As Queer As Folk - Chloé Sutter

Immersion in a feminist bal folk

Several weeks ago, I saw an interesting event popping in my tablet : an association from Nantes called As queer as folk, decided to organise an event about ungendered dancing and feminism.

The event took place in Nantes, France, from 16th to the 18th of october 2019. Many people around me couldn’t attend to it, so I felt like my duty to tell you all about it !

As Queer As Folk - Chloé Sutter
As Queer As Folk – Chloé Sutter

Queer and feminist ?

As queer as folk is a local queer and feminist association from Nantes, who regularly organise traditional dances workshops for LGBTIA, queer, feminists and students groups. In other dances like tango or ballroom, LGBTIA people organise socials outside the traditional dancing community, where ungendered dancing is the norm, where people are more chill about invitation rules and dance roles. In these places, LGBTIA persons are safer and not obliged to justify themselves about anything. These are the queer dance events, and this time AQAF wished to make an open event to both traditional community and LGBTIA, in the queer dance way.

« We organise ‘queer’ traditional dances workshops but today we want to push further and propose and ungereded event for all, mixing both communities. We want queer dancers to know more about traditional dances, and traditional dancers to know more about ungendered dancing»

Elzéard from As Queer As Folk

Ungendered dancing, for those who wouldn’t know, is choosing your dance role as you wish and not because of your gender. Leading is not necessarily a male thing, nor following only for women. It is also not caring about who’s dancing with whom : man-woman, man-man, woman-woman…

In bal folk, we don’t have a side queer community for LGBTIA persons. As far as I know bal folk community isn’t too bad in openness, and ungendered dancing is frequent compared to other dance scenes I know. But as I mentioned in Which feminist fights in social dancing, there is still some work to do, and it happened that AQAF was just proposing to work on the matter before dancing like nuts !

Dance workshops and coguiding

It is of course impossible to attend to all the workshops as they went sold out very quickly, and sadly I missed the Consent in dancing. Five workshops were organised, half dance workshops / half feminist workshops.

Programme As Queer as Folk
Programme As Queer as Folk

Sharing the lead, a workshop by Ellwen

I find very interesting for these events to propose workshops about alternative practices like coguiding, that allows people to get out of the leader / follower scheme, and both experiment listening and sharing the dance at the same level.

Coguiding’s principle is not switching the lead, but in fact sharing the same role. Both partners will equally participate to make evolve and pilot the couple with musicality. As I experimented that kind of workshops before, I believe coguiding is an excellent way to bring dancers to fundamental questions in couple dance :

  • What is leading ? What is following ?
  • What is listening ?
  • Can we find a perfect balance where nobody’s leading and following, or are we in a perpetual switch ?

As I see it, having no “role” at all is hard to get, really technical, interesting and complementary to the usual lead/follow scheme.

Les avants deux de Bretagne

With a workshop of traditional dances from Brittany, AQAF had in its mind to promote group dances as an inclusive way for beginners to join the party. It is also an excellent way to promote local heritage and bring a lot of fun to the event.

We also want to minimise couple dances and bring people around group dances, circles and chains. The matter of gender is less important, and it also eliminate proximity issues. The intimate character of certain dances makes some people uncomfortable, so we try to propose funny alternatives.

Elzéard de la part du collectif As Queer As Folk

I really like the idea that ungendered dancing is not associate with the idea of “funny hippies couple dancing and weirdly improvising”, but can also go with traditional local dances and a certain technical rigour.

Feminists workshops

What is the difference between a regular bal folk festival and a feminist bal folk festival ? It is the time we will spend to talk about feminists issues in the dance community, like rape culture and struggle against discriminations. It is the area we will use with posters and documents to bring instruction and prevention. It is also volunteers mediators, identified and available to talk about these issues : the ones of the outside world, that we also find in dance communities.

Talks about the issues of social dancing

In the morning I attended to the free talk meeting about social dancing, where attendees were welcome to list every subjects they can think about – issue or solution – in our dance spaces. It was a two parts meeting. We were divided in small groups, evolving around for poles and themes :

  • the invitation
  • the area of the bal
  • the dance
  • the teaching

For the first round we were asked to list all the issues we collected from our personal history. The second round allowed us to propose solutions that dancers, organisers or teachers can do to answer these issues.

I won’t list everything that has been said, as AQAF will release a report of this meeting. I found very interesting that the attendees of this meeting came from different dance scenes, and not only bal folk. Tango, swing, salsa, contemporary… Differents scenes and people talked about issues who are similar but in different proportions.

Some testimonies were alarming, especially those very similar to Slippery Floors, and apparently there is still a lot of work to do about ungendered dancing : some female and male dancers physically put back to their place by other dancers when they dare to change roles, men refusing to hold hands to other men in group dances, uncertainty when asking another man to dance, and weariness to have to say again and again “no, I don’t do the man, I lead”…

The solutions round did bring a lot of good ideas and solutions to improve things, and a lot of them already exists in a great deal of bals I attended : the opportunity to talk, the evolutions of pedagogies, posters about good behaviours, incitations and workshops about ungendered dancing, care teams, les taxi-dancers who helps beginners finding a partner… All these innovations that are more and more frequents in bals and festivals.

Rewriting songs

I know this will make your eyes twinkle ! I heard about that kind of workshops several months ago, during the International Tango Festival and World Cup of Buenos Aires, when the feminist group mft – movimiento feminista de tango condemned the apology of femicide in some famous songs of the golden age of tango, and proposed some rewriting workshops.

That kind of workshop usually comes with a lack of understanding from some people and complaints about “the feminist censors” or “no respect for our heritage”… I was always intrigued that the subject of rewriting would provoke more outraged reactions that the many misplaced hands or the awkward situations women are facing. I was especially impatient to attend that workshop to see what fuss it is about.

Rewriting yes, but…

First question, why would people wish to rewrite some songs ?

I am myself a bit indifferent to the lyrics of songs. Half of the time I am not listening, and the other half I am convinced that it reflects a time long gone (is it ?). In the huge repertoire of traditional songs, we can find all types of songs. They are not all problematic, and we can also find a great deal of feminists songs.

Some of these songs are holding patriarchy’s values, with more or less humour, and reprensent women as objects of desire or at her stove, with some recurring scenarios :

  • the beauty is looking for a husband, or we are searching one for her
  • the fair maiden is in fact quite young (like 14 years old)
  • she’ll be married to a much older man, a sailor, or a man who was just passing by
  • if she’s not happy about it, she’ll end up in a convent
  • she might be raped when going to the field, to the market or at the river
  • eventually she’ll end up killed by her lover, her parents, her brothers or her mother-in-law (!)
Meme de Sylvie Eigenmann / Neuchir de folk
Meme de Sylvie Eigenmann / Neuchir de folk

In some call-and-response songs, some people are troubled by the lyrics, despite finding the music entertaining and the dance nice. They don’t feel comfortable to sing out loud that Jeannette got raped in a corner when she went to the village’s market.

A process focusing on collectage, analysis of the context and the meaning of the lyrics

That rewriting workshop was organised like this :

  • Learning the dance
  • Listening to the collected version
  • Listening to a recent version of the song by a modern band
  • Lyrics analysis
  • Comparing the lyrics to our modern values
  • Proposing new lyrics and how to make a song appropriate for dancing

You can think whatever you want about rewriting songs, but for me it was the first time a workshop made me work on the notion of collectage (between 1930 and 1970, organised groups started to record the testimonies of old people about the local dances and what they can remember of songs and steps of their youth). For a modern band, it is a lot of work to find traditional songs and make a musical arrangement of it. As dancers, we are passive listeners and basic consumers of music. Most of the time, we don’t even listen to the lyrics, and we show little interest for the history of a song. Unless we are musicians, we don’t have any musical approach of it.

During the workshop, we analysed the collectage’s lyrics, and compared it to the modern version. There already are some differences in the lyrics : maybe the collectage we heard is not the same version used by the band. Some verses are the same, others are not in the recent song, some words have been changed… The collectage version is the memory of a person, so it might already be different from the historical version. In short, music is alive and there already are several versions of a song.

Another assessment : the collectage and the different official versions of the song, they exist in books, cd, videos… They are, and will be played and listened in the future. Their existence is not threatened by a group of girls who will write an alternative version of it.

Rewriting the song

Rewriting a song starts by acknowledging that the lyrics we work on represent old customs. Today we don’t have the same habits, so we look at the past with a different eye. What was normal yesterday is more or less shocking today. We can’t undo what have been done, but we can put another light on it.

In that song, do I wish my character to live the same story with a different ending ? Emancipate, happy, full of possibilities ? Or do I wish to invent a full different story, a modern story who would represent our actual world ?

We are here in a writing process, open to dancers, even if we are no musicians. We will face the same questions as real musicians, like the one who attended to the workshop “writing for dancing” proposed in Gennetines by Najar and Gregory Jolivet. More than just make people dance, a song for dancing is the reflection of an age, and if we write today the heritage of tomorrow, what should I put in it ?

I believe proposing that kind of workshop is a really good thing for the bal folk community. We are closely linked to our musicians and the principle of live music. We are attached to the preservation of our dance and musical heritage, it brings people to collect songs from old generations, and musicians to use this knowledge to present them with new versions. Writing and rewriting workshops are a way for dancers to be a part of the process, and make it an act – not of censorship – but of study and interpretation. It is part of a sociological integration that exists in all sorts of domains.

Questions and conclusions

What about feminists festivals ?

You probably understood, a feminist festival is an event that clearly claims its social rules based on respect of all individuals, freedom of roles, and proposing meetings and workshops about feminist issues in the dance society. It is also a special attention to have women and LGBTIA amongst the professional artists and teachers.

I went home with things to read
I went home with things to read

Not only we wanted to make room for women, we had an goal of at least 50% of women and queer people amongst the artists, technicians and teachers.

Elzéard from collectif As Queer As Folk

The festival also had a big book stand by Les Dévoreuses – Bibli Féministe de La Trousse à Outils, posters from Chloé Sutter, and a lot of glitters!

Male dancers cisgender heterosexual, where are you ?

What I saw in that event and all the workshops I could attend is – not surprisingly – that the matter rally mostly women, non binary and LGBTIA persons. Around the table, very few heterosexual men (even if I don’t spend my time running after people to ask them their sexual orientation).

It is frequent that the most mobilised persons are the most concerned by its issues. I hope in the future we can have that type of discussion on more “mainstream” events so the number of people involved might be bigger.

We can still warmly thank the people who are opening the road for us, and build role models and new types of workshops and experiments.

Is ungendered bal folk so different from a regular bal folk ?

Some people made the remark that bal folk is already an open community, allowing ungendered dancing, and that it’s not a new thing ! So the question « did it feel different from usual ? »

Maybe I was just in a different state of mind at that time, but I would say yes.

Just the fact that ungendered roles were a rule prior to any invitation, and that all attendees accepted that rule, freed me in my social interactions.

It is the same bal folk, without the need of justification.

To be able to invite a man and ask him to follow without feeling weird. To invite anyone and talk about who’s gonna lead or follow, it made me want to invite everyone, moreover because I knew a very few people.

As Queer As Folk - Chloé Sutter
As Queer As Folk – Chloé Sutter

There is still some work to do

That’s for sure ! We still need to open these events to a wider range of people while keeping the technical and traditional aspect the best we can, we need to sort out the good initiatives and the bad habits, and why not open our bals to different cultures (like the poster wanted it to be, but not much of a reality), improve communication and work on pedagogy again and again.

I’ll finish by thanking As Queer As Folk for the amazing event. They asked the good questions and allowed dancers to talk together about the way our community works and how everyone can be included in it despite the differences.

Little by little, dance festivals make room for different approaches about dancing, and help dancers to think further than dancing in terms of community and respect. AQAF made a full event about it, but I can count different initiatives like several workshops in Genetines about respect of the body or consent. In Madrid there are the mazing events l« Neo-Trad: Folk, Feminismo y Baile » organisés par Folqué ? and many more...

The last thank is for the AQAF Team, especially Elzéard for his help, and my benevolent readproof volunteers Anne and Marion !