[Callers] Using effective word order in prompts

Greg McKenzie gregmck at earthlink.net
Wed Dec 23 15:44:18 PST 2009

Laila wrote:
>My understanding is that the basic rule is "who, what, how much [if needed]"; e.g. "gents allemande left once and a half," or "partner balance and swing" (as opposed to the commonly heard "balance and swing your partner").  The idea is to give the dancers the information in the order they need it -- first, they need to orient toward the correct person, then know what to do, then know how long to keep doing it (unless it's obvious).  I was also taught that the "how much" is one of the first things you leave off when you're shortening calls in preparation for dropping out entirely.


Laila is correct.  The basic principle is the same, though I learned a variation.  I also have to admit that the phrase "effective word order" may be an invention of mine.  This idea is usually treated as a basic of structuring calls.  I coined the phrase to emphasize the importance of this principle.

The piece below is from an article I wrote several years ago on a "cure" for center set syndrome.  The real issue for discussion is: Why do so few callers use effective word order?


The Value of Effective Word Order

This is one of the most basic skills of calling contras. It is also one of the most neglected principles of good calling.  This may be, in part, because so many experienced and otherwise excellent callers ignore effective r\word order and seem to get away with it.  Others will avoid using effective word order in their calls because it does not fit with their “style” of calling.  This may be so.   The basics of the principle, however, should be adaptable to almost any style.  Whatever style you use, however, the application of this structure to calls and prompts will take some effort and re-training.  You will need to change your speaking habits and integrate the more effective word order into your style.  The results, however, will be worth it.  Excessive booking ahead, center set syndrome, and a failure to integrate newcomers are all strong indications that more effective word order is needed.

For many callers effective word order feels awkward and unnatural.  Natural English usually places the verb before the object, as in “Swing your Neighbor.”  Switching this pattern around often feels unnatural,…at first.  Using effective word order, however, can make a big difference in reducing the amount of ambiguity and thus building the confidence of the dancers.

The most effective word order for prompts and teaching in dancing is:

1.	Tell the dancers to whom you are speaking.  (Not needed when speaking to everyone.)
2.	Tell the dancers with whom they will be dancing next.
3.	Tell them the figure or move they will be dancing.

Less effective: “Balance and swing your neighbor.”

More effective: “Neighbor, balance and swing.”

Note that with the less effective word order above a confused dancer of any skill level must wait almost two seconds longer before learning which direction to face.  When in a line with unsure beginners this can seem like an eternity.  Think about standing still almost two seconds during the dance or walk-through, while shifting your eyes back and forth.  For some, this means two seconds of feeling incompetent, confused, unsure, and embarrassed.  It is also two seconds during which a confused dancer will look to others for the information the caller should be providing.  Good word order gives the dancers the information they need at exactly the time they need it.  Using effective word order will instill confidence in the dancers.  They will begin to trust you more as a caller and will be more willing to take risks.

Using effective word order does seem awkward, at first.  Over time, however, it will become much more natural.  Start by writing all of your card notes and dance transcriptions with the most effective word order.

While the effect may seem subtle the value of effective word order becomes most evident in a line with many newcomers.  With lots of confused dancers the lack of effective word order is much the same as if the caller were calling late.   Most of the newcomers won’t know which direction to face until it is too late.  Again, this encourages other dancers to attempt to “help out” by giving verbal instructions and thus further distracting newcomers from the caller’s voice.  It also does little to enhance confidence in the caller.  Effective word order thus helps to maintain the focus on the caller’s voice because the correct information is received exactly when it is needed.  Ideally the prompt should always end exactly one beat before the next move begins.

Less effective:
“Allemand left Gents once and a half.
_ _ _ _ _ Balance and swing your partner.”

More effective:
“Gents left hand turn
_ _ once and a half _ _ to your partner, Balance
_ _ _ and swing.”

(In the transcription above the underlined spaces represent one count each.)

Note that in the more effective prompt the gents receive the information about how far to turn as they are turning.  The word “partner” is spoken just as their partner should be coming into view.  The close coordination of the calls with the dance also helps to emphasize the timing of the dance.

Some may protest that, in many transitions, effective word order is not needed because the information is implied.  I would answer that there are also many transitions where good word order makes a big difference, particularly for newcomers.  The caller should form the calls consistently.  This makes it easier for the dancers to hear the calls and frees the caller from having to decide whether to use natural English or a more effective word order.  The best practice is to use effective word order at all times, not just when most needed.  Good word order will quickly become a habit for both the caller and the dancers, to the extent that, eventually, common English word order from the caller will begin to sound unprofessional.

Using effective word order is one of the most effective tools for integrating newcomers into the dance community.  It builds the confidence of dancers at all skill levels and makes experienced dancers more willing to partner with newcomers because they can see that the caller is making the effort to get the vital information to all of the dancers exactly when it is needed.  When newcomers are partnered with experienced partners the caller’s other responsibilities become much more manageable.  Effective word order is one of a host of techniques callers can use to generate a more generous and community-spirited atmosphere in the hall.


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