At dance, any can lead and all are welcome
By Avi Steinberg, Globe Correspondent | April 25, 2004
As a four-piece band strikes up a rendition of the folk song ”Handsome Ladies,” a man wearing a long tie-dyed skirt and a full beard locks hands with his neighbor, a smiling middle-aged man in khakis. It’s Saturday night, April 17, and tonight’s band, Bill Smith & Friends, seems to be just getting warm. Twice a month the Boston Gay and Lesbian Contra Dancers, a group of about 60 people of all ages, meets in the parish hall of the First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist, to laugh, to schmooze, and most of all to dance.
Traditional New England contra dancing — which is similar to square dancing — requires a clear delineation of gender roles. But posted outside the church, a sign bearing Susan B. Anthony’s words sets a different tone for the evening: ”I go for anything new that will improve the past.” All dances during the night’s 3-hour session are ”gender-role free.” Here, dance roles are signified only by a rainbow-colored armband; anyone may take any role.
Founded in the late 1980s by experienced ”contra maestro” Chris Ricciotti, the Boston Gay and Lesbian Contra Dancers, one of the first groups of its kind, has become a model for others around the country.
As the group has grown and expanded, it has also been discovered by increasing numbers of heterosexuals. A warm and noncompetitive bunch, Boston’s gender-free dancers demonstrate a rare mix of technical skill and openness to outsiders. Straight dancers have also shown up over the years, group member Dean Allemang, 43, of Boston, explains, partly because switching roles helps dancers understand the experience of their partners and thereby improve.
The attraction to this type of dancing is immediately apparent. The caller speaks softly but forcefully over a flute riff: ”and left-hand star.” Dancers immediately form two lines, which then intertwine and detach. The pace picks up. Now the lines morph into a dynamic harmonious figure. Suddenly the lines collapse and reverse themselves; dancers stomp to keep a quickening beat.
By the end of the number, most dancers have swung with or grasped the hand of nearly every person in the room. The dance, which has the appearance of a complex self-tying knot, indeed binds its dancers to one another.
”You dance more as a community than as a couple,” says Michael Cicone of Waltham, a 50-year-old veteran caller. In gender-free dance, Cicone says, ”the concept of [dominant and passive] ‘roles’ and of ‘coupleness’ is downplayed.” The focus of the dance turns from private relationships to ”the dances themselves, the beauty of the figures, and to the total effect of the group.” To Cicone, the communal aspect is central.
A caller himself, Allemang understands this communal emphasis. But he says he is also drawn to the ”coupleness” of the dance. An expert in English folk dance, Allemang is experienced in mainstream contra dance. He admits that he ”got tired” of the dance until he moved to Boston in 1996 and discovered the Boston Gay and Lesbian Contra Dancers. ”I thought, ‘ah, now I can dance with boys.’ I had always wanted to do that!” The possibility of real attraction infuses dancers with energy and makes the dance work, Allemang says.
Allemang is drawn to the dance partly for its subtle style of ritualized courting. He says the dance is everything that a bar is not.
”You walk into a bar and what do you have? Noise and darkness. And you say, ‘I’m supposed to meet somebody special here?’ ”
Older dancers, some of whom are founding members, have a slightly different perspective on the group. When the group first started, dancer Doris Reisig, 53, of Roxbury, explains, it felt radical.
”There was certain excitement in what we were doing because nobody else was doing it,” she said. ”That’s not completely true any more.” What attracts Reisig now is not the freshness of the experience but the stability of community. ”It’s the closest thing I have to going to church,” she says.
For some young participants, the dance still offers a fresh perspective. Gillian Stewart, 15, of Lexington, says the dance’s ”small and cozy” environment is ideal for a young person trying to come out. The age difference isn’t a problem, she explains, but rather an advantage, since older dancers are often better dancers. A young person exploring his or her identity will receive dance guidance here but, in the process, will also discover a group of older gay role models.
After the dance, a large group of dancers reconstitutes itself down the street at J.P. Licks. Dancers laugh and swap stories between gulps of milkshakes; the bonds forged on the dance floor are manifest here.
As the night finally winds down, Allemang recalls a scene he once witnessed at a dance. An elderly dancer, physically unable to execute a figure-eight step, stood still on the floor, dancing only with his eyes — maintaining close eye-contact with his younger partner as she whirled around him. The man was probably the best dancer in the room, Allemang said, because he was able to transform his situation into a personal expression, while seamlessly maintaining the integrity of the communal dance. Christopher Dean, 43, of Roslindale, known to his friends as Spike, pipes up excitedly, ”he was able to rechoreograph the dance on the fly, and that’s pretty cool.” The others nod their heads — they know all about revising old dances.
The next meeting in Jamaica Plain of the Boston Gay and Lesbian Contra Dancers is May 8 at 7:30 p.m. (Linda Leslie calling with band Heathen Creek). First Church is at the corner of Eliot and Centre streets. Beginners are encouraged to come early. For more information, see www.lcfd.org/jp or call Janet 617-522-2216 or Peter 617-971-0828.