[Callers] Calling contra medleys, and some history of the NEFFA contra medley

cathy jones susanma1950 at yahoo.com
Thu May 1 10:47:12 PDT 2008

This is a rather long post, including background on
the NEFFA contra dance medley.

First, it's worth considering why you want to call a
dance medley.  Are you trying to test your level of
skill as a caller?  Are the dancers clamoring for a
medley?  Has the band asked for a challenge?  The
approach you take to calling a medley depends on your
answers to these questions.

When I created the NEFFA contra dance medley in 1984,
there was a specific reason for it.  The festival had
been moved from its usual time at the end of the
school vacation week to the beginning due to religious
holidays.  This meant that there were only a few hours
to set up spaces for events.  We (I was program
co-chair that year) decided to have a two-day
festival, with programming running for 2 full days and
nights on Saturday and Sunday with a pre-Festival
dance Friday night.  

We hired two bands, New England Tradition and Yankee
Ingenuity, to play for the dance, and had several
callers do a few dances each.  Because there would be
two bands, we decided that a break would be
unnecessary- dancers could sit out when they wanted

When I was trying to figure out how to do the
transition from one band to another, the idea of the
medley occurred to me.  Some individual callers have
been calling dances for a long time, but I hadn't
experienced I'm oriented toward community building,
and saw the transition aspect of changing bands and
callers as challenging for all involved- callers,
musicians, and dancers.  When I spoke with the bands.
they were very enthusiastic.

My original thought regarding the bands was that they
would literally change places during the medley- Bob
McQuillen would start at the piano and then Peter
Barnes would slide onto the bench, etc.  The band had
other ideas though.  They decided they would all play
through the whole medley.

I approached several callers to see if they were
interested in participating, and, knowing this would
be the first time, decided to work within several
guidelines.  I alternated between men and women
callers to help dancers distinguish between voices.  I
had the second caller call the last time through the
first dance, using that as a signal to both the
dancers and musicians that a change would be happening
the next time.  I asked the bands to alternate between
jigs and reels, and they agreed enthusiastically.

When I announced the medley, I deliberately went out
of my way to scare people off.  I said it was for
experienced dancers only, there would be no
walk-through, and explained how it would work. 
Because it was the first time, and I naively assumed
it would be the only time the medley was done, i
really didn't want to see it fall apart because some
couldn't get through contra corners.  It was also
Friday the 13th (the dance I called, the last in the
medley, was brand new, and so titled), so I was
concerned that it wouldn't go over well.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Comments on calling medleys yourself-

I agree with other posters that it's important to know
your material well.  The dances must have smooth
transitions, leaving dancers facing in the right
direction with the appropriate hands free for the next
figure.  Left hand star to balance and swing, and
right and left through to forward and back are good
examples of this notion.

It's not at all important to have what you think of as
challenging dances in the medley.  In fact, especially
for the first time, interesting but not unusual
figures are better.  If you're going to continue to
call medleys, make sure you start simple and build up.

Talk to the band.  If it's a band that you work with
regularly, all the better, since you and they know
each other well enough to trust each other.  If
they're comfortable changing tempos, fine.  The
success of the medley is based on collaboration.

Susan Elberger
Arlington, MA

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