restricted spaces and let people go where ever they want, and option B is to give each person a private area where no one else is allowed to go, clearly option A is less restrictive. I bet there would be some people out there who would vote for A. Yet I’m sure the majority likes B better.
The way I see this issue is that there are two “rights” at odds here. A = Your right to “be able dance in any role in a j&j” vs B = my right to “be able to enter a j&j where I only get paired with girls”. Besides that A has less restrictions in some sense, I don’t see an inherent reason for which A would be better than B (or vice versa!). But just having less restrictions is not enough to say A is better.
Of course I’m not saying B is any better either! I think that is an important point. I feel like many of those who currently lobby for A claim that only they can be right since A is obviously better than B. If you ask, better in what way, they’ll reply: “A is more equal”….
It is clear that resorting to either A or B will be bad for some and good for some others. At this point it of course becomes a business decision made by ED’s, and that’s how it should be, and in order for this points ought to be tracked by WSDC, no debate on that.
My debate is only about the “A is inherently better than B since it’s more equal” claim.
First of all, I wasn’t implying any cause and effect, so that debate is irrelevant. My point is simply that when there is private ownership, one can limit the rights to access of others. That is the case for home ownership, but not Jack & Jills (or kibbutzim, which has common ownership of property).
To your second point, I fully agree – I don’t think any option is inherently better. Even the words “right” or “better” imply a value, or a reflection of one’s opinion. So I have two questions: (1) What values do we hold as a community? Are equality and fairness values we hold? If so, then degendering competitions is more in line with our values than the alternative. (2) If we don’t value equality and fairness, and we do value the individual preferences of each dancer, how do we make sure competitions reflect that? What if I don’t think Hungarians should dance because this is an American dance? Do we limit contests because I’m not comfortable with the chance of dancing with a foreigner? What if someone prefers only to dance with people who are pretty? Or someone refuses to dance with someone who hurts them on the dance floor? Where do you draw the line? Why is one preference (opposite-sex dancing) valued more than another (same nationality dancing)? How do we decide whose opinion or values matters more? (And by the way, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it is right. And sometimes the majority gets it wrong.)
Finally, your statement that lead/follow ability has nothing to do with performance, and your assumption that someone with good quality of movement in one role will maintain that quality in another, seems rather skewed to me. Again, this will be addressed later in the series, but for now I will simply point out all of the Advanced and All-Star competitors who competed in Novice in the opposite role who did *not* make finals. There are many of them, and in fact most who switch roles do *not* make finals, and of those who do, only a subset place. The two roles are different, and people perform differently when dancing them. More on this to come…
I never said that competing in a different role is any worse than competing. But I have the strongest possible feelings against someone competing in role B way below their current level in role A. This includes Kelly, Ben McHenry, and you as well. I understand that novice/int/adv is neither an age, nor an experience based subdivision, and that the leader and follower roles are not the same. However a) it is hard to deny that the two roles do have quit a lot in common (timing, quality of movement), and b) novice division is judged on exactly these two criteria.
I’ve done my fair share of competing in novice, and I can safely state that the actual ability to lead or follow (the main difference in between the two roles) has nothing to do with how one does in a jack and jill. And Kelly and you should very well be aware of this fact! If not, go and talk to Jordan… Having made it to all-star as a leader you have clearly demonstrated all the skills required to be in a novice final as a follower, and so should be competing at least in intermediate. (Though I’m hearing the same about intermediate, so maybe advanced would be the appropriate level to try?)
I believe we (should) value both equality/fairness and personal comfort equally. Of course you rightfully ask where can we draw the line for the comfort. Why am I supposed to be able to refuse to dance with people of gender yet unable to choose their nationality. And of course you probably also know my answer (even if you don’t accept it)…. namely that gender differences have much more to do with dancing than differences in height/nationality/younameit.
But since we should value both things equally, and there seems to be a conflict of the two different values, the ideal solution would be to allow both. I.e. keep the current j&j format and introduce a de-gendered version. Then time would tell which is more popular/acceptable to the public. Maybe in 5 years one of the formats would become obsolete. Maybe they would be equally popular. Who knows?
However for some reason the proponents of de-gendering consistently reject this proposal, wanting to have their way completely instead of striking some compromise (at least to begin with). This is another aspect of the whole movement that makes it unacceptable to me.
Two things: (1) Isn’t it curious that differences in gender have more to do with dancing than race or nationality… It raises the question that many in the degendering movement have asked: why should gender matter? (See Kim’s article to that point.) (2) Perhaps you’re not familiar with American history but what you’re suggesting is what used to be called “Separate but Equal” (e.g. Black people can still have water, but they have to drink from a separate water fountain so White people don’t have to share with them). I don’t see how two contests (more admin costs, more time at events, doubling of efforts for everyone) is the ideal solution. There have been separate Jack & Jack and Jill & Jill contests, but those have different rules (opposite sex is required). I reject the two contest idea not because I reject compromise, but because I don’t see the benefits outweighing the costs to competitors, event coordinators, and event directors. I still have also not heard a good reason why people oppose dancing with others of the same sex; just lots of opposition to having to do so…
I do hold up my assumption that lead/follow ability has almost nothing to do with making novice finals (and even placing in them).
I also do claim that quality of movement and correct timing make up 99% of what makes or breaks getting to the finals. I accept that this is not entirely the same for the two roles, though I do believe the overlap is huge (pulsing, posture, rolling through the feet, body flight).
The reason that some over qualified entrants do not make finals is due to the extreme randomness that goes on in the prelims coupled with the amount of good dancers entering any contest.
When 80 followers enter novice, it’s not the best 10 that get chosen, rather 10 random out of the best 30. This will mean that likely only 1 out of 3 all-stars will make finals. Not making finals doesn’t mean you don’t have the required qualities. In fact being an all-star leader means you most likely do have those qualities, so there’s no need to prove it again.
We’ll agree to disagree then 😉
While I agree that from an ED perspective running parallel comps might not be worth it, I feel that the black comparison is a mis-analogy. Would you consider male/female restrooms as separate-but-equal?! In the historical case there was a group who had less rights and was generally considered lower by members of the other group. In dancing there is nothing like that. There are no superior people or inferior people. The reason for not wanting to dance with another guy is not that I think guys are worthless people.
However there is one point in which the analogy might be a useful one. This is that you can’t exact change in society overnight by enacting some random rules. Instead a much better way would be to educate by example. You could set up three fountains, one for blacks, one for whites, and one for everyone. Then – hopefully – more and more whites would choose the mixed one to the point when users of the white-only fountain become ridiculed.
Setting up a separate-but-equal gender-free competition would maybe work this way.
Hi again, I totally forgot to check back last week…
I don’t find any curiousness (is this even a word?) in gender being important to dancing. In fact, having talked a lot about this with my European/Asian friends, it seems to be a uniquely American attitude to deny this connection. It might have something to do with the general prudish (relative to other parts of the world) cultural norms here? I don’t know. If you look at the history and evolution of partner dancing, it has always been a form of courting, sort of the limit of socially acceptable innocent sexual explorations. For example in the 18th century it only involved eye contact and occasional touching of hands which at that time was probably considered a rather extreme amount of contact between men and women.
I also find it hard to believe that having an arbitrary (not your friend) guy in your personal space isn’t waaaay more awkward than having any girl there, attractive or not.
Also, honestly I don’t believe there are many guys out there whose original motivation to partner dance didn’t include girls. Otherwise they’d have gone swimming/play tennis/what-the-heck-take-a-hip-hop class. (With the exception of those who had some dance background as children.) I also don’t believe that if a random guy walks into a random beginner dance class where he has to dance with guys and girls in equal amounts that he’d show up the next week…
And to Kim’s point: I just don’t believe that guys will strike up a conversation in the bus stop with a random guy nearly as often as with a random girl. It’d be great to see some experiments done on this!
And finally, I’m claiming these only in one direction (guy->girl) and not necessarily the other way. In the reverse direction I can more easily believe that genders plays less of a role. And as such, I find it totally unacceptable when a woman brushes off even the possibility that guys would be different in this respect.
I find WCS to be endlessly fascinating because it seems to possess a limitless potential for expression and creativity.
And I think that degendering the lead/follow roles will exponentially expand the possibilities for creative engagement. I think the lead switching between Maxime and Virginie shown in this video hints at the surprises that are in store for those willing to explore the non traditional roles
I have no issues with an “Opt in” arrangement where those who want can sign up to compete in the non traditional role. But it appears to me that Kelly’s goal is to have contests degendered by default, so if you sign up to compete you are by default agreeing to dance with a same sex partner if one is one is picked out of the hat in a J&J. If you don’t like this, too bad, according to Kathy you are choosing to “limit” your participation in events. This is backwards. The default should be men/women match ups and only those who opt in would face the possibility of same sex match ups.
The language Kathy uses is also entirely off putting. If you don’t agree with her you are “socially limited” and “narrow” and this is presented as having “respect” for other opinions. That is actually a thinly veiled disrespect for anyone who doesn’t share her views on this issue.
And regarding the homophobia thing, this topic has been extensively discussed in other forums where the charge of homophobia is readily made against those who have no desire for male/male or female/female match ups.
I think that the main J&J competitions at any event should be degendered and anyone who wants to dance in a “traditional roles only” competition should have to petition to have an additional competition put on the docket to accommodate that request, not the other way around. Seems to address all of the concerns from the people who only want to be partnered traditionally and lets everyone who doesn’t care one way or the other not have to worry about it.