I called a dance at Cecil Sharp House that reminded me of what you'd said about calling your local dance — I didn't enjoy it much. Only about 40 people (which is far too few in the main hall to generate any atmosphere), most of them not very good dancers — and they won't LISTEN! Even though they're constantly going wrong, they still think they can chat to their partners during the walkthrough, and then blame me if it doesn't work out. You'd think they would realise early on that I don't tend to call the standard “switch off your brain and just enjoy” dances, and they needed to concentrate. I drove home quite depressed by the whole thing.
So that was my attitude to the evening. The next weekend I was driving to Eastbourne Festival with a friend, and I asked her what she'd thought of the dance. She said “Do you want an honest answer?” so I said yes, and she then told me she'd been disappointed — she didn't think I'd done a good job — there was no atmosphere — maybe I'd had a bad day — and another woman had said to her that the caller was very negative.
Now if I'd been calling a Barn Dance I'd have gone into it with a different attitude — I'd have expected them to talk to each other and not know what they were doing — I'd have coped fine. But I thought: “This is Cecil Sharp House, top dance venue — I want to call a really good dance.” What I should have thought is — “OK, the dancers aren't much good, but never mind — they've paid their money and I'll give them a good evening.” Was it my fault that they weren't much good? No. Was it my fault that it was a bad evening? Yes! I've now made a card saying “It's always the caller's fault!” — and I'll try to bear it in mind.
So what is your attitude as a caller? — because it will come across, I guarantee. There are lots of options…
Related to Attitude is a fundamental question: Why do you want to be a caller?
Don't believe anyone who says “I feel it my duty to pass on the pleasure I've had from Folk Dancing” — there must be something in it for them! Dale Carnegie in “How to win friends and influence people” says that every person has eight basic needs, and almost all these wants are gratified — except one. That one is “A feeling of importance”. It's this feeling which made Abraham Lincoln study some law books he'd found in the bottom of a barrel; it made Rockefeller amass millions that he never spent, and it lures many boys into becoming gangsters and gunmen. He's not saying there's anything wrong with wanting to feel important — it's just a question of how you go about it. And if you're a caller you're up there on the stage, telling people where to go, with them hanging on your every word — of course you feel important. But the other side of importance should be responsibility — a caller needs to be capable of doing the job he's set himself up for. So you need to ask yourself why you want to be a caller, and whether you've got what it takes. A good caller doesn't have to be ostentatiously “in charge” all the time — he's got to have the humility to admit it when he makes mistakes, and in my view his job is to stop calling as soon as he can, and let the people dance to the music without him as an intermediary.
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First of all, there's no one style — Playford, American and English Traditional all have their own style, and what looks right in one is very wrong in another. Let's look at the Playford style as it is danced in England in the 21st century — other countries and other centuries are certainly different. Cecil Sharp quoted “a lady of distinction” as saying:
The characteristics of an English Country Dance is that of gay simplicity. The steps should be few and easy, and the corresponding motions of the arms and body unaffected, modest, and graceful.
Surely this is still true. The RSCDS style is strongly influenced by ballet, but I don't believe ours should be. However, “unaffected” doesn't mean “sloppy” — dancers should stand up straight and tall rather than slouching. Sharp studied traditional dancers before he started interpreting Playford, and realised that the way to move forward is to lean forward — sticking your leg out doesn't do much! Dancing is a controlled fall. If you're not travelling, your head and body need to be above your feet, but if you're travelling they aren't — just as in skating. Sharp also says that to do this the body needs to be in more or less a straight line from head to foot — no bend at the neck or waist, or sag at the knees. He talks about dancing with the whole body, not just the legs.
Chris and Ellis Rogers wrote an article in the Winter 2001 “English Dance & Song”, in which they talked about good posture — they say it's not something you can pick up when dancing and drop in the rest of your life — the muscles need to be firmly and permanently honed.
Imagine that a string runs through from the top of your head to between your legs. Imagine that someone is pulling gently up on that string. The top of your head moves up, your neck stretches, your chin tucks in very slightly. Your shoulders drop, your torso lifts from your hips, your stomach pulls in gently, and the base of your spine stretches towards the floor. Your weight moves onto the balls of your feet; your heels rest lightly on the floor. When you can maintain this comfortably while moving and breathing easily, you have achieved good posture.
But can you teach this? First you need to be able to do it yourself; you won't convince anyone otherwise. If you read those words out and do the actions as you mention them, maybe you will give people the idea — I don't know. Chris and Ellis say that good posture is something you will learn from few dance technique workshops, and also that one workshop is not enough —
…it must be repeated and reinforced and practised until it is firmly in place.
But even though you're the front man, you won't be the first person they speak to. That may be someone on the door — or anyone who happens to be standing near the door when they walk in. I saw an excellent John Cleese training video on telephone technique, and he made the point that if someone phones your company and you answer the phone, as far as that customer is concerned you are the company. It's the same when somebody walks in the door and says to the first person they see: “Is this the Folk Dancing?” So maybe your club should think about the image your members project. Or maybe they should choose a few people who are good at dealing with newcomers and making them feel at ease, and then everyone needs to know that if a new person walks in you just say “Let me introduce you to so-and-so — she'll be able to explain things better than me”. In New York, Sharon Green was superb at this job — she made people feel welcome; she allayed their fears; she was friendly and non-threatening. And she told me had to work at it — it didn't just come naturally.
As the caller, you need to be aware that there are newcomers present. Don't just assume they're beginners — they might be experienced dancers from another part of the country — but keep an eye out for them, and if you can see they're hesitant add extra words to your calls to help them along. Instead of just “Set and turn single”, amplify it to: “set — onto the right, and onto the left, turn single to the right — turn on the spot — one, two, three, four”. The regulars won't object to a bit of amplification of the terms; they probably won't even notice. You can give a quick demonstration — you can even say “Some people are doing it like this, but it's much better to do it like this” — but don't look at the newcomers as you say this, or they'll take it as criticism. Maybe you can pick on a regular that you know can take it, and make a joke out of it. You can certainly say that it's nice to see some new people and you hope they enjoy themselves. Don't say, as a caller at my local club did, “We've got three new people here, so I want you all to be very patient with them”. Two of them never came back — are you surprised?!
If you give them a varied programme you should be able to please most of the people most of the time. There are some that just like to moan, and they're often the worst dancers — don't expend too much effort trying to appease them. On the other hand, if someone has a valid complaint — too many difficult dances, too many energetic dances — your programme should be flexible enough that you can slot in something to make them happy. Someone once told me they only needed to dance three good dances to make the evening worthwhile.
I don't think some callers are aware that their repertoire is very samey. There's a whole category of dances that aren't Playford and aren't American and aren't traditional — they're just dances. I can get bored with these fairly quickly. Have a look through your cards. How do you categorise them? Mine are grouped by format — Square, Circle, Longways and so on — but within that I subdivide many formations into Playford, American and Other. Do you think in these terms? Maybe you should.
I called at a club where I was told by the regular caller “They have resisted Playford so far”. Needless to say, I took this as a challenge — I did several Playford dances and they loved them. I don't know what the regular caller was doing wrong. Maybe he chose boring Playford dances — there are thousands of them. Maybe he didn't like Playford himself, but “we really ought to do some”, and the attitude got transmitted to the dancers. Maybe he'd convinced them that Playford is complicated and they weren't likely to manage any. I came in with the attitude “This is a great dance — of course you'll be able to do it”, and had no problem at all.
You can also vary your evening by mixing in some more challenging dances. Some callers stick at a level where they know everyone can get through every dance. I won't do this. I like to challenge people — and they respond to it. That doesn't mean an evening dance should turn into a workshop — and even in a workshop I don't keep it up at top level all the time — but it means you should be taking some risks. A safe caller is a boring caller! John Turner from Southampton calls dances at a Barn Dance that I wouldn't dream of trying. Sometimes they work; sometimes there's complete chaos — but he certainly isn't boring!
bits of cardboard, and do it twice, carefully — the second time when you have neutrals is probably when end-effects will show up. In most cases you can tell people: whenever you're out at the end, face into the set with the man on the left and the lady on the right — and stay awake. But there are cases where this won't work — they need to stand in some unusual position — and it's up to you to tell them so. You'll need to emphasise this: they won't believe it can happen to them! I now have a whole set of notes on End-effects.
Here's some useful advice from Seth Tepfer from the Washington DC area.
I use the Tony Parkes concept of building difficulty throughout the evening, peaking slightly after the break, and then programming (relatively) easier after the peak. Same concept says build energy throughout evening, peaking at end.
I build my program looking for variety — a variety of figures, a variety of formations, a variety of new moves versus familiar, a variety of progressions. I build my program like a Chinese menu — I'll take one from column A, one from column B, one from column C.
For your basic modern urban contra dance, I'll plan an evening that contains at least one:
and a bunch of dances that are very comfortable. Note that this is all within the concept of building up from a low experience level.
- down the hall,
- Petronella move,
- wavy lines dance,
- with an interesting hey figure,
- dance with interaction with a shadow,
- that really challenges the dancers,
The first dance of the evening starts from the assumption of the lowest mean average experience. If I see a bunch of dancers comfy in the duple minor formation, I'll presume they are familiar with a ladies chain. If I see a bunch of dancers new to the form, I'll start with “Jefferson and Liberty” or something that teaches them the concept of progression (or a Sicilian Circle). From there I build. Next dance teaches a ladies chain. Next dance teaches a right and left thru. Next dance teaches a square. Next dance teaches a hey. Generally, the first ⅓ to ½ of any regular program is building a vocabulary, a skill set.
And here's some more from Kalia Kliban from California.
I try to get an idea of the level of the group first. If I've called for them before, I look at my previous programs. I may also ask other callers who've worked there recently about their experience, or talk to the dance manager or programmer.
Once I have an idea of what to expect, I'll start going through my cards and pulling out dances that I think would be a good fit for the group and seem like they'd be fun to call. I'm not thinking about program order at this point, but just pulling out what I call “rough picks,” the pool of dances from which I'll assemble a program. I'm paying attention to the expected level of the group and also to what I've called recently (trying to avoid too much duplication from recent programs).
Once I have the rough picks pulled from the card file, I sort them into dances that start with “neighbor do something (balance, dosido, or gypsy) and swing” and everything else. It feels to me that starting more than a couple of dances in a row with neighbor balance and swing gets repetitive. While programming my most recent dance, I stuck a paper clip onto the edges of the cards when a dance included a hey, and also I have a notation at the top of the card to let me know when a dance does not have a circle left ¾, and when it's missing either a neighbor or partner swing. These indicators are helpful when I'm scanning my rough picks looking for a dance with particular characteristics. A searchable database would be even better, but I'm not there yet.
With all the cards laid out on the table, the neighbor balance and swing dances on one side and the other ones on the other side, I usually start by trying to identify good candidates for openers and closers. The first two dances are usually pretty simple and low-piece-count, since I'm assuming the new folks will be doing their best just to stay oriented and I want to help them relax and enjoy the dancing. If the group is really new, the first dance acts as a “mine sweeper”, showing me what the group could use reinforcement on. By the third dance I often throw in a hey, usually one where the hey has a really clean and obvious entrance and exit (Carousel is a dance I like for this, or Flirtation Reel). I'll often introduce Becket formation around this time as well, and by 5th dance or so will start to add a few more elements (California twirl, box the gnat, things at that level). I usually try to end the first half with something on the rip-snorty end of the range, but not too hard, often preceded by something a little smoother.
Second half gets more complex, generally with the hardest dance or two of the evening the 2nd and/or 3rd ones in. I'm more willing to challenge the crowd in the second half, but like to end with something not too thinky and with lots of energy. I'm still dithering about what makes a dance a good closer. For example, how important is it that the dance naturally end with a partner swing if everything else about the dance is great? I've gone both ways.
I like having some branching in the proposed program, some ways to tailor it to newer or more experienced groups. I often program a slot with a “hard/medium/easy” group of dances that share similar characteristics but offer different levels of challenge so that I can easily switch gears without needing to rearrange what comes after.
I always forget to use mixers. They can be huge fun, especially early in the evening, and I'm still working my way up to calling 4x4s.
I try to vary the structure of the dances, not clumping too many heys, or 4-in-lines, or wave balances or what-have-you, and keeping the common elements like men allemande left 1½ spread apart as well. It gets tricky to find just exactly the right puzzle piece to fit into a program slot. Sometimes I'm looking for, for example, a dance with no long lines forward and back, with a half hey, where the swings are separated by something other than either a circle or an allemande and that doesn't start with neighbour balance and swing but features a lot of neighbour interaction. Gotta get that database happening…
Once I've got a sequence of dances I like, I put it away and then look at it again the next day. I usually catch something I missed, or make a change that makes it a stronger program. The rest of the rough pool get rubber-banded together and kept as emergency spares for the evening, in case I want to make a last minute change. Saves me having to go through that whole selection process again.
Where do you find contras? There are the classics from the CDMs like Devil's Dream and Bucksaw Reel, but some of the others are pretty boring — and that's the criticism you may get from people who don't like American dances. There are books, which you may be able to get from CDSS, Folk Sales or AADS. “Dizzy Dances” by Gene Hubert. “Shadrack's Delight” by Tony Parkes and many others. My favourite is “Zesty Contras” by Larry Jennings, which contains about 350 contras (in abbreviated notation), some triplets (three couple longways) and other formations, and “Provocative Explanatory Text” where Larry goes into all aspects of contras — calling, composing, running dances and much more. There's now a follow-up called “Give-and-Take” containing more of the same.
Watch out for contras written by Englishmen which contain lots of figures imported from Modern Western Square (including some of mine). These are not what Americans would recognise as contras, and you may have to spend a long time teaching figures like flutter-wheel, box circulate or wheel and deal.
Of course you can pick up contras from other callers, which at least means you've danced them and you know they work — provided you wrote them down right!
Then there's the world-wide web on which you will find thousands of contras. Use a search engine, and once you've found some you'll probably find links to others. For instance, Gene Hubert stopped publishing books some time before he died — his newer contras are archived on archive.org for anyone to print out and use (and so are his squares) . Rick Mohr has many of his dances at http://rickmohr.net, and so on. You just have to use your judgement on what you find, and discover whose contras you like and whose you don't. Probably many of them are not worth doing — some may not even work. Sift the wheat from the chaff — that's always your job when you're finding new material.
One very useful resource is The Caller's Box — a database of contras (actually they're not all contras — it contains my dance “The Heathfield Rag” for instance) at ibiblio.org/contradance/ thecallersbox. This also has links to many videos so you can see what the problems are (and write out the instructions if they aren't available on the site). It also has an enormous list of links to other sites and book titles.
Another standard resource is Michael Dyck's Contradance Index which in 2020 listed nearly 9000 dances, with web links if applicable.
But be warned — the whole ethos of dancing in the States is different. They change partners every dance, and they demand a partner swing and a neighbour swing in virtually every dance. I find I have quite a different repertoire when calling in the States. So you have to be selective, and you may find you want to change the dance for dancers in England — put in a do-si-do first rather than a 16-count swing. I think that's OK provided you tell people you've changed it.
What about Squares? Even in the States, a lot of good well-known contra callers don't do squares — partly because squares are unpopular, and partly because they're harder to call — which may be why they've become unpopular.
There's an introduction in my book “Squares with a Difference, Volume 2” which originated in my Callers' Workshop notes, and I'm not going to repeat it here — buy the book! There are also some excellent notes by Kathy Anderson which you can download from .cdss.org and which include a good selection of dances — there's even one of mine! And I go into much greater detail in Session 8 of my Training Sessions for callers.
Let me call one of mine and see if you callers learn anything. It's called “Grab the Nearest Girl”, and it's the one that always comes into my head when I'm asked to call a square, or I've just done one that they were struggling with and I want to throw in something simpler. Notice that the “all four ladies chain ¾” actually takes more than 8 steps, so I may slightly delay the call for “heads go forward and back” — otherwise some people will panic and lose it altogether. Notice also that I'm slightly late on saying “Grab the nearest girl and swing her” because I want the circle to go round as far as possible — otherwise the promenade gets home too soon.
Grab the Nearest Girl — Colin Hume, Squares with a Difference Volume 1
So was I improvising the breaks? No I wasn't — they're on one of my cards called “Break: Simple 2”. The first one starts with honours — always a good idea, particularly if you're working with live music which starts with fiddle scrapes and you don't know when the tune's going to start. And all of them end with a swing — not only an excellent finish, but a good way of using up the slack in the music. If you find the dancers are a bit slow you can always leave out the swing — but don't just stay silent. You can put in words like “Sides — are you ready?”
Getting everyone back together: If you've called something wrong and they've all done what you said, you can get everyone back to their partners. For instance, “All join hands and circle left. Swing your corner. Is that your original partner? No! OK, circle left again. Swing your new corner — is that the one you want?” And so on. But often you'll find that half the squares have done what you said, and the other half have done what they knew you meant! Then this is what you do:
Men go in with a right-hand star. Now back with a left-hand star. Keep hold of the star; pick up your original partner; star promenade.
Make sure you give them time to do this in all the squares, or you won't have helped them at all. Watch out for the ladies running frantically round the outside and encourage them to wait for their partner to come round again. When all the sets look happy you can continue in various ways, The safe one is “Open up and circle left”, probably followed by allemande left, grand chain and promenade. But you can also do “The gents swing out and the ladies in, turn one-and-a-half and the ladies right hands in — star promenade. All four ladies chain across. Turn them around and chain them back. Promenade your partner.”
If you're interested in calling Kentucky Running Set there are several books available, and Hugh Stewart also has a good set of notes at http://round.soc.srcf.net/dances/krs
Finally I must mention Singing Squares. They can be great for building the atmosphere, and in many ways they're easier to call than patter squares, because the timing is built into the dance. But for heaven's sake don't do them unless you've got a reasonable singing voice! Make sure you know what key you want, and watch out for the bands who think it's fun to go up to the next key each time through the dance — I can cope with this, but you might not.
Some singing squares have the call coming after the point where the dancers are supposed to do the move. In my opinion this is a bad dance, and I have no hesitation in changing the words to improve the timing. For instance, there's a simple version of “Oh Johnny”, suitable for a Barn Dance, containing:
Do-si-do your partner, right where you are.
The men make a left-hand star.
The word “do-si-do” appears on the beat where the movement starts, which is acceptable in a singing square. But the word “star” comes far too late. I call it as:
Do-si-do your partner; the men left-hand star.
It's once around you go.
Now the men are ready for the star, the call continues happily while they take it around, and it even rhymes with the final “Oh Johnny, oh Johnny, oh”.
If the dancers are having trouble with a singing square, drop back into patter and forget about singing for a while. You can do a mixture — sing the easy bits but speak the tricky bits — and then return to the singing call when they feel more confident. What I don't like is a caller who announces that he's going to do some well-known singing square and then does it as a patter square while the band play the tune.
You must understand the dance. That doesn't mean you have to know it so thoroughly that you can call it without the card, or I'd lose most of my repertoire. But it does mean that when I write out my card I've been through it with my bits of cardboard, seen how it works, and thought about the problems. It seems to me that a lot of callers aren't prepared to put in this preparation. It's just like interior decorating — most of the time is spent stripping off the old paint or paper and preparing the surface. If you're the sort of person who thinks “That's boring — I want to get on and see some results”, you'll never achieve the finish that a good decorator will. I see people calling a tricky Pat Shaw dance from the book, and they obviously haven't thought it through. The dancers ask where they should be, and the caller doesn't have a clue — he just comes back to “Well, that's what it says here”. That simply isn't good enough. I make mistakes too, even in dances I think I know well, but at least I've made an honest attempt to master the dance. Have a look at my cards (please leave them at the front of the box if you aren't sure where you got them from) and see how I write out a tricky dance. And I do try and visualise all the moves, and think — what's likely to go wrong? John Lagden was brilliant at this — he knew what the problems were likely to be, and he warned you in advance. If I call it and there's a problem I hadn't anticipated, I write it on the card for next time.
Walk it through without rushing it, and make sure people are doing what you want. If your eyes are glued to the card you won't see what problems they're having. Look at all the sets, not just the one in front of you.
How much should you say before the dancers move? You'll have real trouble stopping people moving — even though you've said “Don't move yet” — people can only take in a certain number of words before their buffer is full! What you can try is the stop-go approach. “Ones cross and cast — now stop. Man down, lady up — half a reel of three across — and stop. Ones are now improper in middle place”. That's to reassure people, and you can tell by the movement whether some of them weren't. Let me repeat — you must watch all the sets. “Now it's three-quarters of a double figure eight — stick with me — don't move yet. Do half a double figure eight — ones cross moving up, twos cast down, twos cross up, ones cast down — and stop — the twos are still facing out. Now we do just one change more…” and so on.
Another good idea if people are struggling is to demonstrate the move with a set which seem reasonably good. Take someone's place and control the set from within — don't let them rush it to show how clever they are! You can make this entertaining rather than boring if you work at it.
When should you stop the walkthrough and start the dance? There's no set answer to that one. Most dances I do after one walkthrough. For an American Square I often do one walkthrough for the heads, move the ladies on another place, and do a second walkthrough for the sides. (If you don't move the ladies on, two of the ladies have led the figure twice and two of them haven't had a chance.) I also find I explain it much better the second time! For a progressive set dance such as “Buzzard's Bay” you may have to walk it through for each couple in turn. For a really complicated one such as “Four Winds” you may have to walk it through for one couple, dance it for them, walk it for the second couple, and so on. Don't do this when Renata's there — she gets really bored with it! But then she picks these things up easily — there's no point in starting up the music unless people have a reasonable chance of getting through the dance.
Should you ever give up? Yes, I think you should. If people are hating every minute of the walkthrough and there doesn't seem any likelihood of getting to dance it, it's time to admit defeat. Remember the motto: It's always the caller's fault. They may be a bunch of idiots who don't listen — but you should have realised that before you started calling such a difficult dance. Apologise to them — don't tell them what you really think of them — and do another dance in the same formation which you know you can get them through. I've seen callers abandon a dance, move on to another, and have to abandon that too. Your credibility is gone!
One of the problems with the Folk Dance movement is that people think that their part of it is the only real part, and that everybody else ought to do the same thing. This is nonsense. I'm not involved in Ceilidh, Clog or Morris, but I certainly don't feel that those people ought to be doing proper dancing (i.e. Playford and American, which I happen to enjoy). I believe people should be encouraged to do their own thing in Folk.
And then there's the problem of how you describe the sort of dances I call for. Calling them “Dancers Dances” or “Social Dancing” implies that ceilidh dancers aren't dancers or aren't social, which I don't believe for one moment — you could argue that the ceilidh crowd do much more actual dancing than the people I call for, who do a lot of walking (dare I say plodding) in many cases. But we need some word or phrase, and that's what I'm going to use unless someone comes up with a better one.
If you're a caller you're probably involved with one side or the other, but it's very useful to know how the other half lives. You may be asked to call with a band from the other camp, for instance. I've called with Peeping Tom (only for ten minutes, I admit). I've done an evening with Aunt Thelma's Candlelight Orchestra (Simon Care's band before he started Tickled Pink). I've called with Junction 24, who were originally on the Dance side when they were Hoedown, but moved across to the Ceilidh side when they changed their name. I don't panic if I'm asked to work with a ceilidh band, but I am aware that I'll be doing a different sort of programme from my regular one — and that may not please the dancers who go along expecting a typical Colin Hume dance. Even if you're working with a Social Dance band, what do you do if a crowd of ceilidh dancers turn up to your dance or club night? You certainly don't want to scare them off — they're probably 20 years younger than all the other dancers! If it's a Playford Ball you're entitled to say “Watch the first couple of dances and see what you think — it may not be your thing”. But if it's an ordinary dance I think it's your job to provide them with something of what they're used to — without alienating the other dancers.
A ceilidh band usually has several sets of tunes they would like to play, and they expect the caller to accommodate this. They will not be used to going three times through and then stopping — indeed, most of the instruments may not even have come in yet. Some ceilidh bands will simply refuse to stop until they have done their standard routine for that set of tunes. They probably don't play from music, and they're even less likely to be willing to sight-read something. They probably won't sound right playing American reels for a square. What they will sound right playing is their own music, and it's up to you to provide the sort of dances which enable them to do so. Many dances which I've heard described as ceilidh dances are actually traditional dances, of which you will find plenty in the Community Dance Manuals (now republished by EFDSS as a single volume edited by Les Barclay and Ian Jones). Or try my “other” website, barndances.org.uk.
I ran a series of Callers' Workshops at Sidmouth in 2001 in conjunction with well-known ceilidh callers Gordon Potts and Nick Walden. There was a good deal of agreement between us on what was required of a caller — which may have surprised some of the participants but didn't surprise us: we're doing the same job. The main difference seemed to be what went at the end of the microphone lead! They also both recommended having dance instructions in a book rather than on cards — it's not good to tip out your entire selection of dance cards onto the floor because you thought the case was closed! True enough, but I have a lot more dances in my repertoire and do more varied sessions — it's horses for courses as usual. They both gave examples of problems they had had with ceilidh bands determined to do things their own way — which quite surprised me I must admit. Some ceilidh bands have a set speed for a tune and won't deviate from it. Their approach when working with a band they don't know is to buy all their CDs and decide what to call which will best fit the tracks. Of course ceilidh callers are paid more than dance callers, so they can afford to do this!
Be confident. Nobody wants do dance to a caller who's terrified. John Chapman said he was always nervous before a dance — but he came across as someone who knew what he was doing, and people flocked to him.
Don't be too predictable. Tony Parkes is a great caller, but his popularity slumped dramatically and I'm told it's partly because he always does the same sort of programme. Take risks occasionally. Do it with conviction, and people will go along with you.
Praise people for what they've done well. Don't tell them they're wonderful if they're not — that's just cheap flattery — but find things they actually have done well. I seriously suggest that you buy a copy of “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie, and go through it seeing how you can use his ideas in calling. You'll be amazed what a difference it will make, provided you're willing to work at it. It comes back to preparation again: are you willing to put in the time and effort needed to make you a better caller?
Running a Day of Dance is hard work, for you and the musicians, and it needs a lot of planning. From the music point of view, it depends what sort of dances you're teaching.
For an American workshop I want flat reels for the squares, and more tuneful reels or jigs for the contras; I usually go out of my way to do some contras to jigs, otherwise the band will get fed up with reel after reel. In squares I tell the band that I will put my thumb up during the last eight bars, and this means “Stop at the end of this line whether it's a B2 or not”. It usually is, but sometimes people are struggling with the figure or I mess up the break and I find the next figure isn't starting at the right point in the music. Don't panic — keep the call going with conviction, even if it's four bars out. Sometimes you can put in a shorter swing and get back on track that way; if not, leave something out of the next break or add things in until you're in sequence with the music again.
For a Playford-style workshop (including Fallibroome, Maggot Pie, many Pat Shaw, many of mine), most if not all of the dances will have their own tunes, and you need to choose dances which vary in style of tune as well as tempo. Be aware of tunes with quirks. I write the number of bars for each line of music on my card if it's not the standard 8, and my card tells me exactly how I want the movements to fit the music. You should always know how many bars each movement takes, even if you don't spell it out to the dancers. If you call in the States you'll find people asking you this — and you'd better know the answer! Equally you should be prepared to take someone's place in a set and demonstrate fitting the movements to the music. This may be to demonstrate that you don't need to rush something. For instance, in “The Beau's Retreat” (Fallibroome) there are twelve steps (four bars of 3-time) for the “chase” movement which finishes with the active people improper in middle place, and another twelve steps for the two-hand turn 1½. If you count these out and people are still getting there too soon, a demonstration may be in order. Later there are three occurrences of a half figure eight followed by a half turn, and I think there should be eight steps for the half figure eight and four for the half turn; many people want to finish the half figure eight in six steps. You may equally need to demonstrate that there is enough music for a particular movement. For instance, in “The Siege of Limerick” (Playford) the first man has four bars of three time in which to cast, go below second man, come up, go through the ladies, cast round the second lady and cross over to progressed place. People don't seem to believe this can be done. “Up with Aily” (Playford as modified by Sharp) presents several short movements in a row which can be a real test of timing; your job is to demonstrate that it can be fitted to the music. The final sequence in “Easter Thursday” (Fallibroome) is another example.
If you're calling something with really strange timing, such as “Duchess of Grafton” from The Fallibroome Collection with its 10-bar A-music and 11-bar B-music, or “Cupid's Garden” from Maggot Pie which is in 3-time except for four bars in the middle of the B-music, you have to be totally confident that you know how the dance fits the music and can put this across to the dancers. I've been known to put the tune onto my computer and then call to it until I got confident. And I still go wrong in “Duchess of Grafton”.
For a Scottish workshop, I assume the band know more than I do about tunes and tempo, and leave them to it! Equally if there is a good Scottish dancer in the crowd I will ask them to demonstrate a Strathspey step because I'm sure they will do a better job of it than I will. Don't think that people will look down on you because you don't know everything — I have a lot more respect for someone who is willing to admit it.
You might decide to do clever stuff and have the band play the tune in different ways, or switch tunes or rhythms, to make points about the music. Explain clearly to the band well in advance, and they'll probably be willing — though you may find it's above the heads of most of the dancers.
Read my notes on Dance Technique! And there's a great set of notes by Richard Powers at http://dance.stanford.edu/ syllabi/teaching_tips.htm.
Also bear in mind that the dancers are in a different situation too. They may be exhausted by the time your afternoon workshop comes round, and not take kindly to long-winded explanations and five walkthroughs.
If you're booked for a Festival you'll probably be sent a draft copy of the programme, which will give session times, band and caller, and possibly an indication of what is required. It might say “English-style workshop” or “American-style workshop” for instance. If you only do one thing, there shouldn't be a problem. But I do both Playford and American, my own dances, sometimes Scottish, occasionally something totally off-the-wall like a Minuet workshop. I also like meaningful titles for my workshops, which tell the dancers what to expect. I don't usually go in for gimmicks such as dances named after ladies or stately homes, but other people certainly do.
You need to look at the weekend or week as a whole. If you haven't worked with some of the bands before, try to find out what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what sort of music they are known for. Then look at what workshops are on at the same time as yours, and before and after yours. For instance, Chippenham Festival usually runs two workshops at the same time, and the idea is to give the punters a real choice. If Robert Moir is running the other workshop, I'm confident that he will be doing something in the Playford vein, so I will choose something American, and vice versa if it's Lisa Greenleaf. Sometimes it's not so obvious, in which case I might contact the other caller to see what their plans are. As I said, also look at the workshop before or after yours. There may well be two workshops in the morning with the same band but different callers, and ditto in the afternoon. In that case I try to give the band a different style of music for their other workshop — provided they play more than one style. But after all this I look at the weekend as a whole. Maybe I find I'm doing all Playford, or all American, in which case I'd like to change things around. On the other hand, sometimes I look at the list of callers and realise that I'm the only caller who will be doing any American, so that's what I'd better do.
Most Festivals don't seem to give any levels to their workshops — there's nothing in the programme to say who they're aimed at. I've done workshops of complicated dances where a few beginners turned up and were totally bewildered (and sometimes belligerent). It's a very difficult situation where most of the people there are experienced dancers looking for complicated new material and a handful are people who just came in to find out what “Playford” means. I don't have a good answer to this one; I wish Festivals would advertise events more clearly.
What are good workshop titles? Here are some which I run.
You may be doing a series of workshops on the same theme, such as “American” or “Playford”. Again I would prefer to give a different title for each session. I might do “Genuine Playford”, “Playford's Followers”, “Maggot Pie”, “Pat Shaw” and “Modern Playford” for instance, to show how the dances developed over time. At Sidmouth in 2004 I did “English with Style”, “English for Enjoyment”, “Tricky English”, “Unusual English” and “English with Energy” over the five days.
And it's worth mentioning that in 2018 when Mike Courthold (Dance Director at Chippenham Folk Festival) sent out his set of notes to the callers a few days before the weekend, his final point was:
In all of your workshops and dances, remember that we are first and foremost entertainers.
Suppose there are two other big dances (maybe a Playford Ball and an American Evening) and you're calling the third dance in a smaller hall. The people who come to your dance will be there for many reasons. Some people don't want all Playford or all American; they prefer a mixture. Some may simply want to dance to you, or not like the bands or callers at the other two events. Some may not have managed to get in to the one they really wanted to go to! How should you try to keep all these people happy? The quick answer is that you can't! Especially the people who really wanted to dance to Kathy Anderson and it was the only event on her tour that they could get to. For heaven's sake, don't apologise for the fact that you're the “other” event, just thrown in because the organisers knew they couldn't fit everyone in to the two main venues. See it as an opportunity rather than a penance. I recommend that you call a mixed evening, involving Playford-style, American-style, maybe English Traditional-style, maybe even a Scottish dance or two — why not, if you can call them? I might do a session called “A Challenging Evening”, because some people like to be challenged and that's why they didn't fancy the other two events. I might even do a Raffle Dance. Everyone is given a raffle ticket, and if I draw out their ticket they choose the next dance. They can choose a specific dance, or a type of dance: “A good American Square”, “A Gary Roodman dance”, “A Playford dance in triple-time”. Of course you have to be confident that you can call all the dances in your repertoire without preliminary study (that's where good cards really show their value) and you have to have a band willing to do the same. If someone asks for something totally ridiculous, you and the band have a veto! In my experience this always goes down well and there's a great atmosphere. If you don't fancy any of these ideas, work out some of your own. Read the section on The Caller's Attitude — you've got a much better chance of success if you come across as “This is going to be a great evening and I'm glad you're here” rather than “I'm sorry you didn't manage to get into the Playford Ball”.
|Grind that Meal||Square||Traditional American||My website|
|Oswestry Square||Square||Gwyn Williams||My website|
|La Russe||Square||Traditional English||CDM1|
|Strip the Willow Square||Square||Eddie Upton||barndances.org.uk|
|Texas Star||Square||Boyd & Dunlavy||barndances.org.uk|
|Circle Hornpipe||Circle||Jim Billson||My website|
|English Gay Gordons||Circle||barndances.org.uk|
|The Muffin Man||Circle||Brian Jones|
|Snowflake Breakdown||Circle||Brian Jones||My website|
|Instant Mix||Circle||Ton Cook||Spoil the Broth|
|The Yellow Cat's Jig||Circle||Jim Gregory||My website|
|The Fast Packet||Longways duple||Bob Lilley||My website|
|Black Nag||3 Couples||Playford||My website|
|The Heathfield Rag||3 Couples||Colin Hume||DWAD2|
|The Retiring Librarian||3 Couples||Geoff Todd||My website|
|Barley Reel||4 Couples||barndances.org.uk|
|Clopton Bridge||4 Couples||John Chapman||barndances.org.uk|
|Helena||4 Couples||Colin Hume||My website|
|Lord of Carnarvon's Jig||4 Couples||Playford||CDB|
|Sheldon Lions' Jig||4 Couples||Ray Cope (“Moose”)||barndances.org.uk|
|Daniel's Delight||5 Couples||Hilda Chapman|
|Pentonville||5 Couples||Ron Stirrup|
|The Boston Tea Party||6 Couples||Peter Butler||Captain's Ceilidh|
|Stoke Golding Country Dance||5 Couples||Traditional English||CDM5|
|The Willow Tree||8 Couples||Hugh Rippon||barndances.org.uk|
|Balance the Star||Sicilian Circle||McLain family||barndances.org.uk|
|Sicilian Circle||Sicilian Circle||Make up your own|
|Die Woaf||Couple||My website|
OK, maybe that's a bit too negative. I've called for final dances with a stage full of musicians which went really well. I remember one Lichfield Festival saying to Heather Bexon and Lin Hetherington, “I'd like to book your band”, to which they replied, “You couldn't afford us” — and it was true!
One way of splitting the beginners up is to do a mixer and at the end say “Keep this partner and form three-couple sets — we'll do so-and-so”. The Beckenham Club used to ask all their callers to do this once in an evening. You may get complaints — from the people who aren't interested in the Dance Community — “I got an awful woman and you forced me to do Fandango with her”. You will find it's never the best dancers who complain — it's the ones who aren't as good as they think they are! I believe you have to stand firm and explain about raising the general standard and giving newcomers a chance to partner good dancers they might not otherwise dance with (if you can say that with a straight face). You might even — if you're feeling evangelical — say “Which do you think is more important — that you did one dance with a not-so-good partner or that newcomers have a chance to find out how to dance well?!”
The person who requested this topic added “and shutting them up”. Well, in my experience it's not just the beginners you have to shut up! If they're talking it's probably because you've confused them in the walkthrough. Please don't use the school-teacher approach unless you have really good rapport with the crowd. Kathy Anderson is very good at quietening people down without anyone taking offence. Sometimes you can do it just by your tone of voice — not shouting, but with a bit more edge to it. Some callers ramble along talking about things and the dancers actually don't realised they've started the walkthrough. You shouldn't need a signal to shut them up — and if you start using one you may find it becomes a habit. John Lagden managed to drop his trademark “Ssh” signal, which I think was really impressive. Hilary Herbert says “Right”. A school-teacher who shall be nameless uses “Er-hum”. Ian Jones uses “Right” and “OK” — often both. I often say “The dance starts like this” — but I'm trying to break myself of that one — and no doubt I have other phrases. If you must use some phrase to get people's attention, at least vary it! But you should be able to get through to them simply by starting the call positively: “Head couples, forward and back”. And look at what's happening — you'll soon see if you're getting through. “The set at the bottom — are you receiving me!? Head couples, forward and back”.
Sometimes getting the band to play the music quieter can have an amazing effect on the dancers. Of course this needs to be when the dancers have learnt the dance and you've stopped calling. In a longways dance I sometimes say to the band: “Two more times — one quiet and one loud?”. But some bands won't know what to make of this, or will resent you telling them how to play.
Of course the speed affects the mood. Know what speed you would like — but be prepared to change your mind if it doesn't seem to be working. I sometimes ask the dancers what they think of the speed after we've done the dance all the way through. You will probably get a mixed response, so be ready to make a firm decision and stick to it. Of course the same can apply to “Would you like to do it again?”
Now consider the overall sound. Is it too loud or soft? Be aware that when more people arrive they will deaden the sound, and things may change dramatically. Is it too blurred and fuzzy? Ask if they've got any reverb on, and suggest they take it off. Is the fiddle screechy? Suggest they take some treble off it. In fact you don't necessarily have to make technical suggestions; just report what you hear and leave them to do something about it. Is it a really awful hall (a glass-sided gymnasium for instance)? Maybe all you can do is raise the bass level considerably, so that at least the dancers know where the beat is.
You also need to take into account the time available, and the fact that the band will be feeling under pressure if you constantly request changes. Sometimes there just isn't any good answer.
After the band sound is acceptable, see whether you can be heard over it. (Being audible while the band aren't playing doesn't count.) A radio microphone is a decided advantage here. The idea is not for you to drown out the band completely; people are supposed to be dancing to the music, not to you (though often they aren't). The real test is an American Square where you're extemporising breaks; you'll be amazed at how many people will rush up and tell you they can't hear you.
Try to go out onto the floor during the first or second dance and listen again now the hall has (you hope) filled up somewhat. After that, leave the band to it unless things go wildly out; they don't want to be rebalanced every few minutes.
Sometimes it's very useful to teach part of a dance, do that to the music, then teach the next part. I don't do this as often as many callers, but it depends on the dance and the crowd. If I think they've struggled with the walkthrough of the first figure, I will certainly turn to the band and say “once through the tune” and dance that figure. It also gives the dancers the speed and style of the music. Then I may walk the second and third figures through without feeling the need to get them dancing it, then dance the whole thing — so they start with the figure they've already danced once and they feel confident. If I know I'm going to walk each figure through and then dance it, I warn the band in advance. In “Cupid's Garden” from Maggot Pie, I often teach the Grand Square and then do just this to music, before teaching the first figure. The move comes before each of the three figures, all of which are complicated, so I want to be sure that the dancers are confident with this recurring feature — and it gets then used to moving in three-time.
Dancing little bits can certainly help some people but not others, so don't automatically assume you need to do this. If you do, you need to be very clear to the band where you want them to start. If you've got the A's and B's on your card, it should be easy to say to them “one B” or even “two B's and the first bit of the C”. I know that's a vague ending, but just say “I'll stop you” and they won't mind — provided you do stop them positively and don't make them look stupid. It's unreasonable to say to the band: “Can we go from the second half double figure eight” — they don't play half double figure eights!
You can say “I want to start from bar 5 of the B-music”, but that's more confusing, and it may not make musical sense; bands may not like starting part-way through a phrase, and it may also throw the dancers. It's usually better to get the band to play the whole of the B-music and say to the dancers “Don't move yet — I'll tell you when to come in”. Indeed you can talk through what they would be doing while the first few bars are playing.
If I've got a lively crowd I may well finish the second half with two energetic dances, one gentle one and two energetic ones. Somebody once said to me: “I enjoyed the evening, but I didn't feel danced out”, and I've modified my programming since then. If some people really aren't up to the energetic dances they can choose to sit out. Be aware that “energetic” is not an exact term; it's people's perception of a dance that counts. “Devil's Dream” isn't nearly as energetic as “Morpeth Rant”: it's all walked, and there isn't even a swing. It's lively rather than energetic. But it's an all action dance, people like the fact that you go a long way up or down the set and then come back — it's a great end to the evening. It's not a dance you would do near the start, even though people are much fresher. I usually start with a Playford-style longways immediately followed by an American-style longways which is not too violent.
The mood of the evening is also affected by differences in style. If you download my Dance Organiser program from my web site you can see the programmes of all my dances for a two-year period. Look at them and try to see why I did those dances in that order. And see whether you agree; I certainly don't always get it right.
Don't assume that simple dances are going to raise the mood and a complicated one is going to depress it; a complicated dance that people have to struggle with but eventually get right can produce an amazing atmosphere. Just don't do two or three of them in a row! I did a Raffle Dance (where I draw a ticket and the owner chooses the next dance) at a residential weekend in 2002 with very good dancers — the final request of the evening was “Step Stately”. What would you have done at quarter to eleven?! It went down a bomb — it was a great finish to the evening.
The mood is also dramatically affected by the mood of the caller, or at least his perceived mood — he might be putting on an act and hating every minute of it. A good caller can do a pretty average programme and make it a great evening. John Chapman always gave the crowd a great evening. And John Turner from Southampton has the same approach — we've come here to have a great time — let's enjoy ourselves.
But let's look at the dance itself. There are a lot of dances being written these days that just aren't worth dancing. Novelty for its own sake is not enough, but equally a dance which is the same as dozens of others had better have a superb tune. I think some of the complicated modern dances fail because you're not really dancing with people; you're just walking round in complicated patterns. Some modern writers' dances are not really for four couples, they're for eight people. You may be amazed to hear me say this, but I do think hard about whether you're actually dancing with your partner. You'll find that a lot of my Playford-style dances finish with “All two-hand turn partner”, and this is not by chance. And a lot of my traditional-style or American-style dances finish with “Everybody swing”.
Tony Parkes says that too many modern contras start with “happily ever after” and finish with “once upon a time” — because they have a partner swing early on, and finish with a neighbour swing. That's why Becket formation dances have become so popular in the States: you can finish with “everybody swing your partner” without the danger of colliding that you would get in a normal longways.
But as always it's “horses for courses”; some people love the complicated patterns and don't want to dance “Helena” because it's too simple.
One final very practical bit of advice — if you don't like a dance, don't call it!
There are far more books of dances now than when I started calling in 1978. A lot of the dances won't do anything for you. The trouble is, it can takes a long time to read a dance through and work out the writer meant before you can decide it's rubbish! Use the same principle as with reading novels — if you find one you like, look for others by the same author.
Two good resources are:
Explore contra dances using advanced figure search, choosing from hundreds of dances in a live, cloud-based, crowd-sourced database.
The Caller's Box: a contra dance database produced by Chris Page and Michael Dyck.
If you're looking for specific recommendations — well, it all depends who the dances are for. If you're looking for Barn Dance repertoire — simple lively dances for people who may never have done this sort of thing before — an excellent resource is Thomas Green's website: barndances.org.uk.
For contras, see the section on Calling American Squares and Contras.
I'm not talking from much practical experience, but it seems to me there are various points. First of all, don't try to do too much in one go, or you'll put them off completely. The real secret of persuading people to do anything is this: You must make them want to do it. Of course that's easier said than done, but it makes a lot of sense. Dale Carnegie talks a lot about this in “How to win friends and influence people”. Buy a copy of the book — it's not expensive. You'll find in there “Seven ways to make people do what you want” with plenty of practical examples. I've mentioned one before: Throw down a challenge. Suppose you call an energetic dance, and join in yourself — show them that you can do things like that and enjoy them rather than looking down on their sort of dancing. And then you say: OK, you can do that. It requires a bit of energy and an idea of where you're going. But dancing slowly is actually much harder than leaping about: it needs more control. It's like the scene in the film “Titanic” where they're all doing fast Irish dancing and being really macho, and maybe hoping to intimidate the upper-class girl. And then she says “All right you tough men — which of you can do this?” and calls on her ballet training to go up on the points of her toes.
And then maybe call “Helena”, which is slow and needs skill to appear flowing and not a plod. Show them the style you want — graceful without being affected — and say “Don't worry, I'm not going to do this sort of thing all evening; I just want to see whether you can do it”.
I think some of us have forgotten that when we were younger we preferred the energetic dances. If you come across as “That's a load of rubbish — let me teach you some real dancing” you won't get anywhere. If you start from where they are — by joining in an energetic dance — you can then say “Isn't that a great dance. And here's another great dance, but in a very different style”. And if you call “Hole in the Wall” and they say it's a stupid dance, don't say “No it isn't, it's beautiful”; say “Yes I know; it's much more difficult to do it well” and then leave it and do Morpeth Rant!
My advice is to record yourself and then play it back and imagine that you're a dancer standing in the set waiting to be told what to do.
All of this depends very much on the musicians' (and your) attitude. If they have the attitude “We know we're not very good, and we'd like to improve”, I would be willing to spend a lot of time helping them. Of course that's easier for me, as I'm a musician too, but if you're a caller and a dancer you will still be able to help them by telling them what works and what doesn't work from your point of view. Go along to their practice sessions and pretend you're calling to a group of dancers, so that the band can see things as you do. You might even go all the way and take a few dancers along with you. This is not the same as being at the club night, where the band may feel under considerable pressure to get things right instantly. You're on their territory, and you can make it clear that the purpose of the evening is to help them rather than to give the dancers what they want. Choose your dancers carefully; they can also give useful feedback to the band about things inexperienced musicians never think about. Praise any improvement and perhaps throw down a challenge occasionally (I'm back to Dale Carnegie again) — let them know that they are appreciated. Most musicians want to improve; they just need some instruction and encouragement. Maybe you know a good band leader who would come along occasionally and give them the sort of technical advice that you can't do yourself — you'll find most good band leaders very willing to do this. And of course there are musicians' workshops at Festivals and Folk Camps.
But I must give the other side too. There are musicians who have been bad for years and have no intention of changing. I'm afraid your only option here is to try and create a new band. And with a bad band it's even more important to find out what they enjoy playing, because they will probably play that better. You have my sympathy.
One of the follow-up activities after this weekend — if you want to take it further — is observing other callers and writing a report. Several well-known callers have been very reluctant when a student from the Callers Course has asked if they can observe them. But the fact is, dancers are observing callers all the time — it's just that they make their comments to the other dancers rather than to the caller! They may not be doing it consciously, but they know which callers they like, which callers irritate them, and which callers explain the dances well but somehow don't inspire them. As a caller, you can learn a tremendous amount from other callers — both good points to take on board, and bad points to avoid. Often the best way is to record them (after asking permission from the band and caller) — that way you have a chance to study everything at your leisure. Of course, you won't pick up all the interaction between caller, band and dancers; maybe several video cameras is a better idea, but this would intimidate any caller!
There are so many things to observe. Some are obvious — does he (or she) understand the dance; can he put it across clearly in the walkthrough; can he call it so that the dancers are able to dance it to the music? Others are not obvious but even more important; does he inspire confidence; are the dancers enjoying the evening?
Often you learn most by observing callers under pressure. How does he deal with problems? If people can't understand the call, does he become sarcastic? Or abusive? Say the same words again only louder? Or does he in a good-humoured way go through the explanation in different words, walk the figure through in stop-start mode, or come down on the floor and demonstrate?
What does he do if his instructions actually don't work? Does he accuse the crowd of making a mess of it, and walk it through twice more with exactly the same result? Does he panic? Does he take up five or six suggestions from the floor and try them out? Does he sort out the problem rapidly himself? Or does he change to a similar dance which he knows he can get right?
What does he do when the dance collapses? How does he react to remarks from the floor — both joking repartee and serious objections? Is he confident enough to stick to his guns if he knows he's right, without coming across as patronising, arrogant or self-righteous? If he makes a mistake does he admit it honestly — and then move on, rather than making renewed apologies for the next ten minutes?
What is the caller's relationship with the crowd? Does he come across as a dictator? A school-teacher? A friendly helper? A wimp? Is he aware of the image he is projecting? Is he the sort of person you want to have telling you what to do?
Some callers always have to be totally in control: everybody must do exactly as they say, and any barracking has to be immediately crushed. Others are too open to suggestions from the floor, and a problem in the walkthrough can turn into a discussion group. Some are too willing to admit that they might have made a mistake when a single person queries them; others will pretend they are right when half the floor is in total confusion.
What are the caller's expectations? Has he come there with a programme of dances which he is determined to call, regardless? Is he insistent on teaching the crowd things for their own good when they've just come to enjoy themselves? Or is he doing a simple programme to cater for the two newcomers who have shown up, unaware that the great majority want something more challenging?
Of course you don't normally know what preparation the caller has done before the dance, or what he is thinking; a good caller can size up the crowd in the first couple of dances and scrap her entire programme without anyone but the band realising. But you can observe what the caller actually says and does. Try to develop the habit of putting yourself in the caller's place. “What would I do in this situation?” “What sort of dance would I follow this one with?” “Would I walk this one through a second time from original positions, or from the new positions or not at all?” And then see what he does, and ask yourself whether you think he made the right decision in the circumstances.
You may have the opportunity to speak to the caller during the break or after the dance, and ask him why he made certain decisions. Some callers will be quite happy to talk with you; others will think it's none of your business or will be too busy talking to other people, pacifying their wives or planning the second half! And after the dance many callers will be feeling tired and simply wanting to pack up and go home. So by all means ask one question — but if the caller doesn't give a clear indication that he'd be glad to discuss things further, leave it at that. And be aware that you'll get a better response from “I really enjoyed the evening, and I was wondering how you managed to get people through Step Stately so smoothly” than from “Why on earth did you walk through Newcastle three times?” Also try to ask open-ended questions which allow the caller to expand as he wishes, rather than questions with a yes/no answer.
Get up close and observe his interaction with the band. Does he treat them as equal participants in the evening — by joking with them, praising them when they play something particularly well, mentioning them as individuals occasionally? Or are they just a CD player to be switched on and off as required? Or does he defer to them too much, and never dare to suggest that they should play faster or slower? Does he know when to let the band get away with things, and when to be firm with them? Do they look bored? Do they look as if they'd rather not be playing this music at this time? (This may not be the caller's fault, of course!) Does he give the impression of enjoying working with the band and appreciating their music, or is it more an attitude of “Oh God, what are they doing with this tune?”!
Do the band seem to enjoy working with the caller? You might find them more willing to talk to you than the person who has just been talking into a microphone for two hours — musicians don't often get a chance to put their point of view. Try to start with a remark that doesn't put them on the spot. Instead of “What do you think of the caller?”, how about “Well, he's certainly putting you through your paces tonight”. Then they can say as much or as little as they like.
Does the caller put on an act, and appear very different when not on-stage? Or is he just the same? Or is he not so much adopting a false personality as emphasising certain aspects of his character and downplaying others? Does it matter? Is the caller like an actor who plays many parts and does not reveal his underlying self? Ask yourself what sort of caller you want to be.
Observe the whole dance floor from a good viewpoint, and decide what level of chaos the caller seems to find acceptable. Some people will keep calling if so much as one person on the floor still seems hesitant. Others feel that a few people making mistakes is fine, that the other dancers will enjoy putting them right, and that it's more important to shut up and let people dance to the music. If the dance suddenly starts breaking down, is the caller ready to start calling again? Or is he chatting with someone, unaware of the situation for too long, and then likely to panic and come in with the wrong call? Do you agree with his assessment of the chaos level? How much more or less would you call?
Let's look at the exercise we suggest you do: a more formal written observation of a few callers with different styles and in different situations. As I said, this has certain pitfalls. You will find that even good experienced callers will be nervous when approached with the request “Can I observe you tonight?” — although everybody there will be doing just that. They may see it as a threat. Explain that the purpose is to help you become a better caller, not to put them on the spot. Ideally you should ask in advance, and then be able to talk to the caller before the dance, see how he expects the evening to go, and get a general idea of his programme and calling style. Then afterwards you can compare notes and find out what he found necessary to change and what he had problems with. One very good approach with a caller coming from a distance is to offer to put him up overnight. This means he will see you as being on his side, you can probably discuss things before getting to the venue, and you will have a chance to talk to him the next morning when he's not feeling tired or rushed and has had a chance to assess the situation himself.
We would like you to detail the first dance he called. Sometimes the first dance can set the tone for the whole evening, and it is also the time when the caller discovers what the dancers can (or cannot) do, and whether there are any problems with the amplification. And we want you to comment specifically on one other — how he explained it, how he called it, how it went. You will need to be watching and taking notes, not joining in the dance. Also write down anything which you think you might have done differently, and any useful tips which you picked up. You will find that some callers see this as a possible criticism, so be aware of their fragile egos (and remember that when you're famous people may do the same to you) — make sure you find plenty to praise as well as things to query. Ask the caller to write down whether he agrees or disagrees with your assessment, and any other comments he thinks are relevant. You will discover that some callers have an instinct for doing the right thing and are amazed at your blow-by-blow account of how they dealt with the crowd! Others will really appreciate the fact that you were impressed by the way they judged what the dancers could do, taught a few things without coming across as bossy or arrogant, put the crowd at their ease and dealt with problems.
If the caller really made a hash of things he will be well aware of this and probably not appreciate you telling him so. In this case be sympathetic, and tell him he had a difficult night. You're putting yourself in his place rather than attacking him. He may then admit that he handled things badly — or he may blame the dancers, the organisers, the band, conflicting events — whatever. Ask yourself whether there is some truth in these things, or whether the caller feels the need to justify himself. Again, ask yourself how you would react in the same circumstances. A really good caller will not blame others for his own shortcomings. But he may genuinely have seen things completely differently, or have been reacting to events you knew nothing about — maybe his wife has just left him, or the band refused to play anything but jigs that night!
Sometimes the art of a caller is in dealing with problems so that people don't even notice them. The caller who can talk entertainingly for half a minute because he's aware that the band aren't ready, rather than pointedly waiting for them to sort themselves out, scores highly in my book. So does the caller who can get the band back to the right place in the music rather than stopping the dance.
Nobody can please all of the people all of the time. Some will say that he undercalled, some that he overcalled. Some will complain that he didn't do any traditional dances, others that the whole evening was too energetic. So if you have the time, try to find out what other dancers thought of the evening. Don't start by presenting your own opinions and inviting them to agree; find out what they think, and don't then immediately disagree with them. If you tell them why you're asking, most of them will be delighted to give you their point of view and you will be hard pressed to write everything down! You will be surprised at the number of different perceptions there can be of the same dance, and this should again make you realise that there's a lot to being a good caller. And by the way, don't feel obliged to report all of these comments to the caller — it may or may not be helpful. Also be aware that people's enjoyment of the dance is affected by many factors other than the band and caller, so don't be too eager to accept a specific person's remarks. If they all say the same things, these will be worth taking into account.
Finally, remember that you are dealing with people and emotions. There is no such thing as a perfect caller or a perfect dance; dancers have different expectations and different reactions. A caller may make a real mess of the evening and yet everyone feels that they have had a wonderful time. Which is more important?
If you want your walkthrough to be effective, the first point is to decide what effect you want it to have. That may seem obvious — you want the people to understand the dance so that they can get through it when the music starts, and you don't want to take forever doing it. But there's actually a lot more to it. This is the time when you stamp your personality on the event — whether you mean to or not! And it's also the time when you can get them to dance a bit better.
There's a school of thought that a caller is not supposed to be entertaining — he's just there to give instructions. I don't agree with this at all. People are there to enjoy themselves, so why not make the walkthrough enjoyable as well as the dancing. That doesn't mean you need to be a stand-up comic, and you don't want the entertainment to get in the way of the teaching, but there's a happy medium. I don't tell jokes, though some callers do; I hope my humour arises naturally out of the situation, though I find myself saying the same witty things in the same situation and I have to watch out that I don't get too predictable. For instance, there's the progressive version of the “Gay Gordons”, which I've heard called “English Gay Gordons”, “Canadian Gay Gordons”, “Chapelloise”, “Allemannsmarsj”, “All American Promenade” and other names. You're in a circle, men on the inside, facing counter-clockwise. I used to call it regularly at Barn Dances (one-night stands). I would say, “Take inside hands, walk four steps forward; change hands to face the other way and do four steps backwards”. At this point most of the crowd would walk forwards, and I would say loudly, “backwards”. Everybody laughed — and they remembered it the next time — well, most of them.
I really believe that if you're entertaining you'll hold the crowd's attention better, and that means they'll take in more. When I was a freelance lecturer on computer programming I used the same approach, and a team leader once told me that although my courses covered much the same syllabus as other people's, the attendees seemed to remember more of what they learnt on mine. Some callers are technically good — they explain things clearly; they call at the right time — but they're boring. Do you want to be a boring caller? So watch while I'm doing the walkthroughs. See if people are smiling. You may decide my approach doesn't work, or doesn't work for you, but at least consider it. You're not a machine, giving instructions to other machines; it's interaction between people, just like the dancing. But this isn't done much in North America, and I've certainly had Americans say “You're very funny, Colin, but we've forgotten the dance”, so maybe this isn't appropriate in some places. I've never had an English person say that.
What about getting people to dance better? First of all, they need to understand how the dance fits the music. Usually it's obvious — I don't bother telling people that a circle left is 8 steps, though I might mention that you need to give a bit of weight to make sure the circle gets all the way round and you're ready for the next move. In a contra you often get “Circle left three-quarters, pass through”, and there I would point out that the pass through is at the end of that phrase, not the start of the next one — contra dancers often aren't good at giving weight and they'll take the whole 8 steps for the circle three-quarters. If the timing isn't obvious, it's the caller's job to explain it during the walkthrough, not leave the dancers to find out when the music starts. This is particularly true in triple-time. Is the circle left 6 steps, in which case you really need to push it round, or 12 steps, in which case you have to work hard to make sure you don't get there too soon? Some top teachers such as Bruce Hamilton say you should never tell people how many steps — just doodle the tune — but I don't agree. As a dancer, I want to know — and it doesn't mean I'll be counting under my breath for the whole dance. I recently called my dance “Garden City Square” where the tune is a mixture of jig and slip-jig, and I spent some time explaining how many steps the various moves would take. I started by getting the band to play the tune and I counted it out. And there were still points where people asked me again about the timing. I've seen well-known callers walk through an entire dance without mentioning that it was in triple time. It's not true that you need to be a musician to be a caller, but you certainly need to understand the music and be aware of it.
But I was talking about getting people to dance better.
It's very common at English dances in North America to have a musician play the tune while the dancers are walking through. I don't cope well with this — I feel things are out of my control, and often the musician guesses wrongly with my dances and is on the wrong bit of music, or I'm waiting for him to play the last two bars. I suppose I feel that if the timing is obvious we don't need the music, and if it's not obvious I want to take my time and explain it properly. But if you want to do that, by all means go ahead.
There's a whole section of notes on my website about teaching Dance Technique, so let me just pull out a few quick points and then it's your turn to try things.
I normally start by taking five or ten minutes to talk people through my set of notes on Dancing without a Walkthrough, and after that it's solid calling. I don't suggest you try this until you're very experienced at calling Squares and Contras, but if you're determined to have a go here are a few pointers.
I always do medleys for these dances — if you do the same contra a large number of times through, or the same square figure twice for the heads and twice for the sides, it doesn't have enough impact because they've probably learnt the figure. So for contras I choose say three dances and do them each about five times, often returning to the first for one final turn. There are a few things to consider. There are some moves which are not in themselves difficult, but which need to be explained in advance because they're non-standard. Avoid them! And you have to be sure that the end of each contra will flow into the start of the next contra. For instance, each could start by doing something with your neighbour. It doesn't have to be the same thing — one could be do-si-do, one balance and swing, one allemande left — but at least you know people will be facing the right direction when you start a new dance. You will probably need to warn them that things are about to change, either by saying “Now listen…” or just by raising your voice and giving the call a little sooner than you normally would.
You may decide to have a family likeness to the dances in your medley — I danced a very good one where the first one had an allemande left with a shadow, the second had some other action with the same shadow… and in the final dance where the caller said “Swing your shadow” there was a tremendous reaction from the crowd (this was in the States). But you also need variety — you don't want the dancers feeling that all the dances were very similar.
If you're doing a medley of Becket formation dances, make sure they all progress in the same direction! If you want to be really clever, you can modify the end of the last turn through a contra to convert it from duple improper to Becket or vice-versa ready to start the next dance — I've not tried this yet!
For squares I choose four figures each of which moves the ladies round one place in the same direction. Then I call:
Break (with partner), Figure 1 for the heads, Figure 2 for the heads, Break (with opposite), Figure 3 for the sides, Figure 4 for the sides, Break (with partner), Figure 3 for the heads, Figure 4 for the heads, Break (with opposite), Figure 1 for the sides, Figure 2 for the sides, final Break (with partner).
This means that everybody does each figure as part of the leading couple and as part of the other couple. Some (male) callers don't seem to realise that the way they do it the same ladies are leading the same figure each time.
Above all, you have to be flexible and aware of what's going on. The dancers are up for a challenge, but they want some chance of getting through the dance! You have to watch what's going on rather than being glued to your cards (good advice for any dance) and be willing to lose the timing altogether if people just aren't getting it. You can add fillers like “Up to the middle and back” while the squares at the back of the hall try to catch up. Sometimes you'll just have to say, “Sorry, that was a little too ambitious. Go back to where you were at the start of that figure — the men were home and the ladies were one place to the left of home — and we'll try again”. Keep the music going, and don't blame the dancers — maybe you misjudged them or maybe it really was a much more difficult move than you thought. The great thing is that no-one knows what you have in mind, so they can never say you're wrong! Make sure you know at least one couple who belong together, and get them back together. You can ask “Is that your partner?” and if most of the room shout out “No!” you can use my way of getting everyone back together described in the “Calling Squares” section.
So how do you cope with a situation like this? The first rule comes from Douglas Adams' Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy — Don't panic And the second rule, which makes the first rule easier to apply, is from Baden-Powell's Scouts: Be prepared. If I go to dance at a festival or a Saturday night dance, I often pack my case of cards in the boot of the car. It's not that I'm hoping the caller won't turn up and I'll have the glory of saving the day, it's more that I'd feel stupid if they asked me to call a couple of dances and I couldn't remember any! People think I've got a wonderful memory, but I really haven't, though there are some very complicated dances such as Pat Shaw's “Rose of Tankerton” or “Red House of Cardiff” (3 different 48-bar figures in each) which I could probably call from memory, simply because I've worked very hard on them. Even being prepared won't always save you; at Eastbourne Folk Festival in 2014 I was asked at very short notice to call the start of an American session because the caller was stuck on the motorway — and my cards were in the boot of my car which was at the other venue. I went somewhere quiet and thought hard — people assumed I was nervous but I wasn't — I was desperately trying to remember a couple of contras! I have 500 contras in my case, but the only two I can instantly remember are “Devil's Dream” and “All the way to Galway”. I can remember lots of Playford-style dances, but contras are all so similar! I now keep a set of cards in the bag with my dancing shoes — a few contras and squares — to be pulled out when needed.
“Be prepared” also means putting the work in when you write out your cards, and updating them if you find people had problems with the way you explained things. From the card I can see how the moves fit the music, whether it's a Playford dance with its own tune or something to any 32-bar reel or jig. And sometimes I mark difficult moves.
You don't need to apologise to the crowd for not being very good — they know you've been thrown into the situation. And they'll be on your side — they've come to dance, not to compare you with the missing caller. Just keep calm, and do the best you can. If you don't have any cards, be willing to accept help from the floor if the person sounds as if he knows what he's talking about rather than just guessing. And you might (as I did) end up calling to someone like Princess Margaret at Cecil Sharp House because the booked caller was stuck on the motorway!
Update: it happened again!
I was dancing at Lichfield Folk Festival in 2017 and I was asked if I would run an extra workshop as one workshop was far too crowded. This time I had half an hour's notice, so I could get my lap-top from my car (it was there for just such a contingency) and set things up. The musicians were both expert sight-readers, and the Barnes books were available, so I knew that provided we had the music they would be ready to play it by the time I had finished the walkthrough. I could have looked through the notes on my website (of course I have a copy of that on my lap-top!) and selected a session I had already called, but some of those tunes probably weren't in Barnes, so instead I announced that I would do a “Requests” workshop. Some people were clearly baffled by the concept, but some had been to my Raffle Dances and had suggestions. Someone asked for a contra by Cary Ravitz which I didn't have, but I picked out another of Cary's contras which was certainly complicated enough for a workshop. The final request was for “The Queen of Sheba” from Maggot Pie, and that was a great choice. It's an interesting dance, quite challenging, and the alternative tune used by some bands is the introductory part of Handel's “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” which I knew was also in Barnes. So we did the dance the first time to the original tune — and I've no doubt the band were studying the second tune for most of the walkthrough. It was a tremendous success!
Sting in the Tail — I just keep saying “Two three-couple longways sets side by side” and it's amazing what dancers make of that! Similarly for The New Parliament House Jig — three lines of three people all facing the band. But sometimes it's the caller's fault — he knows exactly what he means but his words don't convey the same thing to the dancers. If the whole room are looking confused it's probably your fault, not theirs. For instance, “First couple swing”, which they do, and then the caller sees they're mainly facing up. “No, I want you to finish facing down”. They obligingly turn around. “No, you should finish with the man on the left, lady on the right”. If the caller had said “First couple swing, and finish facing down” there would have been no confusion. Another example: “First couple take nearer hands” — long pause — “and face up”. That's ambiguous: if I'm facing my partner in a longways set there are no “nearer hands”. What he should have said is “face up, and take nearer hands”. Similarly “Turn single away from your partner”. If I'm facing my partner in a longways set, both directions are away from her. He could have said “turn single upwards” or “turn single away from your neighbour” — both of those would be fine.
Use specific terminology for formations. I've heard many callers say things like “First corners left-hand turn ¾ into a line”. There's no consensus on which way the line should face, and eventually the caller has to say “No, you should have right hand joined with your partner, and the middles should have left hands joined”. That's not a line, it's a wave, so please call it that. Or the same ambiguous phrase could be followed by “Reel of four”. Huh?! That's not a line, it's a column. It may sound unbearably pedantic to the caller, but not to the dancers who don't know what he's talking about!
If you say something and there's a buzz of conversation it probably means that some people didn't understand what you said. Don't use the school-teacher trick of saying the same words only louder. Think of a different way to describe the formation or move, or get out there and show them what you mean.
As a caller (and teacher) you must be willing to move away from the safety of the stage or your end of the hall and show people what you want them to do. This presupposes that you can do it yourself. At a barn dance I will demonstrate a swing and a strip the willow. Sometimes you will find that a demonstration is quicker and clearer than a lot of words, though I'm not someone who demonstrates lots of dances. For dancers I will demonstrate a Hole-in-the-Wall cross and sometimes a skip-change or pas-de-bas step, or dancing round the other couple in something like Roxburgh Castle. I hope I'm concise, but sometimes you need to be confident enough to take the time to explain something clearly.
How would you describe a Grimstock hey? A Morris hey? A dolphin hey?
Some people let go too soon. If it's four changes of a circular hey it's usually four steps per hand, but many people just give a little tug and hurry past, desperate to get to the next person. Instead you should linger a little on each one, looking at them as you go past, letting go during the third beat as you start turning to face the next person. On the other hand, some people hold on too long, which is unpleasant for you (and you would think unpleasant for them). I don't know why they do this, so I can't really offer any good tips except to go up later to the person concerned and explain that they don't let go soon enough and it really hurts your shoulder. They will probably be amazed, but it may have some effect — though you may have to tell them more than once.
If it's your local club, and you're observant, you probably know the dancers' limitations: Tom gets confused in a Grimstock hey, Dick gets confused in a double figure eight, Harry — just gets confused. That doesn't mean that you never call dances with these figures, but choose a dance where that's the only complicated move. A lot of it is confidence — your confidence in the dancers and their confidence in themselves. If you start them off with a dance involving a Grimstock hey immediately followed by a double figure eight (such as “Kelsterne Gardens”) they'll decide they can't do it and nothing you say will change their preconception. But if you do a simple dance involving a Grimstock hey (such as Ellen Taylor's “Delia” or Gary Roodman's “Our Cheers” or Sharon Green's “Driving Miss Mary”) and then later a simple dance involving a double figure eight (perhaps Kathryn & David Wright's “The Bishop of Exeter” or Ken Sheffield's interpretation of “The Brickmakers” or Pat Shaw's “Gladys's Galop” or my own “The Lark in the Clear Air” or Tom Cook's interpretation of “Nonesuch 2”), then just maybe you can get them through “Kelsterne Gardens”.
If it's not your local club, contact the secretary or look on their website to see who has called there recently, choose someone you trust, and phone them up to ask what the club is like. I suggest phoning rather than emailing because people are more cautious about what they commit to the internet than what they commit to a phone call. I've certainly had someone tell me that the woman in charge had delusions of grandeur and the dancers weren't nearly as good as she thought — and he was right!
But ultimately you have to judge the dancers on the night. Start with a simple longways and watch to see how well they understand the walkthrough and how well they dance to the music. On two occasions I've said to the band at a Saturday evening dance, “OK, scrap the programme”. Because ultimately you have to take people as they are; it's no good carrying on through your complicated programme if they can't do any of the dances. They'll hate the evening, they'll hate you, and you won't get booked again. By all means challenge them occasionally, once you've gained their confidence, but make sure that the challenging dance is followed by a simple one, possibly one that they already know.
Knowing your own limitations is a much harder skill. I've heard a caller announce a dance and thought “He's never going to get them through that”, but the caller seemed unaware of the fact and probably blamed the dancers when it all collapsed. You need to be aware of which dances and figures are difficult to call, and if something goes badly you need to analyse the reason after the event. Was it too difficult for the crowd? Or was I calling late? Or did I rush the walkthrough so that they weren't sure enough what to do when the music started? There are complicated dances that you may be able to dance perfectly, but choosing the right words and giving them at the right time is a different skill altogether. I've seen Welsh dance teachers, who belonged to a display team and danced it regularly, trying to call Pat Shaw's “Red House of Cardiff” and failing disastrously. (Not that they knew it was by Pat Shaw — to them it's just a Welsh dance.) I suppose my best recommendation is to start fairly simply and then gradually increase the complexity of the dances you choose to call. You may reach a plateau, and after a few months there you decide you can move up again. Or you may simply have to accept that you're never going to be able to call “Red House of Cardiff”. Perhaps you get the opportunity of seeing a more experienced caller teaching a dance you've been struggling with. Take an audio recorder along and ask if you may record her — reassure her that it's just for your own use — and then listen to the words she uses in the walkthrough, the speed she takes things, and the way she calls it when the music starts. Don't be afraid to challenge yourself, but be willing to accept that there are some things you simply can't do.
Cecil Sharp: (still the standard for many people)
|A1||1-4||First and second couples hands-four.|
|7-8||First and second men turn their partners half-way.|
|A1:||Circle left. Set to partner; two-hand turn half-way.|
I use a semicolon at the end of a 2-bar phrase and a full stop (period) at the end of a 4- or 8-bar phrase. I find this a really good way to set the instructions out, but some people think I'm being deliberately awkward.
Bernard Bentley (Fallibroome):
Bernard is very honest about what changes he's made or what he's left out, but he's not as good as Sharp at indicating the timing.
I often for my Jenny strove
|A1||1st couple cross, go below the 2nd couple and lead up in a line of four.|
|All turn single back…|
But the first paragraph is 6 bars (12 beats) and the second is 2 bars.
|A1||Neighbours back to back. Partners back to back.|
You may think “That's just how Colin would write it”, until you realise it's 6 bars of 3-time!
Scottish dance instructions don't use A's and B's, even though the musicians do; it's all laid out in bars.
|1-4||1st couple, taking nearer hands, dance down the middle.|
|5-8||Changing hands, they dance up again to top place.|
|9-16||1st 2nd and 3rd couples dance reels of three on own sides, joining nearer hands with partner when possible. To begin 1st couple dance in and down, 2nd couple dance out and up and 3rd couple dance in and up.|
which I would write as:
|A1:||Ones lead down the middle. Lead up.|
Finally, some people just write out a list of instructions with no indication of how they fit the music. This is particularly true of American Squares.
Apart from the sections for callers, topics can include:
Starting a Club — what you need to do straight away and what will wait till later. What is your Club for? Insurance. Hiring a hall. Do you need a committee? Publicising the Club — who are you aiming the publicity at? Booking callers and musicians. Necessary equipment. Starting and finishing the evening. The interval. The raffle. Notices. Running Saturday Dances and other events. Building a Dance Community. Improving dance technique. Common problems. Club callers and outside callers. Publishing a programme. Organising a Callers Workshop. Annual General Meeting. Membership. Do you want a Display Team, and if so how do you create one worth watching?
The workshops will be geared towards what the participants actually want, so not all of these topics will be covered in depth; it will be a great help if people have some idea what they want to learn.
You can have awful rows on a committee, and I think that's where a good chairman makes all the difference. He or she can make sure that everybody has their say, without letting the discussion drag on interminably. He needs the courage (and the authority) to say “Right, I think we've discussed that to death. These are the points of view we've heard — now let's decide what we're going to do”. If people feel they've been heard they're much more willing to go along with the majority vote even if they still don't agree with it. But if people think they have valid objections which have just been ignored, you're headed for trouble. Dealing with people is a real skill — make sure you elect a chairman who can do it, or is willing to learn how to do it.
Have a variety of callers for club nights. It's difficult to maintain interest if it's always the same one or two people. Admittedly you get more continuity with just one caller, but you can get round this to some extent by asking each caller to do one or two specific dances which have been taught the previous week.
How much should you charge for admission? In my opinion many clubs charge too little — and that means they're undervaluing what they provide, and encouraging the dancers to undervalue it. If you really have people who can't afford your charge, come to a private arrangement with them. How much would people pay for an evening's entertainment anywhere else — cinema, theatre, concert, bowling, ice-skating, line dancing? If you charged a little more, maybe you could afford live music more often, or pay reasonable expenses to callers travelling from further afield. Eddie also pointed out that the wealthier clubs must keep their fees up so that they're not cheap compared with smaller clubs who may be struggling.
You need to be organised. Write things down — who you've booked, and who you haven't booked and why. Maybe someone isn't going to be available for a period — you don't want to forget them completely. Maybe some people don't want to travel in January, or are always too busy in the summer — keep notes of these things. Ask the callers who they would like to play for them — they may suggest musicians you'd never thought of. The Ashford Folk Dancers send out a list of dates for the entire year and ask people to tick which ones they're available for — then they juggle all this around and come up with a programme. It works. Decide how much you can afford to pay, but be willing to increase it in special circumstances. If you had better callers and musicians, maybe you could put your prices up or maybe you'd get more people turning up and paying their admission!
Don't be afraid to tell the caller what you expect from him or her. “We like a bit of dance technique spread out through the evening.” “We're not very good at American but we'd like to try some.” “We don't like Playford.” “We sometimes have a lot of beginners — I'll let you know on the night.” “People tend to turn up late, so please start on time even if there's only a few there.” “Please do a mixer at some point in the evening and then tell people to keep that partner and do another dance.” Callers are usually willing to oblige, provided they know what you want!
Not all outside callers are good, of course! You need to get around and dance to lots of callers. If you like their style, just ask them if they'd be interested in calling at your club some time, and take their phone number. If they're not used to calling at other clubs they may be nervous, so it's your job to reassure them. Invite them to come and dance at your club before you book them.
One thing I feel particularly strongly about is that the end of the evening is not the time to pay the band and caller. They're tired, and they have to pack up the gear and drive home. This is not the time to mess about with signing receipts, trying to remember how much was agreed and so on. Why not do it during the interval? Then if there are any problems you've got time to sort them out, and you won't have the business of “I was told it was so much”. “No, your secretary agreed so much”. “Oh, she's already gone home”… “Oh, we've had a change of secretary since then”…
It should be somebody's job to thank the caller and band. It doesn't have to be the chairman or a committee member at all — maybe there's someone who just happens to do it well. You don't have to make a long clever speech. You do need to mention the caller and band by name, and show a bit of enthusiasm. I really hate hearing “We must thank the band — — and the caller”. If you've been dancing to them for three and a half hours and haven't even found out their names it doesn't say much for you. You don't have to lie about the evening — don't say the caller was great if he was rubbish — just use some non-committal phrase like “Let's show our appreciation for our caller — Colin Hume.” Finish with the name, and people will know it's time to clap. You get club chairman who say vaguely: “Well, what about the band!” and people don't know whether to clap or not. And in case you need to know, the non-committal phrases I get most often are “Colin has given us a typical Colin Hume evening”, and “We must thank Colin for an interesting evening”.
Some callers will thank the band themselves — I will, unless I can see there's someone about to do the thank-yous, as I'm afraid the band won't get thanked. In this case don't thank the band again. It's stupid! I see so many people who have obviously been told to thank the band and caller, and start with “Well, Colin's already thanked the band — but let's thank them again.” Or more often they aren't even aware that I've just done it.
Don't stand there are waffle endlessly — people don't want to hear it. I know you need to thank the people who did the refreshments, and the people who sat on the door — but you can do it much quicker than most people seem to realise.
It can make a world of difference if people see themselves as part of a community, rather than just “going along” to a club night or Saturday dance. Why do clubs find it difficult to get people to join the committee, or even make the tea once every couple of months. Surely it's because these people don't see themselves as part of a community — they just come along every week, pay their money and dance, but they don't see that they have any responsibilities to the community. As with most activities, you get out of it what you put in to it, and I suspect the ones who put in the absolute minimum (and complain that “they” ought to do all sorts of things) will never get as much satisfaction from their dancing as the committed members who are always willing to help with whatever needs to be done.
One way of building the community spirit is to do things other than the regular Club Night or Saturday Dance, and I know some clubs are strong on this. I read the newsletter of the Milverton group in Warwickshire in which there were mentions of a Twinning Trip to Holland, a group booking of Sidmouth tickets, an Open University course on English Folk Dance at which several members of the group helped, and a 50th Birthday Dance for Maggie Hosking — it sounds like a real community. Renata and I had twelve dancing friends round for a meal before Christmas one year, and at least two of them said how nice it was to be able to sit and talk without having to rush off and dance!
But beware of the other side of the concept of community — the tendency to view everyone else as outsiders. Too much of this and we start resenting new dancers because they aren't part of the community — and you know what happens to clubs with this attitude. We need to make newcomers feel that we are welcoming them to join our little community, rather than keeping them out. By all means have a newsletter which emphasises community spirit, but make sure it sounds like a community which is keen for new members, rather than the Exclusive Brethren. And do give names of contacts rather than just telephone numbers. Even initials are off-putting — who wants to phone up and say “Can I speak to P Smith please”?
That brings me on to my next topic:
So you've got some newcomers. If they're already reasonably experienced dancers, probably all you need to do is introduce them to a few of the better dancers — “This is Jill, she's danced with the so-and-so club for three years and just moved here” — and trust that they will make her welcome, ask about her previous club and invite her to dance. Beginners need more careful treatment. Some clubs greet beginners warmly — and split them up. It needs a decision by the whole Club — “This is a hassle but it's worth it in the long term”. Again it's this business of the Dance Community.
One way of splitting the beginners up is to do a mixer and at the end say “Keep this partner and form three-couple sets — we'll do so-and-so”. The Beckenham Club used to ask all their callers to do this once in an evening. You may get complaints — from the people who aren't interested in the Dance Community — “I got an awful woman and you forced me to do Fandango with her”. You will find it's never the best dancers who complain — it's the ones who aren't as good as they think they are! I believe you have to stand firm and explain about raising the general standard and giving newcomers a chance to partner good dancers they might not otherwise dance with (if you can say that with a straight face). You might even — if you're feeling evangelical — say “Which do you think is more important — that you did one dance with a not-so-good partner or that newcomers have a chance to find out how to dance well?!”
One final point — it's usually the men who get frightened off. They don't like doing things wrong — particularly if for the rest of the week they're an accountant or solicitor, used to knowing what they're doing and doing it well. The real wallies won't mind looking stupid — but do you want any more of them in your club?!
Here's a lot of good advice from Jens Dill from the Bay Area Country Dance Society (on the West Coast of the States). If you're English, don't just dismiss this because he's an American!
We have been pretty successful in attracting people to our English Dances. Here are some of the things that work for us. Mostly it's a lot of little things, but all the details add up.
1. Make certain that your dance is a “welcoming place” for newcomers.
At our Palo Alto English and Contra dances, we make an effort to greet newcomers and engage them in conversation from the moment they walk in. We have managed to train a large proportion of our regular dancers to actively seek out newcomers as partners. At our Contra dance, which is large, we have someone from the organizing committee tasked with “shmoozing” with the newcomers at the break, and asking if we can put them on our E-mail announcement list. At our English dance, which is smaller, the door sitter has time to converse with each person at sign-in time. If they look new, we ask if they've danced before, and if so, where. We also try to remember their names and say goodbye to them by name when they leave. We also make sure we tell our newcomers at “announcement time” that we are glad they are here, and that they are the most important people on the floor.
2. If you are not using name tags, get some. We have lots of colors of Sharpie markers so people can be creative. I try to “download” a new “font” for my nametag at every dance.
3. Get your regulars on board. Some years back, when BACDS as a whole was having similar worries about declining attendance, I started an online discussion among our regular members. The main thing it did for us was to raise the consciousness of the community. After enough people have reminded each other that the future of the dance depends on bringing in new people, the attitudes on the dance floor do tend to shift. (Interesting note: one of the most well-written descriptions of how to be nice to newcomers was written by someone whom we later had to ban for being “too friendly” — inappropriate touching and stalking.)
4. Pile on the extras: Pot-luck snacks at the break; going out for food as a group before or after the dance; ride-sharing, etc. One of our competing area contra dances (Hayward) did this and was an immediate big success. And what they did was emulated by our dances and others. They actually had a budget to pre-stock the snack table with good stuff: watermelon, dolmas, cookies, and even popsicles. At our Palo Alto English dance, we had one dancer who is a confirmed vegan, and who regularly cooked and brought a full vegan entrée (soup or casserole or the like) to share with us. She also branched out into providing drinks (“mocktails” or hot spiced cider) to hand to people when they arrived at the dance (she even brought the fancy glassware). She's no longer doing it, but her example encouraged others, and our snack table is still a special treat.
5. Have space for conversation and for kids to play. Dancers with injuries will come for the social life if there's a place where they can sit and yack. Dancers with kids will bring them if there's a place where they can play off to the side.
6. Proselytize at other dances. When you are at a Contra dance, say, talk to people there and ask them whether they'd be interested in trying English. If they've heard it isn't as much fun, let them know it's fun in a different way. More interesting figures, more of the lingering glances and such, and not so much spinning. Then make sure when they come, they have a good time. Look around for other dance groups that might cross over. Scottish? Irish? Visit them and see.
7. Set up hooks to bring in young people. A youth discount works somewhat (we set the bar at 30 or younger), but only if you get the word out, so you need people in the local youth scene to pass the word along. What really works for bringing in young people is just hooking that one magic personality who is a magnet for bringing all of his or her friends. It's hard to find that person, but once you do, the momentum will build. And once you find those key people, make them part of your management team. Also look to bring in young people as callers and musicians. If they get a gig with you, they'll invite their friends. One of our local music teachers makes up a band with all of her students to play a Contra dance once in a while. That brings in lots of parents and siblings for the evening.
8. Advertise online. We find meetup.com tends to produce a fairly steady stream of newcomers. But try all the possibilities you can think of. If you can get a few new people every week, you have something to build on. Remember, though, that getting them in the door is only the first step. The second is making sure they have a good time. The third and hardest (which is beyond your control) is for them to decide that they had a good enough time to make a change to their weekly schedule to come back regularly.
Another thing we're considering here is importing “Zesty Playford”. It doesn't look too hard to put together a band that is ready to take our regular ECD music and amp it up. We're thinking of trying it as a “special” dance or actually starting it as a new series, rather than changing the expectations at our current regular dances.
Finally, it's also a good idea to be patient and persistent. It takes time to turn things around.
Young people will want simple lively dances. When did you last dance “Dorset Four-Hand Reel” at your club? It's a great dance, and people enjoy it. How about “Yorkshire Square Eight”? In fact any number of dances from the CDMs. If you start with the attitude “They should want to do Playford” you're going to lose them. Maybe some of them will come to appreciate Playford when they're more experienced, but not if you force it down their throats as soon as they walk in the door. What I'm saying is just what Douglas Kennedy said after the second world war — and he pushed the changes through despite a lot of opposition. The difference now is that people have lots of other activities, and money with which to do them — including that ultimate non-activity, watching television. It's not just Folk Dancing that's suffering from a lack of people; I'm told it's all leisure activities.
Put some rants and hornpipes on the programme too. Here's my tip — don't announce “Morpeth Rant” while they're sitting down — they'll stay sitting down. Do another longways and then say “Stay there and we'll do Morpeth Rant”. Or do “Roxburgh Castle”, and after you've explained the “trace the turrets” movement say “That's all done to a rant step. Oh, didn't you know it was a rant dance? It's in the CDMs”.
And, by and large, young people want to dance with other young people. So you need to attract a group of them, not just one or two. Maybe go along to your local college and offer free tickets for a particular evening. Maybe offer to run an evening class — though I've never had much success with that. You've got to be proactive, not just wait for new people to come through the door.
Some groups offer free admission to a newcomer's first evening. But actually they're already there, so it wasn't an incentive unless they knew about it in advance. Some groups offer free admission to a newcomer's second evening, and I suspect that's a much better idea. They've already experienced the first evening. If they hated it they won't come back no matter what incentives you offer, but if they're not sure about it yet the offer may just tip the balance. I always point out to newcomers that in your first evening everything is unfamiliar and therefore difficult, but if you keep coming you realise that the same figures crop up time after time: you're not having to learn a new vocabulary every week.
Another very important point is to get some young people involved in the organisation. Maybe they won't want to commit to being on the committee, but they'll be happy to take on a specific job. Make them feel that they are part of the team — and do it sincerely, not just a pretense. Listen to their ideas, and don't just dismiss them with “Oh, we tried that thirty years ago and it didn't work”. Times have changed! If young people feel that their voices are being heard, they're much more likely to stick around, and bring their friends in. If a young person is in charge of publicity she will try things you would never have thought of.
Sometimes it's just the terminology. No matter how intelligent you are, and what other dance forms you're good at, if the caller says “siding” or “ladies chain” and you've never heard the term before, you're lost. It's the caller's job to look everywhere during the walkthrough, and see what's giving people problems. Sometimes just a little amplification is all you need. If I see beginners there, instead of just “set and turn single” I'll say “set on the spot — right, two, three, left, two three. Now turn single to the right, on your own: one, two, three, together”. Later on I'll point out that it's nicer if you move forward towards your partner on the setting, and that means you can do a wider turn single back to place rather than a spin turn. But don't hit them with that until they've mastered the basic move. And try not to look at the beginners each time you say this — they'd like to think you're talking to the dancers generally rather than them specifically.
I find that after many years of calling I do the amplification without realising it — occasionally I'm at a really bad club and find I've dropped into barn dance caller mode where I explain absolutely everything!
The other major thing is your Attitude. If you come across as a school-teacher you'll scare the newcomers off, whereas if you project the attitude of “this is fun, and we all make mistakes sometimes” you'll reassure them.
There are clubs that don't publish names of callers because some of them are so bad that no-one would turn up. Don't book those callers — it's simple.
Does your club need a website? I'd say it does, unless there's an umbrella organisation (such as one of the old EFDSS Districts) who have a website and you're confident that your events are going to appear there.
Is it very expensive? No it isn't. There are two things you need to pay for: a domain name (such as staplers.org.uk) and some hosting space where your site is actually held. At the time of writing (2017) I'm paying £11.99 a year for the domain name and £39.99 a year for the hosting. You can probably find cheaper — in fact you can set up a WordPress site hosted on wordpress.org and pay nothing at all. But there's something to be said for a simple domain name.
Do we need a webmaster? Yes you do — one person who knows enough about the website to update it with the latest events and whatever else you want to put on it. It doesn't have to be a committee member, just someone reliable. And preferably a back-up person in case your webmaster is ill or on holiday.
My standard advice is: find some websites that you like and then copy their layout. I like the main menu to appear on every page so that you can't get lost navigating it. Have a look at my website and see whether it's easy to find your way around.
And once you've created your masterpiece, get someone who was not involved in the design process to try it out, and take notes of their comments rather than complaining that they're obviously incompetent if they can't find things on your site!
Finally, make sure it's kept up-to-date. No-one's going to take it seriously if it still has a list of last year's events.
Don't push yourself too far. People don't want to feel that every dance is in imminent danger of collapsing! On the other hand, don't stay so well within your limits that you never challenge yourself at all — the occasional challenge is good for everybody. Don't feel that you have to get everybody through every dance perfectly.
Do a good mixture — some easy, some harder; some well-known, some unknown; some fast, some slow, using different styles and formations. Make sure there's something for everyone. On the other hand, I don't recommend calling a dance you don't like — that may well come across in the way you present it.
People don't judge you by how many complicated dances you got them through; they judge you by how much they enjoyed the evening. I've seen both John Chapman and Ron Coxall do quite a simple programme, but build up such a good atmosphere that everybody had a great time.
If you're looking for other callers' notes on the web, a good place to start is quiteapair.us/calling/ on William Watson's web site.