At Kansas City's new gender-neutral square dance, every pard'ner is welcome
You won't hear gendered terms like "ladies" and "gents" at a new square dance in the West Bottoms. Organizers of this do-si-do scene put an inclusive spin on the traditional American art form.
On a sweltering Saturday night last month at The Emerald performance space in the West Bottoms, a string band tuned up for an old-fashioned square dance.
It’s common for shindigs like this one to include references to gender. Traditional callers often use terms like "ladies" and "gents" to call out the steps. But here, violinist Rachel Krause has kicked off a new type of community dance. Oddball Hoedown brings all folks into the fold, no matter their gender.
“It is a queer-centered space," Krause said. "But all oddballs and weirdos alike are welcome, and those who have this shared placement of value upon, like, inclusivity and celebration and respect.”
It's a feeling Krause has wanted to share with people who've felt left out of conventional folk dancing — something special about how fiddle music gets people out on the dance floor, they said.
“You can feel the room respond to certain tunes in different ways," Krause explained from onstage.
The band is Halfsider, with musicians Isaiah Sibi, Tricia Spencer, and Howard Rains, and their brand of folk music was created for just this type of fete.
"There’s like this mystical nature of these tunes that makes people want to want to move,” Krause said.
Cooling off near a big fan is Glen Mies, in a white cowboy hat, sleeveless Western shirt and big, silver belt buckle. There have been three sold out dances this year since February, and Mies has been to all of them.
“Some dances are more complex than others,” Mies said. “There’s ones where, like, the squares split and join each other and you’re going diagonally.”
Before Oddball, Mies last square danced in 1994, in elementary school gym class.
“People are going to get confused here tonight, but they’re all going to be laughing the whole time,” Mies said.
Calling the dance steps
For some people who fall outside the gender binary, the traditional way of calling out dance moves — using "ladies" and "gents" — can be confusing. Caller Charlie Myers' goal tonight is to keep all the dancers moving, and use language that makes sense for everyone.
“We use 'larks' and 'robins' because the first letter of each word is L and R, so (they) go with 'lefts' and 'rights,'” Myers said.
Without the constraints of gender, each dancer is free to do-si-do as a lark for one number and a robin the next.
Throughout the night, Myers commanded the dance floor from the microphone at the front of the stage.
“People who are looking for partners … if anybody’s still looking for partners, just go ahead and raise your hand,” Myers said.
They walked the dancers through basic moves to kick start each dance — they're not hard, are fairly self-descriptive, and dancers don't need to memorize anything before they show up, Myers said.
Learning the dance steps is just part of the fun. And before long, everyone was swinging their partner, and dancing like old pros.
Myers said there’s a magical moment that happens when everyone has learned the steps.
“Once everybody's kind of jamming, it's just the music and the dancers, and everybody's completing the moves all together," Myers said. "You'll hear, 'whoosh whoosh whoosh, clap-clap!' ... Everybody on the beat.”
Myers, a recent transplant to the area from Asheville, North Carolina, has called dances for several years. When Krause started building a team for the event in Kansas City, it made sense to bring them on board.
“I think the spirit behind Oddball is radical inclusivity," Myers said. "We're trying to speak about things in a way to where everyone will be able to feel welcomed."
'Building this community of oddballs'
Off the side of the dance floor, Matthew Lawrence stood dressed in a black and white floral top and houndstooth skirt. It was Lawrence's first Oddball, and, with a little help from the caller, they got the hang of things pretty quickly.
“Charlie was a really good leader with calling and everything,” Lawrence said. “It was more fun than I expected.”
Peach Leach was also here for the first time. She was sporting black cutoff overalls over a rainbow bikini top. For her, using terms like larks and robins was an easy way to learn each dance.
“You can always tell who’s on the right and who’s on the left, so it doesn’t matter who’s leading and following," Leach said. "And it’s just great to, like, use gender neutral terms."
Organizer Rachel Krause said it's an opportunity to explore new things in a safe place. At Oddball, they said, everyone is free to lead or follow based on their own wishes.
”Being in this space where you may not have to subscribe to taking the lead in dance roles can also be a really powerful, beautiful thing for people to experience,” Krause said.
For them, it’s all about bringing an old tradition to a new audience.
“We are starting to see some regulars — I do call them oddballs,” Krause said. "You know, we are building this community of oddballs that are coming back, time and time again.”
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