[Callers] Trouble Getting Gigs (very long)

Joy Greenwolfe joy2the at mindspring.com
Tue Aug 19 18:12:35 PDT 2008

Hi Tina,

I can commiserate with your dilemma and have lots of thoughts running  
through my head about this.

I met a lot of resistance to getting booked in my local series for the  
year after I went to Pinewoods, although they had actually sent me to  
Callers Week.  (They said they had never heard me call, yet were never  
in town when I called in the area.)  It was hard to get what felt like  
dubious and disparaging remarks about my capability when they had not  
even heard me!

An additional problem was my being occasionally too ambitious,  
programming beyond my ability.  One organizer gave me a half dance and  
loved me, but when I called a full dance, I belabored the teaching of  
a complicated evening, and she gave me some very sharp remarks about -  
We don't want a whole evening of complicated dances; we just want to  
dance.  A good lesson in taking criticism, not overloading the  
evening, AND sharpening up my teaching.

Several things helped me adjust and gain more experience.

I started contacting organizers and especially dance-bookers for  
dances within a 1-4 hour  drive radius of me.  I'd look at online  
schedules and look for openings. I'd "cold-call" email them,  
introducing myself, acknowledging that I was fairly new but mentioning  
a couple of my strengths and some of my recent gigs, then specifically  
asking to be considered as a caller for one of their dances.  If there  
was a particular dance slot I was interested in, I'd mention that  
too.   Sometimes, they'd ignore me, but most often, they would say  
"that's booked" and then contact me for another slot later.   
Mentioning that I'd gone through Lisa Greenleaf's Caller's Course  
never hurt!     Some series are just very leery of booking unknowns.  
And sometimes a new booker had no idea I existed, so I had to do it  
all over again.

So based on my experience, the first thing I'd advise is to expand  
your range of potential gigs.  Experience is experience even if you  
have to drive to get there.  Also, as one friend said, It's amazing  
how much more talented you become when you come from 100 miles away!

Looking back, I can see that I did a number of things to maximize  
those experiences.

Before a gig, I'd email the booker or whoever I could get ahold of  
(dancers, other callers) and ask some questions about the dance  
community: Experience level or "mix" of dancers I might expect,  
numbers, hall quirks, whether they were open to other dance  
formations, any dancer expectations, etc.  I'd encourage them to share  
anything they thought might help me get a feel for their dancers.   
Sometimes they don't give you much, but it's all good.  I learned that  
organizers sometimes overstate/understate their dancers' abilities.   
Don't forget to say that you need a place to stay after the dance if  
you do!   At times, I'd even drive there to *dance* before I called  
there to get a feel for the place.

When I first arrived to call a dance, I'd try to locate the organizer  
(or person in charge), introduce myself the the sound crew and  
musicians and clarify signals and preferences. All this helped to keep  
lines of communication open.
I also started writing up the anticipated program for myself and the  
band with each dance's alternates and characteristics (e.g. punctuated  
A, swirly B, or no balances except a dramatic moment at the top of  
B1), so we could plan ahead better.  Some bands love this, others are  
very "meh" about it, but I found it works for me and often fosters a  
more collaborative atmosphere with the band.

Then during the dance (or during the break), I'd check in with the  
organizers/dancers/musicians. I ask the organizer if the dance length  
feels right, if the level of dances is working for the crowd.  (I  
don't necessarily grill them, just check in!) I ask the *musicians* if  
the set length feels good to them.  I give the musicians feedback if I  
thought a tune set or tempo worked particularly well.  I apologize if  
I messed something up.

One reason for checking it is that if there is a mismatch in  
expectations, sometimes you can set it right before you finish the  
evening.  For instance, if someone thinks the dances are a little too  
complicated/long or if the tempo is too slow/fast, it's easier to  
adjust then and there rather than the following month.

After the dance, I thank the organizer for having me call for them  
(even if things went poorly), acknowledge things I need to work on and/ 
or things that went well (usually if they have offered that info), and  
say that I hope they'll have me back.   I also like to spread  
appreciation to anybody who contributed. Give the musicians and sound  
crew some love.

I have found that being open to feedback can be especially valuable,  
not only for myself as a caller, but so that dancers, etc al feel they  
are being heard.    Some people are all too eager to tell you  
everything that you did wrong, but some people don't want to say  
anything even if you have been annoying them in some way, so sincere,  
constructive advice or feedback can be rare.  Appreciate those people  
who give it. :)  I have also learned a tremendous amount from  
recording my gigs. It's been sometimes painful, but wonderfully  

After a gig, I'd typically write up my notes about the evening, what I  
tried, what went well, or didn't, ideas for what I might try next  
time, etc.  I also pick over my program and see where program  
sequences went well or could have gone better. For that matter, I  
think abut how communication went with various people.   I've made  
some major glitches at times, and it's always useful to reflect on  
what I've learned.

Oh, and if I knew there were organizers in the crowd who might be  
checking me out, I learned to tend toward a solid program of dances I  
knew well rather than flashier, fancier things. Okay, maybe one. :)

Another thing that helped my teaching/experience was regularly  
teaching the beginners workshop for a local dance. That gave me lots  
of opportunity to try different ways/methods/sequences of teaching the  
basics within a certain time period.  Any non-standard gig can also be  
a valuable learning experience.  For that matter, any time you know  
you will be traveling, see ahead of time if the local dance wants a  
visiting caller. Sometimes that works out, sometimes not.

Also, as other people have mentioned, open-mic dances or house dances  
can be a great way to get more experience. Some dance weekends have an  
open calling session, so take advantage of that whenever you can!

It still took a long time for me to gain experience and become better  
known.    ... After a while, local people started hearing that I was  
calling other places... Eventually, they were willing to give me more  
chances.  Even the first gig was just a beginning step.  And  
sometimes, I still have to remind bookers that I exist and that I'm  
interested in calling for their series.  Still breaking in to new area.

Traveling some is not a bad way to go.  Here, we have 20+ callers in  
the same area (and more up-and coming!), so if I didn't travel at  
least a bit, I'd not call much at all.  I enjoy the different flavors  
of dancers and communities I get to work with, and the challenge of  
putting together a good program for each.

So that's my 10 cents!  Hope there's something useful for you. :)

Good luck!

Joy Greenwolfe
Durham, NC

On Aug 18, 2008, at 2:25 AM, Tina Fields wrote:

> Hi folks –
> I seem to have hit an interesting wall in my newish calling
> career, and would love to know your thoughts and strategies
> about how best to deal with it.  I’ve been calling contra
> for two years, the first year learning through guest spots,
> classes, and half-dances. Since last November I’ve called
> full dances, averaging 2-3 dances/month, mostly contras
> with a few barn dances.
> My problem is this:  I’m having trouble getting a couple of
> our local programmers to book me.
> In their defense, we do have a lot of good callers around
> here vying for the few slots. And one of our local
> programmers is trying to run a consistently high-powered
> dance, booking many world-class callers and bands.  I have
> never asked her about calling that dance, and in fact
> aspire to become a caller she seeks out some day in the
> future.
> But the other dances are a different story. The one that
> prompted me to reach out to you here is a medium-sized
> hometown type dance featuring lots of different callers and
> bands.  I dance there often; it’s one of my home venues.  I
> have called one half-dance there, to great reviews from
> both the dancers and the other caller. The band said they
> enjoyed working with me too.  Unfortunately, the programmer
> was away at a camp that evening. He has only seen me call
> guest spots – all of which he says he thoroughly enjoyed –
> but only one full evening elsewhere, and here’s the rub:
> wit wasn’t my best evening.  It was a special 4-hour dance,
> the longest gig I’ve ever done solo. I made a few minor
> mistakes. And the band was a primarily English band – which
> meant very nice music, but mild, not at all zesty.
> The programmer in question is a friend of mine in the
> dancing community. We’re fond of each other as both dance
> partners and people. When I realized he might not be asking
> me to call his dance because he doesn’t think I’m a good
> enough caller, it felt devastating.  But I got up the guts
> to approach him at the end of last night’s dance after the
> fiddler, notorious for his curmudgeonly pickiness, asked
> when I was calling next and announced that he and his
> girlfriend are my ‘biggest fans’.  (I was quite floored,
> and grateful. An ego boost can do wonders at moments like
> that.)  So I approached the programmer.  “Can I ask you a
> question?” I asked. “I don’t know if I want to answer,” he
> replied, looking very nervous and obviously knowing what
> was coming. “Well, I’m gonna ask it anyway,” I told him,
> and took his arm as we walked away from the others in the
> room.   “If, as I now suspect, you don’t like the way I
> call, what is it about it you don’t like so I can work on
> improving that?”  He looked relieved then, and was kind
> enough to respond very honestly.
> He named a number of things he hadn’t liked about the one
> full dance he’d been at. He gave the hairy eyeball to my
> inclusion of a particular mixer.  He also said at one point
> in a contra, one knot of folks was having trouble and I
> came down on the floor to help them, but that left the rest
> of them floundering awhile with no prompting. His memory
> was astounding – I don’t remember that at all. Perhaps I
> didn’t think anything of it at the time, or perhaps I was
> even proud of myself for being able to then get back up on
> the stool and call to everyone correctly after helping like
> that. I definitely still have a LOT to learn.  I believe
> the biggest mistake he pointed out (and rightly) was that I
> didn’t seem perfectly familiar with how to teach one of the
> dances, and dancers had to ask a question to clarify. It’s
> likely true: I try to call one dance that’s new to me each
> evening, in order to expand my repertoire, and every time I
> call one I seem to learn some new nuance about how to lead
> it better.
> He said he therefore thinks I need more practice. I
> heartily agreed with that, and then pointed out that the
> way to get it is by having gigs that allow me to do more
> calling!  He then said that that’s what the tiny venues are
> for.
> But I feel troubled by this answer. I’ve been calling those
> venues, and will gladly continue to.  However, it seems to
> me that if a caller is only exposed to small halls
> half-full of beginners, s/he will learn to call to that
> level very well, but not to call dances appropriate for
> more advanced dancers. How will I ever gain that skill if
> I’m not given the chance to try it? It’s a catch-22.  These
> venues also often book very inexperienced bands, who don’t
> know what I’m talking about when I try to discuss pairing
> dances/tunes. So I have ideas of how I’d like to become a
> better caller, but these circumstances are keeping me from
> achieving that.
> I also strongly believe that it’s every dance
> organization’s responsibility to foster new talent, if they
> want the group to stay alive. My local group has acted on
> this seriously in the past, in fact giving me and others
> matching scholarships to go to CDSS camp’s calling classes.
> (In my case, perhaps they figured out I wasn’t going to go
> away, so it was in their best interest to help me learn to
> do it better. <g>)  What’s happening now, though, is that
> I’ve hit some sort of glass ceiling. I’m like in my calling
> adolescence: no longer the cute beginner but also not yet a
> rock star. If given the opportunity to call at a more
> high-powered gig, I will not be perfect at it, no. But I
> will get better and better, given the chance.
> Hearing some programmers talk about callers and bands, I
> have the sense now that a problematic gig like the one
> Chris described in his recent ‘growth’ post could be a
> death sentence around here. That caller might never be
> invited back.
> My experience of hitting a wall didn’t only happen that one
> time. Earlier this month, trying to be proactive, I
> inquired about potentially calling at a venue a bit more
> than one hour from my home, another medium-sized/level
> dance I’ve danced at many times in the past but not
> recently. That programmer asked the very good question,
> ‘what sort of program do you do, and is it suitable for our
> dancers?’ I sent him a sample program I successfully called
> at a similar venue, along with an offer to discuss his
> current community’s particular dance level and to craft my
> program accordingly. I have not heard back.  Some say that
> he likes to call most of the dances there himself, so may
> be reluctant to share.
> It feels so disheartening to be kept out, I’m now
> considering whether it’s worth it to continue trying to
> call. Really, it’s been through frequent repetition that my
> skills have improved so far. I’ve popped a new level of
> understanding in terms of how to envision the moves in
> space, how to teach geometrically and in terms of people
> the dancers will encounter, and how to really work with the
> band to create a synergistic ball o’ fire.  These skills
> have recently grown exponentially. I enjoy doing it, and
> have gotten some excellent positive feedback from dancers,
> bands, and other programmers – some of it even in writing,
> so I can prove it.  But if I have to fight to get one gig
> every few months, I never will get better.  I’ll forget the
> nuances of how to do it.  Instead of building on each
> other, every dance evening will be a singular struggle. And
> I doubt it’s worth it. I love giving to the dance community
> through calling, but also love dancing – and that I feel
> unquestioningly welcomed to do.
> Thoughts? Strategies? Commiseration?  How to best handle
> this situation?  Is there a way to encourage programmers to
> nurture local talent?  How did you manage to wrangle
> getting gigs that allowed your skills to continually grow?
> Sorry for the length of this post and the ‘woe is me’ tone.
> But I figured some detail might help in this case, and I’m
> really feeling at a loss.
> Thank you, comrades, for any insight you might offer.
> Tina Fields
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