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.

Perspectives on degendering competitions: Faith Pangilinan

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. (Be sure to read earlier posts by Kelly Casanova, Kim Sifter, and Jonathyn Jackson.)

This week’s guest is Faith Pangilinan. Faith is a Washington, DC-based dancer who has been hooked on West Coast Swing since taking her first group class in 2006. The instructor evaluated the gender balance (4 women for every 1 man) and declared that everyone would learn to lead and follow. Like growing up bilingual, this was initially difficult but had great payoffs. She primarily considers herself a social dancer, but competes in as a follower in Advanced and as a leader in Intermediate. She is excited to have started her sixth year with DC RolePlay, a WCS team that specializes in role-switching choreography.

I’ll be up front: I’m an advocate for degendered West Coast Swing competitions. There’s been great debate and discussion on social media, a strongly supported petition, and now we have the World Swing Dance Council’s recent decision to track Jack & Jill points for both roles. The guidelines aren’t perfect, but this is a significant step toward full acceptance of gender neutral competitions. I fully trust that degendered Jack & Jill contests will eventually be endorsed in an appropriate and fair way.

I recognize that most people will want to dance in their traditional roles, and that’s an important right, too. But I don’t want to be part of a community that becomes an exclusive, heteronormative club that invests solely in a dynamic of male-female chemistry. As a former tomboy and engineering major, I can’t support messages like “girls don’t do this” and “boys only do that.” Some girls love math, and boys do cry. Some ladies lead, and some fellas follow. I think the flexibility of WCS is one of the most exciting things about it, and gender neutrality enhances the ability to express the full range of human connection.

So what can we do to achieve not just permission but also acceptance? Ultimately, I care more about acceptance. Dancing is powerful. We invest our creativity, our trust, and our very selves. Our identities are on that dance floor, whether we’re dancing for fun or prizes. I want everyone to have the freedom to truly be themselves and pursue this dance in the ways that intrigue them. Are you masculine? Feminine? Straight? Gay? Tall? Short? Other? Doesn’t matter to me. I believe you should be free to pursue the role(s) in partner dancing that you wish.

In achieving acceptance, I believe one of the most powerful things we can do is simply be seen. Those who are uncomfortable with the idea of degendered dancing may find the reality isn’t as threatening as they imagined. I’m a member of DC RolePlay, a WCS team consisting of dancers who both lead and follow. We have put five role-switching routines on the floor, and it’s been rewarding to hear responses change each year. “Wow, I couldn’t take it all in” or “Is it really lead-follow or are you just doing the choreography?” has given way to “I love your creativity” and “I want to learn to lead and follow, too!”

I am so grateful to have learned West Coast Swing in the DC area. I had the opportunity to learn both roles from day one, and had a tremendous role model in Melissa Greene, a talented and avid social dancer in both roles. It has been incredibly gratifying to feel community reaction change over time. If I take a class as a leader, I’m no longer expected to switch to following if there’s a gender imbalance. I can’t remember the last time someone cut in to “rescue” me and a female partner from “having” to dance together. Instead, I feel accepted and appreciated for pursuing both roles – by dancers who choose to do the same, and by dancers who don’t. I love that dancing together matters more than what role we are dancing in our DC community.

How can we foster an inclusive environment in our community? First, be visible. Get out there – socially and competitively – and dance in your non-traditional role. Although the WSDC will only track points for one role per event, I plan to lead whenever possible because for me being seen is more important than being competitive. I hope that by seeing degendered dancing, more people will accept and even celebrate it. Second, be encouraging. This dance can be intimidating for beginners, especially in one’s non-traditional role. Your presence on the floor contributes to the kind of critical mass that will make more people comfortable with trying it.

It is my hope that by being ambassadors of gender neutral dancing, we will create a community that accepts and respects each person’s exploration of our dance in the role(s) they wish.

Perspectives on degendering competitions: Jonathyn Jackson

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. (Be sure to read Kelly Casanova’s post and last week’s post by Kim Sifter.)

This week’s guest is Jonathyn Jackson (also known by the name of Phoenix Grey on social media). Jonathyn is a Portland-based dancer whose interest in gender-inclusive dancing began at the same time that he began dancing in 2010. When he took his first dance class, he immediately discovered that he preferred to follow, and was lucky to be in a group of peers that supported his preference. From the start, he learned both roles: following because he preferred it, and leading due to general social pressure to conform. Having grown a quick proficiency in both roles, it wasn’t long until opportunities arose that encouraged him to begin teaching by the end of 2011. Since then, Jonathyn’s been an active competitor on the West Coast Swing circuit, competing both as a leader and as a follower (wherever allowed). He recently reached All-Star as a leader and competes in Intermediate as a follower. He’s been an advocate for gender inclusivity on the competition circuit ever since he started competing, and in the past year he created the Facebook group Degendering West Coast Swing where dancers from around the world have gathered to share opinions, support awareness projects, educate each other on gender and roles as it relates to dance, and foster a community of forward-thinking dancers.

In the past few weeks, the World Swing Dance Council (WSDC) has distributed written versions of their new policy regarding validation of the points earned by competitors who dance nontraditional roles (e.g. male followers, female leaders). The new policy still has significant space to improve in my eyes, but it’s a rather positive shift from the explicit exclusion of male followers/female leaders that previous revisions of the guidelines exhibited. In the past, those who wanted to compete in a nontraditional role for their presented gender, if they were at one of the rare few events with an inclusive policy, would compete knowing that the WSDC would not even validate their efforts. Today, the WSDC will validate those efforts, but only under specific conditions:

  • Dancers will only be awarded points for one skill division of Jack & Jill (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, etc.) per event weekend. This makes it somewhat unclear what will happen in the case of events that allow a second entry, provided you are dancing the other role qualifying in a different division (e.g. leader in Advanced, follower in Intermediate). Most likely only the highest division will be counted, as per the following.
  • Dancers will only be awarded points for accomplishments in their highest achieved division, regardless of role performed (i.e. a dancer who has achieved Advanced status in leading will not receive points for following in any division lower than Advanced).

Essentially, the WSDC does not see a difference between leading and following as skill sets, at least reflected on paper. As a result, anyone who starts in the system today, or has not yet progressed beyond Novice, is golden; they can dance a nontraditional role without penalty. The real issue, and source of the current hot-button topic, is the transition phase: now that the rules are no longer discriminating on gender lines, how do we deal with everyone who has an established record in WCS and wants to dance the other role competitively? Do they flip sides and compete in the same division, or do they start back in Novice? This is where the opinions diverge, and interestingly enough, I tend to see the split of opinion happen along the line of upper division competitors vs. lower division competitors.

The common perspective of the upper division competitors is that everyone should start fresh (in Novice) and move up on their own merit. If it truly is the case that someone with a previous record is overqualified for Novice, the system (if it were applied properly) would push them up to their proper level in no time, just as it does for any other dancer of notable talent who happens to be just starting out in Novice. That way, the dancer’s position in an upper division is earned and irrefutable through their skill in that role, not just given to them because they have a previous record in the other role. Leading and following in West Coast Swing are completely different skill sets and reflexes. An untested follower should not have a free pass nor be forced to dance in an upper division just because of his or her accomplishments in a completely different role. Most any upper level competitor pursuing the other role would actually want to start in Novice, not to “sandbag” Novice, but because they have the humility to make sure they are capable of performing the role before advancing.

Overqualified dancers placed in a low division is an issue that will fix itself naturally through the existing system (e.g. placing out or using petitions if one has the confidence to start higher). Making under-qualified dancers compete in a higher division creates a much more permanent problem. Those in question are faced with the choice to go in unprepared and incapable, thus holding back their division, or be robbed of competing in that role because their success in the previous role prevents them from competing in a more appropriate division.

The lower division competitors’ perspective is that the upper level dancers transitioning to the other role are a threat. It is perceived that everyone transitioning from an upper division, despite crossing skill sets, is innately better than any given Novice dancer. It is expected that the transition period will take a long time due to the mass of dancers who were once explicitly disallowed to compete in the other role but now have an opportunity to start fresh. Now that the floodgates have been opened, the “true Novices” will not make any placements until all the “good dancers” filter through.

This may be where I begin to catch some flak: When have “overqualified dancers” ever not been prevalent in Novice? Extraordinary dancers filter through Novice all the time. We have Ballet, Contemporary, and Hip Hop extraordinaires who start in Novice. Salsa, Ballroom, and Zouk champions start in Novice. Why? Because having an expansive vocabulary in English does not make you eloquent nor fluent in Spanish without practice. Intimate knowledge of the general grammar and linguistics that are common to most languages may give you a leg up to a degree, but by no means would you be assumed to be capable of debate in a new language straight out the gate. Similarly, just because the crossover Solo, Ballroom, etc. dancer may have great movement skills in their home turf, it doesn’t mean they have the muscle memory and reactions to effectively dance West Coast Swing competitively, and therefore they are presumed Novice until proven otherwise. Sometimes the previous experience with body awareness does aid in the learning of West Coast Swing, so they pick it up quickly and move up after proving their competency in our dance. Regardless, they still had that Novice experience and worked up the ladder.

Other “overqualified” groups include international dancers (those from non-US countries), who have dancers with adequate skill but significantly less opportunity to be rewarded for it (due to a lack of frequent nearby events, like is often available in the US), and accomplished social-only dancers, who suddenly feel the urge to compete. Both of these groups also are allowed in Novice, and also have the potential to raise the Novice bar. Where is the equivalent outrage?

My point here is twofold:

  • Non-Novice dancers follow the rules and start in Novice all the time, then they move out if they’ve got the stuff.
  • Just because someone has a previous background in a different dance (or another role) doesn’t mean they have the skill set and reactions required to successfully compete, unless they’ve put in the floor time in the appropriate dance style or role (or just happen to be some sort of talented freak of nature, but that could be anyone from any background). Sure, they may have timing, or quality of movement, but that’s not the entire package. If you haven’t put in the practice time to properly perform your role as a lead or a follow, all the syncopations and stylings in the world wont help you. This dance is a partnership, not a solo act.

Dancers transitioning to the other role from an upper level are similar to all these groups in a way. They may have quality of movement from their previous skills (like solo or crossover champs) or lacked opportunity to present their skills (like international or social dancers) but it doesn’t guarantee that they are proficient for the upper divisions in the appropriate skills. Some are and some aren’t; it can’t be assumed. The main difference here is visibility: Ballroom and Zouk champs, international dancers – they blend in, you hardly even know they’re there unless they end up on the podium. But a man among a long line of women kinda sticks out. Familiar faces from the upper divisions stick out. And so it becomes easy to point the finger.

To use some stats to bring perspective on the “bulk” during the transition phase, here are some numbers I crunched from Boogie by the Bay this past year, as it was a major flagship in gender-inclusive J&J competitions:

  • 30 nontraditional dancers competed in Novice.
  • Of those 30, 13 of them ranked Advanced or higher in their previously established role.
  • Of those 13, only 5 made it to finals. That means 8 Advanced or All-Star or Champion dancers – nearly two-thirds of them – were knocked out in Novice prelims and semis.
  • Of those 5, only 2 achieved top 5 placements. Traditional Novice dancers beat out all the rest.

So basically, out of the 13 who may be perceived as “overqualified” for Novice, only 2 proved to be a threat to placements that “belong” to “true Novice competitors.” One of those two technically got enough points to place out, right then and there, never to be in Novice again, no matter how you look at the rules. There are only so many Samanthas and Shanes and [insert well-known female leaders/male followers] in the backlog right now, and if you haven’t noticed, many of them have moved up already.

My suggestion in this transition is to re-aim the perspective: it’s not “Advanced dancers in Novice”. An Advanced-level leader is no longer Advanced as soon as they relinquish the mantle of leading. They are now most likely an “unranked follower” or a “Novice follower”, perhaps even an “Intermediate-but-doesn’t-have-enough-points-yet follower”, like so many in Novice.

Just because you see a familiar All-Star in your division’s lineup doesn’t mean they automatically have what it takes to beat you. Why admit defeat so early? Take it as a challenge. Up your game, and maybe you’ll be the one to end up on top.

Perspectives on degendering competitions: Kim Sifter

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. (Be sure to read last week’s post by Kelly Casanova.)

shapeimage_2This week’s guest is San Francisco’s own Kim Sifter. Specializing in West Coast Swing, Kim has been teaching dance for over 25 years. In addition to American Smooth and Rhythm, Kim’s diverse dance background includes Ballet, Modern, Jazz, Belly-dance, Tap, Country Two-Step and Argentine Tango. As Somatic Movement Therapist and Educator and graduate of the Ballroom Dance Teacher’s College, Kim sees dancing as integral to everyday life. Her philosophy of dance as art, sport and conversation between two people gives her a unique perspective on teaching dance. For more about Kim, her background, and her classes, please visit her website.

Ever had a conversation with a complete stranger? Of course, we all do. We strike up conversations in line at the grocery store or waiting for the bus, maybe with the waiter. They’re generally short, innocuous, usually of a positive nature, and, on occasion, flirtatious.

If a WCS dance is a conversation between two people, and I believe it is, than why do we limit ourselves to one type of conversation? And only with the opposite sex? Furthermore, why should one gender always own the topic of the conversation? Which is kinda what leading is when you think about it.

I want to have all the conversations I can. I want to learn about you, and sometimes I have something to say. (Ack! Don’t ask my husband about that one. He will tell you that I have a Kimpinion about EVERYTHING.)

If one of the measures of how well we do this thing called West Coast Swing is how well we do it under pressure, with a partner we don’t know, dancing to music we may not have heard, in front of people we don’t know who judging us, then why have further restrictions about how that dance is supposed to be other than we’re still doing the standards of the dance? We might as well say you can only do the following steps, execute the following patterns, wear these clothes, be this age, look this way.

By opening up Jack & Jill contests to any arrangement of gender in any roll, you expand the conversations you are privileged to have. Yes, I know there are a number of people, maybe even a large number that only want to have one conversation, and that’s okay. That’s what Strictly Swings and Routine divisions are for. You call the shots.

West Coast Swing is so many things to so many people these days, from the music to the timing to look and feel, why are we restricting the growth from a prescribed role point of view? Just because? There’s nothing wrong with figuring out what defines a dance or a contest, but I believe in making those decisions based on the essence of the dance and not preconceived societal notions of gender roles.

Have the conversations! Talk, relate, dance…. Connect.

Perspectives on degendering competitions: Kelly Casanova

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.

KellyCasanovaThis 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.