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Notes from the Callers' Class
Berea Christmas Country Dance School, 2002
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The following notes summarize the discussions and information we covered in Jenny Beer's class for callers. Please email me with any additions or corrections. We had about 15 people--some new callers and some very experienced, some contra callers, some English Country Dance (ECD) teachers, a few musicians, and several folks from the UK who do mixed programs.
Thank you, everyone, it was stimulating, helpful, and great fun.
- Day One: Attention to the structure of the dance Analyzing a dance, preparing to teach. Books for callers.
- Day Two: Attention to the minor and major set
The art of walk-throughs. Starting and ending a dance.
- Day Three: Attention to the individual dancer -- watching how people dance, dealing with problems, keeping their attention, etc. Using command voice and body movements, communicating to different kinds of learning styles, teaching the swing.
- Day Four: Attention to yourself What happens to your voice, body, mind when you call? Interacting with musicians. Use of the mic, care of the voice. Getting and keeping people's attention.
- Day Five: Attention to the whole
The dance floor, the dance community, the entire space. Designing programs. The MC function of the caller.
Why do we do this?
"Self-defense" -- want more variety in our local dances
Only one who knows how
I love it and want them to enjoy it too.
To become more involved in the community
FUN--interact with people on the floor, satisfaction of doing it well, together.
Getting everyone up and moving--in an organized way.
Moved to a place where there isn't much dancing
Enjoy being "on stage"
Attention to the structure of the dance
Analyzing the geography of a dance:
APPETIZER, by Scott Higgs
A1 -- Neighors, balance & swing
(highlights neighbor interaction, starts dance with percussion/punctuation, leaves dancers in progressed position)
A2 -- Lines forward and back
(recovery time, sense of dancing with whole set, anchors, think time)
Ladies' Chain halfway
(women start across from partner, end next to partner)
B1 -- Women allemande right
(men get a break; women get to interact with each other, build momentum into swing);
(the highpoint/reward of the contra choreography--fun, dynamic, "get to hug your honey")
B2 -- Circle 3/4
(interaction of all 4 minor set dancers, flow, time to take a mental break, gets people back to original places);
Neighbors do-si-so once and a half
(progressive figure, emphasizes neighbor focus of dance, pleasure of dizziness/twirling).
Choosing words for calling
- Pick words to fit the rhythm of the music.
- Put the most vital information first (usually person or position, as in "PARTNERS, swing").
- Use command language: don't describe how the dance goes ("1st couple goes down the center and comes back on their own side, casting off with neighbor"), TELL people what to do in command language (1st couple! down the center. Turn as a couple! Arm out to CAST around your neighbor!") Commands go directly to muscles. And they also make shorter sentences.
- Inclusive: Use words that talk to the most dancers at once, i.e. "neighbors swing", rather than "swing below". Traditional calls address the men and the actives, so developing inclusive language can require quite a bit of translation.
- Stick to stock phrases, especially with a mixed crowd. It is faster for dancers on the move to pick up what you're saying. You can occasionally play with a phrase or create a new one with experienced dancers. Your goal is to help the dancers efficiently, not to show that you are clever.
- When using fractions, tell the dancer where to end--"circle 3/4 to original place".
- Use fewer words each round of the dance. Drop out but keep an eye out for confusion, especially at the top with the new 1st couples.
- Watch out for sound-alikes such as "Ladies change" and "Ladies chain" Jim Saxe has collected these: http://www.io.com/contradance/articles/words-and-confusion-1.html.
- Minimize the use of "right" and "left". Some people confuse them easily.
- OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS (Strunk & White's famously terse rule.) What is "needless" will be different in teaching, calling, and prompting. Sometimes a word serves to get attention or to fit a rhythm.
David Brown: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance
Preparing a dance for teaching
- Know the dance--have a verbal and body-sense of the music and choreography before you teach. Practice the words or the movements ahead of time, if that helps.
- WHY do this dance? -- remember to articulate this during the walk through.
- Familiar and altered or unfamiliar figures. What is the point of each figure?
- Teaching points, potential mistakes and confusions.
- Transitions between figures.
- Symmetric and asymmetric figures: Differences between positions.
- Music--how does it fit the choreography, what tempo do you want?
- Storyline--how to make the figure sequence easy to remember?
Books for new callers
You can get all these books from CDSS.
Contra & English
- Ted Sanella
- Tony Parkes
- Larry Jennings (Zesty!)
- Larry Edelman (squares)
- Tom Hinds
- Gene Hubert
- Ralph Page
- Erik Hoffman
- All Mixed Up -- Bob Mill's pamphlet about sound systems.
- Community Dance Manual(s)
- You might also find a book or two of tunes useful. New England Fiddler's Repertoire
is the classic. Judi Morningstar's collection, or the Portsmouth collection are making the rounds these days.
- Chip Hendrickson, George Fogg, and Kate Keller have published many books on Colonial American dances.
- Peter Barnes' book of ECD tunes
- Playford Ball Book (Shimer & Keller)
- Cecil Sharp (set of 6)
- Fallibroome Series
- New Series
Dozens of callers have published their own books, so start with the ones that you know already and are most likely to use often. Some of the widely known dance collections are those by Fried deMetz Herman, Gary Roodman, Colin Hume, Tom Cook, Cor Hogendijk, Charles Bolton, Pat Shaw, Philippe Callens, Christine Helwig, Kathryn & David Wright, Kentish Hops and of course Mr. Playford himself .......
- To find where a dance is published, the most extensive data base is Hugh Stewart's Dance Index which will tell you where instructions to traditional English, Playford, and Traditional American contras and squares are published.
Attention to the Set
The Walk Thru
Get their attention.
Make it crisp so that you keep their attention--they came to DANCE.
Make a general habit of walking through once (or once and the next A1).
Use music as much as you can. You have several options:
- Play the (English) tune before you start teaching (this helps the band get in gear also.)
- Ask a musician to diddle behind your talking. A musician who is a strong dancer is likely to stop and start as you need it and keep the right tempo.
- Teach part of the dance and ask the band for X bars or "one A and two B's" for people to try it to the music. This method tends to slow teaching momentum but anchors the dance choreography in people's minds.
- Sing or diddle the melody yourself while you're teaching.
Teaching without Teaching
Experiment with ways you can communicate a dance sequence or style without explaining.
- Demonstrate (using a cluster of folks in the MIDDLE of the floor, not the top).
- Get down on the floor and MOVE the way you want them to move (a step hop, a circle left...) until they follow.
- Use your arms to show direction or manner of movement.
- Have them teach each other. Especially useful for heys, Rights & Lefts, Cecil Sharp siding, corner-partner. Ask them to show the other people in their set (or hands four) how to do it, and to repeat it until all dancers feel comfortable with it. If you hear a lot of buzz on the floor, instead of fighting it, enlist people's teaching energies! It honors and entertains the experienced dancers while giving each new person up-close-and-personal instruction.
- To get dancers to internalize difficult dance sequences, ask them to talk the dance through in their sets (or hands four) between the walk through and the dance itself.
- Ask dancers to identify your teaching points: "Did anyone find a way to finesse that transition out of the hey?" "How might you gracefully use up the extra time in this figure?"
Checklist for starting each dance
- Hands 4 to the back of the hall, or sets complete.
- Musicians: do they know what tune(s) are appropriate for the upcoming dance? Any special needs--( AAB? 40 bars? etc.) For contra, let them know how long the dance will run and check how many tunes they plan to play. Sing or do a few dance steps (setting, balance) in front of them to show the tempo you want.
- Name of the dance, choreographer if known.
- After the walk-thru: where to start (from these positions, come back to original places, etc.)
- Check with musicians and prepare the dancers for the intro, if it will be different than usual.
- Remind dancers of the first figure. For non AABB patterns or highly repetitive tunes, the band may also find it useful to know the first and last figures so they can make sure they're still matching the tune to the dance.
Getting everyone to start together
In general, try to follow the practice of the dance group you're calling for. If you want to start a dance differently, give the dancers notice. "After 2 notes from the piano, we'll begin."
Your opening call should be in the rhythm of the opening 4 counts from the musicians, i.e. "(1)With your (2)partner, (3)balance and (4)swing".
You can do this three ways:
- Before the musicians begin the intro 4 counts (taking rhythmic cue from you)
- While the musicians are playing the 4 counts
- Use your voice only for the 4 counts, having the musicians come in at the start of the A1 figure. (Glen Morningstar was using this technique.)
- Just before the musicians begin, remind dancers of the first move. A rhythmic phrase can be nice, but is not necessary. "First couple, ready to lead through."
- If the dancers know the dance well, make sure they are expecting the music to begin, and simply invite the musicians to start--no words from you are needed.
- If a walk thru is going smoothly, you can gesture the musicians to join behind you for the next round without stopping to get everyone back to original places.
If the music gets off from the dance choreography
(or, as once happened to JB, the inexperienced sound person cuts your mic in the middle of a festival medley!!!)
- Signal the band leader that you're off. Call for "another B" or "switch to A1" while they're in the middle of a previous phrase.
- OR vary the choreography with a circle / longer swing / lines forward & back, so that the dancers get back in line with the music. If there's confusion on the floor, ask the dancers to find their progressed positions, and wait till you'll signal the start of the new round. Just make sure your musicians aren't simultaneously trying to adjust!
- OR signal to the band to go out, apologize, ask 1st couples to find a 2nd couple for new hands four, then start the music again. Stay cheerful and don't make it into a big deal.
Ending each dance
- During the B1 or B2, signal the number of times remaining, not counting the one the musicians are currently playing. 3 or 2 times warning is optimal. Check what your band prefers. When musicians are glued to their music, you may need to catch each person's eye.
- Face the musicians and join the crowd in clapping. Mention the name of the dance again, if it is an unfamiliar dance that was well received.
- You may want to remind dancers to "thank your set" or "look to the sidelines to bring those folks in."
Attention to the Individual Dancer
The forgotten dancers: intermediates and intermittent dancers. These folks are much more likely to turn into regulars than your beginner is.
- Physical--How are their bodies moving? What seem to be the limits of their ability to move? Can they move in time with music?
- Social-- Are they partnering up easily? Do they need other dancers to get them through?
Is interaction more important to this person than dancing well? Can you rely on them to get others into and through a dance? Are they offending or annoying others on the dance floor?
- Minds--Who is listening, who is not? Are they taking in your directions? Do they know dance terms? How do they learn best?
- Skill level
- Emotional--What is their mood--anxious about being a beginner? Irritable about being the only experienced person in their set? Do they seek out feedback or do they get upset when they're critiqued?
Helping the less-competent dancer
- Have other dancers help quietly.
- When appropriate, choose easier dances.
- Use dances that mix the hall.
- Use dances that mirror or parallel one's partner, so that a skilled dancer can guide an unskilled partner through the dance.
- Touch base with them during the break. For "perpetual" beginners, ask them privately what might help them learn the dances easier.
- Appreciate people who come to do something they enjoy, even if they aren't very skillful at it.
Teaching a new body movement, such as the swing or rant step
- The "gallop" method--right shoulder leading, gallop across the room. Then split the group in two and have them gallop towards someone and hook right elbows and continue the same step.
- This emphasizes the point that you are always moving forward in a swing. You don't just plant your foot! (Advice from the indominatable Larry Jennings via Sue Rosen.)
- Walking towards someone into a right shoulder gypsy can also work (Sue DuPres).
- If they have trouble, or if it is a large group of beginners, teach a walking swing.
- Crossed hands may be less embarrassing than ballroom hold.
- Teach women to hold their own weight over their own hips (don't lean back!!!) so that the men's right arms don't die halfway through the evening. If he lets go, you should not fall over!
- In talking about weight, use the words "tension" or "rubber band". They should feel it in the upper arm; the lower arm should be relaxed.
- Wrist issues: there are many funny holds out there, most of which hurt more than the classic grip done properly: Hold your hand edge towards you so that you can't see either the back or the palm.
- How to give style or safety tips to dancers who know it all already? During a mixer or about 2/3 through the first half, give a "public service announcement" ostensibly to the new people in the hall.
- Rants: Cloggers teach move #1, then move #1 and #2, then move #1, #2, #3... rehearsing each till you have it down. Another suggestion: have people sit and tap their feet in the new pattern. Less tiring, fewer things to concentrate on.
Attention to Yourself
Things to think about
- What do you do or experience physically when you call? Do you pace back and forth? Do you feel jittery? Do you use your hands a lot?
- How do you use your voice when you are teaching? Calling?
- What are you thinking about? What do you tend to tune out or overlook?
- Do you get people's attention?
- How do you convey the mood, character, and purpose of a dance you're teaching?
- Do you show how much you like the particular dance you're teaching, the music, the dancers?
Your interactions with the musicians
The quality of the music can make or break your dance session. Working closely with the musicians as a team will pay off in spades. And it is more fun, too.
Don't be afraid to ask for what you want. Musicians expect you to be the person pulling all the strands of the dance together. If someone tends to be touchy, talk about what the "dance" or the "dancers" need, to depersonalize your requests.
Remember musicians are people, not boom boxes. They get bored when they aren't used often enough. They need to take breaks. They also need water and food and a bit of fun. They thrive on appreciation and consideration.
Your job is to make the musicians look good!
Get them music / program in advance. If they are playing something at the last minute, let the crowd know that they are graciously sightreading because you just handed them the tune.
- If you are constructing a program as you go, consult with the musicians frequently, giving them choices about what they want to play ("We need a longways jig next and I'm thinking of Fair Quaker or the Spaniard. Any preference?" "Do you folks have a tune or tune set that you really want to do tonight?").
- LISTEN to the music, and tell them when you hear something particularly pleasing.
- Pay attention to their strengths and build your program with that in mind: Different instruments shine on different tunes. Some musicians are bold and jazzy, others sweet and lyrical. Some can play lickety split, others like to stick to a few keys and meters.
- Draw the dancer's attention to the music frequently. When applauding the musicians, say your words of appreciation while people are already clapping, not when they're standing quietly. It builds on their enthusiasm.
Sue Rosen shared with us the following thoughts about microphones and caring for one's voice (with some additions from participants). Thanks, Sue! Very helpful.
Using the microphone
- Don't shout!!! Keep your volume relatively constant.
- Use elongation or punctuation for emphasis instead.
- Keep the distance between mouth & mic constant. One suggestion: place your thumb on your chin to keep the mic at a steady distance.
- Listen carefully to the sound (difficult without a monitor, once the room fills). If the pitch is too high, your voice will "cut"; too low and it will have a "booming" effect.
- Talk to the sound people. If you find an excellent one, ask what settings they used for your voice (e.g. took out the treble, lowered the volume) so that you can tell this to less skilled sound folks next time.
- Unidirectional mikes--hold parallel to the floor. Omni-directional--hold upright. The omni-directional has less distortion from strong air pressure, and is probably a better choice.
- For squares, clarity is essential. Ask the sound person to turn up your volume slightly when you are actually calling over the music.
- On nights you aren't calling, help out with sound setup and take down so you become familiar with the equipment.
- Sound changes as the hall fills with people. Can't rely entirely on the sound check before the event starts.
- Wireless--they tend to have battery trouble. Only worth it if you pay for a high end one ($500-$1000). Make sure you can select frequency, so that you don't find the fiddler's mic or Joe's taxi coming in on your antenna.
The care and watering of your voice
- Drink plenty of water *for the day or two* before you call so that your vocal chords are fully hydrated.
- Warm up gently -- same kind of vocalizations that singers use. Test how your voice sounds in various corners of the room (to get a sense of the room's acoustics).
- Send your voice up through your sinuses--you'll get more resonance and less vocal strain.
- Work with the sound person until you can communicate clearly without straining your voice.
- If you are having trouble, consult a speech coach or voice teacher.
- Remember that your inner attitude will show through your voice.
- Say things once. Then people will know that what you say is valuable and they are more likely to listen.
- Be conscious of when you are speaking to give information, when you are using your voice as part of the music, and when you are speaking for the glory of being the leader behind the mic. Do you need to call the last round of that contra dance?
- Practice clear diction. Listen to tapes of yourself or get a friend to help identify phrases where you are less clear.
- Coach quietly from the floor rather than over the mic if a small number of dancers are having trouble with the figures. (This can be embarrassing sometimes too, so be thoughtful in deciding how to assist them.)
Other issues in getting and keeping the dancers' attention
First, ask yourself why they aren't paying attention. Are you taking too long so that people are choosing to socialize? Are you teaching too quickly so that people have to check with their neighbors about how the dance goes? Is this an occasion where people have come to be together rather than to dance beautifully? Are you running dances too long so that people are over-improvising or limping through the figures and not really paying attention to the dance form any more? Are the dancers cracking jokes to lighten up the atmosphere? Are they less than enthusiastic about your dance choices?
If you are giving the dancers what they want and need, they will generally pay good attention. This doesn't mean you can't broaden their boundaries a bit or ask them to be patient. If you have their good will, they will give you yards of slack. Their lack of attention is a signal that you need to change what you are doing.
Second, practice using a confident command voice. If you hesitate to take charge of the calling, the dancers will hesitate to rely on you. Especially for women, being strongly directive can feel rude. It's okay. The dancers (for the most part) WANT you to tell them what to do.
If you find yourself getting annoyed, give some thought about what "hooks" you, and see if you can disengage. Do you dislike your authority being challenged? Are you operating from a school-room metaphor that says teachers talk and students obediently listen? Does having more than one voice on the floor confuse your beginners? Are you easily distracted when others are making noise? Do you have a plan or a set schedule and resent the disruption?
Attention to the Whole
Programming an event is like putting together a puzzle--shift one choice and suddenly you have to redo a whole bunch of other choices. Enjoy the mental challenge, but don't worry too much about it. You can always switch to another dance or cut a dance short if the program isn't working the way you want it to.
Programming (no not the byte kind)--musical considerations
- What do the musicians like to play?
- What is the size of their repertoire? Can they play the tempos you need?
- Make each dance musically distinct from the next: (This might not be important for some "traditional" communities that like the same type of dances and music all night.)
- duple vs triple time
- major, minor, modal
- rhythms (jig, reel, waltz, etc.)
- musical "mood"
- As you requested, here's the Germantown Country Dancers' repertoire list of tunes that all musicians are asked to know. This gives the caller some flexibility in altering the program when a busload of beginners suddenly walks in the door.... I suggest you make up your own list, rather than copy ours.
Programming -- the flow of the evening
The caller needs to pay attention to several different "curves" throughout the dance session.
- Energy curve -- where do you want excitement and aerobic action? Where do you want mellow or elegant dances? Usually callers try to peak before the break, with a secondary peak late in the second half. You can build up a buzz in the hall and then go out with a bang, or drift down to something quiet to send people gently out the door.
- Brain cell curve -- Beginners can usually concentrate for 4 or 5 dances. Experienced dancers will generally be most able to absorb new material or complex dances at about the 4th-6th dance of the session. A series of familiar or non-brain-taxing dances can create a satisfied feeling at the end of the dance.
- Musicians' performance curve(s)--these vary. Ask them when they are at their most fluid and warmed up, when they'd prefer to relax with something familiar or undemanding.
- Warm-ups: remember that both dancers and musicians need warm-up times for mind, body, and fingers at the start and after breaks.
Programming -- other considerations
- Number of dancers, space on the floor. Shape of the room and what kind of sets fit well.
- Skill level of dancers. For an unfamiliar crowd, you might plan opening dances that help you gauge the group's ability. Don't just go by the dance organizer's assessment!
- What do most of the dancers expect or enjoy? -- are they here to party, to learn, to celebrate something, to get aerobic exercise? to flirt? To test their wits with hard dances? To twirl into hypnotic dizziness?
- Curriculum--if this dance is part of a regular series, plan out a progression of dances over the weeks that build dancer skills and repertoire.
- Occasion--Is this dance the first after a summer break? Are you celebrating the birth of a baby or mourning the loss of a longtime member?; season (please, no Christmas tunes in July!!); and weather, e.g. extra breaks for hot days.
- Make opening dances easy for latecomers to join.
- Use neighbor-interaction dances at the beginning of the evening. A whole set / whole room interaction is nice once most people have arrived. Sprinkle in a number of partner-intensive dances.
- Variety of formations--longways, short sets, mixers, sicilians.... Some groups enjoy more variety, others want similarity.
- Variety of dance figures, and a sprinkling of "cool" unusual ones.
Watch for repeated figures --e.g. 5 dances with star Right.
- For English, you may also want a variety of sources--Playford, traditional, contemporary.
- Know what dances people have done in recent weeks, and only repeat them if you have a good reason for doing so.
- Balance vigorous dances with relaxing ones; elegant with rowdy, equally active dances with unequal ones (where the 2's rest a bit).
- Surround teaching-intensive dances with ones that require only a brief walk-thru.
- In the first dances of the evening, build up knowledge of core figures that will be needed for a more complex dance later in the session.
- Very important!: Pick dances and tunes you enjoy.
The caller as MC
Don't get too twirled up in all of this.
- Teaching dances well is secondary. Your main job is to create an event that is
fun and inclusive for everyone.
- Clue in beginners about dance etiquette and customs. Remind others of the same without seeming to :-)
- Watch your talk/walk/dance ratios closely. There is a place for preambles (the history of a dance, for example) or a joking remark, but make sure the dancers seem truly interested.
- Pay attention to the room set up. Is it too crowded? Too cavernous? Is the lighting good? Do you need fans or to turn off the heat? Can you and the musicians see each other and the floor? Are extra chairs placed to keep everyone feeling a part of things? Can dancers place their "stuff" somewhere that doesn't create a ring of messy chaos around the room? The room's atmosphere has a strong subliminal effect on a dance.
- Make sure that dance management functions are being covered by other people--the door, the set-up, sound, etc. Check whether there's anything they need from you, and whether they'll have announcements. This saves your energy for teaching and calling and creates a wider commitment to the dance.
- Time the introductions, thank-yous, announcements, raffles (UK), and the marking of occasions so that dancers take them in. You may need to keep control of the mic if you have organizers who talk too long or have a bad sense of group-energy timing. Hold the mic up while they talk instead of handing it to them.
- Monitor those on the margins--who is new? who is sitting out? having difficulty finding partners? repeatedly dancing in the back of the hall? Who seems frustrated? Who is injured? Who is slipping out the door early? Seed your experienced dancers throughout the room, if you can.
- Talk to a range of folks during the event, not just to the musicians and your dance friends. (While a longways dance is running smoothly, I sometimes go check in with people sitting on the sidelines.)
- Be willing and ready to change your plans to fit the group's needs and mood.
- Know your crowd. Know the occasion. Be glad to be present with these people at this moment.
Remember, it's JUST a dance.No more. No less.
Have fun, and keep me posted!