[Callers] Calling for Absolute Beginners?

Alan Winston winston at slac.stanford.edu
Wed Sep 5 17:26:49 PDT 2012

Maia --

I read you as saying that you're running a contra dance series for 
students at your school, students who don't go to outside dances. So 
you've got a hall full of beginners and many of them keep coming back 
(and other people show up], but they don't go to outside dances so they 
don't learn anything you don't teach them.

What you're asking is how to hook them immediately and also how to build 
their dance skills.  They're in an environment where they can just turn 
around and go back to the dorm if it isn't interesting.  You're worried 
turning them off of contra for the rest of their lives if you give them 
stuff they think is trivial and dumb, but if it's too hard they'll bail 
as well.  You don't think they have patience for a lesson.

Is that right?

First thing:  Whatever you're doing and however you do it, there are 
people who won't like it and will bail.  It's not personal, and it's not 
a failure.  You're giving people the chance to find out if they find 
something is fun, different people like different things, and a lot of 
the people who try it at all (especially under low-commitment conditions 
like just checking it out because it's on campus and they're free, 
rather than having to get into car or take a bus.  It's like sticking 
your nose into a store when you're at the mall already; if it doesn't do 
anything for you, you just go on to the next one.

There's a guy who keeps trying - with some success - to spread contra 
dancing to youth groups at Stanford.  As I understand it, he uses 
recorded music (not at all restricted to "contra dance" music), does 
pretty much simple figures, is effectively gender-free without armbands 
(that is, doesn't police crossing over in improper dances), and 
deliberately doesn't run the dances very many times through, which means 
that there are more opportunities to jump aboard - people don't come in 
the door, see a dance going on and on, and turn around and walk out.   
People aren't stuck with incompetent or skeevy partners for very long. 
The recorded music means that it's not all alien sounding to 
contemporary people who come through the door.

That said, if it were me, I'd run a series that was more like a barn 
dance than a contemporary contra.  The 
all-longways-duple-improper-driving-music-trancey-dancing seems to me to 
only successfully bring newcomers on-board because it's a going concern, 
that is, because most of the people in the hall know what they're doing and
can help the newcomers get where they need to be until they learn by 
osmosis (or never really learn, which does happen).   I would pick up a 
bunch of dances in different formations, with swings - probably mostly 
from the English ceilidh tradition because there are a bunch of them 
there and they're quick teaches  - drop the ones that require ranting or 
step-hops - always have something I can do no matter how many people are 
in the hall, play high-energy cheerful music (contra-dance band tracks 
more than ceilidh band tracks, with exceptions for the 
not-so-thuddy-and-slow ceilidh bands like the Committee Band or Peeping 
Tom), try to make sure that something was going on
pretty constantly (because people will look in the door while you're 
having a two minute rest and decide it's dull),
keep playing recorded music during the breaks, and anything else you can 
think of.

Call only dances you believe in.  The biggest determining factor in 
whether non-dancers think your dances are dumb is what you think about 
them and how you present them.  (That's not what you tell them in words, 
but what your body language, tone of voice, etc, put forth.  If you 
model digging it, they're way likelier to dig it - if they can be 
reached at all.)  I personally believe fully in a bunch of pretty dumb 
dances - Galopede, Cumberland Square, Circassian Circle mixer, Circle 
Waltz mixer, La Bastringue.  I even believe in Grand Marches (which are 
just follow the leader, really). There's nothing wrong with dumb dances, 
especially ones where you can fly all around.  I don't personally 
believe in Le Brandy,  despite having enjoyed dancing it, so I don't 
call that, and I suspect the butt-bumping looks pretty dorky to people 
who aren't doing it.

If you want, you can do that, and also try to build somewhat in 
complexity over the course of the evening or the course of the 
semester.  First-timers often drop away at the mid-dance break; if you 
assess that the people left
understand phrasing, etc, move to longways contra then.  Do a 
mini-workshop after you've earned their attention by giving them fun 
stuff to do and a sense of success.

[And that's me, and I don't swear it'll work for you.]

(I think there've been good suggestions about teaching the swing. I 
sometimes do beginner workshops  by getting people walking around the 
room to show that it's smooth walking, not skipping, then start 
allemanding everybody in sight and insisting on getting good weight on 
the allemande.  People who've had the feeling from allemanding can then 
work with others who haven't had it yet, and pretty soon most of the 
room can do a satisfying allemande.  Once they have the satisfying 
shared weight feeling, it's easier to point them into how to do a 
walking or buzz step swing then if they start without having had the 

Here's an article from people who've run on-campus dance series as 
non-students.  This isn't 100% relevant to your
circumstances - there's a lot about relating to students when you're not 
one, dealing with management as outsiders, etc - but maybe something 
will be helpful.


And here's the country dance and song society starter kit for college 

I see that the programming page has this quote, which it looks like 
you're already on top of:

  * Be aware of the needs and insecurities of your audience. Plan styles
    and figures that are likely to seem cool and allow your audience to
    get over their initial hang-ups about dancing.

    /"At Brown, students were often embarrassed to do dances that had
    "dorky" figures, whereas they took to easy smoothly-flowing dances
    nicely. College students can be very self-conscious, and this can be
    a barrier to them dancing in the first place. At Brown dances,
    students who had never danced before would regularly cluster outside
    the door, peeking in to decide if they wanted to join. They would
    pay their money and walk through the door most often when what was
    going on inside looked 'cool' to the average college
    observer."*-*/*Julia Nickles, Brown alum*

I hope this is the kind of answer that you're looking for and is maybe 
even of some help.

-- Alan

On 9/4/2012 8:45 AM, Maia McCormick wrote:
> Hey folks,
> My name is Maia, and I'm new to this listserv, though I've been lurking
> around for a few weeks. I call college dances at my school in Western Mass,
> and every now and then I do an area dance. I've got two questions for your
> collective wisdom.
> 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? (People "thinking contra is
> dumb" is actually a bit more of a concern for me calling college dances,
> where most of the folks to turn out aren't necessarily of the 'contra
> mindset' and so it's important to hold their interest and make them think
> that what they're doing is exciting and worth their time--they're not
> necessarily going to stick with it for the evening, or even for more than
> one dance, if they're not immediately into it.)
> 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?
> Cheers,
> Maia
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