[Callers] Article on Dance Calling

Greg McKenzie grekenzie at gmail.com
Sun Aug 5 09:17:13 PDT 2012


While I was looking for some information on "teaching techniques" that
might be applied in dance calling I was struck by how some trends in
education parallel my own approach to calling contras at open, public
contra dances.  As a result I was moved to write the following article.

The implications of this could change how we, as callers, "frame" the
regular, public contra dance events that form the core of this dance
tradition.  I would love to hear your comments and reactions to these ideas.

(I can also post this article on-line if anyone would fine that more


Greg McKenzie



*Contra Dance as Active Group Learning:
**It’s a “Walk-Through” not a “Talk-Through”*

*By Greg McKenzie*

* *

Dance callers—particularly when calling at open, public, contra
dances—might benefit from an overview of one of the major trends in
education over the last 30 years.  In the field of education there has been
a steady and growing movement away from the classic model of a “teacher”,
“professor”, or “instructor” who presents material to an assembled “class”
of students who watch and listen passively while taking notes.  In this
classic model the only activity asked of “students” was asking questions of
the instructor.

This model is now more often described as “passive instruction.”  It has
its place, to be sure, but in all forms of education from graduate work
down to first grade it has been largely supplanted by “active” forms of
instruction including individual research (either in the library, in the
“real world” or on the internet), group and individual presentations, group
exercises, and other forms of structured group learning activities.  It has
been demonstrated that when students are actively engaged in the learning
process they take responsibility, they learn more, and the learning process
is more enjoyable and empowering.

In the field of education this movement has required a shifting of the
basic vocabulary of education.  Instead of speaking about the process of
“teaching” the focus is now on “learning” and this has been a pivotal shift.
Our goal, after all, is to achieve learning for the student.  “Teaching” is
really only one means to that end.  The role of the “instructor” has
shifted to become more of a learning facilitator or learning manager.
becomes a collaborative process where the “students” become active leaders
and learn from each other.

The movement to active forms of learning is one of the major changes in
education during our lifetime.  It has changed the field of education and
improved the outcomes significantly.  Moreover it has raised the confidence
of young people who have learned that they are active participants in, not
only their own education, but also the education of their peers, their
families, and the larger society.

This has not been a painless process.  Many “instructors,” who have honed
their presentation skills, have had to re-think their role and learn to
turn control of the learning process over to the students.  The
accomplished lecturer or presenter must learn to be quiet, observe
carefully, and facilitate a process in which they take a much less
prominent role.  But educators have learned that, when students are given
control over their own learning process, they tend to take responsibility
for their education and are much more invested in the outcomes.

This movement has permeated the field of education—and that includes dance
instruction.  To some degree, the use of group learning is common in most
dance instruction.  Because it involves many psychomotor skills, dance is a
perfect candidate for structured, active group learning.  In most social
dance we can see this principle in effect whenever the instructor stops the
music and says “Gents please move forward to the next lady.  Let’s try it
again.”  This is a form of facilitated group learning.

Consider the “walk-through” at contra dances in this context.  In the
modern contra dance tradition the walk-through is an ideal structure for
putting regular contra dancers into a leadership position which empowers
them to act as “hosts” at open, public contra dances.  Viewed from this
frame, the caller’s role is to facilitate a process where the knowledge of
the more experienced contra dancers is transferred to the first-time contra
dancers in a facilitated group learning process.

This is a different way of framing the entire process wherein the tradition
of contra dance is transferred from a community of contra dance enthusiasts
to newcomers at open public dances.  For callers there are a few points
that need to be made:

-          This process of active group learning takes place in all dance
traditions to a certain degree, but it is most prevalent at open, public
events where passive learning is likely to act as a distraction from the
social purpose of the event.  It is at public social events where this kind
of group dance learning is most appropriate, and most effective.  The
“walk-through” at contra dances incorporates this kind of active learning
into a predictable ritual that the regular attendees are both familiar and
comfortable with.

-          The active group learning process is most effective when
newcomers are well integrated into the community of regular attendees.  This
is best accomplished with a very brief orientation in which newcomers are
made aware of the tradition of dancing with more experienced dancers on
their first night.  This orientation process should have both an explicit,
formal introduction and an implicit component making it absolutely clear to
first-timers that this is the normal and preferred process.

-          Active and passive learning cannot occur simultaneously.  It is
the caller’s job to facilitate learning with clear transitions between
brief periods of passive learning and periods of active group learning, as
well as with transitions to verbal socializing and other activities.  The
caller facilitates these transitions and must be able to “step back” and
allow the regulars to play their roles of leaders and hosts.  This involves
a high level of trust, by the caller, in the regular dancers and the ceding
of responsibility to the regulars, allowing them to proceed without
distraction or intervention.  Consequently, this form of learning is most
effective if, during the walk-through, the caller limits their verbal
information to precise and timely prompts using as few words as possible.

My own experience is that contra dance enthusiasts almost universally
accept the role of “host” or “leader” with avidity and gratitude.  The
walk-through is the key learning activity at open, public contra dances and
it puts the regulars into a position of authority and responsibility that
makes them feel more engaged in the process of welcoming first-timers and
sharing the excitement of contra dance with them as they are “swept into”
the fun.

The process of active group learning continues after the walk-through and
during the rest of the dance, and that includes after the caller stops
prompting the dance.  Active group learning is not only fun for regulars it
is also, by far, the most effective way to learn the psychomotor skills
involved in social dance.

A wise caller recognizes that the most important learning takes place when
the caller is NOT speaking.

Recognition of the value of active learning on the dance floor has many
implications for how contra dance callers may want to alter their teaching
and calling style.  When the walk-through is framed as a group learning
activity some common caller practices may need revision.

-          Precision in how the calls are structured becomes even more
important.  When calls are structured using only a few, clear words it
allows learning dancers to focus on the lead of their more experienced
partner and attend to the physical connection and the variety of leads from
different dancers.

-          Using the most effective word order also becomes much more
critical.  The regulars need to know what is happening *next* so that they
can anticipate and lead their partner in a timely manner.  Poorly
structured calls using less effective word order have the same effect as
“late” calls because the leader is often not told what direction to face
until the end of the call.  This is frustrating for your “hosts” because
they may not have memorized the dance and that moment of hesitation—while
waiting for the critical information—lowers their confidence level.  (It is
this kind of casual, un-structured calling, that perpetuates the myth that
dancing with first-timers is *not* fun.)  It is the job of the caller to
make sure that dancing with first-timers is fun.

The recognition of the value of active learning could influence your entire
approach to calling.  Some of the calling styles and techniques, such as
patter calling and singing squares, for example may not be as adaptable to
this more active group learning process.  When calling at open, public
social dances, all callers should consider how their techniques impact the
active group learning process.  Some may be best avoided, particularly
early in the evening, or adapted to fit the needs of active learners.  Some
styles might not be appropriate for open, public dances and would be best
reserved for dances intended for dance enthusiasts only, where newcomers
are not likely to attend.

Changing the structure of your calls to be more precise, and to use
effective word order will require some effort.  Writing your calls on your
dance cards in the most effective word order with the timing indicated for
each call is highly recommended.  For callers who have relied on
memorization of all of their dances this may be a good time to take the
plunge and learn how to use dance cards effectively on stage when
calling.  Designing
and using dance cards effectively is a skill and a technique that must be
learned and practiced like any other skill.  Dance cards, however, can give
you improved flexibility over having to re-memorize all of your dances
whenever your calling style evolves, or changes to meet the needs of
different groups.

The traditional “barn-raising” in rural America is a good metaphor for how
our dance traditions are passed on through generations.  At a barn-raising
the community comes together in a traditional gathering where the seasoned
“experts” in building mentor and teach young helpers in the arts of
carpentry, joinery, planning, and group organizing.  There are many
“leaders” at a barn-raising and decisions are often made by groups in a
collaborative process.  This encourages ownership of the tradition itself.  And
as new materials, new tools, new environmental conditions, and even new
purposes for the barn come into being the barn-raising tradition evolves to
adapt.  This is a model we can follow for how our dance traditions develop
and evolve over time.

Many people are drawn to the art of dance calling precisely because they
love to teach others.  We should all remember that this joy of teaching is
felt by most of us, and callers need to be willing to allow others to share
in the fun of passing along a tradition they are passionate about to others.
This is one area where contras can stand out; as a place where dance
enthusiasts can gather to share their passion for social dance with
newcomers.  Callers who recognize that joy of sharing the tradition will
work to make sure that the experience of partnering with newcomers is
fun.  Creating
space in the evening for the regular dancers to lead their novice partners
through the dance is one of the greatest strengths of contra dance.

Callers need to remember that social learning is a part of the process and
the caller who is skilled at “stepping back” and allowing the regulars to
instructively, but silently, lead newcomers will be recognized for that
skill.  The walk-through, done with a minimum of precise, clear, and timely
prompts, is one of the most effective mechanisms for allowing this form of
community learning to occur—surpassed only by contras danced to music after
the caller has stopped prompting.  The caller’s silence is a statement of
confidence in this process that empowers all of the dancers.

We should remember that the most effective dance instructor in the hall, is
the hall itself.  The best callers will use the knowledge and skill of the
hall to sweep-in first-timers with an exciting and joyful process of
collaborative, active learning.  That process requires that the caller
learns how to “step back” and allow the hall to do what it does best.

In summary: Techniques of active, group learning are extremely effective
and are particularly well-suited to social dance instruction.  Active
learning builds the confidence of learners, produces a positive impression
of other dancers as being more friendly and helpful, and gives the dancers
in the tradition as sense of “ownership” of the tradition.  It is also more
fun for everyone.  The “walk-through” at an open, public contra dance is
one form of active learning that has been tried and developed over
generations.  As the contra dance tradition evolves, however, we need to be
mindful of how the principles of active learning can be incorporated even
more effectively into this tradition.

 “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research”  by Michael Prince,

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