Callers Workshop Synopsis

CONTRADANCE CALLERS' WORKSHOP Presented to Wash, DC Callers' Collective, March 30, 2002

Bill Olson

What is written below is mainly a bunch of "food for thought". Everyone has their own way of doing things. This is mine. I've been playing music for 40 years, dancing for 30, calling for nearly 20. I think I may have picked up a few things along the way and I like sharing.  While I mostly call contradances, I also call squares, circle mixers, "whole set" longways dances. What's written below is probably mostly from the "contradance" perspective, but nearly all of it applies to all these dance formations.  We won't get through this all in 2 hours, but after you digest all this stuff, feel free to contact me about any of this. If you have questions, suggestions, corrections, think I'm totally nuts, let me know. I'd like to talk about it.. So here we go, in no particular order…

A. The mechanics of calling - timing etc..

In contradancing the caller prompts. The call is usually made at the end of  the previous phrase and in time with the music. " Balance and Swing the one below." Blam! (Well we don't say "the one below" much any more, but it's agood enough example. The bold syllables are emphasized in time with the music.. Blam is the dancers' feet hitting the floor all at once on the balance. Practice practice practice is how to get good at this. Listen to the caller at your local dances, call along (to yourself) during the dance. Then practice when you are listening to dance music at home or in the car. (Be careful of crooked tunes!)

Enunciate. Speak clearly. Make sure the dancers can understand what you are saying. The sound is weakest at the back of the hall and that's where the dancers that need to hear you the most are most likely lined up. If it seems like there's a bunch of totally numb dancers out there, maybe they actually can't hear you!! Ask! See below about working with the sound guy.

Dropping out. There is a delicate balance in knowing when to drop out (stop calling). Many callers (myself included at times) don't drop out soon enough. As long as you are up there "telling everyone what to do", there is really no reason for the dancers to "remember" the dance. Of course you don't want the dance to fall apart because you dropped out too soon, either. This is more likely to happen with a complex dance or with beginners, but it can happen at any time. At any rate, the best way to approach this is to call 2 or 3 time through completely and then start dropping back. There are some standard "goof up" places, like after a swing. If there is a swing into a circle left AND a swing into a long line forward and back in the same dance BEWARE.. They will get the two places mixed up. If there is a swing to a women's chain, they will often try to do a forward and back or a circle left instead of the chain. But most dancers will remember from the walk thru or after the first time or 2 thru. What usually happens to me is I drop out and see the dance getting a little "rough" and IMMEDIATELY jump back in.. Usually this is not the best thing to do! Try letting it go a little longer, maybe with a word or 2 to keep the dancers on track. The MUSIC will eventually tell the dancers what to do and dancing to the music I think we can all agree is much preferrable to dancing to someone "telling you what to do"!!!! Often you will see that the dance goes more smoothly AFTER the caller drops out. Be brave! Let go!

B. Communicating with the band.

1. before the dance

When I get to a dance I like to "check in" with the band. You can do this beforehand as well (the day before or week before) but this seldom works for me! You know you will see the band at the dance, I like to find out a couple of things…

First, who do I communicate with in the band during the dance? This is usually the person calling the tune changes in the band, but sometimes that all happens by some "band magic" and the caller communicates to the person that can play and talk at the same time - like the piano player.

Second, What info does the band want from the caller?.. Starting tempo? Maybe a signal when to change the tune (like half way thru the dance), what notice do they need when the dance is agoing to end (I usually tell the band "2 more times" just BEFORE the next to last time through the dance. Maybe you want to discuss signals for speeding up or slowing down. Or "pulling the plug"..

Third, Does the band usually play two or three tune sets. Find out and communicate about this. You don't want to end the dance just when the band wants to make a change into their "signature tune" or some special effect (percussion break comes to mind.)

Fourth, what kind of music do they like to play? (all reels, reels and jigs, some "special tunes" (three part, "half tunes",  slow marches, really fast ol' timey tunes, etc etc?). It might help to take a glimpse at their tune list if they have one.

Fifth, The point here for ME anyway, is that I want the band to do what they do best. This will almost always guarantee the best overall performance. I feel like it's up to the caller to fit within the framework of the band. Of course, there are dances that work well with different types of tunes. Or different tempos.

2. during the dance


Bands usually know to start around 120bpm so unless you have a particular tempo in  mind and can communicate that to the band (they may ask), let them start and speed up or slow down if necessary. Jigs and old timey tunes are generally played faster than most reels because they have less notes to play in the same amount of time. Be careful when you specify jigs that things don't get going too fast..

How to select tunes for a particular dance.

Some bands like to select their tunes based on the dance you are calling. They will ask to see the dance card or ask you to convey some information about the dance to them, usually where the balances are, but often where the "smooth, walky parts are" as well. Some bands just play what they play, sometimes watching the dancers, sometimes (unfortunately) not. As a general rule of thumb, Quebecoise tunes are great for dances with balances, as are many old time Southern tunes. Irish stuff is often very notey and smooth and "New England" tunes can be either way. I like smooth tunes for dances with heys and gypsies, walking moves, etc. Jigs are tough to specify because the language is unclear. There are jigs that are what I call "slinky and smooth" and jigs that are "bouncy".. Bands often don't know the difference. Think of the important moves in your dance and in your head put it along side music going: "Humpt de Dump te Dump de dump" That is a bouncy jig.  Try the same dance with "doo doo  doodle de doo".  That's what I call slinky. There may be very little difference in the actual musical transcription, as it all has to do with the musical accents for a particular tune, but it can make a big difference in the way the tune "feels". If you can communicate this to the band, good. Try a dance with "slinky jigs", see how it goes. Sometimes, the band just doesn't know what they do, so you do the best you can. Sometimes I will call a "slinky dance" or what I THINK is a slinky dance to what I suspect will be a non-slinky tune. Sometimes the outcome is surprising and  not at all bad!! They are so many variables with any given dance and tune that some times you just have to "see what happens"! But, write down what works so you can do it again!

C. Communicating with the dancers

1. Be ONE of them (we all are aren't we?)

Don't talk down, don't address a single person over the mic. Remember each dancer thinks you as talking directly to him or her (except the ones that don't listen at all). If they refuse to listen, like when you're trying to get them to take hands four, or during the start of the walk through, just START it! THAT will make them pay attention. Sometimes yelling or talking louder over crowd noise makes them talk more loudly - instead talk more softly.. Always say the name of the dance and the author if you know it. If you don't, ask if anyone out there does know. You'd be surprised. You may think no one is listening to this stuff and often they are not, BUT there are always folks out there with pencils and paper copying things down! I always like to tell the story about a dance if I know it, but some dancers have very little patience for this - they want to dance. So keep comments brief and to the point. They can always ask afterwards.

2. Walk thrus:

The walk thru always has more information than "what's written on the dance card".  If it didn't we wouldn't need walk thrus! Of course the walk through goes slower too and the caller can slow down for  some of the dancers to catch up if they get a little behind. But I think the most important part of the walk thru is to give the dancers a feel for the whole dance. The caller is able to "call the call" of course, but he or she can also tell the dancers where they are going to end up in cases where they might be confused. For instance: "Allemand Right your neighbor once and a quarter to a wave and balance", pretty much uniquely determines what is going to happen. But often dancers are not clear on what "once and a quarter" means. They will go around "some amount" and end up in a wave across with either the men or women in the middle or a long wave with either men or women facing out.  Better to say "allemand right neighbor once and a little more until the women can join left hands in the middle of a wavy line across and balance." Once they get it into their body memory they will continue to do it the same way. The walk thru is also a place to emphasize certain "style" aspects that will make the dance easier or more enjoyable. If a particular dance has plenty of time to complete a hey the caller might tell the dancers to make wide loops so they don't have to wait around for the ensuing balance. Or, if dancers need to give a little extra weight on an allemand in order to speed it up to get to the next figure, the walk-thru is the place. But the caller needs to understand the dance in order to be able to give these pointers. If you haven't called a dance before and especially if you are calling from a transcription that JUST HAS the  basic choreography, be SURE to work the dance out in advance. If you can do it in your head, great. If you need to write figures down on paper, do it. If you need some bodies, get them and dance the dance with them in your living room, in the parking lot before the dance, whatever.. Just be familiar with the dance before you call it (and be sure it actually WORKS of course)..

Try to make the dancers feel at ease, especially the NEW (first or second time) ones. Welcome them, thank them for coming, encourage experienced dancers to dance with them.

3. What to do if a dance "crashes"??

If a dance crashes at the beginning, say the first time through or so, just stop it and set up again. Usually it's the caller's fault (not always - someone could trip over the power cord for the PA system or ??) because he or she goofed up a call at the beginning. Half the crowd did the right thing, half did what was told and bam. Sometimes you can get out of this by finding a spot in the dance that everyone can identify with like a partner swing and saying "everyone go swing your partner now and make sure you're across from another couple", but often it's best to cut your losses. If you say something like "You guys did GREAT.That was totally MY fault" you can usually score points with the crowd. They want you to be human! (and this will certainly prove THAT!) Line them up quickly and just start the dance again. If the dance falls apart - or starts to fall apart or one line does it OK but the other two fall apart - well into the dance, it may just be too difficult for the dancers. At this point it may be best to end it early and not beat the dead horse. I did this once at a beginners' dance at a local "environmental camp" for high school aged kids.  I tried to do a simple "progressing" contradance because I thought they would "get it" and have fun with it. Well the thing never really got going and I called and called and ran out on the floor and helped people get in the right place but as soon as it got going right in one place it would fall apart in another.  I finally "pulled the plug " on the dance and told everyone "well we tried but it just doesn't look like we're gonna be able to do this one". Just about the whole crowd yelled "LET'S TRY IT AGAIN!!" so I figured what the heck, it's THEIR party, so we lined up again, I gave 'em a few more instructions and off the dance went - PERFECTLY! That won't happen every time of course, so it's always best to have dance in the back of your mind or in your back pocket that is easy but fun that you can call with ONE walk thru and get back dancing as soon as possible if a dance crashes. Quickly say, "OK let's try THIS really great but less complicated dance" (or some such words) and get everyone lined up in a hurry before the frustrated ones figure "this ain't for me…" Once everyone is having a good time dancing again, they will forget the previous frustration and all is forgiven!!

D. Putting together a dance program

My "standard" program looks like this: Easy at first, then a variety of dances with some challenging ones, then the break . Know ahead of time when the dance organizers usually take a break and when they do their announcements, etc. There is usually a waltz at the end of the first half and a couple's dance before the  second half. Keep this all in mind when you are planning your program. If the break comes too late, dancers will leave and the second half may be a little more sparse than it needs to be. It is always better to have the break a little early than a little late! Of course check out ahead of time with the dance organizers AND the BAND as to what they want and usually do here. More than once have I announced there would be a Hambo at the end of the break only to find the band didn't KNOW any Hambos! After the break you can usually get away with one or two challenging dances, but as the evening wears on I find it better to call dances that are "easy on the mind, though not necessarily easy on the body". Near the end of the evening you will usually have less beginners but brains are often fatigued..

Try to have dances "build on each other" in difficulty for most of the evening, and let it taper off near the end. Don't throw too many new moves in all at once unless you really know the crowd. Unless I know otherwise, I assume there are some first time dancers at ANY dance. How fast they will progress depends on many things and you have to READ THE CROWD here. If there are only a few newcomers and they are dancing with experienced dancers who really want to help, they will often progress VERY quickly. If there are LOTS of beginners and they want to (or HAVE to) dance with each other, they will progress more slowly.  But still, the dances should start out easy and work up. Maybe they work up to "a tiny little bit harder than easy" or maybe not. It depends. Be prepared to change what you were going to do to suit the crowd. On the other hand, at some time - usually near the middle of the evening - you will want to "challenge" everyone. The experienced dancers will love it (and expect it) and the beginners will get satisfaction from "giving it their best shot" (and hopefully succeeding!)

E. Sound stuff

Recognize the sound guy - understand that he has a thankless job (so thank him) and try to work with him. He's usually a volunteer that has some interest and wants the music/calling to be heard well, BUT wants to dance too! EQ on caller mic hi +6dN, mid +3dB, low -6dB (well this is a starting point anyway - it shouldn't be eq'd FLAT!). Some sound guys think women's voices want to be eq'd to have more LOW frequency because women's voices are higher than men's. WRONG! Nearly ALL the information in a voice is in the high frequencies regardless of  whether the voice is a man or woman's! Take a listen to the band during the sound check and politely tell the sound guy what you hear (or don't hear). He or she usually appreciates another pair of ears listening to the mix. Go out and listen after there are a bunch of people in the hall too. It can REALLY change, not just the volume relative to the noise, but how different instruments cut through.


1. Why write your own dance?

There are so many out there already! Surely all the possible combinations of figures are already in use! Why??? First of all it’s a good exercise and makes you think about the flow of the dance. Second it gives you a dance that fits your own sensibility about how the dance should go, that is, you get to tell YOUR OWN story. You will certainly have a dance in your repertoire that you can call from memory (well not ALWAYS, but there’s a reasonable chance you will remember it at any given moment)!) Plus, don’t count yourself short! You may actually have something to offer the world of dance out there!

So where do you start? Keep it simple. Maybe you have a particular sequence of moves that is pleasing to you. Write a dance around it. Don’t throw everything into one dance. For example here’s one I will entitle the “Kitchen Sink”, that I will throw a lot of stuff into..

The Kitchen Sink, improper

A1 Allem R N x ¾, M allem L x 1.5, Pt allem R x 1 to wave (M by LH in center)
A2 Bal wave, M start L sh hey ¾
B1 Gypsy and Sw Pt
B2 ½ R&L, Roll away with a half sashay, Star R ¾ (to meet new neighbors)

(Well I just wrote that from the top of my head, the B2 sequence is from Amy Kahn’s “Sweet Music”)

In addition to having a lot of stuff in it, this dance has some impediments to the flow (like RH star in B2 to RH allemand in A1) and some combinations with questionable timing (like A1). On top of that, this dance has no real story line (unless the story is “Do a whole lot of stuff, then do it again”). So how about singling out one combination of figures? In this case let’s take A2: Balance in a wave and do ¾ of a hey.  If we build around this phrase with simple but pleasing moves we have a dance with a “hook” that is a little out of the ordinary and we can make the rest of the dance flow really well in and out of the “hook”. So again, where do we start NOW?? How about having the hey end in a partner balance and swing. OK now we have half the dance written. The Pt B&S pretty much has to be in A2 or B1 so let’s be radical and start the dance in a wave (easy enough to get to from a pass through or other progression). So we have this:

A1 (RH to N, W LH in center of wave across) Bal wave (4), W start L sh hey ¾ (12)
A2 Pt B&S

OK where are we now?.. on the Women’s home side (the women went to their partners on the Men’s side after they passed each other to start the hey and then met their partners again at the Women’s home at the end of the hey). Sooo.. keep it simple. Long lines F&B after the swing is nice and half a ladies chain gets everyone back with N on the opposite side from where we started. That’s a pleasing simple B1 so now we just have to get back home and pass through in the B2. This may be more complicated than we want. If we want a circle L ¾ pass thru to be the progression, we want to be on the Men’s side of the set with our partner and it will be tricky to get there from here. Start B1 again: How about using B1 just to change sides with our partner and then from there circle L and pass thru some how. So how’s this..  B1: LLF&B, R&L thru. Then we can circle L ¾ to get back to our starting position. A neutral move like a Do Sa Do will eat up the rest of B2 and we can pass thru to the wave. The moves in B are simple (glossary figures) and flow well. Since we most often call Dosado into pass thru a dosado once and a half, here we have it….

The Kitchen, improper

A1 (RH to N, W LH in center of wave across) Bal wave (4), W start L sh hey ¾ (12)
A2 Pt B&S (16)*
B1 LLF&B (8), ½ R&L thru  (8)
B2 Cir L ¾ (6), N Do Sa Do x 1.5 (10) (to form wave with new N’s)

*A more "forgiving" alternate would be a gypsy and swing in A2

This isn’t necessarily a great dance, but rather an illustration of how I go about composing a dance. Be aware of how the figures flow from one to the other (this means from B2 into A1 too!!) And be aware of what I call the “story line”. This is basically how the whole dance feels. Like it could be smooth and slinky or hard driving and full of balances or some identifiable combination of figures or types of figures. The story could be “leave your partner, go do a bunch of stuff with other people and finally come back to your partner for a swing”, or it could be that the gents interact with each other or the women or…. Well you get the idea. In “the Kitchen” the A part has balances at the beginning of each A and in the B things are “smoother”. So this is a basic story line and is something that will help match the music to the dance. We’ll talk about that somewhere else, but that brings up another reason to write a dance. You could try to match a set of moves to a particular tune. Rick Mohr’s dance “Chuck the Budgie” was written to go with Graham Townsend’s “Pat the Budgie”. Collect this dance and start asking bands if they know the tune. It’s a GREAT fit (and a great dance!!) Along those lines you might want to write a dance for a particular occasion (wedding, festival, trip) or place and the choreography might want to say something about the inspiration for the dance.

Sometimes writing a dance takes a LONG time, years even. I have had a particular figure I want to put into a dance but just can’t make it fit. Sometimes I will spend hours, days, weeks agonizing over it and just put it away for later. Sometimes a dance will just hit me. I have plenty of dances that were written in less than 5 minutes and the choreography may be written on the side of a cardboard box or coffee cup.. you know, something that was nearby (usually in the front seat of the car) when the dance “struck”! If a dance does come to you like this, it’s probably a good idea to write it down before it “gets away”!!

2. What makes a "good dance"??

A little about "timing" and "flow"

Most dance figures can be completed in 2, 4, 6, 8, 12, 16 beats of music or steps of the dance. For instance a women’s half chain is normally done in 8 beats, likewise a full circle or star, or Long lines forward and back. Other figures are more variable, especially when put in combination. Take a balance, dosado, allem  R x 1.25. The balance takes 4 beats, the dosado 8 and the fastest you can do an allemand once around is 4 beats so the fastest we might expect to complete this sequence is in 17 beats maybe more. BUT since they are all done in sequence and with the same person the timing changes a little and the whole sequence EASILY fits into 16 beats. It goes the other way too. Take circle left ¾, do sa do (neighbor or partner). We would expect to finish THIS sequence in 14  beats but it is often done in 16.

I've often heard dancers say that they like a particular dance because it "flows really well". I  feel this way too, but just what IS a "good flow"? One definition would be figures that make transition with no change in speed or direction and use readily available body parts (hands mostly). Consider these simple examples: A swing into a gents allemand Left flows really well, a swing into a women's allemand Right flows less well (the women must change directions to do the allemand, even though their right hand is available), a swing into a women's allemand Left has a horrible flow - not only must the women change directions, but they have to extricate their Left hands after the swing. Or: Circle Left to allemand right flows well because everything is moving clockwise.  Circle Left to allemand Left flows poorly because the dancers must change directions for the allemand. Ok, that being said why are there dances that are fun to dance to that DON'T follow these rules? One reason is that too much movement in the same direction can be painful! Another reason is that in some dances, the dancers like to "make their own flow". I call these dances QUIRKY dances and they are fun to dance as long as there is TIME to do all the figures. An example of a "quirky" move might be: Circle Left, California Twirl, Circle right with a new couple. I have used this figure and if you do it "straight" there is a definite "hitch" around the California twirl. This is because  while the woman is actually going the correct way to proceed into the circle right, the man starts moving the opposite way then has to reverse direction again. I watched a bunch of really good dancers do this combination of figures at a dance one time. At first it was a little "clutzy" looking but eventually it smoothed right out. The men would stop or slow down near the end of the circle left, twirl the women under (helping the women to speed up the necessary amount) and then follow along on the circle right. It became a quirky but very pleasing move, and an example of the dancers "making their own flow". I might add here that a swing into a women's chain (a move that we see OFTEN in modern contradancing) is not particularly a smooth flowing move. But there are oodles of really great dances that use it. Often you hear callers urge the men to "support the women after the swing and help them into the chain". I am sure there are combinations of figures that even the most proficient and aware dancers would not be able to do smoothly or wish to deal with, and a dance full of such combinations of figures would probably be what we would call a "bad dance", but my point here is that a couple "difficult" transitions appropriately placed is not necessarily the sign of a "Bad" dance!

G. Community dances/family dances/one night stands/weddings/parties etc etc. I think this is a subject for another workshop. I do a lot of dances for kids or for groups that have never contradanced (or even danced (sigh) before). Community dances and family dances (the distinction here is  probaby nothing, maybe more children at a "family dance") I have a pretty good repertoire of simple dances that can be danced by all ages and would be glad to share my thoughts about this with anyone. email me!