On a warm Saturday evening late last month, Tina Rose walked into the First Church in Jamaica Plain. With bright green toenails tucked into ballet flats and wearing a swingy, colorfully patterned dress, she was ready to dance.
“I wanted something with some twirl,” said Rose, 59, swishing her skirt at the gender-free contra dance at the First Church in Jamaica Plain
Here, dancers swing their “larks,” not their “ladies.” The organizers implemented gender-neutral terms — larks and ravens, now — decades ago to make their events more queer-friendly. In the past few years, some folk dance organizations nationwide have followed suit to make more dancers feel comfortable.
“There aren’t too many venues like this,” Rose said. “There aren’t that many places that as a trans-person I can go and feel safe and not have to feel threatened.”
Rose started living as a woman full time about a year and a half ago after coming out more than 20 years into her heterosexual marriage to a woman. Now divorced, she has found a haven and community in the Arlington Street church.
“I had to do this,” she said, gesturing at her body, “because this is my life.”
Rose wore two gleaming gold balls proudly in her ears. She had just had her ears pierced in mid-July, she said.
“It’s just another thing that makes me happy,” she said, tugging at her lobes.
A folk band played as dancers moved, following the instructions of a caller, who told them when to spin and dosey doe, when to bow and when to walk in a line.
Each song is an opportunity for friendly intimacy. Each dance, an adventure in the church auditorium, some of the dancers said. During a spin, the rest of the world flattens into the background. Only a partner’s eyes remain in focus.
“At contra dance, if you’re not flirting, you’re not doing it right,” said Andy Nottonson, 54, changing into his street shoes after the dance.
Nottonson recently started dating a man, Joe Ferrante, 61, with whom he partnered at a square dance in the spring. They went out for ice cream afterward, made a proper date the following week, and have been seeing each other since.
The ambiance in the historic church — a place for dance, but also for conversation — is exactly what the founder intended.
“I wanted to be with people in a normal lighting situation,” said Chris Ricciotti, who started the gender-free dance. “I didn’t want to have to drink. . . . I just wanted to make friends and go to potlucks and I loved dancing, I loved it since I was a kid.”
The event, which has been a staple for many in Boston’s queer community since its founding in 1988, will celebrate its 30th anniversary on the last Saturday in September.
The contra dance offers a sanctuary in a dating scene that is increasingly app-based and bar-oriented. With whirring fans and cold lemonade, the dance is as much a place of peace as of potential.
“The gay world can be extraordinarily cruel and unforgiving,” said Derek David, 32, a musician and composer, his voice breaking with teary frustration. “I can’t tell you how many times to my face I’ve been called ugly.”
David said he originally came to the dance looking for a romantic relationship with another man. Along the way, he discovered that he enjoys the dancing and the friendships he’s made there.
“It’s a libidinal economy — you have a use value and an exchange value when you walk through the door, and I’ve always been bankrupt,” he said, speaking about other queer spaces he’s frequented in Boston. “I have never once felt accepted.”
Since two Novembers ago, contra dance has been his main tie to the queer community, he said.
“I actually had never danced with another man before, and I learned for the first time why people like to dance together,” he said, laughing. “It mixes an element of flirtation and sexuality and eroticism . . . you have a 30-second romance with someone. It’s lovely. It’s exciting.”
For some long-term dancers, queer contra dance has become a focal point of their community. John Gintell, 79, and Robert Coren, 72, have been together for 45 years, married for 14, and dancing for more than 20.
“Skirts are more fun — who wants to wear jeans in this heat?” Gintell said as he adjusted his knee-length patchwork skirt.
The pair go on contra- dance-focused cruises and retreats and are closely involved in the queer community in Boston and Cambridge. They like to coordinate their outfits, although not match, when they come to dance. This week, it was T-shirts and buttons, fanny packs and flowing skirts.
“I hardly ever miss a dance,” Gintell said. “Dancing of this kind helps ward off dementia, but we just like to come.”
When the dance ended around 10:30 p.m., many of the dancers walked together to the nearby JP Licks ice cream shop to sit, snack, and talk long into the humid summer night.
As midnight came, and the dancers waved goodbye, they hugged and assured each other they’d be back for the next dance, and the next.