Kathleen J. Norvell just wanted to dance.
So she mailed her reservation early to the popular Playford Ball, held every October by the Baltimore Folk Music Society.
Placed on a waiting list because there were too many women who wanted to go to the ball and not enough men, Ms. Norvell, 47, refused to sit this one out. A technical writer from Takoma Park, she filed a complaint with the Baltimore Community Relations Commission before the ball was held, charging the folk society with "possible sexual discrimination."
"This is not the first time that this has happened to me, nor is it a unique situation," she wrote in the complaint. "I know other women who have been excluded from functions simply because they are female and the sponsoring organization wants to keep a 'gender balance.' "
Though she was ultimately able to attend the ball, her challenge has brought to a boil a long-running debate among traditional dance organizations throughout the country over the policy of balancing the number of men and women who attend their balls.
The Baltimore society's board is split on the gender balance issue. Now its 1,000 members find themselves at the center of a murky legal question: Does gender balance at a dance amount to a form of sex discrimination?
"I can't believe it's happening," says Sherri Anderson, the Baltimore society's president. "You always think it's going to be handled on a national level. You never think [someone will be] knocking on your door."
The very notion that gender balance equals sex discrimination knocks the Birkenstocks off "folkies" everywhere. Those who enjoy folk dancing are part of a vibrant, growing subculture that prides itself on its diversity.
Baltimore society vice president Peggy Myers points out that people who are blind or disabled often attend the weekly English country and contra dances.
"Where else do you see this kind of inclusiveness?" she asks.
Across the country, folk dancing's genteel manners and communal spirit are fueling a revival of centuries-old dance forms. The Country Dance and Song Society's roster of member groups has tripled to 150 in the past 12 years, according to president Brad Foster.
Mr. Foster and other folk dance devotees are anxiously watching the Baltimore case unfold before the Community Relations Commission, where Ms. Norvell and the Baltimore society will try to resolve their differences at an as-yet-unscheduled meeting. The society has hired a lawyer to defend itself against the discrimination charge.
Ms. Norvell says she will take the case as far as she has to. "I'm not a frothing-at-the-mouth feminist," she says. "It's just humiliating to have to be a second-class citizen."
The gender balance policy is fraught with emotional baggage for folk dancers.
Some remember all too well forlorn evenings spent on the bleachers at junior high school mixers and oppose an end to gender balance. Others speak wistfully of a "Utopia" in which everyone is welcome and able to dance, even if it means women dancing with each other.
"This is a very, very messy situation," says Judy Barlas, a Michigan folk dancer who runs an annual Scandinavian dance camp in Maryland.
According to Baltimore society members, a gender balance policy was established 20 years ago at the request of women who often found themselves in an unwieldy majority at formal folk dances.
"It was never intended as an exclusive mechanism," Ms. Anderson says. The policy is not observed during weekly workshops, where, ironically, men are often in the majority.
Since its inception, the policy has sparked low-decibel complaints among dancers who feel left out. In response, folk groups have experimented with complicated admission strategies that give as many women as possible a chance to be accepted to dance camps and formal dance evenings.
But when the Country Dance and Song Society opened its national newsletter to a debate on gender balance in 1993, a flurry of passionate letters, pro and con, ignited its normally sedate pages.
In an impassioned plea for gender balance, one male correspondent compared a dance attended by more women than men to a "shark feeding frenzy."
A woman wrote: "Yes, it's fun to dance the man's part but I prefer dancing and flirting with men."
"What the issue comes down to," Ms. Barlas says, "is that in this kind of dance . . . the man leads."
"If you're going to an event in order to be able to dance [and there aren't enough partners], you're getting cheated," she adds. "It's almost like taking a typewriting course. There's got to be enough typewriters."
When they gather for fancy balls and weekly workshops, Baltimore's English country dancers exchange flirtatious glances while forming intricate patterns to live music.
Moving gracefully across the floor, the dancers, old and young, married and single, idealize a time when courtship was a choreographed affair and gender roles were narrowly defined.