[Callers] Caller Leadership, (Was: Duties of the Caller Role)

Greg McKenzie grekenzie at gmail.com
Tue May 22 16:19:00 PDT 2012

d0nv wrote:

As a starting caller (and a dance committee member) I've got a genuine
interest. Is there a course or book saying this?

Thank you for your posting.

I don’t recall the original source, and I don’t want to encourage the
authoritarian leanings of this list so I won’t try to find it.  For me the
principle stands on its own merits.  I do recall that many callers stated
this principle as: “It’s always the caller’s fault.”  This was to emphasize
that the caller should assume that any misunderstanding is an error on the
caller’s part…not the dancers.  It can lower the confidence of many
first-timers if they believe that *they* are the reason something went
wrong, and that anxiety will make it difficult for those newcomers to
follow subsequent instructions.  By taking responsibility for any
“mistakes” the caller defuses this anxiety reaction somewhat.

I think most callers, however, assumed that this principle was an
exaggeration intended as a form of humor.  This is unfortunate because it
is the most useful framing I know of to cultivate leadership in the dance

Note that this maxim also applies to many other roles where the speaker
uses a PA system.  Any Master of Ceremonies with experience will also take
full responsibility for what happens in the hall.  In the case of a dance
caller, this individual has the added authority vested in them by the
tradition they follow to instruct those in the room regarding their precise
physical movements.  This is an awesome power which can only be wielded
effectively when the speaker also takes responsibility for the hall.

Notice that the dance caller:

   - is at the front of the room, usually on an elevated platform, where
   they can be seen by anyone in the room.
   - is able to see anyone in the room from that position.
   - is using a PA system that effectively makes them the only one in the
   room who can project their voice clearly to every person in the room.
   - is the only individual in the room who knows the requirements of the
   dance, the capabilities of the band, and who also has a pretty good idea of
   the capabilities of the dancers.  (The caller knows all of this

The ideal situation is, of course, when everyone in the hall takes full
responsibility for what happens in the hall.  In fact, this is the way
collective community dance works!   But the person at the mike is in a
unique position.

 Given the advantaged position described above it might be well to ask:  If
the caller is not willing to take responsibility, then why should anyone

Karen D. quoted, from the list archive, the following comments on what the
caller is probably NOT responsible for.  Yet these are excellent examples
of challenges a caller can address by personally owning the problem.  Here
are some of my thoughts just off the top of my head.  (And these responses
must come off the top of your head when any emergency presents itself.)  The
“wonderful dance community” frame is your best resource in an emergency:

I can stop and re-start the band several times, but it's not my "full
> responsibility" if they are determined to play at a certain tempo.

This is a real problem many of us face.  Some musicians are unable to play
at higher dance tempos on some tunes.  In that case the caller should
consider substituting dances that “work” better at the favored tempo.  If
it is too slow the caller can add excitement through some other
means—perhaps with a punchy vocal emphasis.  Bottom line: Make sure the
musicians feel good about what they do.  Make sure they get applause.

The owner of the barn we're dancing in decides to make another loop on his
> tractor with the mosquito broadcaster, blowing bug spray through the open
> doors and windows.

The caller: First signals the band to cut off the music mid-tune and says
something appropriate on mike, such as, “My apologies.  We have an
emergency situation with the farmer’s spray drift.  Could some of you
please quickly close the windows and doors on that side of the hall.  Perhaps
someone could reposition that fan to get some fresh air into the hall.  Thank
you all for your understanding.  Let’s take a short break until the hall is
danceable again.”

A crash occurs on the street adjacent to our parking lot dance hall, and
> dozens of participants run to see what happened.

Caller: “My apologies.  There seems to have been an accident outside.  Is
there a doctor in the house?  Wonderful.  Thank you.  If there is anyone
else with medical training please go with her to check on the situation and
let us know if there is any assistance we could offer.  Everyone else
should probably just wait here.  I appreciate your understanding.  Thank
you all.”

The host didn't think to provide cool water, there's no drinking fountain.
> "There's a Coke machine, they can buy a pop."

Caller: “I understand there is no cool water available.  I’m sorry about
that.  Is there someone here who would be willing to drive to a nearby
store and purchase some bottled water?  Wonderful!  Please, if you would
like some water, give some money to this man over here.   Hopefully we’ll
have some water in time for the break.“

PA bleed from a nearby event that's louder and bigger and echo-y.

Caller: “My apologies.  We seem to be competing with an amplified event
nearby.  I’m going to ask all of you to pay careful attention and please,
do not talk during the walk-through.  Thank you all for your understanding
and your assistance.”

I think you get the idea.  The caller should lead by example.  Everyone in
the hall wants to be proud of their dance community, and the caller can
take the lead in making that happen.  Remember; it is a wonderful dance
community and you should expect them to react to any “situation” with grace
and compassion.

This is not rocket science.  It is certainly easier than memorizing all of
your dances.  If the caller is either unable, or unwilling to take
responsibility then s/he should hand the microphone to someone who will.

Speaking of untoward situations in the hall....

I remember once seeing an actual fight break out on a dance floor between
two women.  This was a full-on altercation with swinging fists and hair
pulling.  The caller did *not* lead effectively.  He did NOT apologize but
treated the incident as a distraction from his dance.  Luckily there were
many dancers nearby who took action.  Three of us actually restrained a man
who wanted to join the fray.  Others separated the combatants, and still
others moved in to stand between the belligerent parties.  The caller
failed to own the problem and, rather, simply tried to get the sets to
re-form so he could re-start the dance.  Some dancers motioned for the
caller to just shut up and everyone, correctly I think, ignored the
caller’s instructions so that the situation could be resolved to help put
folks at ease.

For a more positive example....

I also remember, more recently during a contra dance, when some of us
noticed some severe scratches in the newly-refinished floor.  A dancer had
broken off a heel on his dance shoe and continued dancing without
it—thinking that it would do no damage and unaware that there were still
nail tips sticking out where the heel had been.  It did damage the
floor—during the one dance in which he continued dancing—to the tune of
hundreds of dollars in floor repair and refinishing.  Luckily we had a
visiting caller who took ownership of the situation immediately when we
showed her the broken heel.

I remember the caller standing on stage and holding the broken heel up in
the air.  She did not try to blame any individual but insisted that we
locate the shoe that had lost that heel.  She cautioned the dancers that
this problem could make us lose access to the hall we were dancing in and
she refused to start the next walk-through until she had verified that the
dancer with the broken heel had left the hall to change shoes.  That caller
was Andrea Nettleton of Atlanta Georgia.  She is a very good caller.

She showed leadership as a caller.  It would have been easier to simply
assume that this was “not her responsibility.”  Taking responsibility makes
a difference.  It sets an example for everyone.  We need more of that from
callers, not less.

- Greg McKenzie

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