[Callers] Calling weddings and private parties

Alan Winston winston at slac.stanford.edu
Mon Feb 10 14:14:24 PST 2014

People have said a lot of what I was going to say, but I'm gonna say it 
anyway.  I've called a fair amount for weddings, private parties, and 
public non-dancing groups of various sizes.

1) It's not your dance, it's their party.  You facilitate people having 
fun.  That's it.   They're not beginners, you're not promoting the local 
contra, etc.  You're not obliged to do anything recognizable as a 
contra.  If everything runs over and your hour of dancing is 15 minutes, 
that's cool.  Make sure the 15 minutes is fun.  You get paid regardless.

2) If you have a band that's good at it, you can have them add a B if 
the dancers are behind.  Or if they fall consistently behind and get out 
of sync with the tune repeat, IT DOESN'T MATTER.  Most of them will have 
no idea there's  a problem unless you make it a problem!

3) Get them moving first without having to be taught and you earn some 
credibility so you can teach something.

I've had good luck in situations with a lot of little kids in just 
having everybody take hands in a line.  Snake around a bunch and visit 
the corners of the room, then curl the line around into a circle.  Take 
the hand of the last person in line and call out "Circle Left" (they're 
already doing it and they don't stop, "and back to the right" with body 
language that makes it clear it's gonna happen.  "Into the center! (and 
go in forcefully, and out forcefully) "and do it again!"  You can cause 
this to be phrased if you call clearly and on time.  Then the A1 comes 
around and you let go of the person in your left hand and peel out over 
your left shoulder and you're back to a snake.  You can do all the snake 
stuff - wind up the ball of twine, zig-zag back and forth - and take 16 
bars or 48 bars or as long as you need to; just get yourself back to the 
circle at the top of any phrase.  This is pretty great for getting 
non-dancers (and sometimes non-English speakers, and kids who can't let 
go of their parents, etc) moving expeditiously, and once they're moving 
most of them will
feel like it's fun.)

(Erik Hoffman is a master of getting them moving; I've seen him walk out 
on the floor and just good-naturedly start allemanding with some random 
person, somehow pulling focus without saying a word.)

Anyway, the Community Dances Manuals have a bunch of fine 
one-night-stand dances, and come with sheet music.  (There's also 
recordings of all the music in the CDM.)

Some dances I like, from various sources:

     - Do a Grand March or  a spiral or start paired up and then join 
hands in a big line and snake around.
     - Haste to the Wedding as  a Sicilian.
     - Cumberland Square
     - Up the Sides and Down the MIddle (4, 5, or 6 couple longways.)
     - Roger de Coverly / Virginia Reel
    - Three Meet (Threesome Sicilian - forward and back, promenade in 
threes to change places and face back in, repeat to home.  I like to do 
opposites do-si-do, opposites two hand turn for B1, then forward and 
back, forward and pass through, greet next neighbors, but you can make 
up other stuff.)
     - Rustic Reel (16-bar threesome Sicilian)
    -  If it's a particularly attentive crowd and I have a band that can 
handle it, My Lord Byron's Maggot is goofy fun.  (Yes, a duple minor.)
    - La Bastringue as a circle mixer is cool.
    - Progressive Gay Gordons (All-American Promenade).
   -  Circle Waltz (I have a gender-free version with a two-hand turn 
instead of the waltz at the end and divide people in travelers and stayers.)
   -  I made a version of the Scottish Flowers of Edinburgh for three 
couple sets with no poussette, and that's fun.
   - Gothic Dance (Civil War era) is fun for a lively crowd.
   - Blobs
   - Orcadian Strip the Willow (huge long set, top couple starts a 
double strip, new top couple starts at the top of A1 and B1; terrific 
swirling mass of chaos, and everybody interacts with everybody else in 
the course of it.)
   - Galopede

I don't like to do "Lucky Seven" in these circumstances because it tends 
to fall apart.  Dances failing hilariously can be goofy fun but some 
people will feel like they've failed and you don't want that to happen.

It kind of depends how many people you have, what you judge they can 
handle, how vigorous they are, etc.  Memorize 20 dances and you're 
probably cool.

4) I was at the same workshop Les was with Susan Michaels, and Susan 
gave her formula for making up one-night-stand dances (typically whole 
set longways.)

      1) Have a part everyone does with their partner.  (right-hand 
turn, left-hand turn, dosido and two-hand turn, pattycake, whatever.)

      2) Have a show-off part where the top couple solos.  (They 
pattycake, they truck down the middle and back, they carry an arch over 
the men's line and over the women's line, whatever.)

      3) Have a progression - tops down the middle and back and cast to 
the bottom, everybody moving up, or tops cast to the bottom with their 
lines following them and make an arch at the bottom and everybody goes 
under it, or tops strip the willow to the bottom or tops lace the boot 
or tops swing down the middle or tops galop/sashay down the middle.

It was a revelation to me when she pointed that out.  I was able to see 
how most published whole set dances fit this pattern.  (Virginia Reel 
kinda has two progressions in it, etc.)  And since then I've used that 
template on the fly to make up dances for the number of people I had in 
front of me.

5) I have The Talk with the people booking me (for weddings, 
especially).  I tell them that if they want the dance part to be 
successful they have to be involved; if they think the wedding party can 
go off for pictures for two hours while the guests dance that probably 
won't fly.  We typically set expected start times and hard end times 
(which I'm willing to overstay if the band is cool, etc, but they 
shouldn't expect that just because the food was late and the toasts ran 
over that our 10:00 pm end time can be an 11:00 pm end time, or whatever 
it is.  We're available for the agreed upon time.)

Note: If the bride and groom are in the contra dance community and they 
tell you most of the guests will be contra dancers, great; you can maybe 
call contra dances.  But it's likely to turn out that there's a bunch of 
not-previously-dancing family, and you can't get them to split up and 
dance with the experienced dancers, so you still need to have stuff in 
your bag.  (A few mixers are good.)

6) At a regular dance you're lucky if everybody hears 50% of what you 
say over the microphone (because they were talking, or sneezed at the 
wrong moment, or didn't start listening at the beginning, or there was 
an echo, or you didn't articulate correctly.)  At this you'll be lucky 
if everyone hears 30%.  Don't fuss.  Choose your words carefully, keep 
it few, repeat as necessary, use body language, demo, don't tell them 
what NOT to do.

7) As my Regency bandleader James Langdell said once: "Same figures, 
different tune - different dance!"  It's true.  You can also repeat the 
identical dance (and sometimes you will get requests to repeat something 
that somebody particularly liked) but you can also repeat the figures, 
use a tune in a different meter (reels instead of jigs) and people are 
likely to get it right away without understanding why.

8) You have to be happy to be there, calling or not calling, leading the 
dorkiest, least challenging things, enjoying figuring out the thing that 
will work for the 17 people who got up to dance, and if you can't be 
delighted to be there in a situation that's just the opposite of calling 
dances for an experienced crowd, don't take the gig.

-- Alan

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