Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why I Came Back

Why I Came Back

Not to the blogging world, not to the LGBT community, but to a second contra dance. By all rights, I shouldn't have returned. I only danced four dances that night. I was the only transgender person there. I was lost in so many ways... the dance, my proper role, the other dancers. I was not dressed particularly well, and I'm sure I looked like a mess at the end. Yet there were enough positive threads to weave together an experience that I could build on. It also helps that I don't give up easily.

I had been looking for something and a place to be me. After my experiences at Latta Plantation, I wanted a more regular mainstream activity to be Stephanie. I would present as Stephanie, be known as Stephanie, make friends as Stephanie. I had reached the point where I was ready to socialize with the world. For a time I thought it would be in Civil War reenacting (and that card is still on the table). I would have been satisfied with a book club or a cooking class. I have said many times that my intent is not to spread the transgender gospel. It is simply to be out and grow as the real me.

Despite the mild disaster that was the Bentonville reenactment in March 2009, I gained some confidence that I could talk and interact even in a less than ideal situation. I had many positive conversations about a passionate hobby with other passionate and knowledgeable people. Some may ask why I pursued contra dancing over reenacting. I realize to be fair to that community, I need to be able to present as a woman. I'm not there yet. I haven't given up, but this has turned into an extended hiatus. In time, I will find a reenacting community that accepts me as I am and can help me become better. However, I do have to meet them halfway by being respectful of the presentation standards and moving towards those standards. It is also really expensive!

My first contra dance was at the Pleasant Green dance hall In Durham, NC. The band was Atlantic Crossing. I enjoy seeing them on their regular spring tour as it is an anniversary of sorts for me. Pleasant Green is an old wooden bandbox of a dance hall. The wooden floors have been stomped upon for many years. I hate we don't dance there any more as it is definitely a no frills kind of place.

My introduction to contra dancing began in an odd way. I had been invited by an online reenacting friend. I didn't actually meet them until after the first dance. By that time, I had gone through the practice dance and one real dance. I figured I had better dance the role I was presenting as, a woman. A fellow named Paul was kind enough to be my partner. I joke with Paul most times I see him about that first time. Then an older gentleman asked me to dance. I don't think I've ever seen this fellow again, but you have to give him props for asking me.

I was so dizzy after the first dance that I sat out the second dance. I danced next with Peter, one of the people who had invited me. He was very helpful, and I enjoy dancing with him whenever our paths cross. The rest of the night, I only danced two more dances. I had to ask for both of those. I was not asked for a dance the rest of the night. Many dance communities encourage the experienced dancers to ask beginners. That didn't happen here.

However it is not totally the other dancers' fault. Yes, it would have been nice to have been helped more early on. However, my situation as a transgender woman is unique. I chose to dance the lady's role having never danced that role before in any kind of dance. I was just as apprehensive of the men as they were of me. I had virtually no dance or music background. I had little concept of lead or follow. I wasn't dancing with men because I was attracted to them, but they didn't know that. In retrospect, if I was confused about my role in the dance, I'm sure the other dancers were just as confused about me. Of course, most men prefer to dance with women. It took a long time to find a place where I fit in. For the first few months, I searched mostly on my own.

Yet I came back... why? First, the wonderful live music. Contra dance has so many talented musicians of all ages and experience levels, and they generally don't play for a huge payday. Even that first night, I could sense how the musicians and dancers fed off of each other. The dancers moved to the music, and the band seemed to sense the energy from the dance floor which fueled their playing even more. It took me a long time to become part of that whirlwind, that ride that is created with the mix of music and movement. It's quite the experience when it becomes part of you.

I also liked the clothes the women were wearing. I finally had a place for all those twirly skirts in my wardrobe, and I am always on the search for more. The twirly skirts really make me feel feminine which is a wondrous gift in itself. Like many aspects of contra dance, it was awhile before I had a wardrobe that worked. After a year of dancing, I think I finally started to look the part. It does add so much to the dance experience as a woman and even for a few guys who are not presenting as women.

The people also seemed friendly enough. This might seem contradictory to the above about not finding partners. Everyone was nice to my face, and no one made fun of me. I'm sure I was a part of the after dance conversation. Many have told me how brave I am for being out. I don't consider myself that courageous, but that's a post for another time. I had an interesting conversation in the ladies room with another dancer, Terry. It was interesting because she did not bat an eyelash at me while we were chatting. It was just a normal conversation between two women in the ladies room. I thought that was pretty remarkable. I've told that story to Terry several times as she is a good friend and dance partner.

A part of me was discouraged heading home. Like many aspects of a transgender woman's life, this was just one more thing that I was going to be denied. Like reenacting, I would not be accepted as the real me. I could watch, but I couldn't participate. I'm not sure what convinced me to return a few weeks later. I barely remember those first few dances. I did noticed a change in others after about three months of going regularly. People actually started talking to me. They would comment that I must be one of the regulars now. Other dancers gave me helpful tips. I started feeling like part of the community. It was a distinct turning point of feeling accepted and thinking I could do this.

I especially commend my good friend Holley for encouraging me to take on the gents role. In a sense, it was like starting all over again learning the dance. In the long run, it has opened up the partner possibilities to literally anyone. I dance mostly with women and a few guys who are open about gender roles. Many women have offered to be the “gent” while I dance the lady's role. There are even a few partners I switch roles with during the dance. In an ideal world, all dancers would dance the opposite gender role occasionally. The change of perspective forces a dancer to think about their partner's role. However, society generally frown on gents taking on the ladies role. Still there are many men in contra dance who thrive in both roles.

During my four years of contra dancing, there have been many moments where I experience a growth spurt or an a-ha moment. The latest has been calling contra dances. It has forced me to take on a greater community mind-set and see the whole dance hall. I am particularly sensitive to the beginners as I want them to have it better than my first time. While most don't have the challenges of a transgender woman, each new dancer comes in with their own unique past experiences and skill level. I'm no Ginger Rogers, but I think I have become a pretty good partner for a beginning dancer. I love seeing the joy in their eyes and the smiles on their faces as they hear the music and experience the community dance. Most “get” it much quicker than I did, and I am grateful for that. My path is a bit different, and that's ok. I still enjoy jumping into that whirlwind that is contra dance.