Perspectives on degendering competitions: Andy Bouman

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 I will post a different guest blog, and at the end of the series I will share my own thoughts on the issue. (Be sure to read earlier posts by Kelly Casanova, Kim Sifter, Jonathyn Jackson, and Faith Pangilinan.)

This week we feature an interview with the Co-Event Director of Boogie by the Bay, Andy Bouman. Andy grew up in Chicago but has lived in the San Francisco Bay area most of his adult life. He started ballroom dancing as a student at UC Berkeley in the late 1980’s, but after discovering West Coast Swing in 1990, he’s never looked back. Andy is a former president of The Next Generation Swing Dance Club in San Francisco and also was the Competition Director, MC, and Chief Judge at Next Gen dances for 11 years. Since 1999, Andy has been the Co-Event Director and Competition Director of Next Gen’s annual convention, Boogie by the Bay, a NASDE member event, as well as a judge at other swing dance events across the United States. But Andy’s first love is social dancing. He enjoys all forms of swing dancing, including Lindy Hop, and loves dancing to live music. He is honored to have received the first Social Dancer Award at Swingalicious, an annual dance event in San Francisco.


Why did Boogie by the Bay decide to offer degendered competitions? What led to the decision?

Actually, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve had a history of degendered competitions for quite a while.

Back in 1997, when I first started running competitions for The Next Generation Swing Dance Club, the Next Gen board of directors adopted a policy that our local competitions would be open to anyone who wanted to sign up as a leader or follower. To signal this, we called our monthly competitions “Luck of the Draw” instead of “Jack & Jill.” Degendered competitions at our local dances have been the club’s official policy ever since.

Kelly Casanova also offered degendered competitions at her Swing Break weekend event in San Jose back in 1999 and 2000. I was a judge at that event and witnessed first-hand the Champions J&J finals where John Lindo drew Ramiro Gonzalez. (If you haven’t seen that dance, watch it now on YouTube.) However, Kelly was a bit ahead of her time, and received some harsh criticism (and threats of boycotts or worse) from some people who didn’t like the idea of degendered J&J competitions.

At Boogie by the Bay, we have offered degendered Strictly Swing competitions for many years. However, until last year, we kept the traditional gender restrictions for our Jack & Jill competitions at Boogie. Some Boogie committee members in the past were afraid that Boogie might get the same kind of backlash that Swing Break received if we opened up our J&J competitions. We also were told that the World Swing Dance Council (WSDC) would not award points for any of our finalists if we did not follow the WSDC gender restrictions.

Last year, we thought the time had finally come where we could degender our Jack & Jill competitions at Boogie by the Bay. The “Degendering West Coast Swing” group on Facebook had reopened the discussion, and many WCS dancers in the Bay Area were strongly supportive. We also checked again with WSDC, and were told that while people who danced a non-traditional role would not get WSDC points, there wouldn’t be any other penalty if we changed our rules.

In June of 2014, the Boogie committee and the Next Gen board both unanimously approved the change, and we announced it on the Boogie and Next Gen websites and on Facebook.

Around the same time, the petition in favor of degendering WCS competitions was posted on Facebook and gathered about 2,000 “signatures” in a matter of days, so we knew that there was quite a bit of support in the WCS community.

What were the challenges in offering degendered competitions at the event?

The biggest challenge was to figure out how to update our competition rules. We wanted to make our competitions as inclusive as possible, while recognizing that there are well-established levels of Jack & Jill competition in the WCS world.

Based on discussion on the “Degendering WCS” Facebook group, as well as extensive conversations with WCS competitors, we made the fundamental decision that leading and following would be recognized as two distinct sets of skills for our Jack & Jill competitions. So being an All-Star follower didn’t automatically make someone an All-Star leader, or vice versa.

We also decided that if people were at different competitive levels as a leader and follower, we would allow them the opportunity to enter our J&J competitions in both roles at those two different levels.

Since the WSDC didn’t track points for people who competed in non-traditional roles, we had to exercise some flexibility to determine the appropriate level of competition for those people at Boogie by the Bay. So we encouraged people to petition, and we considered “ghost points” from other events that have offered degendered competitions (such as Liberty Swing or Swingtacular).

We also decided to change our Strictly Swing rules, which previously had allowed partners to switch roles during their dance. Since we were allowing people to compete at different levels as a leader or follower, and potentially enter a second Strictly Swing division based on those two different levels, we didn’t think it would be fair to allow partners to sign up for a lower division and then switch during their dance to roles that would have put them in a higher division.

What sort of criticisms or backlash did you receive and how did you respond?

First of all, our overall attendance was up 5 percent from the previous year, and our J&J registrations were up more than 30 percent. So I don’t think we suffered a backlash from making the change. On the contrary, some people told us they chose to attend Boogie over other events to show their support.

We did receive some criticism from a few people who thought it was unfair that some competitors at Boogie who were Advanced or All-Stars in traditional roles made the finals in lower levels in non-traditional roles. However, there were others competing at lower levels in non-traditional roles who did not make the finals. For us, that proved that competitive success in one role doesn’t automatically transfer to the other role. [Editor’s note: See Jonathyn Jackson’s post for more details.]

What were the benefits for your event of offering gender-neutral competitions?

The most immediate benefit was the tremendous energy and excitement at our event. Not only was everyone very supportive of people competing in non-traditional roles, but the social dancing was more degendered than I’ve seen at almost any other large WCS event. Everyone felt welcome, and everyone was having fun. That’s what a weekend event should be all about.

Is there anything you would do differently next time?

We may tweak our rules a bit for this year, but overall we thought it went very well.

What are your thoughts on the current policies of NASDE and WSDC with respect to gender?

As many people already know, WSDC recently announced that it has changed its policies and will begin tracking J&J points for people placing in non-traditional roles beginning February 1st. I am disappointed that they will only record those points at the highest overall level achieved, instead of tracking leader and follower points separately. I’d like to see WSDC adopt more flexibility, so that events like Boogie by the Bay could allow people to compete in both roles in separate divisions and have those final placements count and be recorded by WSDC. But I think the change is a first step in the right direction, and I recognize that not all WSDC member events are on the same page, so the WSDC board is walking a difficult line.

NASDE is a bit different because the 12 member events have agreed to follow the same rules for Classic and Showcase in order to standardize the competitive circuit for routines. Boogie by the Bay is not allowed to unilaterally change its rules for those divisions and remain a NASDE member. It would require a vote of 8 member events out of 12 to remove the gender restrictions on Classic and Showcase couples, and I don’t see that happening right now. However, NASDE has agreed that individual events can follow their own rules for Strictly Swing competitions, which is why we have had degendered Strictly Swing at Boogie for many years.

What would you say to other event directors about offering degendered competitions?

I think this change is coming. It’s just a question of when. The West Coast Swing landscape has changed rapidly in the past few years. More and more, I’m seeing newer dancers learn both roles and dance both roles on the social dance floor. More and more dancers know people who excel in non-traditional roles, and they believe it is unjust that their friends can’t compete in their preferred role at some weekend events. So event directors will need to decide if they want to be out front on this trend or play catch-up.

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