There are several places on the site where I mention my “Bits of cardboard”, so here they are — large as life, though mine are hand-drawn rather than these beautiful creations:
I've given them different colours so that they are immediately identifiable, I've labelled them clearly, and you can see which way they're facing, not just where they are. I think the final point is vital, both for writing dances and for working out how to walk them through, so I'm baffled by people who tell me they use salt and pepper pots, or chess pieces — most of which don't have a front and back.
I find these useful when I'm writing dances, and also when I'm trying to understand a new dance I've picked up from a book, website or other written instructions. Move them slowly and carefully until you're sure you understand the pattern. I sometimes have to do this several times, so don't rush it. If you're looking at a dance with action outside the minor set you need to be aware of End-effects, so go through the sequence again from progressed positions.
I'm not saying that all callers should use these. Madeleine Smith draws a number of diagrams to show where people are at different points in the dance, which certainly makes it easier to go back to a particular instruction. In fact I decided to draw diagrams when studying Andrew Swaine's ingenious “squontra” The Filing Anomaly.
If I'm on the road without my bits of cardboard I sometimes tear up an envelope to make a temporary set — but I still keep the labelling, and the points to show which way each person is facing.
In 2020 there was a discussion on the SharedWeight Contra Callers List about ways of visualising how people moved through a dance, with particular reference to End Effects.
The initial query was about web-based programs which allow you to do this, and three were mentioned:
Since this discussion has expanded to include methods of working out dance choreography without using computers (or live dancers), here's a description of my method.
First off, I much prefer using diagrams to using props. With diagrams, if you think you made a mistake somewhere — for example if a supposedly good sequence doesn't end with dancers in the correct progressed position — then you can easily go back and check your work. With props, as soon as you move them, you lose the history of where they were.
Second, both for ease of writing and ease of reading, I like to keep my notation pretty terse, but not so terse as to be cryptic. That is, my diagrams shouldn't be cryptic to me if I look at them the next week or the next year, even if they might be cryptic to someone who doesn't know my conventions.
To diagram a dance sequence, I make a series of diagrams showing the dancers' configuration at various points in the sequence, starting with the configuration at the start of the dance. In between each two successive diagrams, I write the figure(s) that the dancers would do to move between the configurations they show. I might also draw a large arrows from each diagram to the next.
For contras, I make the length of the line go horizontally across the page. I happen to have picked the convention of putting the top of the set at the left (similar to what Larry Jennings does in his book Give-and-Take and opposite to what Cary Ravitz does in his Notes on Choreography for Duple Minor Improper Contra Dances). For squares I use “caller's view” orientation, with couple 1 nearest the bottom of the page.
To represent dancers, I use numerals “1”, “2”, “3”… for the gents/larks and corresponding letters “A”, “B”, “C”… for the ladies/robins, so that A and 1 are partners, B and 2 are partners, etc. I happen to have the positions of the letters in the alphabet well memorized, so I can immediately recognize, for example, that 7's partner is G and vice versa without having to count. Single digits and letters are more compact, quicker to write, and (at least for me) quicker to read than something like “Lark 1” with a box around it.
I typically use odd numbers and the corresponding letters for the “active” (number 1) couples and even ones for the “inactives”, so that the starting position of a duple improper contra would look like this:
1 B 3 D 5 F …
A 2 C 4 E 6 …
For a Becket dance, I might not be certain of the direction of progression when I start diagramming, but in any case I put the odd-numbered couples 1A, 3C, etc. on one side of the set and the even-numbered ones on the other.
A 1 C 3 E 5 …
2 B 4 D 6 F …
For a single-progression dance with no action outside the minor set, it often suffices to follow couples 1A and 2B. However there are many single-progression dances where dancers move on from one set of neighbors to the next part-way through the sequence rather than at the transition from B2 to A1. (By B2 and A1 I refer here to musical phrases, not to couples in my diagram notation!) In those, dancers 1 and A dance part of the sequence with neighbors B and 2 and the rest with neighbors D and 4. For dances with action outside the minor set, I might start by tracking a foursome partway down the set — for example, 3CD4 or 5E6F — and then bring in more dancers as needed (more on “bringing in dancers as needed” below). If I need to show dancer I (partner to 9), I write the capital letter “I” in a style easily distinguished from the numeral 1 (one). In the unusual case of needing numerals 10 or higher, I'd put the digits close together so they couldn't be misread as denoting separate dancers. I don't think I've ever needed the letter O (partner to 15), much less needed to show more than 26 couples.
When I want to show the direction a dancer is facing, as I usually do, I put a little dot next to the digit or letter, in front of where the dancer's nose would be. Regardless of dancers' facing directions, I always write the digits and letters in their normal right-side-up orientation. To show a hand or arm connection, I draw a short line segment between the characters for the dancers involved. I sometimes draw a little straight or (more commonly) curved arrow to indicate the path a dancer is about to take or has just taken. For common and familiar figures, such as “right and left through” or “circle left ¾”, I rarely need such arrows, but they can be useful for showing unusual figures (e.g. the distinctive figure in William Watson's “The Devil's Backbone”) or for analyzing the flow of certain transitions (e.g. poussette to hey in Erik Weberg's “Joyride”).
In the middle of a duple-minor set, away from the area of end effects, dancers in adjacent foursomes should be in identical configurations with corresponding dancers having letters or numbers that are “off by 2”. For example, if dancer 6 is in some position in one foursome, dancer 8 should be in the corresponding position in the next foursome down the set and dancer 4 should be in the corresponding position in the next foursome up the set. Similarly the actions of, say, dancer E should be paralleled by dancer G in the next foursome down and dancer C in the next foursome up. I use this fact in two ways. First, if I see that I have drawn two adjacent foursomes where corresponding dancers aren't in the “off-by-2” relation (except as expected on account of dancers reaching an end of the set and turning around), then I know I should go back and look for where I made a mistake. Second, when a progression or action outside the minor set makes me want to want to bring in new dancers — that is, to start showing dancers that I haven't been tracking from the start of the sequence — the off-by-2 rule tells what dancer will show up in a given spot. For example, a dancer encountered in a corresponding position to, say, dancer D (whom I have been tracking) but one foursome down must be dancer F.
In the preceding paragraph, I referred to departures from the off-by-2 pattern “as expected on account of dancers reaching an end of the set and turning around,” but I didn't say exactly what pattern is expected in that case. It's pretty easy to work it out, and any readers who don't know it already will learn it best if they work it out for themselves.