[Callers] Calling for Absolute Beginners?

Jeff Kaufman jeff at alum.swarthmore.edu
Tue Sep 4 10:23:32 PDT 2012

Maia McCormick wrote:
> The first: I'm curious how you all put together programs when calling for a
> group of complete beginners. What's generally the progression of moves that
> you teach? Do you think dances with the most basic of moves (say, a dance
> that's all circles, stars, and long lines, not even a partner swing) are
> helpful in getting people oriented to dancing, or are trivial and boring
> and will make people think contra is dumb?

For some crowds doing "contra dance", as opposed to just fun
contra-like group dancing, is important.  Does this apply to yours?
If not, then dances like:

  Virginia Reel variant
  A1 (8) Long lines
     (8) P dosido
  A2 (8) P aleman R
     (8) P aleman L
  A3 (16) Top couple sashay down and back
  B  (32+) Whole set peel the bananna, top couple makes an arch at the
           bottom, everyone else goes through.

where there aren't hands fours and gender doesn't matter go over
well.  If you're looking through the archives you might look for
suggestions for dances to do at weddings, which are another
environment where most people haven't danced before.

If you have some dancers who want "contra dance" and this is important
enough to the group, you can do that too.  (When I was a student at
Swarthmore I would have ignored the advice to do whole-set dances and
scatter mixers because people really did want "contra".)  The way to
do this is to find dances where the experienced dancers can get to
have fun swinging, but new people won't get lost, and everyone still
has fun.  For example:

  Midwest Folklore:

  A1  Circle L 3/4; N dosido
  A2  N Balance and Swing
  B1  Circle L 3/4; P dosido
  B2  P Balance and Swing
      (slide left to progress)

This is about the simplest dance you can have which you could call
both for a night at the Scout House and for a group of beginners.
Though it wouldn't be my first dance of the evening with beginners.

Another dance I'll call is La Bastringue, contra-style:

  Circle Mixer
  A1  Into the middle (x2)
  A2  Circle L; Circle R
  B1  New partner balance and swing
  B2  Promenade

This one is simple enough that even with total beginner groups I can
throw away the teaching and just call it no-walkthrough as long as the
crowd is small enough that I can lead and call from the floor setting
an example.  Otherwise I'll do a quick walkthrough.  While it's nice
if the band knows the music, it's fine if they don't.

What's key in both of these dances is that they have:
 * loads of catch-up time
 * simple progressions
 * few moves
 * not many things to remember (low piece count)

One to build a little by adding "ladies chain":
  Broken Sixpence
  A1  N Dosido; Ladies Dosido
  A2  Gents Dosido; 1s Swing.
  B1  Down the hall, turn *alone* come on back.
  B2  Ladies chain over and back.

If you go this route, look for other dances like that, and have
whole-set dances prepared to fall back on if people are struggling and
it turns out the contras you prepared are too hard.

> The second, which ties into the first: how do you teach good contra
> etiquette--*especially* how to swing properly--when you don't have
> experienced people in the crowd to show the way? At my dances at
> school, most of the swings are tensionless and/or an awkward
> sideways gallop; very few of us go to outside dances, so the overall
> experience level seems to be capped. Have you found an effective way
> to *teach* proper swinging, besides throwing a beginner into a crowd
> of experienced dances so that they eventually absorb it by osmosis?
> How can I get swings at my college dance up to snuff?

You can teach it, and some people will get it, but extended teaching
kind of kills the party atmosphere.  I just let people do what they
want, often elbow swings, and don't worry about it.

But if you want to teach it, the best way I've seen is:

 1) Scooting: Move the whole group in a big single file circle left,
    as if the right foot is on a skateboard and the left foot is
    pushing.  Get them putting their right foot down on the downbeat
    all as a group.

 2) In pairs, have them hold two hands with their partner, and do that
    scooting thing.  Then have them move in to ballroom hold, and they
    should be doing a buzz-step swing.


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