Shall We Dance?

March 04, 1995

A folk music and dancing society seems an unlikely source of sex discrimination. If any musical genre boasts a strong social conscience, it is folk. Too, the circular movements and open arms of folk dancing symbolize the kind of broad acceptance the world outside the dance hall can only emulate.

So how does the Baltimore Folk Music Society find itself facing a charge of "possible sexual discrimination" from a woman who says she was initially denied admission to a society event for no other reason than being female?

Kathleen J. Norvell claims that before a society ball last fall, she was placed on an admission waiting list as a result of the group's "gender balance" policy. The policy, common among similar dance groups nationwide, is that either men or women can be prohibited from a dance when an apparent excess of members of one sex have already registered. Most often, the excess is of women.

The Baltimore group holds over 100 dances a year. It balances genders for only its two most formal occasions -- events at which participants in traditional dress attempt to re-create the courtly and quaintly flirtatious atmosphere of Old World dances. At such events, the gender balance policy is intended to promote that atmosphere.

Ironically, the Baltimore society instituted the policy 20 years ago at the request of women dancers who usually outnumbered the men. Society officials recently hinted they would let the group's 1,000 members decide whether to maintain gender-balancing. But now, angered that Ms. Norvell has filed a complaint with the Baltimore Community Relations Commission, they have hired an attorney to fight her charge.

The society seems to want it both ways -- to continue, however infrequently, the exclusionary policy of gender-balancing, while embracing a general philosophy of social justice and inclusiveness. The two notions don't jibe. And though Ms. Norvell is not a member of the Baltimore group, any dues-paying female victimized by the gender balance policy would be justified in crying foul that other members paying the very same dues were favored over her strictly because of her sex.

Old World ways still have their rightful place, but not when they are out of step in a brave new world that aspires to be free of unfair obstacles.

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