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One, two... one, two

A gender-free approach to English country dance thrives in Jamaica Plain

On a rainy night last month, the First Church in Jamaica Plain , a venerable English Gothic building erected in the 1850s, echoed with the sounds of revolution:

``Number ones: Lead up through the twos and cast up back to place."

``Second corners: Set and turn single back to place."

``Ones: Cast down the number twos and gate beside the number threes."

Sue Rosen , the diminutive woman chanting these mysterious phrases into a microphone, may not look like a revolutionary, but she's doing something genuinely radical within the context of English country dance, which traces its roots back 400 years and counts Queen Elizabeth I as an early enthusiast.

In the traditional version, the caller -- or person who directs the dance -- gives instructions to ``gents" and ``ladies." Rosen doesn't use those words, and for good reason: In the Jamaica Plain ECD group, a gent can be a lady and a lady can be a gent.

Gender-free folk dance is a movement that began three decades ago in Oregon and has found fertile soil in Massachusetts's gay and lesbian community. The Jamaica Plain group, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this winter, combines progressive attitudes about gender with the long tradition of ECD, a dance showcased in the recent film adaptation of Jane Austen's ``Pride and Prejudice." The result is an experience that feels both old-fashioned and edgy -- a little bit Elizabeth Bennett and a little bit Judith Butler .

In traditional folk dances such as ECD, contra dance, and square dance, men and women line up across from one another in long lines known as ``longways sets." Some callers only give instructions to men, who then lead the women. In traditional ECD, as in most traditional societies, men play the active role and women the passive role.

Gender-free dance challenges these cultural norms by allowing anyone to dance the stereotypically ``male" or ``female" parts. Instead of ``gents" and ``ladies," the caller gives instructions to ``ones" and ``twos;" some groups use armbands to distinguish between ``bands" and ``bares." In traditional ECD, dancers must find a partner before each dance or risk being left out. At a gender-free dance everyone lines up in two rows. Your partner is the person standing across from you.

Although gender-free dance was invented in the 1970s by a gay Oregon couple frustrated by the heterosexism of traditional folk dancing, it has made converts outside the gay and lesbian community. Many dancers like the opportunity to try out both the male and female parts. Others like the more casual approach to finding a partner.

``After decades of gender-role dancing, it's really nice to just line up and dance," says Roger Gilbert , a retired schoolteacher who has been folk dancing for almost 60 years.

Maureen Carey of Cambridge belongs to several folk dance groups in the Boston area but says the Jamaica Plain group, which meets on the second, fourth, and fifth Tuesday of every month but August, is the most welcoming.

``I find this group particularly accepting and appreciative of children," says Carey, who brought her daughter to dances when she was growing up. ``There are many, many dances like this around Boston, but this one has the best sense of community. It feels like a party at someone's home. As long as you're comfortable with homosexual self-expression, you'll feel welcome here."

Rosen, a well-known contra dance caller who works six to eight dances a month in the Boston area, has recently branched out into ECD. She carries a three-ring binder filled with dance instructions. Some of the songs date back to the 17th and 18th centuries; others are contemporary compositions.

``Key to the Cellar" was written by Rosen's friend Jenny Beer of Pennsylvania. It's a ``slip-jig" -- a sprightly Irish step dance in a minor key. Most English country dances are easy to learn -- that's part of their appeal -- but slip-jigs are more advanced. ``You wouldn't want to do more than one in an evening," Rosen says.

Like a club DJ, Rosen varies the music's meter, tempo, and key over the course of the night to keep interest high. The dances themselves are relatively simple. Most consist of different combinations of a basic set of moves. Once you learn these moves, which have exotic names such as ``gypsying," ``casting," ``gating," and ``heying," you can quickly pick up almost any dance.

``The dances are pretty standard, but, as usual, the music makes the dance," Rosen says.

When Rosen announces ``Key to the Cellar," 14 dancers, who had been snacking on cookies, soy ice cream , and limeade at a table in the church's narthex, return to the dance floor and form themselves into a longways set, with Rosen holding a microphone at the front. First she walks the dancers through the steps without music, making sure everyone understands the sequence. Then she asks for a few bars of the tune from the live, three-piece band -- fiddle, mandolin, and piano -- so the dancers can get used to the fast tempo. (Rosen's husband, Bruce, is tonight's pianist.) Several of the dancers beat time with their feet, staring blankly into space, as if performing the steps in their head. Then, with a flourish of the fiddle, the dance begins.

The most experienced dancers glide effortlessly across the floor, a bounce in their step, taking hands and letting them drop, executing neat turns, and maintaining eye contact with their partners. Although ECD may seem prudish compared to the bumping and grinding that predominates at many dance clubs, a definite erotic charge runs beneath the ritualized movements. It's in the eyes of two circling partners, or the delicately held hands of a couple ``casting" between the two rows.

The veteran dancers add their own sense of style to the dance. One man wears black leather tap shoes and keeps the beat with loud, resounding clacks. Several women wear long, old-fashioned dresses in recognition of the dance's history.

These veterans make sure less experienced dancers don't get left behind. Almost immediately after ``Key to the Cellar" begins, an older woman in a tan skirt and green blouse loses her place in the dance. She tries to imitate her partner across the row, but the song is moving too fast.

``Where am I supposed to be?" she says to no one in particular.

She needn't have asked. The veteran dancers are already using hand gestures and eye contact to guide the woman through the moves (speaking during a dance is discouraged). Although the woman keeps forgetting the steps, she isn't left behind. By the end of the song, when everyone curtsies to their partner, wipes the sweat from their forehead , and applauds the band, the woman is smiling.

The man with tap shoes approaches Rosen, who is paging through her binder, looking for the next song.

``What are you going to do?" he asks eagerly.

``Something that isn't minor and doesn't have `heys,' " says Rosen, referring to a complex weaving movement that she noticed several of the dancers struggling with.

``No heys?" the visibly disappointed dancer asks.

``No heys," Rosen repeats.

``I love heys," he says wistfully as he wanders off to eat soy ice cream with the other dancers.

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