[Callers] The Beginners' Lesson Tips?

Greg McKenzie grekenzie at gmail.com
Tue Oct 4 08:45:16 PDT 2011

When present, the newcomer's orientation is the first contact the caller has
with first-time contra dancers.  It is important primarily because it is
where you begin the process of integrating the first-timers into the hall.
(The reason these sessions can be problematic is because they are, by
nature, an act of dis-integration by virtue of the fact that newcomers are
segregated from the regular dancers for separate instruction and this sends
numerous implied messages that counteract the central purpose of integrating
the hall.)  Consequently the most important information in such orientations
is what is NOT said and what is NOT taught.  The real purpose of any
newcomer's orientation (if done at all) should be to integrate the hall.

The key to designing a great newcomer's orientation is to have a clear idea
of your goals.  Here are mine:

1. Make sure that all newcomers (including both those new to contras and
those new to any kind of social dance) are partnered with regular dancers
(who have danced contras at least one night).  This goal has both an
informational component; (Newcomers need to know that this is the tradition
and that it is different than other kinds of dance they may have experienced
in this respect.), and an attitudinal component; (Newcomers need to feel
confident enough to be comfortable partnering with the regulars. They need
to know that they are ready.)

2. Make sure that the newcomers will give weight and keep a strong
connection with all other dancers.  This goal is primarily a psychomotor
skill that must be taught and practiced.  It also has an informational
aspect in that the newcomers need to know that this is an important skill
that will allow them to learn.

3. Make sure that the newcomers relax and enjoy themselves.  They need to
know that contras are an extremely social kind of dance and that,
consequently, letting your partner know that you are enjoying their company
is much more important than any technical dance skill.  To relax and enjoy
themselves the newcomers must feel confident and relaxed when they finish
the orientation session.

These are ambitious goals to complete in 10 or 15 minutes.  The fact is that
these goals have to be part of an overall integration strategy for the first
half of the dance evening--or at least for the first few dances.  The good
news is that if you accomplish goal #1 you will eliminate the need for 90%
of what is usually taught in the newcomer's orientation.  (This includes the
figures and details such as "Gents, on the left and ladies on the right."

The "trick" is to assume that *all *of the first-timers will be partnered
with regular dancers and use that as your basic assumption during the entire
first part of the evening.  This assumption drives what happens in any
orientation session and in all of your calling behaviors.  When you operate
on this assumption you will omit a great deal of instruction from any
orientation, as well as most of the "teaching from the microphone" that
often happens in walk-throughs.  The result is a very powerful and
compelling implied message to all of the dancers that the regulars have a
vital role to play as "hosts" in welcoming and partnering with first-time
dancers.  My experience is that the regular dancers will accept this role
with enthusiasm because it is clear that they will be an integral part of
the process.  The key is to allow your regular dancers the delight and
pleasure of sharing something they are passionate about with relaxed and
confident newcomers.

If you do NOT assume this kind of integration your implied messages will
conflict with your instructions for goal #1.  For example: Assuming full
integration there is no need to teach figures in any orientation because the
"host" regulars will lead the first-timers through the figures during the
walk-throughs.  Teaching figures in a separate orientation, therefore,
implies that you do *not *really expect the hall to be fully integrated.
(Both the newcomers and the regulars will pick up on this fact and it will
undermine your efforts to integrate the hall.)

Please note that this approach requires that you re-frame the integration
process in your own brain.  For most of us this is an extended process that
takes some time and effort.  You will need to re-learn some basic habits and
attitudes about your role as a caller, the role of the regular dancers, and
the role of first-timers.  You need to learn to trust all of the dancers and
to develop a sense of partnership that allows the regulars to take
responsibility for many things that callers normally do.  (This will be a
great relief and encouragement to many regulars, however.)

Also note that this integration process cannot work in other settings where
there is not a core group of dancers who know the basics and who accept
their role as hosts in the process.  Calling in a hall full of first-timers
requires a completely different frame and strategy.  The good news is:

- The skills required by those who "host" the newcomers are very basic and
can be acquired in a single evening of dancing contras.  Beyond leading
folks through the basic figures the primary task is to put the newcomer at
ease and make them feel welcomed.  It is important to make this clear to the
dancers.  Doing so will allow many in the hall to act as hosts who would
otherwise not consider themselves "experienced" enough to partner with
first-timers.  In other words: You probably have a lot more willing and
capable help in the hall than you might otherwise think.

- The number of "helpers" or "hosts" you need in the hall is actually quite
small.  When the "hosts" are aware of their role it requires less than 20%
of the hall to make the integration work.  I have seen it work with even
less than 20%.  Remember that all of the dancers are invested in the success
of this process and all want to get the music and dancing started as quickly
as possible.  About 60% of the "first-timers" are already experienced in
some other dance form and some of them will be ready to act as "hosts"
before their first night is over.

The bad news is that this is not easy.  To successfully integrate a dance
hall you will need all of your calling skills.  You will need to be precise
and clear in your instructions.  The regulars will need to hear precisely
the essential information they need at precisely the time they need it.
Only then will they feel confident in leading newcomers through the dance.
The caller needs to use the most effective word order and enunciate clearly
to make this happen.  The caller needs to start on time and take immediate
responsibility for set management.  The caller needs to project
professionalism and confidence to put the entire hall at ease.  The caller
also needs to eliminate non-essential words from their delivery in order to
hold the attention of the entire hall.

In short; integrating the hall is at the core of what great contra dance
callers do.  It is something you can dispense with for festivals and special
events where your calling can become more casual.  At a regular open public
contra dance series, however, the ability to integrate the hall is
paramount.  It is how newcomers are "swept into" the dance without prior
instruction and it is fairly unique to this dance form.  It starts with the
design of any newcomer's orientation session, if there is one, where you can
begin to set the tone for the entire evening.

Just a thought,

- Greg McKenzie


On Sun, Oct 2, 2011 at 12:16 PM, D Bar <davey.bar at gmail.com> wrote:

> Howdy,
> I am going to be calling one of my first gigged contra dances in a week! I
> have a half-hour to introduce newbies on what's what in the dance prior and
> I am wondering what do other callers find has been the most effective use
> of
> that half hour?
> I imagine going over improper formation [ladies on the right etc.], and a
> few of the base moves are good. But I'd like to see if anyone else has some
> good hints I can work with!
> Thanks,
> Davey
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