[Callers] Greetings from a new caller and some random questionsabout calling

ebay at hands4.com
Sun Apr 15 10:04:05 PDT 2007

Long winded, personal, comments in line---->
----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Richard Green" <richard.a.green at hotmail.com>
To: "'Caller's discussion list'" <callers at sharedweight.net>
Sent: Thursday, April 12, 2007 8:24 AM
Subject: [Callers] Greetings from a new caller and some
random questionsabout calling

> Greetings to all of you!
And to you!!!
<snip history (nice to know, though)>
> Since then I have doubled my calling experience by
calling a mixer at a
> recent family dance that we played at.  John has also
scheduled another
> dance next month with guest callers which I will be one
of.  Other than that
> I have spent time preparing by transcribing several
dances that I have found
> online,(several on this list), donning my mp3 player and
practicing calling
> as I jog around the neighborhood.  It is a pretty good
way to become
> familiar with the timing of the calls, but doesn't really
do much for the
> stage fright that I will still have to deal with,
although I suppose that
> running around the streets shouting contradance calls in
cadence does make
> me an object of attention.

Focus on the dancer's need and how to meet them. Any time
that I am thinking about ME it really messes things up.
Even if what I am thinking is something that is supposed to
help. The only thing that is really important is what's
going on between you, the dancers and the band. For me, if
I am thinking about all of the really important things,
then unimportant things like my own fear, recede into the
background. If stagefright is significant, there are really
good self-calming techniques available that can help. (Any
professional counselor would know about this.)

> Despite my lack of experience I now have several gigs
lined up to call.
> They are all for family type and special dances that we
have been asked to
> play at.  Since it is not very likely that much of this
dancing is going to
> be done to the phrasing of the music it takes a little
pressure off the need
> to be precise with timing, but in general I think that
calling these types
> of dances is actually more difficult in some ways because
teaching, as well
> as just maintaining the dance, can be a challenge.
In my, not so very humble, opinion, you have just given
yourself the most difficult and most rewarding challenge a
caller can have: non-experienced dancers. They need the
finest calling and the best bands. Experienced dancers will
fix your mistakes for you. Beginners will fail and blame
themselves saying: "I just can't do this" when YOU mess up.
So pat yourself on the back for taking these dances and
enjoy the learning experience involved with calling the
toughest gigs (and most rewarding gigs) there are. 

> I would like to say that I will be satisfied with calling
these family
> dances, but I really harbor a secret desire to make it to
the big time and
> call a "real" dance.  I have always been pretty impressed
by how the callers
> could stand up there and make a dance happen, and now
that I know more about
> what goes into it I am even more in awe of you all.

Hah, almost anyone can call a modern urban contra dance for
experienced dancers: pick a dance, walk it through once,
call it two or three times and let the band do their thing.
It doesn't take a whole lot of skill to do that. You can
read right off the card and it will work. Your family
dances and private party dances are what take real skill.
(but I repeat myself.)
> Since it is too late to avoid being long-winded, I would
like to add a few
> random questions which I will throw out to see if they
generate any
> discussion:
> Timing issues- I think that I have a pretty good handle
on the eight and
> sixteen beat figures, but how do you keep track of
others?  For example, the
> petronella balance & spin are 4 & 4, I think.  Do you
call them together,
> like a balance and swing, or try to separate the call a
little?  And for
> that matter, for a balance and swing call, is it better
to call that all at
> once, or would it be good to call balance......and swing,
with a separation.
> And what about these dances that have other timing.
 Sometimes I see timing
> of 7 or 9, or other odd numbers.  Does the timing of the
calls have to
> change to reflect this?

Think a little about what it was like when you first
learned to play an instrument: you had to think about where
your fingers went for each note, how to make the notes
sound right, etc. etc. etc. Eventually these things became
second nature and you could focus on other things. Right
now, you are thinking a lot about things that with
experience and practice will become second nature. One
great way to get to know timing is to listen to what other
callers do and imitate them. There are a fair number of
recordings available of callers and you can do field
recordings at any dances you attend.  In all timing cases,
you need to end the call just before the point where the
action takes place. For an action that starts on the 1
beat, you end, of course, on the 8 beat of the previous
phrase. For an action that starts on the 5 beat, you end
the call on the 4 beat, etc. But, as with any instrument,
counting is not as good as feeling it. I can think of
dances where I started out figuring out exactly where the
call should go, and counting. But after doing it a while,
the counting needs to go away. Just like when people first
learn to waltz they may count 1-2-3, but a good waltzer
doesn't. (I suspect you know all of this, but I figure it
is not good to assume. And other folks on the list may not
know these things. <G>.)

About imitating other callers: I worried about sounding too
much like someone else if I did this, but you won't. You
will have your own style even if it is influenced by
another caller's. After 20 years of marriage (almost) I can
tell when Tony is "channeling" another caller. There are
times when I hear Ralph Page or Ted Sanella in his timing
and tone (and even accent) but anyone who knew him less
well wouldn't know. I, of course, worried about sounding
too much like Tony. Hah, hah! Our personality styles are so
different that even if my timing, phrasing, enunciation and
words were the same, I would still not sound like him
(more's the pity.)

> Calling and Playing - Does anyone call and play an
instrument at the same
> time?  Are you able to call and play simultaneously or do
you do some
> calling and then join the band when the calling is no
longer needed.  Any
> hints on how to share these tasks?
Don't try to call and play until you can call without
thinking about it. And remember that you are always
responsible for what is going on on the floor. Many callers
at contra dances do the thing I said above: walk the dance,
call it a couple of times and let the band have at it. Even
if you do that (and it works well when it is working) you
must continue to watch the dancers to see when they start
having trouble. My experience is that dancers have trouble
at first and then have trouble again after the dance has
been running a while. The caller who jumps back in with a
few choice words is doing his/her job. The caller who is
busy playing an instrument (or sorting through cards, or
chatting with people at the sides, or even dancing) is
likely to not notice when the dancers start to have trouble
(and you want to place those few choice words when the
dancers are *starting* to have trouble, not after they are
in full-bore meltdown.) If you can play and still have your
full attention on the floor, great. Tony is a great contra
dance piano player and just about the best caller around,
but he doesn't do both at the same time. He will take over
piano mid-dance, but only if he really knows the crowd and
even then it is risky.

> Ending the Dance - Do most callers change the call at the
end of the dance
> so that you swing your partner or something to close the
dance?  I know Bill
> Olson does, but I can't really remember if it is the
common thing to do.  If
> so, do you have some special ending already prepared or
do you just develop
> something on the fly or with experience.  In transcribing
dances and I have
> not included anything like that.

Ending the dance with a different call is a style and taste
thing. This is, after all, an art. Decide what you like as
a dancer. I (very personally) am not fond it when a dance
ends with me a long way away from my partner and with the
focus on someone else. Therefore, I will change the last
time through on such dance to end with folks near or
focused on their partners. I think doing it all of the time
is a bit much, a dance where the band gets to end things
without warning is a nice touch too. I'm fond of a mix, so
I try to have some with a changed ending, some with a "bow
to your partner" ending and (at a contra dance) some with
just the banding ending. 

> Varying your Calls - Is it a good thing to vary the words
that you use when
> calling a dance or is it better to use the exact same
words each time
> through?  It seems like it would be a nice to avoid
repetition, but on the
> other hand it also seems like it would be easier to be
> understood if you stick to the same phrases.  Also,
should you always call
> using the same phrases from dance to dance?  It seems
like the dancers would
> get used to hearing things in the same way and understand
them better, but I
> wonder if it would make you seem limited or boring as a

Again, it's your artistic taste, and it may depend on the
dancers as well. Within a contra dance, diminishing calls
are a good thing. Since the figure repeats and people will
be learning it, a call that makes sense at first will be a
call that prompts people too soon later. Example: Face your
next neighbor, Balance and Swing is a good call for the
beginning of a round early in the dance, but as the dance
progresses people will know to face the next. Eventually
they will, of course, know it all and you will drop out,
but in between you may need to just say "New Neighbor,
Balance & swing" and then "Balance & swing the next" and
then "Balance & swing" and perhaps just "balance the next"
etc. Again, listening to your favorite callers helps get a

> Judging the Dancer's Level - Any tips on how to judge the
ability of the
> dancers in order to introduce more complex dances?  Is
this something that
> is obvious or does it take some special skills to
observe, or is it
> something that you develop over time?

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
(i.e., it is something you develop over time.)
The best advice you can get has been given: it is better to
underestimate than to overestimate the crowd. This
especially goes for non-experienced (private party, one
night stand, bandana dance, whatever you call them)
dancers. Contra dance progression is not appropriate for
most private party dances: you do best with whole sets,
circles and squares. (Definition of contra dance in this
context: a dance in lines where you keep your partner, but
progress to a new neighbor each round. For purposes of this
discussion, the Virginia Reel is not a contra dance but a
whole set dance.) 

For an eveing of contra dancing, as Tony says in his book
(Contr Dance Calling, currently out of print, second
edition underway) "beware the dance camp romance." Dances
you pick up at dance camps, festivals and other places
where hot-shot dancers gather may seem easy in that
context. Brought back to a mixed floor dance, however, they
may just be hard and not so fun. There are many things that
make a particular dance hard or easy: the experience of the
dancers, the caller's choice of words, the quality of the
music (honest, a tight band supports harder figures. A
lesser band makes all dances more difficult.)

Judging this is an art and there is a balance. If your
floor is more experienced, the band is tight and hot, and
you are feeling good, then you DO want to have those
tricker dances available. But you also need to have the
opposite: the dances you can swap in if any of those things
don't come together. Ted Sannella's dance programs (which
he maticulously crafted prior to an event) usually had two
dances in each slot. The dances went to the same type of
music, so he didn't need to ask the band to change in order
to change his program on the fly. Even with that, however,
there are times when, mid-evening, you are pulling out the
cards and swapping dances.

One of the things that I look for are dances that are
interesting but "forgiving." That is, they feel tricky, but
they contain a place where folks can repair confusion. So
it's not just about judging the dancer's level, but also
judging the dances level.

And it's not just "easy" or "hard" but what the crowd
likes. I've noticed that the younger dancers in Boston are
not "into" figures that my generation finds very cool. So
when I have a hall full of younger dancers, I may change to
a different dance because it will be more satisfying to
them. The opposite is also true, if my floor is mostly my
own generation, then I have a different set of dances up my
sleeve. And that knowledge comes from experience and paying
> Thanks in advance for your help.
> Richard

Beth Parkes

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