Practical Ways to Make Lindy Hop Welcoming for LGBT+ Dancers

(Note: In this post I will use LGBT+, a shortened acronym, to refer to the LGBTQQIAP+ community. As someone who falls under the G, the Q, and the A, it is important to me to acknowledge that there are more letters in our beloved acronym than are sometimes convenient to spell out.) 

During my tenure as a Lindy Hopper, some of which was spent at an extremely conservative educational institution, I’ve become especially sensitive to and appreciative of scenes and events that go the extra mile to make the LGBT+ Lindy Hoppers feel safe and welcome. Here, I’d like to offer a compendium of tips and ideas I’ve compiled from my experiences, and from conversations with other LGBT+ dancers, to assist you in making your scene or event as queer-friendly as you can!

Making us feel welcome in class

We want to know that we can dance any role. All of your classes should open with a vocal acknowledgment from the instructors that anyone may dance any role. This may seem almost too obvious to say out loud, but I promise, this is really important – it makes us feel seen, and it makes us feel like we have the instructors’ support in case we experience discrimination from other dancers in class.

We want beginner classes to offer a non-gendered way to explore role preference. A great beginner class will include an exercise that involves really basic components of leading and following, like connecting with both hands in open position and practicing leading or following each other around the floor. I wish that the first Lindy Hop class I took had done this!

We want to have an easy way to identify our role preference in class. Please – please – do not ever start class by saying, “Okay, everyone partner up!” This makes it incredibly difficult to tell who’s doing which role, and I have often experienced the isolation of being the “odd one out” after all the women have partnered up with all the men. Instead, consider having everyone hold up an American Sign Language letter L or letter F with one hand to indicate which role they will be dancing for that class, and then let people partner up.

We want to feel acknowledged by the instructors’ language. Instructors, please take note – it is perfectly acceptable to use a gendered pronoun if you are talking about your teaching partner. For instance, you might say of the female follower teaching with you, “And then I put my right hand gently around her waist.” But when referring to your students, you should use gender-neutral pronouns instead. For instance, you could say, “Okay, leads, take your follower’s hand and lead them through the turn.”

Using “them,” which is a gender-neutral pronoun, makes space to acknowledge all the followers in the class – including those who may not identify as female. Here are a few more examples to help you think about which pronoun to use when referring to your teaching partner versus your students:

  • Partner: “I’m listening for him to pull me back into tandem position.”
  • Students: “Followers, make sure you listen for your leader to use their left hand to pull you back into tandem position.”
  • Partner: “She uses those four counts to do something expressive that she chooses.”
  • Students: “Leaders, remember to support your follower as they choose what to do during those four counts.”

But Mary, you sigh. I’ve definitely taught classes in which all the women were following and all the men were leading. Do I really have to do this then? 

That’s a great question! Remember that in the LGBT+ community, it isn’t always obvious from appearances which gender someone may identify with, or which pronouns they may prefer. I have several dance friends who are nonbinary and use they/them pronouns, but are often mistaken for women because of the way they look. Using gender-inclusive language helps to make sure everyone feels welcome, even if it doesn’t always seem necessary.

We want to see ourselves represented. If it is an option for your scene or event, it’s a really dope idea to have same-gender instructor pairs teach together. This lets people who dance a nontraditional role feel represented. Some of my favorite styling variations have come from taking classes from other women who lead!

Making us feel welcome at the dance

We want to be visible. If you really want to go the extra mile towards pronoun visibility, get those nametags that say “My name is:” and “My pronouns are:” on them, and encourage everyone – including cis people – to use them. This helps trans dancers feel included, and gives people an easy way to know what other people’s pronouns are!

We want to feel safe inside the bathroom we use. It may seem so simple as to be almost unnecessary, but it makes a huge difference to hang up a sign outside the restroom indicating that people of all genders are welcome. Here are a couple of creative examples I’ve seen at different venues and events:

  • Pirate Swing 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan hung up signs that said “And non-binary” under the “Men” and “Women” signs outside the bathrooms in their main venue.
  • The inimitable Mobtown Ballroom in Baltimore, Maryland has a sign in the hallway outside the bathrooms: “This bathroom has urinals. [arrow to the right] This one doesn’t. [arrow to the left] Use whichever bathroom suits you.”
  • The Switch 2018 in San Francisco, California hung signs outside each of the single-use bathrooms that said “All genders welcome in this bathroom – just be sure to wash your hands!”

A personal aside: at Pirate Swing 2017, I was at a place in my life where I was dressing very androgynously, and as a six foot tall person with short hair, I was frequently mistaken for a man. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to see a sign on the bathroom that said “Women and non-binary.” It made me feel safe to enter the bathroom and know that no one would be startled or make a disparaging comment towards me. I do not identify as non-binary, but that simple sign still made a difference for me.

We want to be danced with! It truly makes all the difference when an organizer, instructor, or experienced dancer asks an LGBT+ dancer who is new to the scene for a dance. If you are in a position of power, influence, or experience, you have the opportunity to make this a reality!

We want others to ask about our preferences. I’ll admit it – I don’t always ask people their role preference. I know that some people want to only follow or only lead, and that’s fine. But if I’m not sure, or it’s a person I’ve never danced with before, or a friend with whom I will occasionally switch roles, I like to ask, “Is it all right if I lead?” or “Do you want to lead or follow?” If they seem unsure, offering up “Want to switch?” as an alternate option floats some people’s boats.

Because it can be easy for scene regulars to forget about doing this when they’re accustomed to dancing with the same people week after week, I really encourage instructors and organize to say, repeatedly and with a microphone if possible,  “Here in our scene/at our event, if we’re not sure of someone else’s role preference, we like to ask!”

A nonbinary friend of mine told me this:

As a queer person and often femme-presenting person, it’s super exciting when someone notices that I lead and asks me to, or even just asks if I lead or follow instead of assuming I follow.

Which I think is reason enough to encourage scene regulars to be observant of others’ preferences and to ask if they’re unsure!

We want to be jammed in a way that respects our preferences. Okay, but for real, guys – can we make it an all-the-time-everywhere rule that all birthday jams must be preceded by getting the people in the middle to specify which roles they dance? Again, ASL hand signs are useful here. I can’t tell you how many times I haven’t cut in to dance with someone because I haven’t been sure which roles they could dance, and I suspect the same has been true of the times I have been jammed in the past. Especially for dancers who are newer to the scene, being given the opportunity to communicate this information is a must!

We want a safe person to talk to if needed. I really like it when scenes or events explicitly appoint one of the organizers to be a “safety coordinator” or something similar, whose job is basically to be a really understanding and informed person who is the go-to contact point for code of conduct violations.

Making us feel welcome in competitions

We want the competition name to reflect what’s actually going on. As we all know, for random partnered competitions, “Jack and Jill” is out, and a variety of new monikers are in – my favorite is “Mix and Match.” Just be mindful when naming your competition of what the title will say to people who dance a nontraditional role, or identify with a nonbinary gender.

We want to know that everyone else in the competition will welcome us. In some Mix and Match competitions, I have occasionally felt worried that I would be paired with someone who didn’t want to dance with me because I am a female lead. Thankfully, this has never happened, but I would really like to it become standard operating procedure to put language somewhere – maybe in the competition sign-ups, maybe announced by the emcee – that part of a Mix and Match is dancing with whoever you are paired with, regardless of their gender. This is a nascent idea of mine, and I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts on how to put this into practice – toss yours in the comments!

We want to know that alternative fashion choices are acceptable. Many Lindy Hoppers are into vintage fashion, which is awesome…but it’s also from the 1940s, and tends to dictate shirts and trousers for men, and skirts and blouses for women. I would love it if we all took a moment to acknowledge that people tend to get pretty dressed up for competitions, and for queer people, formal wear can be a confusing and awkward endeavor. (As dance photos of me continue to attest.) Just…do your best to love and support and cheer for people in the competition, no matter what they’re wearing.

Incorporating ambidancing into your scene

This is a topic I have been hesitant to address, because my own feelings about ambidancing – which means being able to both lead and follow – are complicated at best. Even though I am technically an ambidancer, because I know how to both lead and follow, I am much more comfortable identifying myself as someone who leads primarily, and I have mixed feelings about the efficacy of ambidancing as a class format. Regardless, ambidancing does have some wonderful benefits of which you should be aware.

Ambidancing encourages open-mindedness and flexibility throughout your scene. People who are accustomed to ambidancing as a concept, regardless of their sexuality or gender, are way more likely to be cool with asking about role preferences, dancing with people of their same gender, and generally fostering an LGBT-friendly community atmosphere.

Ambidancing helps people appreciate each other. I’ve noticed that when people try the role they don’t usually dance, they develop a great appreciation for people who do dance that role! This is a wonderful attitude to have, and I think everyone should try the other role, at the very least to gain a better understanding of it.

Ambidancing can be an avenue towards greater musicality. Based on my own experience, I believe that when you start to dance in both roles, you start to notice some similarities between them – the biggest one being that dancing with the music, and inserting styling, breaks, stops, and footwork that matches the music, is important no matter which role you’re in.

Ambidancing is a queer-friendly class format. If you want to relieve anxiety about gendered roles, making it unnecessary to choose between those roles is a solid option. I may not personally enjoy learning both roles in a single class, but I know that there are many people for whom this learning style is a perfect fit, and it may be a good experiment to add some ambidancing classes to your scene or event to gauge interest.

Switch dancing is incredibly fun! I didn’t hold this opinion quite so adamantly until I moved to California and went to the Switch, where I had some switch dances that absolutely blew my socks off. Switch dancing means that the partners trade leading and following back and forth throughout the dance. Even as someone who isn’t super into following, I find switch dancing to be a spontaneous, creative, and exhilarating experience, and I think it’s something everyone should experience!

My friends Calvin Lu and Sam Nguyen, who help organize the Switch, did this awesome showcase at Midwest Lindy Fest this year, and you should watch it! They are incredibly hardworking dancers and so much fun to watch!

If you’re interested in learning more about ambidancing, this podcast from Michael Jagger and Evita Arce is a good place to start: https://michaelandevita.com/018-ambi-dancing/

Thank you for reading this post! If you have additional tips or suggestions to share, please drop them in the comments! I would love to hear your thoughts.

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