I’m still processing the events of my long weekend away from the world (and then the impact of discovering what horrendous stuff had been happening while I was not online or reading any news).
I had some thoughts after spending time again immersed in the folk traditions of song, music and dance of England (with some borrowings from the rest of the British Isles and from our former colonies in North America).
For some reason, English traditions of a working class or rural labourer origin are somewhat disparaged even by those who claim to represent and stand for British and English distinctiveness and uniqueness. Perhaps it is that rapper and longsword dances originated in the coalfields of the North-East and symbolise as a result both workers’ unity and the subversiveness of turning the tools of labour into the instruments of pastime and pride that these forms are not celebrated as I feel they should be. Or maybe it is that these are dance forms that are developed to be performed by men (in the same way that, AIUI, barbershop quartet music was developed for specifically male collaboration – but barbershop seems much less maligned than Morris) and modern conceptions of masculinity would have us view men displaying themselves as dancers is derisible (which, I guess, is the problem people have with other forms of Morris).
AIUI Yorkshire is more associated with the longsword form (and therefore, out of pride in my birth county, I must favour that form) while the rapper sword dance is more associated with Northumbria (I am not an expert, but I’ve listened to a few). Both are elegant displays of skill and suppleness. There happened to be a championship-winning rapper side in attendance this weekend, who performed on the bank holiday. I found myself wishing for a definition of masculinity that could again celebrate maleness in this way instead of by violent confrontation (as in physical team sports).
A long-running issue I had when I attended the same kinds of events as a teenager was that for the folk dancing in the evening, women would often pair up with each other rather than asking men (or waiting to be asked), which left me, a shy and awkward fellow, little chance to develop the skills of asking or to dance with non-family members. As much as I would have been happy to dance the “ladies'” part, figuring out which other man it would be safe to ask (or who would feel safe enough to say yes in a public-ish environment) was way harder than the idea of asking someone female-identified.
Now, initially, it is fair to say that a certain element of entitlement was wrapped up in the frustration at the women’s tendency to pair off and leave me partnerless. I like to think I’ve grown past that, and that what frustrates me most is not “wah, I don’t get any”, but instead that gender divide of the acceptability of association between men on the one hand (and the underlying homophobia), and the implied misogyny that asking a man to play the “lady” is unacceptable, but women dancing together and one of them taking a male role is okay. I am much more bothered that men won’t dance with me than that women won’t.
However, the brightest moment was seeing two little boys (I couldn’t guess their ages, but definitely still primary school age) who may have been brothers, pairing up to join in the early evening dances. One of them announced proudly “I’m a LADY” the first time they joined a dance set. It broke my heart to think how in just a few years’ time, that sort of thing will be brutalised out of them. It warmed my heart to think that maybe, the next generation might not be as homophobic or transphobic as those before them after all.
I wondered as I was packing for the holiday whether I would take one of my skirts, and decided against. Now I am home I wonder if I missed an opportunity there, but I did not feel brave enough to use my body and clothing choice to make that challenge to the norms (even if it might have made it implicitly okay for another man to dance with me).
I started pondering whether it would be possible to write a folk dance such that the progression required all dancers to dance both the “men’s” and the “ladies'” roles, and also require that people who started in the “men” positions end up dancing with each other, and likewise those who start in “women” positions. I have occasionally tried writing dances, and one or two actually worked, but I have no background in it and only a vague understanding of the mechanics of orthodox folk dances (enough to follow a caller, not enough to actually call a dance, I would suggest). For me to work these ideas into a danceable dance would take practical experimentation with willing volunteers. But I am sure it is possible, and should be done.
All of which is to say that even though I managed to miss most of the misogyny in the news, thoughts on gender liberation were often on my mind on a more positive note.