[Callers] Appropriate Tempos

James Saxe jim.saxe at gmail.com
Thu Mar 8 13:10:20 PST 2012

On Mar 8, 2012, at 9:59 AM, Martha Edwards wrote:

> ...
> I also remember reading somewhere in my two Larry Jennings books  
> that 120
> was the ideal tempo, but I can't find the reference, so maybe I made  
> it up.

The remark to which Martha refers appears on page 37 of _Zesty
Contras_, in the section V.2 ("Time Management).  Larry writes:

        I know from having recorded many dances that the tempos used
     vary between 30 seconds per change of 64 beats and 35 seconds
     per change.  A lovely average tempo is 32 seconds/64 beats. ...

On page 42, in his sample self-critique, based on a tape of himself
teaching and calling "Country Doctor's Reel," Larry describes the
tempo thus:

     Tempo: 33.8 sec. (average time required for one change).

I believe Larry preferred to write tempos in terms of seconds per
change (64 beats) rather than beats per minute because he did his
timing with a watch--probably a stopwatch--rather than a metronome.
Perhaps someone who spent more time with Larry than I did could
confirm or refute this.

In any case, I believe that a stopwatch is a substantially better
tool than a metronome for measuring (as opposed to setting) tempos,
particularly if the stopwatch has a "Split" or "Lap" feature.  This
is a button that makes the stopwatch display either the current
cumulative time (since last started) or the time since the last
split/lap or both, while also continuing to run so that you can
capture more split/lap times later.  Some watches store split/lap
times in a memory that you can examine later at leisure.  Sporting
goods stores typically carry such stopwatches with a variety of
features, memory capacities, and physical durability (or lack
thereof).  Nowadays many cell phones have a stopwatch feature
built in.

My technique for taking timings is to get my finger tapping
lightly to the beat on the appropriate button (start or
split/lap) and then actually follow through and press the
button on a particular beat, typically beat 64 of the tune
(or the last beat of the "four potatoes, if I'm timing from
the start of the tune).  Then I do the same thing at the
corresponding place in the tune 64 beats (or 128 or 192
...) later.  I find that in this way, I can keep my timing
inaccuracy down to a couple tenths of a second or less most
of the time.  That amounts to less than one beat per minute
when averaged over one round of a tune, and less when
averaged over multiple rounds.  As an example, here are
results that I got just now by timing the same two repeats
of a tune on a particular YouTube video five times:

     31.50 + 31.23 = 62.73 (avg. = 31.365 sec/change; 122.4 bpm)
     31.44 + 31.22 = 62.66 (avg. = 31.330 sec/change; 122.6 bpm)
     31.43 + 31.36 = 62.79 (avg. = 31.395 sec/change; 122.3 bpm)
     31.51 + 31.22 = 62.73 (avg. = 31.365 sec/change; 122.4 bpm)
     31.47 + 31.22 = 62.69 (avg. = 31.345 sec/change; 122.5 bpm)

By taking multiple split/lap times over the length of a dance,
you can also get get quantitative information about whether the
band maintained a steady tempo or sped up, and if they sped up,
whether it happened gradually or suddenly (e.g., at a tune change),
etc.  Unlike with a metronome there's no need to look at a
stopwatch continuously while taking timings.  While I've described
taking split/lap times at intervals of 64 beats (or multiples
thereof), there's no need to devote much attention to counting
to 64, since you can let the  phrasing of the tune and the pattern
of the dance effectively do the counting for you.

To convert from seconds per change to beats per minute, you can use
the formula

     # of beats per minute = 3840 / (# of seconds per round)

The 3840 (= 60 x 64) comes from the fact that there are 60 seconds
in a minute and 64 beats in one round of a standard-length contra
dance/tune.  Or you can remember a few equivalences, such as 32
seconds per round being 120 beats per minute, 30 seconds per round
being 128 bpm, etc.

While calling, I find it fairly easy to make a quick assessment of
the tempo by taking a few split/lap times at 16 beat intervals
(16 beats/8 sec = 120 bpm; 16 beats/7.5s = 128 bpm; 16 beats/8.5s
=~ 113 bpm) without distracting much attention from watching the
dancers.  Such measurements can help me check a visual impression
that dancers are either plodding or racing and decide whether
the situation warrants signaling the band to adjust their tempo.


On Mar 8, 2012, at 9:59 AM, Martha Edwards wrote:

> Alan's answer is the "right" one, in my experience, but I offer this
> anecdote:
> I used to wonder what the "right" tempo for a contra dance was, so  
> any time
> the following three things happened at the same time, I took note of  
> the
> tempo.
>   1. I was sitting out the dance
>   2. I had a metronome handy
>   3. The dancers looked really happy dancing
> In EACH of the several cases in which those three things happened
> simultaneously, the answer was, surprisingly, the exact same thing:
> 120 BPM
> Mind you, that's just contra, and a smallish sample just in the  
> Midwest.
> Because of a square dance tradition in Missouri that sometimes used  
> tempos
> up to 144bpm (!) we were occasionally treated (or subjected) to those
> faster tempos and developed a style of dancing that made it  
> difficult for
> us to dance any slower than about 112bpm (that's only two metronome  
> marks
> away from 120bpm).  Bands from the East coast would come and play at
> 104-116bpm, and we would find it hard to stay with the music. In  
> recent
> times, the tempos from our old-time bands have slowed a bit, and  
> more of us
> have experienced bands from elsewhere at dance weekends - but we're  
> still
> happiest at 120bpm, for some reason.
> I also remember reading somewhere in my two Larry Jennings books  
> that 120
> was the ideal tempo, but I can't find the reference, so maybe I made  
> it up.
> You should also know that, on a slightly different topic, the old-time
> musicians who play for contra dances (around here, anyway) look at you
> mighty funny if you even mention the word metronome or beats per  
> minute, so
> don't do it. Do what Alan said - tap your foot, deedle, or better  
> yet, keep
> your mouth shut, because some of them have pointedly told us callers  
> that
> it's not our job to tell them how fast to play (strange but true!).  
> The
> best way to keep the peace with those folks if you want a slower  
> tempo is
> to ask them to play a slower tune. That they can, and will, do.
> M
> E
[earlier quoted messages snipped]

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