[Callers] More life lessons for this caller... (really long)

Chris Weiler chris.weiler at weirdtable.org
Mon Aug 4 05:36:03 PDT 2008

Hello everyone,

I figured that I better start writing this report right away. Later I 
might be lazy and leave out some of the experiences from this past 
weekend. I suspect that this will be another of those long e-mails. Read 
as much or as little as you care to. For those unfamiliar or new to this 
list, when I started calling, I would send updates to this list 
detailing my successes and blunders in the hopes that it would help 
other new callers. Here are the latest:

The beginning of this story goes back several months when I got an 
e-mail inviting me to be the second string caller at the Champlain 
Valley Folk Festival. I was offered camping, meals, a festival pass and 
exposure ("you can die of exposure" one caller said in a workshop). 
Since it's one of my favorite festivals and I planned to attend anyways, 
I accepted.

Fast forward to the Champlain Valley Folk Festival that happened this 
past weekend. Due to my lack of vacation days at my relatively new job 
(I don't have enough to cover my time at Pinewoods later this month), I 
decided that I would work a half day and drive up during the afternoon. 
Never mind that my first calling session was 5:30pm to 7:30pm on Friday 
and it's a 4.5 hour trip from my work to the festival. This was my first 
mistake of the weekend. It made my Friday a stressful, rushed day. I 
also decided to give a friend a ride to the festival, which added time 
to the trip.

Part of the trip was a stop at home to drop off my work things and pick 
up my camping/festival stuff. Due to the frantic rush to get back on the 
road, I made my second mistake: I did not pack the bag containing my 
dance cards and other reference materials into the car. I discovered 
this when we arrived at the festival at 5pm. See the above start time 
for my first session.

Resisting the urge to panic, I went into problem solving mode. My first 
priority was to check in and get to the stage. The second priority was 
to somehow get enough dances together for a 2 hour session. I remembered 
that I had 3 callers phone numbers in my cell phone. I decided to sit 
down and write down every dance I could remember off the top of my head 
first. It worked out well, one dance would spark the memory of another. 
I would also think of a figure and it would trigger the memory of the 
dance that I like to use to teach that figure. In the end, I wrote down 
8 dances that worked (and a couple that didn't). I decided that I could 
make a session out of that and that I could remember some more during 
the session. So I didn't need to call anyone (yet).

On a side note, I was scheduled for three sessions over the course of 
the Festival with three bands that I had never heard of. I had expected 
that I would have time to meet the band members and get to know them and 
their capabilities at the festival. That was mistake #3 (we're not 
numbering chronologically here). I should have gone with my first 
instinct which was to hunt them down on the web and get in touch through 
e-mail or phone. The organizers would also probably have helped make 
that happen, too.

Back to Friday night. The band was a long running group of French 
Canadian musicians who had been playing concerts for quite some time. 
They were fairly new to contras, however, and had learned a bunch of 
"square" tunes for the occasion since most of their repertoire is 
crooked. There were a couple of glitches during the evening. Some due to 
the tunes they learned (one had crooked phrases, but overall the tune 
was square. whoops!). Some due to bad communication. The person I was 
communicating with had trouble remembering how many times through before 
they should end. Sometimes the band would get off a part. The last 
dance, the person yelled to me across the stage something like "just 
tell us when to go out, it's just easier". So at the top of the B2 I 
caught her eye and waved, assuming that they would finish the tune. I 
turned around to face the dancers and prompt a final partner swing and 
the dance ended that instant. Whoops!

Of the dances that I remembered, it quickly became clear that two of 
them were too easy for the crowd. That left me six dances to fill the 
session. I never did remember any more that night. So I ran the dances 
long. I added a waltz in the middle of the session as well as the end. A 
few people commented on the long dances and I heard it from the band, 
too. They were very tired after the session. The flute player kept 
rubbing her wrists. In the end, the dancers had fun. It was the first 
dance session of the festival and they had energy to burn. Compliments 
on my calling and the music came back to me afterwards, some directly, 
some through friends. In the end that's what I have to remind myself is 
what matters.

I had spotted a couple of callers in the crowd during the session. Later 
in the evening, I sought them out and explained the situation. I asked 
if they had brought their cards with them. With the exception of two 
people, those I asked had not brought their cards. Saturday morning I 
went through their cards and copied about twenty dances from them. Some 
I knew and called before, but some I didn't. My undying gratitude goes 
out to Fern Bradley and Nancy Turner for their help.

The second band was a group of young musicians. This group plays mostly 
country and old-time music. While they had all played for contras 
before, they hadn't played together for one with this repertoire. The 
guitar player apologized at the beginning for not knowing many jigs and 
assured me that they could play one during the session. My response was 
essentially "no big deal, play to your strengths". So I got a great set 
of hot old-time music for the session. I pulled dances that I felt would 
work with that kind of music out of my limited repertoire and put 
together a fun session. In concert, the band features two female 
vocalists who sing some wonderful harmonies. They were able to 
incorporate this into the dances wonderfully, without getting in the way 
of what I needed to do. One time they had an 8 bar a Capella lead into 
the dance that was beautiful. Later they played Golden Slippers and sang 
the words once the dancers had the dance down.

Later that day, we had a downpour at the festival and everyone and 
everything got soaked. This revealed several more personal mistakes: 
assuming my raincoat was in the car; not bringing quite enough clothes 
to change into; driving my car onto a muddy field that just got more 
muddy. This also meant that on Sunday, only the really die-hard dancers 
came back to the muddy festival.

My third session, on Sunday was the shortest. A blessing since I was 
running out of dances to call from my now limited repertoire. The band 
turned out to be incredible. A mix of musicians who have been playing 
for decades and young newcomers. Five fiddles, guitar, bass and piano. 
Hearing five fiddles belt out "Grumbling old man/Growling old woman" was 
an incredible experience. Working with them was a breeze. It was during 
this session, though, that my tiredness and unfamiliarity with some of 
the dances that I was calling came through. Mostly it showed up in 
awkward prompting. But with one dance (B&B Contra by Robert Cromartie) 
it was near disaster. During the walkthrough, I left out two moves from 
the teaching. I'd noticed that things had seemed a little awkward during 
the walkthrough, but it didn't seem to be a problem. "They'll smooth it 
out with the music" I told myself. I should note that the Sevens were 
playing on the main stage at that time, so it was the REALLY die-hard 
dancers who showed up to dance. They fudged and adjusted the dance to 
make it work.

Of course, when the music started, there was all of this extra time and 
we seemed to be getting off the music. I checked my notebook and 
discovered the first missed move. I had left out the ladies chain. I 
Started incorporating that into the prompting. This also meant that 
people changed shadows (I think), changed who they were following in the 
star (their partner instead of their neighbor). Some were able to adjust 
others weren't. After another time or two through the dance I realized 
that I had also forgotten the final do-si-do. At least that one was a 
zero figure. Some people weren't able to adjust to the new figure, but 
had good enough recovery skills that they fixed it every time. Once the 
dancers were stable and succeeding (mostly) I signaled the band to go 
out after 2 more times through the dance. I finished the session with a 
couple of dead-easy dances that let the band shine.

Exhausted, I left for home shortly after that. As I reflect now, even 
with all of the stress of the weekend (some from the weather, some from 
my own mistakes and poor preparation) it was a pretty incredible 
weekend. Friends and callers were all supportive. The ones that didn't 
have cards wrote down dances for me. They introduced me to other callers 
that I didn't know. Hugs were applied liberally at the appropriate 
times. And I had a wonderful time visiting with friends old and new. 
Swimming in the lake in the light rain on Sunday was incredibly 
refreshing after being muddy all day.

And in the end, there were so many people that came up to me during the 
weekend and complimented my calling or told me how much fun they had at 
my sessions that I just can't hold onto the self-criticism. I've learned 
my lessons and I'll do it much better next time. But I can't ignore that 
I pulled it off and people had fun.

What else needs to be said?

Chris Weiler
Goffstown, NH

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