[Callers] Implied Messages in First-Timer's Orientation

Bob Isaacs isaacsbob at hotmail.com
Fri Sep 2 13:11:39 PDT 2011

Hi All:
While I am thankful for all the useful comments here, there is one thought missing from this discussion.
You've all seen them; new dancers who miss the new dancer session and arrive after the dance has started.  Most likely for their first contra they get paired up with some experienced stranger - "for their own good."  They struggle with figures everybody else seems to know, and get overwhelmed with well-meaning help from other dancers whose teaching is at best uneven.  Only then do they learn the dance series offers a session for them before the dance.
So they resolve to come back early next time, and that's when they go through their first new dancer session.  Based on my highly-unscientific survey of these sessions, I'd estimate that 20-25% in a new dancer session are actually second-time dancers, most of whom missed the session the first time.  While the joy of contra pep talk may be good for them, what these dancers want is to learn what they didn't get before.  They really want to know how to dance a hey, or how to do the buzzstep.  When I start such a session, I'm particularly attuned to the second-timers, and I ask them what they want to know.  While I teach the basic figures in such sessions, if a dancer or group of dancers have a particular concern, I'll focus on that figure or style point.  If they made the effort to get to that session, I should make the effort to address their needs.
Those of you who do not focus on figures may want to consider the needs of these dancers, who usually want help on one or a few figures.  We all know that most first time dancers do not return.  But second timers are different; they've already seen how a contra works, and liked it enough to try it again.  Imagine yourself in that position, and if you came early for your second time to get the hang of that R and L through, and the teacher doesn't cover it?  You'd be less inclined to go to such sessions, or bring friends to them.  But if a returning dancer can make sense of a figure they had difficulty with the first time, they can see progress being made and we're on the way to winning them over as a regular dancer.

> Date: Fri, 2 Sep 2011 13:52:53 -0400
> From: David.Millstone at valley.net
> To: callers at sharedweight.net
> Subject: Re: [Callers] Implied Messages in First-Timer's Orientation
> The more I read the comments in this discussion, the more I start humming lyrics 
> to an old Bob Dylan song: "You're right from your side and I'm right from mine."
> Some folks are clearly on the side of not having newcomers' workshops at all. 
> Others think they're fine but should focus on various social aspects of dance. 
> Others think that a major emphasis should be put on teaching figures; some think 
> that there should be a lot of figures taught; others, only a few. Some see it 
> as vital that new dancers learn how to do a buzz step swing and others say, no, 
> stick to just a walking step swing.
> What I like best about the discussion is that it indicates that callers are clearly 
> thinking about these issues. To my mind, that's the most important thing. In the 
> same way that it's possible for different dance series to have different visions 
> of How The Dance Should Be, so, too, it's possible for folks to have a different 
> vision for the start of an evening.
> When I'm asked to call at a location away from home, I sometimes am asked to teach 
> a beginners' workshop and sometimes there's a local person teaching it. If the 
> latter, I make a point to attend. Sometimes I cringe at what I hear and the approach 
> taken; other times I walk away impressed at how effective the teacher was.
> Take another aspect of calling... on this list, I suspect that callers will say 
> that they aim to call a few times through a danceI and then get out of the way, 
> to let the dancers dance to the music without intrustive calls. Indeed, I've been 
> thanked on occasion by dancers for efficient teaching and for such brief prompts. 
> (On occasion, I'll teach the first part of a dance and then will just say, "And 
> the rest will give you no problem..." and cut the walkthrough short.
> I've also been thanked by dancers for continuing to call: "Too many callers just 
> stop calling after three or four times through the dance; I really appreciated 
> the way that you continued to call... I was able to get through the dance without 
> problems thanks to that."
> In short, there's more than one good way to approach these issues. Different dancers 
> have different needs, and different callers find good-- and different-- ways of 
> meeting those needs.
> David Millstone
> Lebanon, NH
> P.S. As a historical note, I think it worth pointing out the concept of workshops 
> before the dances is a relatively recent phenomenon... maybe 25 years old, but 
> probably more like 10-15 years. (I'd be interested to hear from others around 
> the country on when they think these introductory sessions began in their neighborhood.) 
> To be sure, going back into earlier centuries, there were dancing masters and 
> classes, but I'm talking about twentieth century social dances, at least in the 
> part of New England about which I know the most. People just came to the dance 
> and learned as they went; that's certainly what happened at community square dances; 
> where contras were done, which was a relatively small number of venues, there 
> wasn't such an introduction in places such as Nelson, NH, and at Dudley dances 
> throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the events that (IMHO) were the 
> primary jumping off point for making contras a much more popular dance form.
> It might be worth speculating on what led to the introduction of such workshops...why 
> folks came to feel that they were necessary. Changes in the dance programs? In 
> the folks coming to the dances? in the caller's expectations of what they hoped 
> to accomplish in the course of the evening? broader societal / cultural changes? 
> But all of that is grounds for starting a new thread, so if anyone is interested 
> in picking it up, I hope they'll change the subject line.
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