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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.
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"
    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)
    Partners 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

    David Brown: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance

    Preparing a dance for teaching
    Books for new callers

    You can get all these books from CDSS.

    Books by: Contra & English English:
    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:
    Teaching without Teaching

    Experiment with ways you can communicate a dance sequence or style without explaining.
    Checklist for starting each 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."

    Contra: 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: English:
    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!!!)
    Ending each dance

    The forgotten dancers: intermediates and intermittent dancers. These folks are much more likely to turn into regulars than your beginner is.

    Helping the less-competent dancer
    Teaching a new body movement, such as the swing or rant step
    Things to think about
    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!

    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

    The care and watering of your voice
    1. Drink plenty of water *for the day or two* before you call so that your vocal chords are fully hydrated.
    2. 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).
    3. Send your voice up through your sinuses--you'll get more resonance and less vocal strain.
    4. Work with the sound person until you can communicate clearly without straining your voice.
    5. If you are having trouble, consult a speech coach or voice teacher.

    Speaking out

    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?

    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
    Programming -- the flow of the evening

    The caller needs to pay attention to several different "curves" throughout the dance session.
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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
    The caller as MC
    Don't get too twirled up in all of this.

    Remember, it's JUST a dance.

    No more. No less.

    Have fun, and keep me posted!

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