BackSquares and Contras without a Walkthrough

With English and American dances we always expect a walkthrough; we take it for granted that we need one.  And yet Modern Western Square Dancers never get a walkthrough of a dance.  The caller will walk through a new figure in great detail, but the dance itself doesn't get walked through: he calls it, and the dancers do it.  And frequently in Scottish you don't get a walkthrough or a call — you just have to learn the dances.  I'm not proposing that, but I am suggesting that we can get very lazy and expect to be spoon-fed the whole time.

So how do you cope without a walkthrough?  I think there are several things that can help you get through the dance.  These all apply to dancing with a walkthrough as well, but they may reassure you if you hear them now.

  Do what the caller says, and don't do what he doesn't say.  I know this sounds too obvious to mention, but a lot of people make assumptions about what the caller means rather than taking him literally.  And I admit that with some callers you might have to do this — even with me sometimes — but at least start by assuming the caller wants you to do exactly what he or she says.  Some Modern Western Square Dance callers put it more bluntly: “Keep your ears open and your mouth shut”.

  Assume that you're not expected to make awkward turns and leaps.  Most modern contras and squares leave you facing the right way for the next move.

  Be precise.  If the call is “Circle three-quarters” you need to do exactly that — or when he then says “Pass through”, you all drift off in random directions.

  Don't make assumptions about what follows what.  Some people take it for granted that in a square every swing is followed by a promenade.  Most of the time they're right, but sometimes they can be in real trouble.  And if the caller hasn't walked through a square, he's quite at liberty to change the figure — it's not just the break that may vary.  Similarly, don't switch off in a contra unless you're sure you know what you're doing — it may be a contra medley (very popular in the States), and you could be half-way through the next turn of the dance before you realise that the rest of the room are doing a different dance.

  Adjust quickly if things go wrong.  Look around you; be open to other people's help.  If you get totally lost, move to the position you should next be in and wait for the appropriate moment.  For a square this is usually the men home and the ladies one place round, though it's not a disaster if the ladies finish with the wrong man.  For a longways dance, it's normally a single or double progression: ones down, twos up.  For a Becket dance it's one or two places round to the right or left.  It's possible that you might have to make a major adjustment in a longways dance.  If some couples have moved on two places and some one place, you may find you're a neutral couple in the middle of the set.  What do you do?  Have a quick look around.  If it's just one pair of couples who have moved the wrong amount, there will be a couple just past them looking as lost as you are.  Go and dance with them, and it's probably a waste of time saying to the confused people “You should have been with us” — they'll be even more confused.  Occasionally all the people above you have moved on two places and the people below you only one, or vice-versa.  If you can see that this has happened, go to the bottom of the set.  Very few dancers have the awareness needed to do this.  Most people just stand there helplessly, making desperate arm-waving movements, and then grab a couple the next time — now somebody else has the problem.

  Know your figures.  What figures you need to know depends on the style of the dance, and the caller has to play fair — if I was doing an American Square and called “Allemande left your corner — allemande right your partner — Schiehallion reel” you'd be entitled to break down.  Equally I wouldn't call “Box Circulate” or “Ends Trade” because these are Western Square Dance moves that dancers probably wouldn't know — but I might call “Star Through” or even “Flutter-wheel” since these are fairly widely known in England.  If it's a figure you don't know, try to watch your opposite person — so if you're a head lady in a square, watch the other head lady.  If you can mirror her move you'll probably get away with it!

  If necessary, leave out a “zero” movement — by which I mean one that finishes where it starts.  If you're late with the circle left three-quarters, pass through, and the next move is to do-si-do the next person, just put both hands up and say “whoa”.  You need to give a clear signal that you don't plan to do that move, or people will assume that you've forgotten it and drag you through it anyway — and you'll be even later.  If it's a circle or a star, you have to persuade all three other people to leave it out.  Of course, if the caller has stopped calling in a contra and you're dancing to the music you need to be aware that you're behind the music — and some people have no idea.

  Stay awake if neutral.  Usually you face into the set with the man on the left, but sometimes you don't!  Watch the previous neutral couple as you approach the end of the set, and profit by their mistakes.

  How much do you try and control other people?  I've been told off for this — I know where the other people should be, and I try to bully them into being there.  Sometimes it may work, but if they feel resentful you aren't being a good dancer.  Some people are very grateful for a push or tug to get them moving or stop them doing something; others are very offended.  You can give a subtle hint by gesturing rather than dragging; that may be all it takes.  The trick is to give help only when it's needed.  If there's a circle and then my neighbour or partner has to go somewhere, I'm ready to give a slight tug to encourage them — but only if I can sense that they're not about to move.  Don't be one of those men who push ladies into a ladies chain two bars ahead of the music.  But it certainly is a good thing to be the person who shows them what they're supposed to be doing, so that they can then move on and do it right with the other couples.

  Finally, there are some people who are never going to get it.  In a longways dance, take comfort from the fact that 32 bars later they'll be someone else's problem.  Meanwhile, help them as best you can (without being aggressively helpful).  Even if you get through part of the dance with them, you may be doing better than most people.  At least make sure that they finish the turn of the dance in the right place — don't forget that there's a couple behind you who always have to pick up what you've dropped.

Related topics:   Square Dance Technique,   Contra Dance Technique.  If you'd like to call a session like this, see my notes on Calling Squares and Contras without a walkthrough.