[Callers] Calling & Playing for Squares at a Contra

Erik Hoffman erik at erikhoffman.com
Wed Sep 11 14:31:47 PDT 2013

For many of us old geezers, when we started, a contra was a dance 
evening that included squares, contras, circle mixers, Sicilian circles, 
and other forms.  Triple minors were a regular feature. Now I play, 
call, and dance all.  And I teach about these subjects, too.

When I teach about playing for contras and squares I point out that 
their needs are different, but can overlap.  The tunes can be the same, 
the instrumentation, and even the general approach to playing them as a 
band.  Here some differences I point out:

Contra dances are repetitive, the caller can stop calling.  Then the 
band provides the variety.  Orchestrations, dramatic key changes, jig to 
reel, bombardes, singing.  And certain band excel at this style.  I 
think of it as getting on a rollercoaster building up, getting small, 
loud, soft, heavy on the off-beat, coming down hard on the on-beat.  
It's a lot of fun playing for contras.

In square dances -- even New England squares -- the caller provides more 
of the variety. Opening, break, figure, break, figure, break, closing.  
Or ad-libbing (hash), or including lots of patter, etc. This is why hot, 
great, southern old-time music works here -- and one can have fantastic 
times dancing to, calling to and playing for squares.  I call it getting 
on a the train and smoking.  Instead of orchestrating lots of variation, 
you get in a groove and go.  It smolders, it smokes, it's propulsive, 
and it's wonderful.  It's great to dance to good calling and a smokin' 
band.  And it's different than playing for contras.  And, it's a lot of 
fun playing for squares.

Then there's playing for singing squares.  Here the band turns into a 
backup band.  They are no longer responsible for the melody, the singer 
(caller) does that.  I enjoy doing this too.  But I have stopped calling 
a lot of these, because there are many like Dave, who don't enjoy this 
style of playing.  I remember doing a gig with Mark Simos (and we'd be 
mighty lucky if he played for dances more!); prior to the gig he 
actually asked if I did any singing squares.  I was taken aback -- it 
had been so long since I'd called a singing square, and never been 
approached by the band asking if I wanted to!  In San Luis Obispo, where 
I was the house caller with the house band -- the Growling Old Geezers 
(well a that time they were The Wagon Yard Wamblers...).  With them, I'd 
cut them loose and play guitar and sing the square solo.  That'd give 
the band a chance to dance.  Playing for singing squares is fun, too.

This is to say, playing for contras, squares, singing squares, they're 
just different.  All have their own demands.  Some of us like all of 
them, and are happy to support the callers and communities that also 
like them all.  When I call, I try to call to the strengths of the 
band.  Contras only if they don't like playing for squares.  Include 
squares if the band likes playing for them. Singing squares if the band 
is up for it.  As a dancer, caller, and musician, I like them all!

erik hoffman
~oakland, ca

On 9/11/2013 8:13 AM, rich sbardella wrote:
> Have you listened to Susan Kevra on her CD?  She is very musical and entertaining.  Her calls are intergrated into the call.  Beth Molaro?
> Rich Sbardella
> Stafford, CT
> ________________________________
>   From: Dave Casserly <david.j.casserly at gmail.com>
> To: Caller's discussion list <callers at sharedweight.net>
> Sent: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 1:05 PM
> Subject: Re: [Callers] Calling squares at contra.
> I agree with others who have mentioned that squares take longer to set up
> and walk through, but have less dancing time, which can lead to some
> frustration by dancers who came to dance and not to spend time setting up.
> I used to much prefer when a caller did two squares in a row, because of
> the reduced set-up time, and particularly if one of those squares is a
> mixer.  But I've come to see the point JoLaine and others have made that
> doing so shuts out people who want to sit out one dance and not both.  In
> the dance I'm involved with here in DC, it's at least a semi-official rule
> not to call two squares in a row (our booker informs callers not to do so).
> But my main reason for disliking squares has nothing to do with the dances
> themselves, or even the greater setup time.  It's that, as a musician, I
> come to contra dances to hear the band play exciting, live music more than
> I do to hear the caller's voice.  With contra dances, this means that when
> I'm dancing or playing, I want the caller to drop out as soon as possible,
> and not to come back in and call the last time through, even if it's just
> to end the dance with a partner swing.  The end of the dance, with no
> intervening voice, is the time when the band can really shine the most.
> With squares, it's a totally different situation.  The caller's calling
> the entire time through, and the dance is as much about the calls as it is
> about the music.  As both a musician and a dancer, I find this pretty
> unsatisfying.  If I don't like the band much, or if it's a band that plays
> monotonous music, then I'd just as soon dance a square as a contra.  But if
> it's a smoking hot New England dance band, I just don't want to hear the
> caller's voice that much.  I want the music to have a chance to shine.  If
> Crowfoot's on the stage, even when somebody who calls great squares
> efficiently, like Lisa Greenleaf, announces to line up for a square, it's
> pretty disappointing, and has nothing to do with how much I like that
> particular square or caller.
> -Dave
> ______
>>    From: JoLaine Jones-Pokorney <jolaine at gmail.com>
>> To: callers-request at sharedweight.net; callers at sharedweight.net
>> Sent: Monday, September 9, 2013 8:47 AM
>> Subject: [Callers] Calling squares at contra.
>> Speaking as a dancer here and not a caller, I enjoy a square now and then
>> but I really don't like it when the caller calls two squares back to back.
>> If I sat out the first one, that generally means I have to sit out the next
>> one too. The last time that happened in our community, one of the dancers
>> complained that he had driven two hours to get there and had only gotten
>> two dances in the second half because the caller had called two squares
>> back to back and took a really long time to teach both of them. In my
>> experience, the main reason contra dancers don't like squares is that it
>> takes a long time to get set up, there is a chance you will get left out if
>> you're slow to find a partner and then can't get enough other people to
>> make a square, and that it often takes more teaching time. I don't think it
>> has anything at all to do with the dance itself.
>> So my advice is to call one square in the first half and one square in the
>> second half and find something that can be taught quickly and is
>> interesting and fun. I will happily dance those squares!
>> JoLaine
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