BackCallers' Workshop

This is the first page of Callers' Notes, containing the Basic notes.  If you are printing this out, you may also want to print out the Specialised subjects on the second page.  There is also a [Print] button at the start of each section of notes, so you can print out just the sections you're interested in.

Over the years I have written and updated the notes I use when running Callers' Workshops.  Please bear in mind that these are not intended as a printed training manual; they were written to be spoken out loud.  You will also find some repetition here, which is no bad thing; people don't usually take something in the first few times they hear it.

Let me also make it clear that other people may disagree with some of the points I make, and I'm certainly not saying that I'm right and they're wrong — calling isn't like that.  Also these notes were written for calling events in England; if you call in another country you may well see things differently.  I just thought that since I'd done all the work I might as well make it available to the world.  Of course, that doesn't mean you no longer need to book me to run Callers' Workshops!

It's up to the group sponsoring the event to decide how much they want.  A single-session workshop will basically just involve talking and maybe a short demonstration.  A longer workshop will involve some dancing, with a chance for anyone to call.  My preference is for two sessions, maybe on two consecutive Sunday afternoons.  That means I can talk and discuss things on the first session, to give the participants something to go away and think about and practise.  In the second session I give people the chance to calling a dance, with the option of on-the-spot feedback.  No-one is forced to call, and it's up to you whether you want comments on your performance or just want a chance to call a dance to reasonable dancers in a friendly atmosphere.  I'll be giving my own ideas; if you disagree, or have questions, please break in and make your own points at any time.

What I'm giving you here is my basic set of notes, followed by sections on more specialised subjects — most of which were requested by participants.  What you don't get, of course, is my feedback on your calling — you need me in person for that!

I have also run Caller's Workshops which incorporated advice for Club leaders/organisers as well as callers, so you'll find the notes for that near the end of the second page of notes.

Basic notesSpecialised subjects
The Caller's JobThe Caller's Attitude
Evaluating / Learning DancesTeaching Dance Technique
Fitting it to the MusicDance Style
Planning a ProgrammeEncouraging new people
Setting upKeeping the existing dancers happy
NervousnessDoing a more varied evening
Starting the evening offCalling American Squares and Contras
Using a microphoneCalling more challenging dances
Getting the sets formedWorking with a ceilidh band
The WalkthroughMaking people want to dance to you
Starting the evening offRunning a Day of Dance
Working with recorded musicRunning a Technique Session
Working with live musicCalling at a Festival
Controlling the dancersGetting beginners away from the far end and shutting them up
Contracts and QuestionsWhat should the music do?
ConclusionBalancing a band
Using a Band to advantage
Changing the mood
What makes a good dance?
Finding material
Teaching undergraduates dance technique and the pleasure of slower dances
Cutting down on the talk
Working with not-so-good live music
Observing other callers
Effective walk-throughs
Calling Squares and Contras without a walkthrough
Calling without warning
Interpreting dance instructions
Club Leaders' Workshops
Club Organisation
Booking callers and musicians
Club callers and outside callers
Starting and finishing the evening
Building a Dance Community
Dances for beginners
Publishing a Programme
Dances for club callers
Getting more members and getting younger members

The Caller's Job   Print this section

First and foremost, the caller needs to give the crowd a good evening.  The definition of “a good evening” depends on the crowd.  At a Barn Dance, where most of them have never done it before, the emphasis is on lively dances which don't take too long to explain — but also interaction with the punters, encouraging them, joking with them, looking as if you're enjoying yourself.  At a Club you'll be calling a different sort of dances, and people may want to learn some technique too, may want a challenge — but they are still basically there to enjoy themselves.  Many callers don't seem to realise this.  I started calling in 1978 with the band Kafoozalum led by Peter Jenkins, and learnt a great deal from him.  Peter told me when I started calling at Clubs: “Treat them all as a Barn Dance crowd”.  I said: “But they're not a Barn Dance crowd — they're experienced dancers”.  And he said: “But they're still here to have a good time”.  He convinced me of this, and I hope I never forget it.  Some callers do good interesting dances, explain them well — but they're dead!  I sometimes wonder why they do it.  If you've got the crowd with you, you can pitch things at the wrong level, make mistakes, and still get away with it.  Never forget: You are an entertainer.

The caller's job starts well before the evening: learning the dances; planning a programme; choosing the music.  On the night you have three main jobs: getting the dancers on the floor in sets; walking the dances through; calling the dances.  Plus the general thing of being in charge of the evening — running the raffle; announcing last orders at the bar; introducing display spots; controlling display spots (tricky, that); arranging to sing “Happy Birthday” for someone, and so on.  And maybe balancing the band at the start or throughout the evening.

Evaluating and Learning Dances   Print this section

You really must understand a dance thoroughly before you call it.  I don't demand (as some callers would) that you have your entire repertoire memorised — I couldn't possibly do that — but I do know how they all work and how they fit to the music.  It may seem obvious that you should understand something before you teach it, but many club callers don't.  “Ones lead down the middle, turn and come back”.  “Is that turn individually, or as a couple?”  They don't know.  “Ladies chain”.  “And back?”  “Er — um — let's see how it works out”.  That's not good enough — whether you're being paid or not.  You need to understand the pattern; you can't just pick up a CDM or a Country Dance Book and expect to call from it.  It helps if you've danced it, and some callers say they will never call a dance they haven't already danced — this theory breaks down when you write your own dances, of course.  Even if you have danced it, if there's a lot of changing positions, go through it with bits of cardboard — don't rush this step.  The first time I called Dunham Oaks, at the end of the walkthrough I said: “And you've progressed one place”.  “No we haven't”, they all said.  And I had danced it before.

The best way to learn this is to record other callers and bands — with their permission of course.

Sometimes the instructions you have found — in a book, on the web, on another caller's card — are ambiguous or unclear.  It's certainly good to realise this before you attempt to call it.  For instance, the book may say “First couple turn”.  It's a fair bet that the turn is all the way, if it doesn't say otherwise, but is it a right-, left- or two-hand turn?  Well, it won't be a left unless it says so, and it will probably be a two-hand turn; that's the default in English, just as the default in Scottish is a right-hand turn.  Similarly the book says “Four changes of a circular hey” — is that with or without hands?  In the States they sometimes use the convention that “circular hey” means without hands and “Rights and lefts” means with hands, but that's a modern invention: “Rights and lefts” is not part of Sharp's terminology.  By all means ask other people whether they have better knowledge than you.  But ultimately the decision is yours.  I remember running a Callers' Workshop where someone was calling a dance which finished with three changes, and didn't know whether it was with or without hands.  This led to a general discussion, which I broke up by pointing out that this is a case where if the caller is positive one way or the other everyone will do it that way.  It doesn't matter that much, and it's certainly not worth starting a discussion about it!  If someone argues, just say firmly “That's the way I do it — other people may call it differently”.

I always write my dances on cards so that I can understand them.  I could take virtually any dance out of the case and call it cold — that takes practice, but it's made possible by the fact that I think long and hard about how to phrase things on the card.  I've now put them all on my computer and printed out beautiful cards on my laser printer — and I've taken the opportunity to improve the wording in many cases based on my further experience since I wrote them out originally.

My own books (and now the dances I'm publishing on my website) are written in the same language as my cards, but there's a lot more information given — things that I need to put there to make sure other people understand what I meant, but things I don't need to put on the card because I know it will work.  And I'm sure many callers will read my book, understand the dance, then write it out quite differently because the way I've phrased it doesn't suit their calling style.  I've looked at other callers' cards and been amazed that they can call the dance at all — they're illegible, abbreviated to the point of obscurity, with no mention of how the dance fits the music.

Fitting it to the Music   Print this section

It's not enough to understand the movements; you've got to know the lengths of the different elements of the dance, and relate this to the music.  You don't need to be a musician for this — you just need to know about beats and bars.  It isn't difficult, so don't switch off at this point!

Musicians think in terms of bars.  A bar is like a word in a sentence.  A tune is a number of sentences, or lines.  90% of all English and American dances are done to a 32-bar jig or reel.  Ignore the difference between the two for the moment.  You have 32 bars, split into 4 lines of 8 bars each.  Usually there are only two different lines — the A-music and the B-music — each played twice through, so you get A1, A2, B1, B2.  For instance, Newcastle.  32 bars is once through the tune.  A Playford dance often has three figures, which means three times through the tune.  A progressive dance for a set number of couples (Devon Bonny Breast Knot, Lord Carnarvon's Jig, The Short and the Tall) goes once through the tune for each couple.  For a longways, Sicilian Circle or Circle mixer, each turn of the dance is 32 bars.

  Example: Indian Queen, recorded on PLA4

If you're not used to thinking about music, you may confuse bars with beats or steps.  If you clap your hands or walk to a tune such as Newcastle, you'll soon realise that there are two beats to the bar.  The same is true of Nellie the Elephant, so jigs and reels work the same — and we'll ignore waltzes, hornpipes and slip-jigs for the moment.

So each line of music is 8 bars, and it's normally split in half.

A standard figure is 4 bars, and is paired with another to fit a line of music.

A right-hand turn is paired with a left-hand turn.  The same with stars.  Circle left — circle right.  Ladies chain across — and back.  Right and left through — and back.

  Think through Devil's Dream or Indian Queen, and see how the figures fit the music.

You must know the timing.  A dance isn't just an unrelated series of figures; it has its own internal logic.  Is the ladies chain over and back in Devil's Dream?  Yes — the chain back is the second half of B1.  Is the right and left through over and back?  No — it's paired with the half promenade and together they make up B2.

So to choose the music you must know the length required, but also you need the right kind of music.  Playford dances and many traditional dances (such as Morpeth Rant) have their own tune.  Some bands play the one tune throughout; others start with the original tune, go on to one or more other tunes, and usually get back to the original tune for at least the last time through.  When there's no standard tune for a dance, you or the band will have to choose one.  If you're using recorded music, try out various tracks and dance to them on your own.  Not all 32-bar reels are the same: they may have a different speed or a different “feel”.  Some callers use Scottish recordings for English or American dances — and I don't agree with this.  If it starts with a chord, it has a very regular precise rhythm, it changes tunes every 32 bars, it's accordion-led and has drums, it's almost certainly a Scottish band.  They tend to be slightly slower than English recordings: dance speed is slower than walk speed.  Callers feel safe with these recordings — they have very definite 4- and 8-bar phrases, a different tune each time (often in a different key) — callers know where they are.  But to me it's the wrong sound for the dance they're using it for.  American-style music is often fiddle-led, and is much more flexible.  Use this for squares and contras.  English music is not so easily defined.  By changing the music, or the speed, you can change the whole character of the dance.  I once danced Pat Shaw's “Waters of Holland” twice during a Day of Dance, at very different speeds — and it was like two different dances.  I didn't feel that one was right and the other was wrong, but it certainly affected the way people experienced the dance.

Jig or reel?   A reel is flatter, and better for walking.  A jig is bouncier, and better for dancing — think of the phrase “jigging around”.  (If you still can't tell which is which, just remember that “JIG” has three letters and “REEL” has four — but don't try to generalise this rule!)  If you want to persuade your crowd not to plod through everything, try some jigs.  English callers normally use reels for American Squares, though traditional American callers will happily use jigs.  There's also a distinction between single jigs (“Off she goes”) and double jigs (“Irish Washerwoman”) — single jigs are better for gallopping.

A little more knowledge: Remember that both of these have two beats to the bar.  A slip-jig has three beats to the bar, and the music just flows on and on; you need to know where the bar-lines are.  A hornpipe with its familiar dotted rhythm has four beats to the bar, so make quite sure you know how much music you need.  It still follows the rule for reels and jigs that there are two steps to the bar, but a “step” is a step-hop or a one-two-three-hop.  You may panic when calling a hornpipe dance such as Clopton Bridge because you can't believe the musical phrases are as long as they are, and you could end up doing the entire dance at double speed!  Occasionally reels are written out with four beats to the bar rather than two — for instance “Delia” (Hunter's Moon) — and this may cause confusion, especially if the band try to play it double speed.

Planning a Programme   Print this section

I like a good mixture: some easier, some harder; some well-known, some unknown; some Playford-type, some American, some traditional, and using various formations.

I do a harder programme than many callers and not so many well-known dances — that's my approach, and I'm certainly not saying you should do the same.  I keep a list for each place I call, and write down what I did, so that I don't end up with the same programme the next time I call there.  You can put other information there — how to get to the hall, the fact that they do mainly Playford and you had trouble with the American Squares, or they're elderly and don't want anything too violent, or they always have lots of new people, or even “Don't call there again”!

When I'm preparing my programme I go through my dance index and pull out about twice as many cards as I think I'll need.  That takes a long time — I've got a lot of dances in my case.  Then I put them into some sort of order.  Start with something not too difficult, just to get the feet and brains moving.  A longways is a good idea — people can join on the end as they arrive.  If you're using live music, it also gives the band or musician a chance to settle down — don't throw an awkward tune at them in the first two dances.  Keep it varied — don't do two very slow dances together, or two very fast.  Include some mixers — people come for the social aspect as well as the dancing.  Finish the first half with something lively — they've got the interval to recover in.  Finish the evening with something not too difficult — you don't want them going home remembering that they couldn't do the last dance.

Put the others at the end of the pile as extras.  Now put the programme away — come back to it tomorrow and have another look.  Is it really well-balanced?  Are there a couple of similar dances close together?  Are there two difficult dances next to each other?

In fact I now have a computer program called Dance Organiser which replaces the lists and cards and does much more — if you'd like to try it out you can download it here.  I still have my case of cards in the car (except when calling abroad) in case something goes wrong with the computer.

I plan a programme for every dance I do — but I'm always prepared to change it, or scrap it completely if I have to.  Don't feel you have to stick rigidly to the list: swot up on your extras as well, and then you can slot them in at any point.  Fried Herman taught her apprentice callers to prepare three dances for each slot in the programme — easy, moderate and difficult — so that they can pick one each time depending on how things are going.  I would find this an awful lot of work, particularly if you're using recorded music, and not fair on the band if you're using live music — but that's her approach.

If you're working with a band, give them a list a few weeks before, unless you're very sure of them or it's a barn dance.  Even with a barn dance you need to check on “own tunes” (they may never have come across “Blaydon Races”) and the keys they use for any singing calls: “Coming round the Mountains”, “I want to be near you”, “Tavern in the Town” and so on.  If you're not a musician, you need to find someone who can work out what key you sing these in, and write it on the card.

Make sure the music suits their style.  At the same time ask if they have any favourites, and ask about amplification — can you put your microphone through their gear.  It's very rare they'll say “No”, but it's still better to check in advance, or you may end the evening very hoarse!

So the evening arrives.  What is the caller's job?  Well, in fact there are several.

Setting Up   Print this section

At a barn dance I often find myself pushing tables back to enlarge the dance floor (people have no idea how much room it needs) and turning off most of the lights (people don't want you to see them going wrong).  Then I ask the band if I can help with speakers, amplifier, microphones and leads.  Often they turn me down — they've got their own routine and I'd just be in the way — but at least they know they can ask me if there's something heavy to be moved.

Setting up PA is a specialised area, and a newish caller wouldn't be expected to make any decisions.  Sometimes it's difficult to decide where to put the speakers and which way to point them.  Balancing the band — ditto, though I have included some advice in the Specialised subjects.

Nervousness   Print this section

Some top callers still get really nervous at the start of a dance — but it doesn't show, and it doesn't stop them giving the crowd a good evening.  It's certainly better to be nervous than to be over-confident and then make lots of mistakes.  Having said that, the only time I get nervous before a dance (or particularly a workshop) is when I know I haven't prepared it properly.  So do your preparation, and tell yourself that you've done all you can in advance.

Nervousness affects people in many different ways.  Some become tongue-tied; some gabble away at twice their normal speed; some order the dancers about like a sergeant major; some become over-polite and say “please” all the time.  If nervousness is a problem for you, I suggest you read “Feel the Fear and do it anyway” by Susan Jeffers.  It's very readable and contains lots of practical advice.  One thing to do is to say to yourself “What's the worst that can happen?”.  It's not brain surgery — you're not going to kill anybody if you call the wrong move.  Try taking several deep breaths before you start — and take one each time you feel the urge to gabble away.  Some people recommend a glass of whisky, but that wouldn't help me.  Once you've called a few dances you should feel the nervousness getting less and less.

Starting the evening off   Print this section

Please try to start on time.  If the band aren't ready there's not much you can do about it, but I reckon if it's past the official start time and there are three couples out there, I start.  It surprises some people — many clubs habitually start ten minutes or more late.  If more callers started on time, people would be more likely to arrive on time.

There are various ways to start [demonstrate with microphone]:

If you have live music, maybe you will introduce the musician or band — maybe leave it till more people are there.  But at a barn dance the crowd see you as one of the band, so I probably wouldn't — I'd be more concerned about reassuring them that I'm going to walk everything through before the music starts and it's not going to be too difficult.

Using a microphone   Print this section

It may have a switch — even a three-position switch: make sure you know how it works.  It may have a pop-shield.  It will probably be on a stand, and if you're not too experienced I suggest you leave it there, even though I always hold it.  Adjust the stand (before switching the mike on) so that the mike is at mouth height and pointing towards you.  It's probably directional, so if you're holding it don't hold it like a lollipop.

The way to find out if it's on is not to blow into it or (even worse) bash it: just start talking into it.  You'll hear your voice from the speakers, which is certainly something you'll have to get used to.  Don't say “Is it switched on?” or “One, two, testing, testing” — just start speaking.  I hold microphones too close, and I'm aware this means I need more treble on the amplifier or mixer, but this guarantees a constant distance.  Don't shout into it — the purpose of a microphone is to avoid shouting.  If you're not loud enough, turn the volume up.  If you've got a radio mike, you can stand in the middle of the hall and hear what it sounds like.

On the other end of your microphone lead is something to connect it to the band's mixer or amplifier.  If you're working with a ceilidh band they will probably expect a Canon XLR connector, also known as a “balanced” input, which has three pins in a triangle.  If you're working with a “dancers'” band they may well expect a jack plug, which doesn't give such a good signal (though I have used one happily for over twenty years).  Maybe you should invest in two separate leads — the lead does detach from the microphone, you know!


Feedback is sound from the speaker being picked up by the microphone and going round and round.  The automatic reaction is to cover the microphone with your hand, but it turns out that this is the worst thing to do!  Step back behind the level of the speakers or switch it off.  The likelihood of feedback depends on many things: microphone, amplifier, speakers, room.  You can get gadgets which juggle with the signal to reduce the danger of feedback.  My radio-mike is very good — I can stand in the hall facing a speaker and there's rarely a problem.

Using PA takes some getting used to: you can't really believe it's you coming out of the speakers.  It just needs practice.  I like having a speaker near me so that I can hear myself, particularly if the band are using foldback, otherwise I find myself shouting.

Getting the sets formed   Print this section

With a barn dance, the hardest part of the caller's job is being lively and enthusiastic, and persuading people to get up and have a go.  At a club dance it's easy.  Give the formation and the name of the dance, slowly and clearly.  If a caller says “Square sets” I immediately say “What for?” — if it's “Streets of Laredo” I'm not going to stand up.  Repeat the formation as sets are forming; some people won't have been listening.  It's useful for the band to play the tune once through, for various reasons.  At a barn dance, good lively music will get people on the floor.  It enables you to judge the speed; you can say (usually when they've finished) “a bit faster, or slower”.  It encourages the less experienced dancers who recognise the tune.  It may remind you of the dance.  And experienced dancers might take note if it's in an unusual rhythm or has an unusual number of bars.

The Walkthrough   Print this section

First of all — can you see all the sets — or only the two nearest you?  Stand on a chair if necessary.  It's so easy to watch the set in front of you and rush through the explanation, with them following it perfectly — and at the bottom of the room there's complete chaos.  You usually get the best dancers near the band, the hesitant ones at the sides and the far end.  The dancers in front of you may know the dance already; you're walking it through for the people furthest from you.

The biggest failing in a walkthrough is doing it too fast.  My pet hate is: “Most of you know this; we'll just have a quick walkthrough”.  It's no help to the experienced dancers — they probably know the dance already.  It's even worse for the inexperienced ones — they get confused and lose confidence in themselves.  They won't have the nerve to shout out “hang on”.  Many experienced callers rush the walkthrough, then have to walk it through again.  It takes longer than doing it right in the first place, and even more importantly the beginners may have lost heart and switched off.  So take your time and watch the far sets.  If the walkthrough goes wrong it's the caller's fault.

The second problem in a walkthrough is using the right words to explain the dance.  A good caller thinks very hard about how he's going to put over the movement.  You've got to be aware of the potential problems.  Too many callers who've been calling for years have forgotten the problems; it's all easy to them.  Learn by their mistakes.  You can say something that you think is unambiguous, and half the dancers will take it another way.  I remember saying “Men swing your left-hand lady — at the end you swing your partner”.  I meant “at the end of the longways set where you don't have a left-hand lady”, but they all swung their left-hand lady, and at the end of that they all swung their partner.  Speak clearly, take your time, and watch them.  Don't be afraid to start again, but give them time to get back to their starting positions.  Don't get annoyed with them — it's your fault.  Either you haven't explained it well enough, or you've misjudged the crowd and you should never have started it in the first place!

The order of your words can make a tremendous difference.  If you say “Ones right-hand turn your first corner” or “Head ladies chain to the right” you can expect people to hear the first three words and act on them before realising that there's more.  So say “First corner right-hand turn” or “Head ladies to your right — chain”.

  What are the problems with “Devil's Dream”?

The initial set-up.  People leaping ahead.  Turning half-way and getting going again.  Giving left hand the second time.

  What are the problems with “Fandango”?

The timing — the first part is often done too fast.  The two-hand turns — which way do you go first?  Figure eights — the same, and making sure the other couples don't join in.

You may want to get down on the floor and demonstrate something.  If so, make sure everybody can see and knows what's going on.  I usually demonstrate a swing and a strip the willow at a barn dance.  And I've discovered that my dance “Dunant House Waltz” gets walked through much quicker if I grab a few people and demonstrate it first.

Rapport.  Don't browbeat the crowd, and don't patronise them.  “Don't listen to the other seven callers in your set: listen to father and you can't go wrong”.  You might get away with this sort of thing — it depends on your rapport with the crowd.  I remember a caller saying “If you don't pay attention you won't get the dance right”.  This is the school-teacher approach, and it annoys me (though of course it's perfectly true).  I barracked him; he tried to slap me down; I refused to be slapped down.  People do folk dancing because they enjoy it; they don't want to be treated like children.  Some clubs are noisy — but why?  Is it because they don't understand what the caller's talking about?  Or is it just people having a good time and chatting to their friends?  You can tell them to shut up, provided you're friendly about it.  I'm rude to the crowd, but I choose my targets carefully — people who won't be offended and can give as good as they get.  It's all done in fun and — I hope — taken that way.  I hate calling to a dead crowd, where nobody says anything…

Particularly at a barn dance, it's really useful to find someone you can pick on!  You'll recongise the type — he's probably wearing a gingham skirt, pigtails and cowboy boots.  Make a fairly inoffensive remark and see how he reacts.  Chances are, he'll love being the centre of attention and everybody else (especially his mates) will love you picking on him.  Find out his name, and use it.  You can also be nice to him at times — “I don't know why you're all having trouble with that — Charlie got it right”.  But don't overdo it, or some people may feel they're being left out — make sure you talk to the whole floor and not just a small group of people.

I do the same thing with dancers, and most of them seem to like it, though I know there are those who think “Why doesn't he just shut up and get on with the dance?”.  I usually pick on people I know, who won't mind and who will give as good as they get.  And — unlike some callers — I don't feel I need to have the last word.  If I make a witty remark and someone on the floor makes an even better comeback, I'm happy to join in the general laughter — I don't feel threatened by that at all.

Cards.  Try not to read from a card.  I know it gives you a feeling of security, but it has many drawbacks.  It looks bad.  The crowd feel that you don't know what you're doing; they lose a certain confidence in you — and it's important for the crowd to have confidence in the caller.  More so at a barn dance, but even at a Club people may think: “Why should I listen to him — he's just reading it off a bit of paper; he doesn't know any more than I do”.  Secondly, if your eyes are glued to a card you won't be able to watch the dancers walking it through and see if they're making mistakes.  And you lose rapport with the crowd.

I always have the cards there, even for a barn dance, but I put them on a table or chair out of view (or these days I have a nice music stand), and try not to look at them too much.  I'm good at glancing at them without making it too obvious.  By all means study the cards between dances; even John Lagden would do that.  On the other hand, do have the card available in case your mind goes blank.  I've seen Philippe Callens go blank — and he had nothing to refer to — it was all in his head.  He moved about, sang a bit of the tune, and eventually it came back to him.  Not a good position to be in.  It's much better to look at a card than to “um” and “ah”, try various different possibilities and still not get it to work.

If the dance doesn't work, there are various things to do.  First, don't panic.  Take the time to read your card through carefully — it will seem like an hour to you, but the dancers won't think so.  Get on the floor and try the movement yourself.  Don't let it turn into a discussion group — they'll all be at you with helpful suggestions.  If you see your mistake, apologise — don't pretend it was the dancers' fault — but don't keep on apologising for the rest of the evening — once is enough.  If you can't sort it out pretty quickly, abandon the dance and do another one which you know will work.  Later, at home without the pressure, find out what went wrong and change your card so that it won't happen again.

For a very complicated dance such as “Whirligig” you might want walk each figure through, then dance that figure, and put it all together at the end.  With a difficult progressive dance such as “Four Winds” you may want to walk it through for each couple, or even walk it and then dance it for each couple (the Scottish approach) before putting it all together.  It depends on the crowd; use your judgement.  They've come to dance, not to walk-through, but they want some chance of getting through it when the music starts.  If you're doing a three-figure dance, it might be helpful to give them hints about all three figures just before the music starts.

Occasionally I do a well-known dance without a walkthrough — though I still call it — and I sometimes warn them before they form sets.  Another pet hate of mine is “Newcastle for those who know it”.  I've had people come up and thank me profusely for actually doing Newcastle and calling it — they'd been missing out for years because it was always restricted to “those who know”.

Western Square callers don't normally walk through any dance — they walk through a new figure in great detail, but once the dancers know the figure they just have to listen while the caller calls.  I try this occasionally with a good club who are used to American Squares.  I've also run a whole session of “Squares and Contras without a walkthrough” at several festivals and at a weekend and it has always been very well received — though I felt exhausted afterwards!

The best way of learning to do a walkthrough is to record someone who's an expert.  Make sure you ask his or her permission, and the band's.  That way you can learn the dance, and the music, and the way a good caller puts it across.

There are two aspects to calling the dance: controlling the music and controlling the dancers.  Let's start with the easier one — controlling the music.

Working with recorded music   Print this section

There may still be clubs using records or cassette tapes, but most callers moved on to mini-disks, and I imagine all new recordings are sold as CDs.  If you have a computer and a CD-writer (neither of which are expensive these days) you can burn your own CDs.  Both these media have immediate access to each track, instant replay, and of course better quality reproduction.  You can get variable-speed CD players, though they're not common; I've not heard of a variable-speed mini-disk player.

An even more up-to-date approach is to copy the music from CDs to your laptop (probably in MP3 format) and use that.  My Dance Organiser program can be set up so that in two clicks of a mouse you can move to the next dance on the programme and set the music going.

I'm not an expert on dead music: give me live music any time, even if it's just an average accordionist.  Some callers prefer recorded music — they feel safe with it.  You know exactly what you're getting.  It will be the same speed every time, the same set of tunes, and you don't have to tell it when to stop.  And of course that's the way to make money as a caller — the mini-disk player doesn't demand a cut!

Working with live music   Print this section

It can be harder work.  You have to judge the speed and slow them down or speed them up, maybe two or three times.  This can be difficult, particularly if you're an inexperienced caller with an experienced musician who always goes like the clappers.  Some bands and musicians will slow down or speed up as you ask, but will always drift back to what they consider the “right” tempo.  It's the caller's job to set the tempo — and there is no “right” one.  It depends on all sorts of things — the floor, the time of night, the age of the dancers, how much dancing they've already done today, the ability of the dancers…  If you don't give the band a speed, they will make their own decision — which may be better than yours — but ultimately it's down to you.  When I worked a lot with Peter Jenkins I would sometimes slow him down or speed him up and he would make irritated noises — but he would always do what I said, and stick to it.  Afterwards he might say “I still think that's too slow” or he might say “You were right — I was going too fast”, but when I started calling he told me the caller is in charge.  You'll find I'm moving my feet in time to the music all the time I'm calling — I don't need to prance around the stage, but I find it much easier to judge the speed if I'm moving to it rather than just listening to it.

Also with live music you have to count.  Three times through a dance — seems easy.  You try it!  I can call “Dutch Crossing” — without the cards — but I have great trouble knowing when it's gone four times through.  There are several options.  Watch a reliable set and remember who the top couple were — stop when they get back to the top.  Stick one finger out each time through — you'll see me doing this.  Go down on the floor and ask someone “Did you start at the top?”  Some bands are good at counting, so they may take the pressure off you — but check with them first.  If you do get it wrong, the dancers will certainly let you know.  The answer then is to apologise — don't blame it on the band — and immediately say “One more time — with the music”.  Don't um and er — they want the final turn or they'll feel cheated.

So that's one thing to discuss with the band beforehand: who counts?  The other is signals.  “One more time”, so they can go back to the original tune or just give it everything they've got.  “Out” — particularly in a patter square where you're jabbering away.  “Kill”.  “Slower”.  “Faster”.  You think it's obvious what you mean; they don't have a clue.  Walt Tingle uses a circular movement of the hand to mean “Wind it up — finish”, but many callers use that to mean “Faster”.  Make sure you know who to give signals to — it might not be the obvious person.  I tend to give signals to the whole band, for safety.

Make sure the musicians know if there's anything special about the tune.  Examples are: “Upon a Summer's Day”, “Hunsdon House”, “Whirligig”.  If there's more than one version of the dance, make sure their music is the same length as your figure.  Examples are: “Mr Beveridge's Maggot”, “Dick's Maggot” and “Half Hannikin”.

Having mentioned all these complications, let me repeat that I hate working with recorded music and very rarely do it.  I love the fact that I can just say “32-bar American reels” or “Newcastle” and let the band find the music while I walk the dance through.  If it's going well, I can let the band do more turns than usual; if it's falling to pieces I can cut it short.  I can say to Keeping Thyme “The third figure is the tricky one — can you play it slightly slower than the other two” and they remember it for the next time even when I forget to tell them.  And of course you're not on your own up there — it can be very lonely on a stage with only a CD player for company.  You can say to the band “What a bunch of idiots — why don't they listen to what I'm saying?” — a good band will sympathise with you every time!  And you never get the same atmosphere with recorded music that you do with live.

Controlling the dancers   Print this section

I hope your mind is mainly on this, rather than on controlling the music.  As with the walkthrough, you must choose the right words — but this time fewer words.  I groan when someone walks a dance through holding The Country Dance Book.  It's very clear — there's no problem understanding what Sharp meant: he may have got it wrong, but it'll be definitively wrong — but it wasn't designed to call from.  I've heard “Old Mole” (three couple longways) walked through from the book (dancers are improper at this point, if you're trying to make sense of it):

Second and third women take hands, move forward a double, and fall back a double to place; while first and second men do the same.  Second and third women, raising their arms, cross over to the women's side; while the third man passes under their arms and crosses to the men's side.  Simultaneously, first and second men cross over to the men's side in like manner, the first woman passing under their arms.

That's eight bars — the time it takes to circle left and right.  And she tried to call it like that to the music.  Sharp was writing it so that dancers or teachers could study it at home, maybe move bits of cardboard around to make sure they understood it, and then if they planned to teach the dance they'd work out their own words to explain it.  So, you need to think how to explain it clearly and simply in the walkthrough.  “Middle person in each line join hands with the person on your right.  Go forwards towards the spare person, and back.”  No mention of numbers, or even men and women.  “Make an arch; cross over with this person.”  But when you're actually calling the dance: “Arches on the right — go forward and back.  Cross over.”  If they've grasped it in the walkthrough — if you haven't rushed through it and confused them — the reminder is enough; you might get away with just “Arches on the right”, and if you repeat it you could just say “Arches”.  Sometimes you need to invent a term.  In “Queen of Sheba”, for instance: “When I say 'bomb-burst', the ones lead up a double and back, the fours lead down a double and back, and the middles lead their neighbour out a double and back.” Just make sure that you do actually use the word “bomb-burst” when the time comes!

Don't use too many words!  Cecil Sharp will say “Partners two-hand turn”.  Some callers write this on their card, and feel they have to say it every time.  If you've walked it through properly, the dancers will remember — all you have to say is “turn”.

Get the important words out first.  Don't start with “Half a”.  It tells me nothing.  It might be half a hey, half a right and left through, half a left-hand star — any number of things.  If it's a hey, that's the word I need to hear.  You have a whole 8 beats in which to say “Half-way” or “All the way”.

Emphasise the important words — particularly those which aren't the expected ones.  “Join hands and circle right”.  “Up a double and back.  Now down a double and back”.

Let's look at a Pat Shaw dance — “The Real Princess”.  What's the problem in this?  The casting and two-hand turn half-way at the same time as the right and left through.  I've seen callers panic at this point — because they hadn't planned in advance what they were going to say.  Spontaneity is fine when you can afford it — I throw in all sorts of remarks from insulting the crowd to telling them to smile at their partners — but only if there's free time.  Call it through to the recording until you're sure of the words, and then stick to them.


“Middles cast to the nearer end, ends right and left through.  New ends turn.”  And the same again.  If you've walked it through and emphasised that the turn is half-way, you shouldn't need to say so when you call.

  Work out the entire words as you would say them.

The record insert says:

A1:All forward to partner & back in lines and swing partners (ballroom hold)
A2:(1st couple facing 2nd couple, 3rd couple facing 4th couple) Ladies chain (walking step)
B1:End couples meet and ½ right and left through while middle couples move up or down to end places on outside and turn partners with both hands ½ way round (walking step)       New end couples meet and ½ right and left through while middle couples cast up or down to end places and turn partners with both hands ½ way round (walking step)       (The set is now upside down)
B2:1st couple lead up to the top of the set (skip change step), separate and, followed by the other couples, cast to the bottom of the set (skip change step) and all turn partners with both hands ½ way round (or cross over)

My suggestion: Lines forward and back.  Swing your partner.  Middles face the ends: ladies chain.  And back.  Middles cast (or move) to the nearer end, ends right and left through.  New ends turn.  Middles cast to the nearer end, ends right and left through.  New ends turn.  Bottom couple dance up to the top.  Cast, follow.  Turn the set upside down.  Two hand turn half-way.

Some callers write the walk-through instructions on one side of the card and the dance call on the other.  I've never felt the need for this, but if you feel you need it, go ahead.


This is absolutely vital.  The commonest complaint about a caller is: he was late on his call.  The instructions have to get to the dancer, be interpreted by the brain, signals have to be sent to the arms and legs — it takes time.  A dancer may know a dance perfectly: she doesn't have to think ahead — each movement comes to mind as she needs it.  A caller has to think ahead, so that she can call ahead.

  Demonstrate call on the beat, and call ahead of the beat.

The Golden Rule is: The caller must have finished calling a movement before the first note of that phrase of music is played.  With standard figures which don't require a lot of words, each figure is normally 4 bars — 8 beats.  Call the figure on the last four beats of the previous phrase.  This gives you about seven syllables, which is normally plenty.  So count “1, 2, 3, 4, call the next part of the dance”.  It's so simple and straightforward, but I've never heard anyone teach it.  It's better to talk in the rhythm of the music; it interferes less with the music that way.  You don't always need the seven syllables.  For an obvious second half — ladies chain followed by a chain back; circle left followed by circle right — you can leave it till the last two beats and just say “And back”.  But still make sure you've finished saying it before the first beat of the phrase.  For American you can make it sing-song — it adds something to the patter for a square — but please don't sing Playford (Tom Cook used to sing “Everyone turn single” at the start of Elverton Grove, and I've heard a worse example in A Trip to Richmond: “The men fall back, the girls fall back, come forward turning single”).  For a complicated call you may need the whole of the previous four bars.  For instance “Whirligig” second figure: “Man up, lady down, arm right with the opposite sex”.  So you know that as the second “Siding” music starts you've got to be there with the call.

The opposite problem is possible: if you give the call too early, people may move to soon.  If you want to give them plenty of warning, all you have to do is the same principle of starting on the second half of the previous phrase, but make sure you pad it out to the end of the phrase — I guarantee they won't get ahead then.  You'll hear me padding things out in American Squares.  “All join hands and circle left”.  “Face your corner — allemande left”.  “Right to your partner — grand chain”.  “Head two couples forward and back”.  And it sounds more authentic (and much more pleasant) than just barking out: “Grand chain”.  “Do-si-do”.  “Promenade”.

  What words would you use to call “Blaydon Races”?

My suggestion: Join hands, go into the middle and back.  And again.  Ballroom hold: two chassées in, two out, and dance about.  Cross-hand hold and promenade.  Men move on to the one in front, and you balance: right, left, right, left, give her a swing.  Put the lady on your right; into the middle again.

To sum up — you must know what words you're going to use, and the timing.  Practise it to a recording.  Don't be afraid you're calling too early; the opposite problem is far more common.


Some callers will do a longways dance seven or nine times and call it all the way through every time.  That's silly.  The dancers should have learnt it by then.  Most of them would prefer to exercise their skill in remembering it; they'd like to listen to the music, not you shouting at them.  I cut down the calling gradually; leave out the easy bits first.  Often I say “I'll call it once more and then you're on your own”, to make sure they're thinking.  Even at a barn dance I stop calling — they rise to the challenge and enjoy succeeding.  Sometimes they enjoy it even more when they make a real mess of it — and so do dancers.  So don't over-call.  But keep watching, ready to call if things go seriously wrong.  Some callers start calling again as soon as one person hesitates.  I won't do this.  The other people in their set will enjoy helping them, and they get a sense of working as a team.  But there comes a point where you have to step in.  Dancers can remember far more than some callers give them credit for.  But they're conditioned to believe that they must have a call, rather than it being like water-wings or stabilisers.  When I say “We'll do the dance again, and I won't call it this time”, there's usually a barrage of protest.  But I give them a reminder, and off they go — and do it perfectly well.  There's a case when you should ignore the crowd — or rather reassure them instead of giving in to them.


When I started dancing it was the fashion to do a longways dance seven times, stop, then say “Let's do a few more turns”.  I've even heard callers use the phrase when working with recorded music!  I don't see the point of this, and I'm glad it seems to have died out.  I probably do a longways dance more times through than most callers in England — it comes from dancing and calling in America.  Occasionally there's a groan when the tune starts yet again, and I realise I've overdone it.  But you will never get a groan if you announce “One more time”.  So the only time I repeat a longways is when the applause makes it obvious that the dancers want to do more.  And I would say the same of a set dance.  Some callers automatically repeat every set dance.  I only do so if the crowd seem to want to.  At a barn dance I have to explain that if they really enjoy a dance and want to do it again they need to applaud loudly.  Dance clubs should know this — but some of them are pretty dead, so use your own judgement.  If you ask the crowd whether they want to do it again you will probably get a mixed response, or sometimes just a non-committal response.  So long as you're positive you will get away with a repeat.  The one thing I don't normally repeat is American Squares, but I usually do two of those together anyway.

What to do when things go wrong

Part of the fun of dancing is people making mistakes and getting out of them — it's one of the signs of a good dancer.  But if half the room is in confusion it's best to stop and regroup.  Bear in mind, if a dance goes wrong it's always the caller's fault: either he miscalled it, or he didn't walk it through properly, or he misjudged the level of the crowd or the speed of the music.  Sometimes all that's needed is to take a new hands four, make sure everyone knows where they are (don't rush this bit), and start the music again.  Sometimes you need to explain the part people are getting wrong — which you can't do if your eyes have been glued to your card.  As a last resort you can walk the dance through again (boring) or give up — in which case don't tell them to sit down — that will kill off any atmosphere you may have built up.  Do another dance in the same format which you know you can get them through.

Losing it!

Sometimes I just lose it — my mind goes blank, and I can't find my place on the card quickly enough.  What do you do?  Sometimes some of the dancers will remember and you can pick it up from them.  Sometimes it was a zero-movement such as a circle left or a full hey, and you can just leave it out.  But if there's general confusion it's best to stop, apologise and start again.  Don't worry — we all do it.  Don't get so tense that you then can't do anything right.  The dancers are there to dance, not to criticise you.

If you've given a wrong call, and people are in confusion, you can generally retrieve it provided you take control with confidence.  Keep the music playing.  “I'm sorry, that was wrong.  Don't worry — just get to your progressed positions and we'll start with the next turn.  Take your new hands four — wait for the music — here we go… First couple cross and cast…”

Contracts and Questions   Print this section

John McAlister emailed to ask me if I had a check-list of questions to ask when someone else (usually the band) has dealt with the booking and you want to be sure that nothing unexpected is going to crop up.  In fact he provided a pretty good list, so I've just elaborated on it here.  I've never used a contract, but I've called with bands who do (and been grateful).  I suggest that you have a cancellation clause — maybe you and the band allow cancellations up to four weeks before the event, where you will only charge a certain percentage of the fee; after that date you charge the full amount whether the dance takes place or not.  It's then up to you whether you enforce the cancellation clause or not — if there is a good reason for the cancellation you may choose to waive your fee, but you don't announce that in advance!  If you're booked for a wedding dance and the groom changes his mind the week before, that's his problem not yours.  I can guarantee that the caterers and other professionals involved will feel the same way.

Let me first warn you about agencies.  Some of them are very good, know what they're doing, and will check that all the arrangements are working out.  Some specialise in barn dances, so things should run fairly smoothly.  Some do all sorts of corporate functions and don't really know the difference between a ceilidh, a Country and Western Evening and American Line Dancing.  You can be in dead trouble here, where you turn up and discover that the crowd expect to sit down and watch a concert rather than get up and be instructed in how to strip the willow.  You must contact the person in charge of the event in advance, explain what you are providing and be quite sure that that's what they want.  Some agencies are very reluctant to give out contact information, worried that you will go behind their backs and they will lose their fee.  I appreciate their concern, but if they won't let you contact the customer I recommend that you turn down the booking.  Of course, the other side of this is that you have to play straight with them.  If someone there asks you to do a dance for them, you must give out the agency's card rather than yours.

Checking with the organisers also applies if they come direct to you or the band — make quite sure they know what they're getting and it really is what they want.  They will say “We want a square dance” and when you ask, “Do you mean you just want squares — no circles or five couple sets?” they say “Oh no, of course not”.  They want a ceilidh or a barn dance (there's not really any difference these days) — they just don't know it.  The contract needs to say what time the event starts and finishes, and that the band will need access to the hall at least half an hour before the start (or however much time the band needs to set up).  There must be a power point, correctly earthed (but who are you kidding — the organisers won't know whether the earth is working).  If it's in a marquee this is particularly important — the current needs to be safely brought from a building to the marquee, without a cable which people will trip over, and without blowing the fuse as soon as the band switches on.  It's also worth knowing whether the hall has a limiter which switches off all the power on the stage when the level rises above the permitted decibel level.  You'd be surprised how loud the applause after a dance can be!

So, be sure you know what the event is, and if it's a celebration make sure you know the names of the people it's for — it's embarrassing to get the bride's name wrong at a wedding dance.  Will there be anything else happening?  Cutting the cake and then a break of half an hour while everybody eats it?  An interminable raffle?  Make sure it's not too late, so that you have a chance to build up the atmosphere again.  Displays or other entertainment?  If so, will they want amplification?  Will they want to plug their CD player into your P.A.?  How long will they go on for?  (And you might need to be firm with them if necessary.)  Will there be a break for food?  Have it written into the contract that the band will be provided with food and drink during the evening, but I don't think it's a good idea to be too specific about your demands or they'll think you're just out to give then as much hassle and expense as possible and that's not a good working relationship.

Make quite sure you have the address of the venue, preferably with a postcode if you use satellite navigation, though a map may also be a good idea.  It's also a very good idea to have a mobile number for the contact, just in case you have a breakdown or you get to the hall and find there's nobody there — yes, it can happen.  It may also reassure the organisers to have your number.

If it's in a restaurant or dining room, how big is the dance floor?  Ideally go and have a look at it beforehand.  The hotel staff will say “Oh yes, there's plenty of room for dancing”, and when you ask to see it they take up a six-foot square of carpet and say “This is the dance floor — we had eighty people dancing on it last Saturday”.  Maybe, but they weren't doing this kind of dancing!  I suggest you leave the carpet down and make sure they remove sufficient tables (they will try to argue you out of it) to give a decent sized area.  It's better to galop on carpet than to galop on wood and suddenly trip over the edge and find yourself on carpet without warning.

Has anyone danced at a ceilidh before?  Sometimes the bride and groom think it would be a nice idea but nobody else does.  On the other hand, I did a wedding dance for a friend of mine who had recently been to college, and several of her college friends were there with their husbands or boy-friends — as soon as I said “I want a four couple set” they were there ready to dance, encouraging the others.  It was a great evening.

I recommend that you turn down an event where the barn dance is followed by a disco — unless you're really desperate for the money!  At least if it's just a Barn Dance that's what they're there for — not sitting around waiting until the “proper” dancing starts.  I did one like that when I never got more than one set up, no atmosphere, and they all applauded when I said it was time for the final dance!

Is there a bar?  If so, is it in another room?  That can be disastrous — it's hard enough getting the men away from the bar when you can see them and direct your remarks to them — it's almost impossible if they're not even in the same room.

I suggest that the contract say “The band will be paid in cash on the night”.  Even then, it's worth checking before you're packing up the equipment and someone wanders up to you and says “Who do you want the cheque payable to?”  It's possible the barman will be willing to convert the cheque to cash — but get it sorted out early in the evening.

The organisers will think of the band and caller as a single unit, and will be quoted a single price; it's up to you to negotiate your fee with the band before the price is agreed with the organisers.  In my opinion the caller should be paid more than any of the musicians, and the band leader should be paid more than the other musicians, but get it sorted out amicably.  If you're doing the booking through an agency they may well tell you how much you will be paid — but again the split between the caller and band is probably not their concern.

You may find that the organisers want a lot of reassurance — especially if they've never run anything like this before.  Point out that you and the band have done this lots of times and that everything will be fine.

They may also be open to suggestions about how long the event should last.  I think three hours with a break for food is long enough, but other people will tell you differently.  If it's going really well, they may ask you how much you would charge to go on for another half an hour, so have your answer ready.  On the other hand, if things are flagging they may be quite pleased if you say to the organisers “I'd like to finish with a bang rather than it just fizzling out, and people seem quite tired — shall we just do two more dances and then finish?”  No, you don't reduce your fee in that case!

Are there lots of children?  I've done dances where the band and I were just baby-sitters while all the parents went off to the bar for the evening.  The second time I took my guitar and sang some songs between the dances, but after that we decided we were a barn dance outfit rather than children's entertainers and we turned down further bookings from them.  If the parents are willing to dance with their kids it can go very well — just have even simpler dances up your sleeve than usual, and you may need to avoid change-partner dances.

Conclusion   Print this section

You can mull over my words of wisdom, ask me questions, practice things to your CD player at home — but ultimately the only way to become a caller is to call.  Go along to a club that has a club callers evening — call a simple dance well — and they'll love you, because everybody else will be calling over-complicated stuff, trying to use their one chance to impress the crowd, making a mess of it, getting irritated and saying “I don't know what's wrong with you lot — Colin Hume called this at Sidmouth and he didn't have any problems”…  Get prepared, then get out there and do it!

So that's my basic set of notes.  After a time I became more confident at running Callers' Workshops and started asking people what they would like to learn, rather than just going through my list — particularly if all the callers were already fairly experienced.  Almost all my Specialised subjects are a result of that.  I also added a section on Attitude, which is such an important thing in all aspects of life.  So these are a number of self-contained sections, with some repetition, for you to dip into as you wish.  See the list at the top of the page.