[Callers] Programming a Dance

Alan Winston winston at slac.stanford.edu
Wed Mar 14 19:36:21 PDT 2018

My approach varies considerably depending on what kind of dance it is, and it also depends on my attitude about it and the musicians attitude about it.  I work with a lot of different musicians in my different dance worlds (English, contra, Civil War, Regency, Early American, Victorian, occasional barn dances and family dances).

In contra land, some bands want the program a few days ahead so they can match tunes or even rehearse the specific tunes they’ve chosen.  So for those bands, I program ahead, and that’s much easier if it’s in a venue I’m used to and know what to expect.  If I don’t know pretty well how it’s going to go and the band wants a program, I either spend 2-4 hours making up a coherent program with alternates, etc, or give them a program that’s already worked for me in another venue with different dancers.  If the band doesn’t want it in advance, I’m very likely to pick on the fly based on my reading of the room.  I use a little code to make a very abbreviated representation of the dance and put that in an index and eyeball that to make sure I’m not picking something with the same transitions as the last thing and only introduces as many new figures as I want to introduce for this crowd at this moment.  I may be a victim of Dunning-Kruger but I think I’m pretty good at prompting on time without doing extensive rehearsal.  

For Regency balls - well, we usually have a specific historic or literary theme, and I may spend a few hours cruising through historic dance manuals looking for dances that seem to fit the theme, trying out those dances at our regular dance parties, getting the bandleader’s opinion on those tunes (in this period, many of them kinda suck) before locking down a program, so a ball program could be 16 hours of prep.  On the other hand, for the second-Friday Regency dance parties, where attendance is unpredictable, I just pick on the fly; my band is willing to sight read.

For English Country Dancing it’s usually on me to organize a program that suits the particular band’s talents - don’t ask most bands for “Vivaldi in Paradise!” - provides significant variety in mood, meter, tempo, key. - as well as having an agreeable progression of figures and climax in difficulty around half way through, that will give a newcomer a chance to succeed and not to bore experienced dancers, and that also doesn’t repeat too many of the dances done recently at that venue. So that’s usually about a two-hour effort.  Sometimes I can pull out an old program and change a few dances on it, which is less painful.

For family dances, I need to know whether the band knows “Sasha!” But otherwise I’m calling from the floor, reading the room, and picking stuff on the fly.  For Civil War dances, if I’m working from my iPad it’s the same thing and I pick tunes.  If I’m working with a brass band, which I’ve done several times, I get their repertoire first, set dances to the things they have arranged and can play (that took three or four hours the first time) and then pull stuff out in the moment.  (My Civil War gigs are all for reenactors after hours and rather informal.  If they were taking place in East Coast ballrooms with Spare Parts playing, I would certainly study their repertoire and organize a program to take advantage of it, and I’d expect that to be about four hours of effort.)

Sent from my iPad

> On Mar 13, 2018, at 10:58 AM, Rich Sbardella via Callers <callers at lists.sharedweight.net> wrote:
> I am curious how much time you all plan programming a dance before arriving at a venue.  If you do not preprogram, what is your approach for on the fly programming?
> Rich Sbardella
> Stafford, CT
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