The Square Dance

Illustration of the ultrastructure of the Covid-19 virus. Image: CDC Science Photo Library.

Covid-19 and the rules it’s brought about (we’re looking at you, 1.5 metre rule) have ushered in new societal behaviours and brought others – such as ‘patriarchy chicken’ – into high relief, writes Sunny Grace.

As we embrace the new normal of living with Covid-19 in Sydney, I have noticed people are walking differently. Trying to keep the 1.5 metre distance. Or ignoring it and each other. Avoiding eye contact so as not to have to acknowledge we are not keeping the somewhat arbitrary safe distance for community transmission. I am reminded of the photos at the beginning of the pandemic of people wearing cardboard cut-outs 1.5m wide. 

I am finishing a yoga class where we lay our mats on crosses on the floor to make sure we have the distance apart. Yet after the class, as we put away our yoga straps and clean down our mats, we have to use our own spatial awareness to keep our distance. Spatial awareness is not a gift I was born with and so I overcompensate, giving a wider berth, as we do-si-do around the room. 

This takes me back to primary school where we were taught to bush dance. Was this just a country primary school thing? For those who don’t know bush dancing, it is a uniquely Australian form of dance based on traditional folk dances from Europe, using specific moves called out by the leader of the bush band. The US version is known as square dancing. The do-si-do is common to both and involves the dancers going around each other in a square back to back. 

In primary school, we lined up in our rigid gender lines facing each other waiting for the band to call the dance. Those who identified as male quite often complained about having to do the dances but when it came to the action they joined in enthusiastically. 

Sometimes they were too enthusiastic. 

My favourite dance was Strip the Willow, where couples would swing along the line from one side to the other, unless some boisterous young male would take this opportunity to swing you just that bit too hard or cop a covert feel of your non-existent breasts. 

I have always loved the poetry of the name – Strip the Willow. I Google the origin and ironically find the following

So when the Queen of Sheba wants to “strip the willow,” just as she wants “the keys to the National Library,” she is asking for a part of Scotland, to participate in the culture and the history of the area to which she’s come. This makes her transformation of all the young women in the poem even more powerful– she takes part in the culture and reappropriates her own role in it (and the girls’ too, by extension).

And then there’s the Urban Dictionary meaning

When one rips one’s testicles off with a split wooden spoon. 

But I digress. 

Now in the streets and the shops around Sydney, I see people doing the Covid version of the square dance. The four-metre square dance. Some people are better dancers than others. Some aren’t dancing at all. 

I walk down the street of the village of Erskineville and do-si-do fellow shoppers in the aisle of the veggie shop where it is impossible to distance anyway, because the aisles are less than one metre wide. I wait patiently for others to get their groceries before I make my way inside. Others barrel past me boisterously, like the kids in primary school. 

“A lot of men will not give me the courtesy of the four-square metre rule, meaning sometimes I end up in the gutter to avoid them.”

– Sunny Grace

Some men in particular continue to act like they own the place. Playing patriarchy chicken is out of the question.

For those of you who don’t know what patriarchy chicken is, it is simple. While walking down the footpath, women do not move out of the way for men. It is a thing, men owning the space. Expecting women to move out of their way. 

It may not always be intentional but when women do not comply it can be confronting for the male. 

He stops, unsure of his next move. Perhaps he is not used to having to step to the side for others. Perhaps he is used to always going forward. 

Social distancing really has emphasised this phenomenon. Yeah, maybe not all men – but a lot of men will not give me the courtesy of the four-square metre rule, meaning sometimes I end up in the gutter to avoid them. 

I have also noticed that dogs can’t square dance, or socially distance at all. 

At the park, I find myself standing in a square with the other dog owners, asking each other doggy questions while our Covid puppies roll around with each other, sharing saliva willingly and unabashedly while we are unable to hug our dearest. 

While our case numbers are dropping here in NSW the spectre of Victoria looms in our minds but it seems our actions are to carry on as usual. 

The sun came out on the weekend and as I watched my son’s team play rugby league, the voice over the loudspeaker kept reminding the spectators to stay 1.5 metres apart, falling on the deaf ears of the crowd watching athletic young men share blood, sweat and touch on the field in front of us. 

There is no square dancing in football or on sports fields in general. There are different rules for different reasons. 

By the way, I miss patriarchy chicken. I think I will take it up again. 

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