I threw all of my (Dan) status updates and uploaded pictures up in the 2015-05-26 IAGSDC Convention entry, but I wanted to write a bit more about the 2015 International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs convention in St. Louis Missouri. This was our third convention, which means we (Charlene and Dan) have been dancing just shy of 3 years. We currently dance Advanced, and Dan went to Caller School before the 2014 convention and has been dabbling in calling.
As in previous years, we had a blast. Each convention has its own character, this one was no different, and if we offer critique it is, hopefully, constructive. We love this community, love square dancing, and are always looking for ways to celebrate it, and improve it, while respecting the culture that's come before.
And if you're a square dancer and bogged down in the rest of this travelogue, please jump down to the "Cultivating Culture" section and give us some feedback and brainstorming.
Touring St. Louis
I knew two things about St. Louis: That it has a big arch sculpture, somewhere, and that Ferguson Missouri is in St. Louis County, and was home of the protests and huge police paramilitary reactions following the shooting of Michael Brown last summer. We flew in Southwest from SFO on Wednesday the 20th, took the train from the airport to the station right behind the Union Station Hotel, where the convention was happening, and then a bus out to where we could easily walk to the Marriott Residence Inn, where we were staying for the sake of a full kitchen and a jacuzzi by the pool.
The train had the usual transit signage issues: The walk to the station from the airport went through the parking garage and a place where the pylon for the elevated tracks narrowed the path, nothing huge, but it was clear that the access was built for cars first and the train was an afterthought, and this sense of grey concrete canyon set a certain tone. Then at the far end, we came up the steps from the station to this awesome bus sign at the right which suggested that "This service is provided during MetroLink disruptions only". Turns out the actual bus stop sign was just a little ways down the road, one sided, and far less visible. Luckily, a woman there, in barely intelligible full-on African-American "good lawd his-ownse'f" dialect, was happy to help us. Equally as interestingly, that was the last dialect we heard from people of color on the trip.
On the walk to the hotel, we crossed a freeway entrance walk in a crosswalk. A driver tapped his horn repeatedly to inform us that he was coming and wasn't going to change course or speed. This was a reminder that we weren't on the West Coast, and introduced us to Missouri drivers: We may joke about the "California Stop", I don't think I saw a single person stop for a stop sign on the whole trip, I certainly saw a whole lot of people breeze through them like they weren't there.
Our hotel was the Marriott Residence Inn St. Louis Downtown. $10/day more than the conference hotel, but we had a kitchen, by all accounts a better pool, and the hotel had a fantastic shuttle service that happily ran us around. Friendly staff, great service, a better buffet breakfast than they were getting at the conference hotel, and a full-sized fridge and kitchen. A run to Fields Foods on Wednesday evening (with a little sticker shock over the price of produce, we probably should have gone to Culinaria instead) and we were set for food. One little maintenance issue that they dropped the ball on was quickly resolved.
On Thursday morning we headed out to see the arch, and were quickly distracted by Citygarden:
We then went up the arch, learned that the fountains across the way on the Illinois side of the river would go off in just a few minutes, so hung out up there until we did, and then headed back to the courthouse.
We then came back to Union Station, watched some kids learning to circus, poked our head in the mall, gawked at the lobby, and went and danced checker for the caller school for a bit.
Charlene's back was tweaked, so on the second day we got her to a chiropractor in the up-and-coming Locust neighborhood, where we stumbled across a huge motorcycle museum in the back of the Triumph Grill:
and then walked around the Central West End for a bit.
The convention itself was held in the grand old Union Station Hotel. The refurbishment of this place was somewhat ill-conceived, the notion apparently was to create a mall complex, tourist area and hotel under the old train shed, and indeed, in the back there's parking with a Hard Rock Café and some other eatery and the aforementioned circus school, and then a sparsely populated mall, and then the hotel in the front. The problem is that, apparently, the demographics of the mall aren't the demographics that the hotel would like to attract, so there's a lot of glass and key-card-only doors to keep the two separate. Would have been less of an issue had we been staying at the hotel, but... It's also clear that, aside from the spectacular foyer and front facade, the refurbishment of the hotel was not done by a terribly experienced architect. The two really egregious issues I noticed were in the men's bathrooms, where what should have been gorgeous wood trimmed stalls were augmented by ugly steel angle brackets, and the wall covering by the urinal was covered with an acrylic splash shield, rather than being an appropriate material.
The fountains across from the hotel were where we took the group picture. There were lots of mumblings about the permitting issues for both this and the fun badge tours, the mumbling took the form of "apparently a bunch of queers carrying signs and with a PA are a demonstration", I don't have any first or even second-hand experience of what really went down, but I did note that the armed guards at our various events inside the hotel gave the general impression of a city scared of itself. As I mentioned, I don't know if I was primed for this from the Ferguson protests, but this, the general history of the city, and the extreme code-switching of those of African ancestry with whom we interacted, all made us think that the culture of St. Louis is not one of expression of sub-groups, of vibrant cultural sharing...
Just a bunch of other random notes so that in a few decades I can come back to this and have some great memories:
- There are a bunch of people I've been talking about square dance on various Facebook forums with, and it was great to run into them in-person. In particular, Susan Cox of Toronto has a fantastic profile picture of feet in awesome socks, but no picture of her face, so it was a wonderful surprise when she said "Oh, you're Dan!"
- Susan and I were talking because we brought our Landmark FM transmitter and a bunch of receivers to set up in the Advanced room, the stage of which was also used for the big dances. Using FM receivers is becoming "a thing" with the Toronto club, apparently the convention there next year will have transmitters in every room, and we loaned our spare receivers to them, they got passed around, and I think it'll be more of "a thing".
- We need a way to introduce a little more smarts into sound-system setup. Those Yak Stacks should be set higher and angled down.
- Too many other awesome people to mention. It was awesome to see my calling school classmates, Cynthia, and Karla, and Debbie, and there's a good chance I'll get to do some calling with Karla later this summer! And Cynthia brought me awesome socks! Meeting Brian Jarvis, and having conversations with so many callers, got me to the "okay, I can feel comfortable wearing my GCA badge now", which led to one of the folks from Times Squares, the New York City square dance club, saying "ooooh, if you're ever in New York...", so we might have to do another vacation in that area at some point.
- Karla had a friend Chris who didn't feel comfortable dancing more than Mainstream. We threatened to drag her into the Plus room, and eventually did for the "Twins" session (which has a lot of awesome energy, but can be very difficult dancing). We totally stacked the square, I know we had Caitlyn and Debbie Ceder, Cynthia, Karla, me, and I think it was Harvey and I'm blanking on the 7th, Gary maybe, and had a super fast, tight tip. I know that Chris felt overwhelmed, but I hope she went home with a "holy cow, this is exciting and fun!" experience.
- Wonderful lunch with Harvey and Gary talking square dance.
- Great flight back sitting next to Dan from El Camino Reelers.
- At the dinner, I overheard Ken Sale observe on the social issues of square dancers, that one of the great things about square dancing was that we're socializing, but 12 out of every 15 minutes someone is telling us what to do, so it's not awkward. That's a mixed bag, it was really great to hang out with people and get to know them beyond square dancing.
And that brings me to some discusson on how to make that better, but first, some background...
On Dancing Gay
For the uninitiated, there are two branches of modern square dancing: back in the big square dancing boom of the '70s, and then into the AIDS panic of the '80s, straight and gay square dancing did not mix. Callers who called for gay clubs risked being fired by straight clubs. So in the last 40 years, even though they use the same set of CALLERLAB defined calls, the two cultures of square dancing have diverged.
Charlene and I feel much more comfortable socially dancing with the gay clubs. We have lots of anecdotes about her physical boundaries being much better respected, our fellow dancers tend to be more aligned with us in terms of social attitudes, the scene is much more flexible about us dancing separately, the "vibe" better matches us.
So "gay" square dancing is progressively less about a culture based on sexual orientation, and more a culture based on making square dancing accessible to solo dancers, dancing either gender, more interesting choreography, and more energetic stylings and flourishes, fewer requirements to wear the big froofy skirts and the pseudo-Western shirts while being more open to all sorts of dress from street wear to drag to whatever.
But the sexual component is still there. I get a lot of attention, especially at the national convention. I enjoy the flirting and the attention. I totally enjoy the hugs, and even the occasional goose. For the most part, I enjoy dancing with people who get a little rambunctious and physical (some of you new Plus dancers and the occasional contra dancer are a little presumptuous...). However, in practice I'd have no idea what to do with many of my fellow dancers if they ever got me into bed (and, yes, I know, many of you/them would be happy to teach me...).
And where I get all sorts of attention, Charlene doesn't. A lot of women dance with gay clubs because the dancing is better for them, but there's a social component that isn't focused on them.
The other challenge with growing gay square dancing as a social environment is that a lot of what brought the gay community together over the past four decades of dancing is changing. The social stigma of "being gay" is reduced (to a point), AIDS is better understood and managed, so many of the outside threats which helped bond the culture and create such a strong community have reduced.
I am, for instance, told that on Grindr many men seeking men self-identify as "straight", because the "straight"/"gay" dichotomy is seen even there as a set of cultures and expressive behaviors, not a sexual orientation thing. And with that dichotomy... well... I suppose I better self-identify as "gay".
With that in mind, Charlene and I are talking about ways that we can better cultivate the inclusive aspects of gay square dancing in a way that celebrates portion of the community, the open welcoming that we get, the exhuberance, the costumes. Square dancing fills a place in our life that Burning Man once did, and we think there's a way to combine some of the better aspects of that. Among our ideas:
- Figure out some way to make the names in the memorial room more than a club badge pinned to a piece of cloth. How can we encourage pictures, stories, perhaps some remembrances ala David Best's works at Burning Man or integration into the IAGSDC history project? How can we make that space mean something to newcomers, while helping to celebrate those who came before?
- Celebrate the respectful touch. Hugs are already a big part, and generally boundaries are very well respected (stick out a hand, get a handshake, one arm, one-sided hug, and so forth. Flirt and tease, get your ass pinched. Or maybe that's just me). But we are on our feet a lot, and foot-rub stations are a huge thing at Burning Man. Foot rub circles, somehow?
- The two other conventions we went to, in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, had a "women's lounge" and a game room. There was a game room at St. Louis, but it wasn't really discoverable. And, of course, the women's lounge isn't for me (which is fine, there is a definite need for that sort of retreat). Salt Lake City had a puzzle area out in one of the main corridors. We're thinking about ways that we can help enhance that space as a retreat from the stimulations of the dance floor. Maybe just undertake to bring veggie trays or chocolates, and tools to do some guerrilla signage?
- More costumes! Of course.