Dancers in England are not good at learning dances, and many callers call the whole time. I don't know which came first — whether callers keep calling because they know the dancers won't remember, or whether dancers don't bother to try because they know the caller will keep calling — but I think it's a real pity that most dancers take no responsibility for learning the dance during the walkthrough or (for a repetitive dance) during the first few turns of dancing it. I believe that people dance better if they know what's coming next rather than blindly following the call, and I'm very pleased when I can shut up and let people dance to the music rather than the sound of my voice. Of course back in Cecil Sharp's day it was very different — you went to classes to learn the dances, and then you went to a dance party and just danced them, without any caller. And Scottish is still done like this — people are expected to learn the dances.
So if learning a dance is a new skill to many dancers, what advice will help you to do so?
Victoria Bestock in Seattle gives several reasons why it it good for the caller to shut up as soon as possible.
If this sounds very alien to you, and it probably will to most of you, then read my article on Teaching the Kinesthetic Learner in the CDSS magazine a few years ago. It's a different orientation than most callers have, and since kinesthetic learners take longer to memorize dances, and do it by getting their bodies to teach their brains instead of the other way around, it makes sense for callers to teach in ways that support them and not the faster learning computer-heads. The goal is to get the whole group dancing independantly of the caller as quickly as possible so they are dancing to music, and not to instructions. Even though there will be more computer-heads on the dance floor, you don't have to worry about them, because they learn sequences as lists or maps very quickly. Its the slow learners you want to bring along so the whole community is learning the dance. For those who learn slowly, by feel, by repetition, the more explaining you do, the less they are learning.
Kinesthetic learners look like irresponsible slow learners at first, because they learn by feel and not by thinking. They learn sequences by the feel of how they link together, not by memorizing them or thinking about them.
By minimizing the words as Colin suggests (even though he himself is one of those highly spatial people who thinks in patterns — just look at the beautiful and highly original dances he's created — and learns by getting his brain to teach his feet instead of the other way around) the time between sections is reduced and the ability of the dancer to flow from one bit to the next is increased. For the kinesthetic learner, the purpose of the caller is to get the dancers to move correctly from one chunk of the dance to the next without stopping, and to associate the move and the music. Thinking isn't needed or used.
Being aware of what other dancers are doing is extremely important and is not something that many callers stress. I watched a Scandanavian dancer trying to learn a 3-person hey, and though he knew he needed to make a figure eight on the floor, he had no idea of the interrelationship of the three parts and would often cut off another dancer not knowing that there was a pattern to the interrelationship as well as the design on the floor. Spatial dancers will see the patterns and interrelationships most of the time, and think in foursomes in a duple minor. They have more trouble thinking in terms of the whole set, but can learn to watch each other and do so. It makes the pattern pretty — something they enjoy.
Kinesethetic dancers may not have maps of the patterns, but they unconsciously watch other dancers for the size and shape and feel of a movement, and match that beautifully, creating a wonderful sense of togetherness. Dancing is something we do with other humans. We connect not only individually to the music, but also to each other.
To answer Colin's question (about how to get people to learn dances) in a totally different way, I think one way we teach people to learn dances is simply to expect them to learn them. We don't have that expectation. We expect that the caller will do a detailed teaching or walk through every single time a dance is done. What we have learned is to become dependant. I keep thinking that after 20 years of ECD in Seattle, people would be able to dance Fandango or Mad Robin without a review. But even the very experienced dancers aren't learning the dances. Maybe this is what Colin is experiencing and is the reason for his class.
At the Experienced Dancer dances I'm running once a month, I usually schedule one very popular dance, done at the end of the break with no teaching. It would have been taught many times before at regular dances, and perhaps reviewed the week before. I'm hoping that people will start remembering dances after they've done them for a while, and develop a repertory of dances that doesn't need to be walked through in great detail for each couple each time the dance is taught. We could spend more time dancing to glorious music and less time standing and listening to the caller if we'd do that.
Paul Stamler agreed, and added:
It's very easy to always call everything and super-teach everything (including having every couple walk through everything from every position), and to not bother encouraging people to learn dances, especially in groups with a continual influx of beginners. But there's a point at which that holds back the group, and teaches the beginners not to really learn things.
It was a revelation for me when I saw Joseph Pimentel's way of teaching “Fandango”. He put the least experienced couple at the head of every set, walked it through once for them, and told the others to “watch the person who corresponds to you”. In a room that was half rank beginners, that worked like a charm. And after they'd all danced it (well) to his calling, he had them do it again, with no calling at all. Which they did (well again).
Trevor Monson said:
Even though I like calling dropped down/off as soon as possible, one habit that dancers complain about is in a 3 couple dance, when a caller walks the dance through slowly the first time, a bit faster the second time, and then says the third couple should have picked it up by their turn (often with the horrible comment that the third couples all look intelligent enough to have picked it up by then!)
On dancing it to the music the caller then calls every move for the first couple, drops it down a bit for the second couple, and then stops calling altogether the third time through (as everyone knows it by now). The poor old third couple don't get a walk through, and then don't get any help when attempting to dance it when it's eventually their turn.
The caller then wonders why the dance has fallen apart!!
Tom Vincent said that in this case the caller should have walked it through three times, and it was up to the dancers to demand the third walkthrough if they felt they needed it. Cammy Kaynor disagreed with Tom on the second point — he said that dancers often underestimate their own abilities and also the amount of assistance the music and the band can provide. It's one of the caller's jobs to assess whether the dancers will be able to manage without further instruction. Cammy is not willing to cater for the “perfectionists” who want to spend ages walking the dance through in detail; he feels that in many cases they will learn more quickly by just getting in there and doing the dance.
Emily Ferguson lamented the fact that contra dancers never learn any dances at all, and don't even know what they're called — they just follow instructions long enough to do the sequence of figures, then erase, install a new sequence, dance, erase, etc. Emily is right (though I'm not convinced it's a bad thing), and it brings out the point that when we talk about “learning dances” the phrase has two different meanings. I believe English Dancers in the States have a core repertoire which many of them know reasonably well, because they dance them frequently (though Victoria obviously doesn't think so). In England there doesn't seem to be any core repertoire any more; all the callers are teaching new dances. But I was really thinking of the case where the dancers aren't even capable of putting the sequence into their short-term memory!
After that I sat them down and explained my ideas in more detail, as in the six bullet points above. People seemed interested, and asked a few questions or made points.
The first new couple to become ones had trouble, but after that it went very smoothly and I stopped calling quite soon. It was good to see that the dancers were helping each other over occasional lapses of memory.
Of course there are hundreds of dances with a very predictable pattern, and I could have called several of these to show people how much of the dance they actually could guess, but I tend to do more complicated dances at my Wednesday Workshops.
I generated some email correspondence on this approach of guessing what comes next.
Fae Fuerst didn't see the point.
When I wonder, as the ones cross straight over and go below, will this be the cliché half-figure 8 up, or something else?, that doesn't seem like an attitude worth encouraging. There must be other ways to get people to pay attention to the connections in the dance.
Gene Murrow said:
Depends on which parts. In Indian Queen, for example, after the walk-through prompt of “1st diagonals set forward, turn single back to place, two-hand turn” I might say “2nd diagonals, guess what?” But I agree with Fae that in her example “1's cross and go below,” the “guess what” question isn't useful. Whenever possible, I agree with Colin that it's a good thing to encourage (by various means) our dancers to learn/internalize the dances.
Ruth Scodel said:
Any dancer with even a little experience should be using conventions (Up a double/Siding/Arming) and symmetry/repetition to organize dances mentally (“chunking”) and so make them easier to remember. The caller can easily remind dancers of these, as in Gene's “Guess what?” in Indian Queen. But the other big element in learning dances is momentum. Many of the best figures are best precisely because they are not predictable but still flow, or because they turn one kind of movement or pattern into another (like the lines of four in Mr. Isaac's Maggot or Dublin Bay — here we all are suddenly together!). I think of the dances I like most as stories that have plot development. Good dancers don't necessarily try to guess what the next move will be, but they know what will be second nature and what won't. If it turns out to be obvious, they immediately combine it with what precedes as a single unit in memory (cross/go below/half 8 is one item); if it's a surprise, they mark it as a salient item to remember. But callers can't really point out everything that is predictable, or likely even if not predictable, or surprising. The question is how we train dancers to do this efficiently and persuade them that it's more fun if we do.
Terry Gaffney said:
I think Colin's question is very good when addressed to people who know what they are doing. You have a new dance, you hear the tune, you start the walk through — cross over and go below — what comes next? Well there are a couple of possibilities, but based on what's gone before, and the music, there may only be one optimal possibility, and its good to understand why. In “Prince William” after the 1s cross and go below, you could have the ones do something involving a half figure eight, but given that you've just finished a hey, and way the music feels, a two hand turn seems just about right. Of course, the caller can only use such questions if there is a good case for the answer being unique. By the way, I think it is often the case that in the best dances the figures seem to follow inevitably from each other. “Smithy Hill” is a good example.
For people who don't know what they are doing, then used as Gene suggested, it's still useful.
Judith Hanson said she thinks I try to anticipate moves because I'm a choreographer, and she would recommend this as a useful exercise for “young” dance composers, but she doesn't find it useful as a dancer. In fact at the next Wednesday Workshop I asked people for their opinions, and none of them thought it was any use! But I'm pleased to report that Bruce Hamilton was at my House Party weekend in 2008 and he agreed that it is a useful technique.
So it seems there's not a simple “right” answer — I believe it helps me as a dancer, but other good dancers obviously don't.
The great majority felt that having a musician play during the walkthrough did not help, in fact was a positive hindrance. I know dancers in the States will be aghast to hear this! Possibly it was because none of us was used to this approach, and the music was being played too slowly. In a three-time dance you sometimes need to take bigger steps (because you only have six rather than eight) and the music did not encourage this.
Fae Fuerst commented on this:
A little music during the walkthrough can be very helpful, especially in dances with tricky timing, but I agree that it's an advanced tool and in the wrong hands it's just distracting. A more reliable approach in all weather might be to play the tune once through before the walkthrough (no repeats, or even skip the B if appropriate) so the dancers can at least get a sense of the tempo and mood.
John Berger pointed out that the caller can give the musicians a clue by saying things like: “OK, let's walk that much, starting with the cast at the beginning of B1” and can give them a definite cutoff.
Gene Murrow said:
As noted, it is a very tricky business, and depends on the instrumentalist. As a caller, I think it's great (though not essential), provided:
As a musician, I love providing this kind of back-up to callers, as the challenge of it enhances my pleasure in playing for the dancing and contributing to a good time for all at the event. All this is another good reason to encourage our musicians to dance regularly!
- the musician knows the dance, or at least how many bars of slip jig music are needed for a “cross and go below”, for example
- the musician is in a position where s/he can see the dancers
- the musician can hear the caller (often not the case!, as the caller's microphone is not fed into the monitor mix)
- the caller and musician agree on a clear set of hand signals for starting, continuing, stopping, slowing down, etc.
Jonathan Sivier made similar points.
Melanie Axel-Lute said,
Just a thought (not a seriously considered opinion): For a set dance, where you are in a different position each time through and do different things, a talk-through might be more useful than a walk-through. If you can visualize the entire dance from a talk-through, so that you see how all the bits fit together; that could be more useful than just walking one position and then having no idea what to do when you're in a new spot. I realize not everyone could do this. I'm a visualizer (and sometimes annoy my partner by staring into space during a walk-through, as I “see” the dance in my head), but it would be a good thing for all dancers to make the effort to see the dance as a whole, not just their own part. When I teach a set dance, I try to point out how the whole dance goes, which to me would make it easier to do and to remember. For example, in Shrewsbury Lasses, to point out how the second B, where the threes cast up, is a mirror image of the first B. I know some people don't want to hear that — they say they learn only by body memory — but although that works OK for contras and some longways sets, I think it's a lousy way to learn a set dance.