[Callers] Ralph Page Legacy Weekend

Chris Weiler chris.weiler at weirdtable.org
Sun Jan 16 17:44:52 PST 2005

Due to other commitments, I was unable to attend the full weekend. 
However, I was able to attend the callers workshops and the open mic. I 
also found time to talk to other callers and do some networking. Quite a 
few of the callers I talked to had students who they thought would be 
interested in the list, so I expect that we will have some new members 
soon (beside the recent additions: Welcome Jeremy, Karen and Lynn). I 
actually made up some business cards with the website address on them to 
hand out. I attached a picture of it. I also put a small stack of them 
on the flyer table before I left.

Tony's workshop was titled "Calling Squares Without Fear". I don't think 
that I'll be interested in calling squares for a little while, but Tony 
had some good things to say about calling in general. He talked about 
the differences in a caller's rhythm (keeping the beat), timing (giving 
the dancers enough time to do the call) and phrasing (prompting so the 
dancers do the moves on the musical phrase) and how each could be good 
or bad independently. He had an audio cassette that had examples of each 
problem and asked us to identify each callers issue.

He also talked about preparing to call a square in the same way that you 
prepare for a contra. Write the figure or break on a card, write the 
words and phrasing down and practice calling it to recorded music. He 
also suggested purchasing old recordings from the 50s of different 
callers (on eBay) and listening to them to hear what they do well and 
what they don't so you can learn what you want to include and listen for 
in your own calling.

Mary's workshop was titled "Roots and Branches of Community Dance" and 
was generally a discussion about organizing a dance and how to create 
the environment that you want. There was a tangent discussion at one 
point about our duty as an itinerant caller to serve and support the 
vision that the organizer has for the dance and work creatively in that 
framework when we program an evening.

During the discussion about community dances, we all introduced 
ourselves and talked about our background. When I expressed an interest 
in finding places to practice calling, I was told again about the Nelson 
dance on Monday nights. Lisa Sieverts said that she offers to put people 
up who travel to come to the dance. She asks for some warning, but said 
that some people just let her know at the dance. Her e-mail is: 
lisa at lisasieverts.com and her website is 
http://www.lisasieverts.com/contra . Lisa expressed an interest in 
joining the group along with her mentees. I was also told that the 
fourth Friday in Milford, NH is an open mic. Milford is significantly 
closer to the Boston area (and me!).

Another good tip that I picked up from the workshop was from a 
discussion about communication between callers and musicians. Beth 
Parkes talked about what a caller can do to learn about the music and 
develop the lingo to talk to musicians. First, listen to music! Get as 
many CD's and learn the tune names and listen for what you like and 
write down your favorites. Talk with the musicians that you are going to 
work with. Ask them to play tunes in their repertoire and describe the 
"flavor" of the tune (smooth, bouncy, sultry, etc.), not just the 
technical terminology (jig, reel, French-Canadian, etc.). There was also 
a suggestion to have a metronome to provide a reference for tempo.

I can't express enough the importance of networking with callers and 
organizers and putting yourself out there as an available caller. There 
was a couple at the workshop who were talking about starting a dance in 
Exeter, NH and were looking for people to call. He has the website and 
may or may not contact the list. I ate lunch on Saturday with Lynn 
Ackerman, David Millstone, his wife and his student and picked up a lot 
of information and advice. David recommended a book called Chimes of 
Dunkirk from the New England Dancing Masters Productions as a good 
resource for easy dances for groups with a high percentage of beginners. 
It has an accompanying DVD and CD (I only picked up the DVD). I met Lisa 
Sieverts and several other callers there, too.

The best part of all of it, though, was the feeling of connection to the 
tradition and history of traditional dancing. We were doing dances that 
were popular 30-40 years ago and are still done in certain areas. We 
were talking to callers who learned under the people who helped make 
this a popular dance form again. Most of all, for me, was the reminder 
that the modern, urban contra dancing that I do is not the only game in 
town. It was a much needed reminder that the older forms are still out 
there and I need to learn them to be able to call any dance gig that I 
am offered (and accept) and succeed as a caller. The sad part of the 
modern contra dance scene is that it is not as supportive of the new 
caller in it's lack of tolerance for poor calling. The best 
opportunities for learning are in the smaller, community dances where 
the emphasis is on fun and interesting figures, not on partner swings 
and duple minor formations. My eyes were also opened to the opportunity 
and challenge in calling private parties. They require a totally 
different repertoire and teaching skill set, but also pay more and are 
potentially more satisfying. I don't know what I am going to do with 
this information, but I am going to try and prepare myself to take on 
whatever types of gigs that come my way.

I signed up for the open mic. on Sunday (today) and was rewarded with 
the 7th slot out of 8 during the session. I signed up to call Mary Cay's 
Reel by David Kaynor. One of my favorite dances and one that I hadn't 
called yet. The crowd was very supportive and the band accommodating (I 
am a little ashamed that the only person I knew in the band was Peter 
Barnes. The others are probably pretty famous musicians that I should 
know). Everything went smoothly, and I was treated to a personal 
critique from Tony Parkes. He did a great job of listing the things that 
I did well as well as the things that I could improve on. Some of the 
things he liked were my clarity, my concise and efficient teaching, and 
the fact that I asked the dancers to get into position before the four 
potatoes were played. He noted that this was a philosophy of Larry 
Jennings that asking the dancers to prepare for the next move was a 
responsibility of the caller. My points for improvement mostly had to do 
with energy, enthusiasm and confidence. He suggested that I needed to 
express my excitement and love of the dance more (this will make up for 
a lackluster band, though hardly necessary with the musicians at RPLW). 
He also commented on my hesitancy in my calling. There was a note of 
"asking" instead of "telling" the dancers what to do. He noted that 
stage fright and excitement involved the exact same physical reaction. 
The trick is to channel the energy from nervousness into the calling 
instead of trying to suppress it. The last note had to do with putting 
more of the beat and rhythm into my voice. He talked about it in terms 
of letting the dancers know that I'm working with the music instead of 
working against it. He suggested that I practice calling into a tape 
recorder and listening to what I do right and wrong. He called the tape 
recorder the "callers friend" and indicated that we might hate it 
sometimes, but it's our friend, too. It was a very nice conversation and 
Tony was very supportive. He indicated that everything I did fell into 
the "acceptable" range for a caller, but that these things could be 
improved to make me better.

Whew. I think that covers my experiences at Ralph Page. I would be 
interested in hearing about other people's experiences, too.

Happy calling,


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