In Otter Creek Books, in Middlebury VT, the other day I picked up a little book called
“Prompting: How to do it”, by John M. Schell, “One of Boston’s leading prompters”. It
“Contains the figures of all modern dances in common use, and how to call them”. It was
published by Carl Fisher Inc (whom I think of as a music publisher) in 1890.
It contains instructions for numerous multi-part quadrilles (Plain, Lancers, Caledonian,
Double Lancers, Saratoga Lancers, etc), and a couple of individual square dances. It also
has about 120 contra dances, all in proper formation and almost all described as duple
(many seem as though they could just as well be done improper). The instructions say they
are for six-couple sets. Every contra is to be followed by “All forward (4); turn
partners (4); all promenade around the hall.” (I interpret this as forward and back,
swing partner, promenade.). The ones that have familiar names (Petronella, Money Musk,
Hull’s Victory, Vinton’s Hornpipe etc) have a family resemblance to the dances that were
codified by Ralph Page and others or appear e.g. in Zesty Contras, but often aren't
quite the same.
This book was apparently one of Ralph Page’s main sources, and he felt free to update them
some as he adapted them. in 1995, in connection with the 8th Ralph Page Legacy weekend at
UNH, Tony Parkes wrote: "In preparing for this session, I reread Ralph's account
of his early years as a caller ("One More Couple: Some Memories of 30 Years of
Calling." Northern Junket, vol. 6 no. 12 and vol. 7 no. 1. February and May 1960) and
discovered that Ralph learned to call with the aid of two different books: Prompting: How
To Do It by John M. Schell (1890) and The Prompter’s Handbook, edited by J.A. French
Here is some of the advice from the first few pages of the book. It looks like the task
and role of the prompter/caller have not changed very much in 129 years:
Be a gentleman always; many questions will be asked and many minds to please. Answer each
in a pleasant manner in every instance.
Should any complain of the tempo adapted by the orchestra…. inform such that you are
playing according to the instructions of the floor manager, to whom you pleasantly refer
them, adding that you will willingly change it is his wish…..In the case of a new party,
or no instructions regarding tempo, watch the effect of the music, and change it if it
seems too fast or too slow.
Grand Right and Left: It is well to make this call “Right hand to partner, grand right
Ladies’ Chain (8 bars): Danced by opposite couples at same time. Opposite ladies cross,
give right hand in passing, join left hand with opposite gent, and turn half around.
(Before the invention of the courtesy turn — perhaps as a flourish, as suggested recently
on this list-serv).
The Voice: Do not strain the voice under any circumstances; the effect is injurious, and
will soon render it useless. A few lessons in elocution, for the purpose of learning to
throw out the voice, as in singing, will prove money well invested.
Commit to memory one set of figures of a quadrille, for example, and call aloud and with
the music until perfectly learned and the calls exactly in time; then take up the next.
The first attempts are nervous times at best, so that all calls should be perfectly
committed in the order they are to come, leaving nothing to memorandums or books before
entering the hall. Practice with the music until the calls are thoroughly mastered on
time, and distinct. (This reminds me of a square calling workshop I attended at Augusta in
1990 taught by Larry Edelman, in which we were forbidden to have dance cards in our hands
while calling — though we could use them in teaching.)
Figures requiring two calls, such as right and left etc, give the first call on the eighth
bar (i.e. counts 15 and 16), the last on the fourth (i.e. counts 7 and 8). Invariably
finish calling before the strain begins, otherwise the dancers will be behind, which
detracts from their pleasure and the general effect.