BackPositional calling for American Squares



I certainly wouldn't say all this at a dancers' or callers' workshop — these notes are here so that those who are interested can read them after the workshop and learn more of the background and other information which I hope will be useful.  Or of course for people who haven't been to the workshop and want to find out what it's all about.

I wrote an article about gender-free calling on the May Heydays website and to my surprise several people came up to me and thanked me profusely; I'm told that it also went down very well on social media (which I don't do).  So it's time to practise what I preach, and I'd rather call positionally than use “Larks” and “Robins” which I find more confusing.

There's a lot of information about positional calling in Louise Siddons' booklet “Dancing the Whole Dance: Positional Calling for Contra” (also available from CDSS as a digital download).  Louise is talking about contras, but much of what she says also applies to squares.  So I'm planning to take less than ten minutes to go over six or seven points that I think are important — then we'll do some dancing.  Most of them are also important if the calling isn't gender-free, but they become more important when you don't have the visual clues — as you'll know if you've ever been a man dancing in a square with seven women, three of them dancing the man's part!

Know your figures

There are thousands of figures in Modern Western Square Dance (MWSD) — in 2003, Burleson's Square Dancer's Encyclopedia listed 5125 calls or figures, though I'm not saying these are all currently in use — and I don't expect a caller outside that tradition to throw in something like “Spin chain and exchange the gears” without walking it through carefully first.  But one thing I love about American Squares is the combination of the figure, which is usually walked through for the head couples and then the side couples, and the break which is something the caller just throws at you.  I know there are some breaks which are a complete complicated sequence such as Grand Sweep which have to be walked through, but what figures can you expect the caller to throw at you in a simple break?  Here's my list.  Circle, star, allemande left your corner, grand chain (grand right and left), swing, promenade, grand square, pass through, roll away (with a half sashay), right and left through, ladies chain, all four ladies chain.  I'd say these are all well known, and I would certainly use them in a break, though I might ask first before throwing a Grand Square at them.  Of course with positional calling the last two would need to be reworded.  If the momentum is already there, it could be “those moving forward chain” or something similar, but how about “all four right-hand people chain”?  Louise says that it works better to say “those with a free right hand” than “right-hand people”, though of course it's more words, and she doesn't like “right-hand people” or “left-hand people” anyway.  Her suggestion is “four in for a right-hand chain”, and I'll give you my own suggestion later.  I suspect that the extremists feel that “left-hand person” is really code for “I mean men but I'm not allowed to say so”, but I really don't accept that — it's just a position.  (I've also decided I like the phrase “star chain”.  It's one extra word, but the fact is the right-hand people need to know that they're making a star — once they've done that there's time to realise it's actually a chain.)

Louise also introduced me to the 'outside shoulder is active' rule:

In contra choreography, there's an implied rule that when diagonals start a figure, they will do so using their outside shoulder — which is why in heavily gendered choreography men end up allemanding left all the time and only women chain across (by the right) — and why people conflate a left-hand chain with a gents' chain.  In reality, anyone can do a left-hand chain or a right-hand chain, but which hand they use will be determined by which shoulder is 'outside' (further from their partner/neighbour on the side with them in their minor set).

For the caller, I think the trick is to use whatever wording you choose in the figure of a square first, so you have time to walk it through and get people accustomed to that phrase before throwing it into a break.  But there are still gender expectations to be overcome.  If the caller says “Everybody roll away with a half sashay, and all four moving forward chain”, I expect there will be some men thinking “But I'm a man — I shouldn't be doing an all four ladies chain”.  That's a half-hearted way of dancing gender-free — there's no real reason why the men shouldn't do the chain, and if in a gendered set-up the caller had said “Everybody roll away with a half sashay, and all four men chain” it might well have worked.  Another example is one of my squares, “Dodgy Dancing” which I called at my New Year's Eve dance in 2018.  These were experienced dancers — I thought they might have trouble with the MWSD figure “Walk and Dodge” which most of them wouldn't have met before, but they had much more trouble with “Pass the Ocean” (which some contra callers have renamed “Pass through to an ocean wave” to conceal the fact that it's a MWSD figure).  They all knew it from the standard set-up — couple facing couple with the man on the left and the woman on the right — but they went to pieces the second time when it was two men facing two women.  And yet the MWSD definition doesn't mention men and women:

From Facing Couples (or a R-H Wave).
  • Pass Thru;
  • Face the adjacent dancer (1/4 In);
  • Step To A Right-Hand Wave (Touch).

though it does say in the notes: Belles (right-side dancers) smooth out the movement by catching left-hands as they pass each other So here's a case where using gender-free terminology is actually expanding rather than contracting the possible repertoire of calls.

However, there is one point where gender roles come into play (though some people would dispute this):

Use ballroom hold in a swing   Top of page

Louise is very strong on this.  There are many other possible holds, and some gender-free callers advocate a gender-free swing, but the great thing about a ballroom hold is that if you open up the pointy end you're automatically on the correct side — I've been telling people this for many years, long before gender-free dancing came along.  The point is, although it doesn't matter what gender you are, it does matter which side of your current partner you're on.  If you're a right-hand person and you swing your partner you finish where you started, on your partner's right, but if you swing your corner you finish on their right — you've swapped places.  So I'm pushing for a ballroom hold, and if two men don't like swinging with a ballroom hold it's possible they're in the wrong session.

Those who can   Top of page

This is a phrase used in MWSD — for instance, Swing Thru is defined as:

From waves or Alamo formations: Those who can turn half by the right, then those who can turn half by the left.

  So, everyone do-si-do your partner — and if you're a contra dancer who believes that you have to spin round three or four times while doing that, OK I don't recommend it but you can do it so long as you finish where you started it, facing your partner.  Now suppose I say “Those who can, right-hand star”.  Yes, you all could if you tried, but surely it's the right-hand people, the ones with their right shoulders pointing into the middle, that I mean.  With positional dancing it's not who you are that counts, it's where you are.  So, those who can, star right once around, then left-hand turn your partner until you're facing your corner, then right-hand turn your corner all the way.  Those who can, left-hand star.  Again it's clear who I mean — it's the same people.  Swing your partner and face into the set.  Head couples, right and left through.  Suppose I say “Those who can, chain back”.  The left-hand people are moving backwards in the courtesy turn, and their right hands are behind their partner's back, so (assuming it's a right-hand chain, which is certainly the standard), it's the people on the right, with a free right hand, who are moving forward into the chain.  Because I'm breaking it down into bits you've probably lost the momentum of the right and left through, but when we're dancing to the music you would just flow from that into the chain.  Same two, chain back again.  And let's do the same for the sides.

  Now everyone right-hand turn your partner once around, keep hold and give left to your corner to form what's called an Alamo ring (unless that's now politically incorrect).  [If there's any confusion I'd point out that you're all home and the right-hand people are facing out, but that shouldn't be necessary.]  Balance forward and back.  Those who can, cross the set and swing your opposite.  There's really no choice this time!  Face your current corner, right-hand turn, keep hold, give left to your current partner.  [Again if there's confusion I'd point out that the left-hand people are facing out this time.]  Balance the ring.  Those who can, cross the set and swing your original partner — you should all be home.

Finish figures off correctly   Top of page

We can get lazy, or panic, and then things are likely to go wrong.  For instance, if the call is “allemande left your corner” you expect to finish with your back to your corner, facing your partner.  So try this:

  Allemande left your corner and those who can, make a right-hand star.

Philip Rowe emailed me after I'd said this at Chippenham, with the feedback:

I was confused fairly early on by allemande left your corner and those that can right-hand star.  The allemande is something that you hardly ever finish — usually you're heading back to your partner and finish facing in exactly the opposite direction from where you'd be if you completely finished the move.

So there's a good example of a phrase meaning different things to different people!  To me an allemande is a change direction move — you start it facing your corner and you finish it facing your partner — so that is the figure finished off correctly.  And if as you're finishing it you hear “those who can”, to me It's obvious that it's the left-hand people — the men, in a conventional set-up — who are making the star.  Whereas if you allemande left only half-way the other people would be facing in — you must finish one move before you start the next even though one should flow seamlessly into the other.  Go back home, and try this:

  Allemande left your corner, allemande right your partner, and those who can, make a left-hand star.  It's those same people doing the star — or it should be!  In a right and left through, the left-hand person must finish the move with a courtesy turn — I don't care whether you put an arm round your partner's waist or not, but you must finish facing back the way you came, otherwise if the next move is “pass through” people wander off in random directions.  Again this is equally true with conventional squares, but at least there if a man meets another man they'll probably realise that one of them has gone wrong!

One figure which people often don't finish off correctly is the MWSD “Square through” (various numbers of hands).  Many men can't cope with this — they have to do a courtesy turn instead of a left pull-by and they're not even aware they're doing it.  And many people can't believe that after the final pull-by you don't turn a quarter to face in; you just star facing the way you're going.  This isn't a problem specific to gender-free dancing — it could even be less of a problem here — but you need to be aware of what often goes wrong and the caller needs to emphasise both these points.  I sometimes describe it as a miniature grand chain.  (In fact I have a dance Count-down which really reinforces this figure.)  So try this:

  Heads square through four hands.  You're facing your corner, across the hall.  Remember, a square through is just a two-couple move, so without getting involved with the other side of the set, everybody square through three hands.  And swing your partner — the sides are allowed to turn a quarter to do that, the heads should just walk straight into the swing.  [If people need to know, the sides are home and the heads are opposite home.]  Sides, square through just two hands — you're facing your corner up and down the set.  Everybody square through three hands, and swing your partner.  Heads right and left through to get home.

Another example is “cross trail through”.  This is a traditional figure which MWSD has redefined, possibly because they thought it was too imprecise, but here's the traditional meaning which I use for two couples in a square formation or for all four couples in two facing lines.  Pass your opposite right shoulder, pass your partner left shoulder and wait for the next call.  Finishing off this figure correctly, as with Square through, means not putting in any extra turn at the end, just facing the way you're going.  So try this:

  Heads cross trail through, go around one person to the middle of side lines of four.  Lines forward and back.  With the couple you're facing, cross trail through and swing the next — the heads are allowed to turn a quarter to accomplish this.  You should be with your partner, half-way round the square.  Same with the sides leading to get you home.

I use both of these versions in “The Belgian Connection” in Squares with a Difference, Volume 2.  Sue Rosen uses “cross trail through” quite often in contras such as “Joel's in the Kitchen”, “Larry's Birthday” and “Rhinestone Reel”.

Be aware of your momentum   Top of page

Louise tells me that during the walkthrough dancers in the States tend to keep moving in the direction they are going, without knowing what the next figure will be.  I tell dancers in England not to do this, and I find that generally they don't (whether I'm calling or someone else).  However, in an American-style dance (except some of the old contras) one figure normally flows into the next, and it's up to the caller to emphasise this in the walkthrough rather than teaching each figure in isolation and then being surprised when the whole dance is very jerky.  For instance, in “Bucksaw Reel” some callers say “Right and left through”, wait till everyone has completed this, then say “star left”.  A percentage of the dancers will then do a right-hand star, because that's the usual one, and no-one sees any connection between the two figures.  I would say “Right and left through — keep those left hands joined and put them into the middle for a left-hand star”.  There are still some men who won't do a courtesy turn, but at least it's a fairly strong hint that they need to finish the figure off properly.

Most modern contras and squares are designed to flow from one move to the next, so if after a right and left through the caller says “those moving forward, chain back” it's obvious who is meant — yes it's the right-hand people but the momentum may be a stronger indication.  Again I prefer “those who can”, but I'm not demanding that every positional caller do things my way — how could I?!

Stay connected   Top of page

Louise stresses this constantly in her booklet: “Swing your partner — stay connected” and it's a good idea with squares too though it's not something I would stress.  In fact MWSD dancers are taught that if you're not doing anything you should take your partner's hand, and I do this automatically.  Some partners seem uneasy with this — “Why is he holding my hand when we're not doing anything?” — but I think it's a good idea.  It reminds people who their current partners are, it keeps the set square, and if we're suddenly involved in a circle we're off to a good start.

Recover quickly if things go wrong   Top of page

Again this is a useful skill in conventional squares but it might be harder in gender-free squares.  If you're a right-hand person you need to stay a right-hand person.  If you're promenading with your new partner and you both want to be on the right, I can guarantee that there are two other people in your square who want to be on the left but haven't found a suitable partner!  Usually the left-hand people have it easy — they promenade to the same home place every time — so they should be able to do that, and if each of them can find a partner I'd say that's good enough, even if it's the wrong partner.  If people are aware during the walkthrough that each time through the dance the right-hand people move one place to the right, you should all know who your next partner is going to be.  It helps if the caller makes sure people know this.

For Callers   Top of page

Maybe getting people to walk through the exercises in the sections “Those who can” and “Finish figures off correctly” will be enough to get them on the right track.  If you want more suggestions, here's how I might start the session, assuming people are contra dancers with some experience:

Find a partner and form square sets — that's four couples, one with your backs to each wall of the room.  The Head couples are those with their backs to the band or facing the band; the Side couples are those facing across the hall.

Now decide whether you want to be on the left or the right, and take your partner's nearer hand.  In a conventional set-up it's man on the left, woman on the right, but we're moving beyond that.  I don't mind which side you stand, but you need to remember.  I might talk about “the right-hand people” or I might say “those with a free right hand” — it's the same thing.  Now join your free hands in front of you, and take a ballroom hold.  (If people aren't sure about this I demonstrate it — from both positions.)  The rule is dead simple: every time you finish a swing you open up the pointy end, and you're automatically facing into the set with the right-hand person on the right.  (Again if they're not sure how to swing I demonstrate it and then get everyone to try it.)  And any time you swing someone they become your partner, if only for a second or two.

Let's identify some important people.  Your partner you already know.  Or the other side of you is your corner, so-called because you're both standing on the same corner of the square.  Straight across from you is your opposite.  If you look past your partner you'll see someone looking your way.  I don't have a good name for this person, but you may meet them.  Notice that all three of these are on the other side from you — if you're a right-hand person, they're all left-hand people.  And the important thing to remember is “places, not faces” — every time you change position in the square you have a new partner, corner, etc.

So, swing your partner and face into the square.  Stay connected!  Four of you have a right hand free: make a right-hand star in the middle.  You'll never swing someone in this star, but you will connect with them in other ways such as a turn or star.  In fact from the star all four of you can chain across — we'll come to that later.  Now step out of the middle and the others come in to make a left-hand star.  The same goes for you: you won't swing anyone in this star, but you will connect in other ways.  And if you're in this star you will always promenade to your original home place — you've got it easy!

Instead of “those with a free right hand” or “those facing in” or “those moving forward”, I often use the phrase “those who can”.

So let's try this: Allemande left your corner, then those who can, star right.  Obviously you all could, but it's much more natural for those facing in — the men, in a conventional square.  Star around to meet your partner with an allemande left, your corner allemande right, those who can, left-hand star.  It's the same people.  I think in many cases this can replace the other three phrases — and it's shorter, which is important, particularly when I'm calling a break and it's not something I've walked you through.

So, everyone swing your partner.  Now swing your corner — open up the pointy end.  You've miraculously changed places — without having to think about it.  Now face your corner.  Oh no, not the one you just swung — they're now your partner and you have a new corner.  Do-si-do your corner.  And swing — open up the pointy end — stay connected.  Those with a free right hand (that should be four of you) chain across the set — right-hand star half-way, give left hand to your original partner for a courtesy turn — and promenade back to your home place.  (As I said, I'm assuming here that they've danced some contra so they know how to do a chain with just two couples; if not I'd modify this.)  That's easy because it's the home place for both of you, but what if you're with a different partner?  As I said, a promenade is usually to the left-hand person's place, so the right-hand people just have to trust that their current partner knows where their home is.  If three couples stop and one couple keeps going and walks into the couple in front of them, that's a fair indication that they should have stopped too!

I might suggest you learn about calling squares before you worry about gender-free calling, though you may not wish to do that.  You can read about it in many places, including my Session 8 page.  So now let's go through the breaks and dances on that page and see how (or indeed if) they can be called gender-free.  I'm playing fair with you here — I wrote the page without any thoughts of gender-free calling — I haven't deliberately chosen moves that will be easy to call positionally.  Click here to open that page in a separate tab so that you can easily switch between the two.  You can click on “Breaks” to get to them, and you can click on “Recognition” to get to the actual dances.

Break: Simple 0

Break: Simple 2

Here's one where “those who can” or the other three phrases aren't going to work, I admit.  Louise thinks that people find “those with a free right hand” less confusing than “right-hand people” but I can't see why — if you have trouble telling right from left you still won't know.  I suspect that in some cases the objection to “right-hand people” is that it secretly suggests “women”, but I don't agree with that either — this is positional calling and being a right-hand person is a position, not a disguised gender role.

Break: Harder

Break: All Eight Chain

Break: Triple Allemande

Break: Cross and Swing

Break: Unphrased

but see the note on Practical experience: Chippenham.

And now on to the dances themselves…

Recognition!

Northern Quadrille

My original reaction was: This is just too complicated — some gender-free callers would go into contortions to prove that it could be done, probably with a long walkthrough, but I'm not going to try it.  And then a couple of days later I thought about it more positively and realised it wasn't that difficult — just a bit of lateral thinking required.  So my advice to you is, don't be too quick to dismiss a dance as impossible to call positionally, just get yourself in the right frame of mind and ask yourself useful questions about the choreography.

The crucial question is: In B1 how do we replace “men turn out”?  At this point the sides are with their partners but the heads are with their opposite.  Here's my suggestion.

I know it's a lot more words in the walkthrough than just saying “men”, but it really doesn't take that much longer, and provided the “turners” know it's them during the walkthrough, “turners turn out” is not significantly slower than “men turn out” when you're actually calling the dance.  Louise has suggested another possibility.  During the left-hand star: 'Is your corner behind you?  Turn out over your right shoulder and corner swing.

Arkansas Traveller

Happy Hoedown

Push and Shove

Rolling Away

Potentially tricky because you get two men together and two women together, but actually not that difficult.And what about the Opener/Closer?

A Little Bit More

Again my initial reaction was: I think I'd avoid this one.  But surely I can find the right words.  It's unusual because the head men are in charge and yet they don't get mentioned until B1 and B2.  And then the original wording in B1 would have been “heads wheel around” — in other words the head men (because instructions were always addressed to the men) and whoever they happen to have with them at the time — actually a side woman.  Indeed when I'm calling using traditional role names I say “heads wheel around” because it's quicker, and therefore I have to explain in the walkthrough what this really means.  Once again, thinking hard about the moves and how they fit together comes up with something workable.

The Five-Star Square

The Bridge

Bouquet Waltz

Calling more complicated squares   Top of page

Sometimes a complicated square works perfectly well using positional calling.  Here are a few examples from my site.  Click the title to see the instructions in a new tab.

Hey-mania

Yes I agree the grand hey is harder without the visual clues of the stars alternating between four men and four women, but if you stress that you always pass left shoulder with either your opposite or your partner I think it should work.  It's supposed to be a challenge, after all!

Chain Through the Star

Dodgy Dancing

Duluth Stomp

The problem with calling this one is that there's a lot to say and your timing needs to be spot on — you probably wouldn't have time to read it from a card.  But it's a very logical dance with a clear pattern and I called it positionally at Chippenham without any problems and did the second figure (with the left-hand chain) without even walking it through!

And similar changes to the second figure.  Emphasise “You're in charge” and “your home place” because it's unusual to promenade to the right-hand person's place.

Country Corners Canon

This is a very challenging dance even using genders — which as you can see, it does a lot.  So can we call it positionally?  This is how I would reword the instructions.

The Head people with a free right hand, step back — you're not needed yet.  Sides separate.  The other Head people, you're in charge.  You're going to turn these four side people, working your way anti-clockwise round them, so I want you to point to each of them with your left hand, and remember them: Far Right, Far Left, Near Left (that's your corner), Near Right.  I may even change my gendered instructions to use these words!

You're going to turn your contra corners by the left (as in Pat Shaw's dance “Walpole Cottage”), but you turn each other by the right ¾ before each corner and after the final one.  At the end, the head people who are out move in and you all swing your partners.  Then we practise that a couple of times.

Now we reverse it, so those Head people who were doing the work step back — it's your partners' turn.  You're going to be working your way clockwise round the side couples, so I want you to point at each of them with your right hand and remember them: Far Left, Far Right, Near Right (that's your corner), Near Left.  Now turn contra corners by the right, turning each other by the left ¾ before each but not at the end (because it's a canon and your partner started it), then swing your partner.  Again practise that a couple of times.

Now we put the two parts together!

A1:Heads forward and back, sides back away from your partner.  Head lines forward and back — sides stay apart.
A2/B1/B2  Heads right-hand star one and a half to face your first corner.  For the Head people starting the canon, the star counts as your right-hand turn with each other so you're ready for a left hand to this corner.  But the other head people need to give right hand to your first corner, so you change hands and left-hand turn each other all the way to face this same first corner, then you can turn them by the right.  Everybody has to work together on this — being early is just as bad as being late.  As one of you is moving out your partner is moving in.  It's just four steps for each turn, so give some weight and make sure the moves dovetail into each other.  Starting people: on the way out you pass partner, opposite, partner, opposite back to back to do a left-hand turn with the person they've just turned.  Sides: there are times when no-one's turning you — don't panic!
C1:All swing partner (which starts a little late).
C2:Promenade.

Floor Walker

Practical experience — IVFDF   Top of page

I tried this out for the first time at IVFDF (Intervarsity Folk Dance Festival) in York, February 2024 — the workshop was very well received, and I also learnt plenty from it.  It was at 9am on the Sunday which was actually a good time because I didn't get people drifting in to find out what American Squares were — at that time people were there because they really wanted to be!  I started with my dance “Chippenham Square” which has no mention of gender anyway, though I threw in some “those who can” stuff in the breaks.  Then I called my dance “Do Paso Square” and hit some problems.  Do Paso was originally called do-si-do, but there was already a move of that name and another called do-sa-do, so it was agreed to rename the figure.  (All three figures have people passing back to back, which is what the French phrase means.)  In Kentucky Running Set the figure is known as “Do-si”.  It was only when I started to write the figure out in positional terms that I realised the left-hand turn with partner was only half-way so that the correct people (the left-hand people, or traditionally the men) were those crossing over.  I also realised that although MWSD had generalised the figure to work from a circle it really wasn't the same figure at all — no-one was passing back to back, and the turns were all the way instead of half-way.  So for the two couple version I called “Left-hand turn your partner half-way, those who can cross right, right-hand turn your opposite half-way, those who can, cross left, left-hand turn your partner all the way”.  One set was confused, and when I demonstrated the move Paul Moran pointed out that when “those who can” cross right they're in the middle of the set, so “right-hand turn your opposite half-way” finished with the other two (the right-hand people) facing into the set.  Instead of using “those who can” the second time I should have said “same two”.  It was a good example of how precise the caller needs to be when calling positionally.

I was planning to add my set of Triple Allemande breaks to this dance and I'm very glad I didn't!  People weren't able to do the do paso in 8 bars (16 steps) and there was some confusion with cross trail through, so we were soon off the music, and I did throw in some very simple breaks just to get back with the music.  When I call it again it will be as follows, complete with all the emphasis, and I'll tell them they need to give weight and keep the set small so that they can do the whole do paso in 16 steps:

Do Paso Square        Print this danceTop of page

A1:Heads right & left through.  Partner left shoulder do-si-do.
A2:“Do Paso”: Heads left-hand turn half-way, those who can cross back to back (R shoulder), right-hand turn opposite half-way, same two cross back to back (L shoulder), left-hand turn partner all the way, as a courtesy turn.
B1:Those who can, chain across.  Cross trail through [pass opposite right, partner left], outside round one person to the middle of a line of four.
B2:Lines forward and slightly back.  Current partner left shoulder do-si-do.
C1:In these fours, Do Paso.
C2:In same fours, chain across.  All circle left half-way.
D1:Do Paso: partner left all the way, corner right all the way, partner left as a courtesy turn.  All four who can, star chain (to original partner).
D2:Promenade home, and possibly swing.
 Non-progressive.  No breaks required, just H, S, H, S.

For my third square I called “Bouquet Waltz” with the break “All Eight Chain” and that was a good finish to the session.  People were a bit slow in the break at first, but by the final break they managed it in the required 16 bars.  The workshop was an hour long.

The only complaint I had was from a woman who said that people were confused about where to go in “Bouquet Waltz” and it would have helped if I had used numbers.  Well I had used numbers for the first couple — “Right hand person, you're the leader — your partner will be following you.  Leader go out to your right and circle left with the twos.  Now the leader move on to the threes and the follower move on to the twos…” but I'd probably decided that “move on” was perfectly clear.  And then she said “Or you could have used Larks and Robins”.  Fortunately the woman next to her, who was just standing there to thank me for a really good workshop, said “It says in the programme that this is being called positionally”, at which point the first woman apologised and went off.  I was so glad there was someone else to point that out to her!

Practical experience — Chippenham   Top of page

At Chippenham I had an hour and a half, so much more time to experiment!  Again I learnt a lot.  I had a full hall of dancers, and I encouraged all the men to try dancing as a right-hand person, even if in just one square.  I think they all did, and did it more than once.  There was a lot of confusion, and a tremendous atmosphere, helped by music from Bearded Dragons who gave me exactly what I wanted.  The problems we had were not so much with the positional stuff as with men dancing the woman's role — I had to point out to one man that you didn't swing anti-clockwise when dancing the woman's role, and then I had to stop him going backwards (though I've seen women also doing that in other places).  I think part of the reason it all went so well was that they knew me as a caller and knew that I was an old man with a wife rather than a young woman with a mission.  And that we were all in it together — no-one was going to look askance at a man dancing the woman's role and make stupid remarks about his sexual identity.  I also mentioned that a lot of gender-free proponents take it all far too seriously, and that's actually putting off the very people who might be willing to give it a try — there's this attitude of “gender free is a serious matter — no joking about it”.  I may be exaggerating this and I expect some people will jump on me for saying it, but that's how I feel.  I'm a serious caller — I did a great deal of serious preparation for this session and I took the calling seriously — but I'm not a solemn caller, and some people don't seem to understand the difference.

Philip Rowe gave me lots of useful feedback by email, which started:

I very much enjoyed the positional squares workshop at Chippenham and it has prompted me to write a few thoughts.  It was the first time I'd had a serious go at dancing on the right and I found it very interesting.  Up to now I'd shied away from it — in a normal Saturday night dance, those swapping roles tend to be noticeable, and I didn't want to be noticeable the first time I tried this, so it was a great opportunity to hide among a crowd of people who were as confused as I was.  I was very pleased to see that most of the dancers were having a go, and not only that, but many persevered for the whole workshop and shamed me into doing the same.  One square I was in was particularly interesting as we had a male couple, a female couple and two mixed couples — one dancing traditional roles and the other not.

It had never occurred to me before just how much less comfortable the allemande left move is from the other side.  Lots of other food for thought too.

I did wonder if trying to learn the other role and also learning to interpret positional instructions all at the same time was perhaps too much to take in, so not surprising that there was a fair bit of chaos.  But it was all good fun.

I started with Carol Ormand's Delight which has no mention of gender but said I would throw some positional stuff into the breaks.  I tried to do my Triple Allemande break but they were having so much trouble just swinging that I gave up on that and threw in some very simple stuff.  This was so different from the session at IVFDF where people have much more experience of switching roles.

Jen Morgan also gave me some feedback by email, pointing out that she'd been dancing gender-free for years but hasn't danced squares for years so she was having different problems from most of the other people.  In “Carol Ormand's Delight” there's a wrong way grand chain and that totally threw her because she had no idea which was the “right” way.  She suggested I drop the phrase “wrong way” and I agree with her — you've just given right hand to your partner so it's obvious which way the chain will go — the phrase is there to reassure people in a gendered situation that I really do want them to go the way they don't expect, but in a positional situation it would be better just to emphasise “Grand chain this way” to reassure any doubters.

Then I called Geoff Cubitt's dance “Jay's Square” in which you keep the same partner but move round one place each time through — that seemed to go well — and paired it with my Unphrased break.  That didn't go so well, and one person said afterwards that “leader” is so often a surreptitious way of suggesting “man” that he found it difficult to follow (if you'll excuse the pun) — and he certainly wasn't the only one, so maybe I need to think some more about that.  Jen Morgan said:

The chorus with the person in front of their partner turning back — technically “leads turn back” makes perfect sense.  But what happened in my head is I went “but we're in a circle!  Not a line!  No one's in the lead!” and it took a surprisingly long time to realise you meant “in front of your partner”.  I'm not sure what the fix is for this (without walking it, which you don't want to have to do for breaks).  Bob and I thought maybe you let everyone go around twice and use more words “e.g. are you in front of your partner?  Can you see your corner's back?  Wave!  Ok, turn out over your left shoulder…” But that's a lot of words.

and Philip Rowe said:

A figure where the traditional call would be 'men turn out' had us completely baffled.  We were circling left and were supposed to identify a leader who would then turn out.  My set were instinctively looking for a single person out of the 8 of us to be 'the leader' and we couldn't identify who that individual might be.  It wasn't at all clear that in fact we were looking for 4 leaders — one in each couple.  We never actually achieved that figure successfully because of this confusion, and it was only afterwards I realised what it meant.

OK, maybe that's a break that just doesn't work when called positionally.  Or maybe if I'd said “right-hand people turn out…”

Next I called Floor Walker which has a 64-bar figure and so doesn't need any breaks.  In fact people were sometimes a bit slow, in which case I added “Lines forward and back” before the right and left through which put me out with the music, but it didn't matter — I just kept calling confidently and stopped the band when I'd had enough!

Once again Philip Rowe pointed out an ambiguity which hadn't occurred to me:

This dance had head couples chain across, then those who chained pick up your corner and lead into the middle.  What is meant by those who chained?  This was the one dance that I did on the left (for variety) and I was one member of the head couples and I had been involved in the chain, even if not in a leading capacity.  I certainly wasn't part of a side couple standing still, so I felt I was eligible to consider myself one of those who chained.  I quickly realised what this instruction meant, but it might have been clearer to specify those who crossed over the set rather than just those who chained.

It said on my card, “Same two lead your corner forward and back”, but who knows what I actually said in the heat of the moment?

Then I called Duluth Stomp which was probably the hit of the session, and even did the second figure (with the left-hand chain) without walking it through.  For the breaks I tried Positional Promenade which went reasonably well (though I didn't manage to keep it phrased to the music) but one man commented later that as an experienced square dancer he automatically faces in to the centre after do-si-do partner, and then “those who can” is meaningless.  I pointed out that I had said this right at the start, and he agreed, but I now realise I need to emphasise that every time!

I had some time left at the end, so I called a break and a figure neither of which had any mention of gender: Button-hook Chain and The Lazy “H”.  Again I thought I was being perfectly clear (of course!) but Philip Rowe said:

Next, there was a situation where we had 2 lines of 3 people facing each other and the 3rd couple standing separate.  'Threes do something or other'.  Who are the threes?  The lines of 3 or the 3rd couple?  We quickly worked it out, but it would only have taken an extra second or two of hesitation to get too far behind to catch up.  I think this was only difficult because we were dancing unfamiliar roles, but it really showed how much extra concentration that required.

Bruce Hamilton from California was running a callers' workshop in the same hall immediately before my session, and we had a long chat before his workshop.  He said that what I was describing wasn't positional but role-based, and I could see his point — If you all circle left half-way your position has changed but your role hasn't.  He asked me how I would refer to the eight points of the compass.  If the right-hand people star half-way, how do I refer to the one who is now at the south pole.  I said I didn't know any square where I would need to do that; he said that wasn't the point!  I suppose I would say “number 1” since I'm referring to the right-hand person from the first couple (assuming the caller is at the North pole) but he wasn't impressed by this.  I invited him to stay for my session and experience it live, but he didn't.

The whole session went amazingly well — lots of laughter — and for the rest of the festival people kept coming up to me to say how much they'd enjoyed it.  So if you have a local folk organisation, you could suggest that I might run a similar session for them.  I could also do a callers' workshop to introduce callers to the concept of calling American Squares positionally!

Sometimes it just won't work   Top of page

Being realistic, there are squares where positional calling just isn't going to work and we might as well admit it.  For instance there's one called “The Wrong Star” in my book Squares with a Difference, Volume 2 which gets you into two stars, one with three men and one woman, the other with three women and one man, and as the stars rotate the two people in the “wrong” star switch over.  This wouldn't work with Larks and Robins either — you've got to have the visual clues to identify who's in the wrong star, and I'm not going to apologise for having written a sexist dance!  But is that really a problem?  Or a moral issue?  It's the wrong dance for that situation, just as a complicated dance is the wrong dance if there are lots of beginners.  So call something else!

Louise read this and said,

Now you're the one contradicting yourself :)  You say further up that things you think are difficult may just need a different perspective, but now you say that The Wrong Star is un-callable positionally.  But if you introduce the same-role dancers as I suggest, then the odd person out in each star should be identifiable — and perhaps it's part of the fun for the oddballs to use eye contact or other body language to identify each other across the stars, or for the stars to “boot out” the dancer who doesn't belong.

I can see that in a perfect world that would work, but I'm not sure about the real world.  However she's challenged me to use a different perspective, and I've now realised I could start by saying: “Look straight across to your opposite.  There will come a time when the stars have gone once around, you're approaching each other, and you realise that you're both in the wrong star — because right-hand people want to be in a right-hand star and left-hand people want to be in a left-hand star.  So you just smoothly change stars!”

Where to start?   Top of page

This is all well and good, but you're not going to start by running a square dance or a squares workshop.  More likely you'll be calling an American-style dance with contras, possibly triplets, circles and Sicilian circles, and you'd like to throw in a couple of squares.

If you're not used to calling squares, start simple — but not too simple or people will decide squares are boring and tell you you should stick to contras.  You need to get out of your comfort zone in order to grow — that's what I'm doing running this workshop!  As you get more confident, your comfort zone expands, and you can try things that you wouldn't have dared try a few months earlier.  But don't get so far out of your comfort zone that everything breaks down catastrophically: that's not going to help you grow.  A lot of club callers take the easy route — they only call dances they're totally confident with.  That's why they're still just club callers.

I suggest that in your contras you foreshadow moves you're going to be using in the squares — whether you're calling positionally or not.  For instance I wrote a contra “Double Swing Through” as a lead-in to my most complicated American square, “Triple Swing Through”.  If you're going to use “Pass the Ocean” or “Box circulate” in a square, get people used to it in a contra first.  If you like the “those who can” approach, introduce this phrase in contras first.

One phrase I've heard in a positional contra (and it totally threw me) is “Second corners allemande left”.  Please don't use this.  If people are used to Playford-style dances they know the terms “First corners” to mean first man and second woman in a longways duple minor set, and “second corners” to mean the other two, but it's unlikely that one of the couples will be improper.  If they're not used to Playford-style dances they won't have any idea what it means.  I strongly recommend “left-hand people” — and again this foreshadows your use of the term when you come to a square.

If you have good rapport with the dancers, they'll be tolerant of your mistakes.  They may well be there because they like the idea of gender-free dancing, and it's fine to say — without too much apology — that you're new to this and you hope they won't mind if you make the odd mistake.  You might like to read my notes on The Caller's Attitude — if you come across as “I'm in charge and I'm right” they'll be waiting for a chance to prove you wrong!

So what squares should you call?  Again I recommend my Session 8 page, which I wrote to encourage new callers to try squares.  There are lots of easy squares on my Northern Junket page, though there's so much sexist patter that you may decide to give the whole lot a miss!  I don't do rhyming patter anyway — I like a clear call without the extraneous verbiage.  And you'll see that a lot of them are singing calls, which is a complication we certainly don't want to get into!  Have a look at Three Hand Star, The Ladies Switcheroo (which you could just call “The Switcheroo”), Corners of the Hall, Contra Square, Around Just One, Circle Three & Balance Four — OK, you can read through the page as well as I can, but I must mention The Lazy “H” which requires no change of wording at all.  Just remember that calling squares positionally requires a different mindset: you really have to think differently about how you're going to walk the figure through and how you're going to call it.  I suggest that you don't squeeze in lots of hand-written additions to your card — create a new set of cards for positional calling and you'll save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run.  I now have a separate section in my case of cards labelled “Positional” (mainly squares and contras) subdivided into Figures and Breaks, and this ties up with the card images in my Dance Organiser program which is what I normally call from.  In fact when I looked through the contras which I had called more than 30 times (of which there were 16) I found I hardly needed to change any wording and didn't produce a new card: it was enough in almost all cases to use the magic phrase “those who can” and to point out that all the chains were right-hand chains.

If you don't think your dancers are going to cope with positional calling in the breaks, you can do a break with no mention of men and women.  For instance:

Simple 0   Half Grand Square   Nothing to it — and I'm sure you can invent plenty of others.

And one other bit of advice.  If you make a mistake (which we all do) and somebody says, “That proves it — gender-free dancing is a load of rubbish”, don't argue with them.  Say something like “I agree, it's not for everyone” (which is what they really mean, like saying classical music is rubbish or vegetarian food is rubbish), “and I'm still learning how to call it, but I know there are plenty of people who really like it”.  If they're dancing in a square, you might say (without any hint of sarcasm) “Would you like someone to take your place?” and I expect someone on the side-lines who likes the idea of gender-free dancing will immediately volunteer.

I hope reading these notes has helped you, but ultimately the only way to become good at positional calling is to get out there and do it.  If I'm running a callers' workshop on this I ask people ahead of time to bring along a couple of squares and a couple of breaks that they might like to call, or that they're having difficulty with.  Then we go through some of these at the workshop, I give my own suggestions, and ask other people for theirs — I don't have a monopoly on the truth.  Maybe we'll decide that it just can't be done, though as I said earlier in these notes a bit of lateral thinking can work wonders.  And later in the workshop all the callers will have a chance to call at least one dance, with immediate feedback from the other callers (and dancers) and then from me — again I'm not claiming to be the sole arbiter and I've certainly had cases where other people disagreed with my feedback.


On Wednesday, May 29, 2024, Andrew King  from Hertfordshire  wrote:
For me, this was such a lot of fun and the atmosphere was supportive, friendly and electric. As a caller I learnt a lot about what the ladies do and appreciated that sometimes we expect them to dance the man's role at the touch of a button and to do it easily. But if we ask the men to dance as ladies, some of them including me are not great at it.
For example, in a swing and a promenade, I found it unusual having someone on my left instead of my right and that got a bit of getting used to.
In Bruce's workshop later that day, I decided to dance as a lady with agreement from my partner and I found it a little easier having had that experience in your workshop. So I recommend all men to try it especially callers!
Thank you very much Colin, it was obvious you had put a huge amount of time and effort into this workshop.
On Wednesday, May 29, 2024, Bob Morgan  from UK wrote:
"If the right-hand people star half-way, how do I refer to the one who is now at the south pole."
Surely that is the person in the star at the bottom of the set?  Or nearest 3s place perhaps.

For the intermediate points "between the 1s and 2s" for NW say.  But unless you want to do something like "Allemande left your partner, those who can star right 7/8 and single file promenade out between 1 & 2 behind one half way round to come back in between 3 and 4 into a star right to allemande left your corner and swing your partner..." they don't come up very often.