Gender Free Calling and Dancing

This article is about Gender Free Calling and Dancing, discusses options for calling gender free, and has some advice for dancers.

It does not consider the background or the reasons for using Gender Free Calling - these can be found here.

It assumes an understanding of what a folk dance is (ceilidh, contra, ECD) and what calling involves.

What is Gender Free Calling / Dancing? 

It is a folk dance (barn dance / ceilidh / social dancing) where no references are made to dancers' gender (actual or expressed).  In particular:

  • There are no assumptions about where in a set a person will dance based on their gender
  • Where a dance has dancers in couples, there is no expectation that those couples are either mixed gender or same gender, and no reference is made to this
  • Where a pair dancing have separate roles, there is no reference to or expectations around the gender of the dancer in either role, whether or not the nature of the dance means that one leads and the other follows.

In addition, the terms Ladies, Gents, Men, Women, Boys, Girls, or similar gendered terms are never used.

How to Call Gender-Free

Some callers find it difficult to make the transition to gender free calling.  One of the reasons for this is that gendered calling contains many assumptions that are so deep seated that we don't even realise they are there.  For example, in social dance "swing" implies finish side by side as a couple facing across the set (unless told otherwise) with the person dancing "man" on the left.  In order to overcome these automatic behaviours we need to very clear in what we are communicating.

When no terms are needed

In many dances, especially ceilidh dances, the dancers in a couple don't do anything different from each other, so there is no need to use any identifying terms.  To state the obvious, you should not tell people to line up with "men on the left, ladies on the right".

When terms can be avoided with a minor adjustment

Consider a dance where top couple gallop down, arch up over the women, down over the men, and gallop back up.  Do you really need to identify which line they arch over first? Tell the top couple to pick one!  (A note for my American friends: you may find these preposition heavy expressions a little confusing - look up Foula Reel for an example of "arch up over".)

Also, look at Bridge of Athlone or Country Bumpkin, where lines are crossing over, and the men (women) make arches?  Do they need to arch?  If so, why not just let them choose, or suggest the "tallest" line.

Circassian Circle: Tallest In, Shortest In, or use others: best looking, quickest, youngest - causes hours of amusement.  Or just ask them to choose.  Pousettes (for getting the tops to the bottom)? Ask the top couple to decide who pushes first.

In Gypsy Thread you could just get the dancers to choose which line goes first.  In the similar dance Bottom's Up you need to make sure the circle flows from the second thread the needle - you could do this by either identifying the line to arch first (positional identifier) or (better) by telling them to keep circling in the direction they're already going, and then back the other way (no identifier needed). 

Note on letting the dancers choose:  Beginners are surprisingly good at deciding who arches, who goes first, which line.  I think it comes from the fact that “arch over a line” is simpler than “arch over a specific line”.

Positional Terms

Sometimes you need to identify dancers, but there are many ways of doing so that do not require gendered terms.  Some examples are: Bridge of Athlone: "The line nearest the bar, Arch"; Clopton Bridge: "Those on the left of the line are first corners". 

Chappelloise: "Those on the outside roll across".


As mentioned above, swings end with the "Man on the left" or "on your own side".  If the couple ends the swing in a random order, then at the very least what they do in the dance will be different (even if they're just on the other side of the set).  In some cases it is essential to the choreography.  If it is not essential the best way to reference it is "if you always come out of the swing on the same side, you will always do the dance in the same way.  It's up to you if you want to swap".

Where role identifiers are essential

Any dance can be called using only positional references (although not necessarily elegantly).  There is one exception to this: a longways progressive dance that has a neighbour swing in it.  For the choreography to work, the swing has to finish with the dancers on a particular side.

Other moves benefit from having role identifiers.  Saying "Those on the right allemande left with each other once and a half" is confusing, not least because it has two direction indicators (right and left) serving different purposes.  "<role identifier>allemande left" would be much easier for the caller to say and also for the dancer to process and respond to.

There are many choices for role identifiers, and a discussion about them can be found here, and a list of suggestions with their pros and cons here.  Because of their "best fit" to the criteria, Larks and Ravens seem to be becoming the standard.

Other aspects

Progressive (Partner Changing) Dances

These generally work by one set of people moving on to another person.  If people are going to keep progressing in the same way, then they always need to do the same role in the dance.  In most cases there is a swing in the dance, and the rule above ("always come out of the swing on the same side") will make the progression consistent.  Having said that, doing Lucky Seven with random changes of direction (of progression) can be quite fun.


In many cases (especially contra), the dance flows, which can give hints to the dancers as to who does what.  Going from a Circle Left to a Mad Robin. the person on the left always goes in first.  So you don't need to identify the role for that, just say in the walkthrough "Mad Robin, person on the left goes in first", or "Mad Robin Clockwise".  Then in the dance they just won't get it wrong because the flow won't let them.


Certain calls either have a gender reference in the name, or are gendered by definition.  Three of the commonest are:

Ladies Chain - there is no reason why this cannot just be called "Chain", and defined positionally (people on the right pull by with the right hand...").  See Flutterwheel / Reverse Flutterwheel for a similar move defined positionally.

California Twirl - Lady goes under man's arm.  Make it "shortest go under the tallest's arms", or let them decide for themselves.

Star Through - man's right to lady's left.  This is a tricky one, as the choreography requires them to end up facing a particular way.  One way of doing it is to say "join the hands nearest (the direction you want them to face)".  Other possibilities include "swap places, end up facing Up/Down/In/Out/Away from (/Towards) your Neighbours.

Proper v Improper

In gender free dancing, dances and couples are not proper or improper (because there is no "wrong" way for a couple to be), and there is no need for "number 1s to swap sides".  Moreover proper and improper imply there is a "right" and a "wrong" way and should not be used.

End effects

A standard contra will have "swap sides on the ends", or "come back in proper".  Both of these have gender connotations as they imply there is a "right" and a "wrong" way round to be.  The former should be phrased "if you want the dance to be the same on the way back, swap sides on the ends" or "...come back in with the Larks on the left".  The latter ("come back in proper") should not be used.

Who goes first

In a move such as a hey (reel), the caller defines who starts, however in some moves (such as 1s do a figure of 8 through the 2s, or cross trail), dancers are crossing over and one of them needs to go first.  Traditionally this has been the lady, but under gender free the convention is for them to pass Right Shoulder to Right Shoulder.

Hand Holding

Another tradition is for Men to have the palm up, and ladies palm down, and for dancers just to work it out for same sex handholds.  In practice there's no need to specify anything unless they ask, in which case go for Right hand palm up, Left hand palm down.

Advice for Dancers

As Dancers, you have less to worry about, because it's the caller's job to get you doing it right.  The only thing you need to get right is not making assumptions.  If someone is coming towards you, don’t assume they're wrong because they appear to be the "wrong" gender.  To quote the Americans: "Dance with whoever's coming at ya...".

Similarly if you see a couple "the wrong way round", don't try to correct them.

If you see someone of the same gender as you coming towards you to swing, don't treat them any differently, and certainly don't refuse to swing them.  Finally - try doing the other role - it's fun!

References and other options: