Some notes for a first-time caller

By Kiran Wagle

First draft, former part

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(This includes a few revisions discussed in the followups attached below.)

(I think I just re-broke my toe so I can't do anything more with this until I sleep and let it recover a bit. Feel free to spread it around widely and also criticise it harshly. :-)

All these callers' workshops flying around in the DC area. Time to write down my thoughts on such things. A correspondent has commented that "I consider callers' workshops to be of limited utility." That pretty much sums up my thoughts on the issue, but it's useful to explain *why* I believe this. And the way to do that is to demonstrate that one can learn to call without a workshop.

Someone tonight asked the very good question "But do I really have to go to Annapolis to learn to call?" (and promptly surmised that she probably *did*, which I find extremely dismaying.) Since Glen Echo dancers really DO think they need some huge enormous class thingy to learn to call, I figured I should assert the opposite--that they merely need to apply themselves, in other words, to work. <g>

(I hope to persuade the reader that new callers *don't need a class* despite what *any* person might claim (and in fact, don't need a lot of things non-callers think they need, and DO need something that many callers think they don't need--namely, desk-work.))

Calling is actually fairly straightforward. Do your homework. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Practice and practice some more. WORK, DAMMIT. <g> And *prepare a dance*. Or two. This seems obvious to me, but over and over I hear people claim "I really DO want to try calling" and when I ask them "Have you prepared a dance?" they never reply "Why yes, I'm working on The Baby Rose" or even "What do I have to do to prepare a dance?" "No" just isn't an answer that will get you started.

*If you've done your homework*, the hardest thing you'll have to do *once you get on stage* is insure that the lines have taken hands-four all the way to the end. Really. (Note that this statement is non-trivial in halls of and with crowds of ANY size. Glen Echo is no bigger challenge to master than Harmony School or the Laurel Theatre. "Easier to see" doesn't mean "easier to manage.")

Consider some general principles

(Note to certain pesky readers: that's what THEY want to achieve, not what YOU want them to achieve. If you don't like this, then calling isn't your calling.)

and some specific principles

and with the following principles for new callers

the steps to calling your dance are

But nobody believes it's actually that simple. So I'm going to waste a night explaining every step in excruciating detail, and then (if you have the right stuff for calling) you'll say "Um, that's really simple... Why'd you waste a night writing it down?" to which I'll mumble something about providing a supply of paper for airplane making and not suggest any particular targets. I might add that if you actually DO these things, to wit

then you won't be anything at all like the callers I grumble about. They fail on the tests above, usually on preparation and often on practice.

You can learn to call in your car, in your living room, at the back of the hall at Glen Echo, on top of a mountain, at the beach--wherever you have access to a notebook (on the beach you could even use sand) a battery-operated tape recorder, a wind-up radio, or a friend with an instrument, your mouth, and especially your brain, a lumpy grey thing inside your head.

(To learn to call, you *do* have to actually get around to calling your dance--but that's about the only thing you *need* a group of people, a hall, and some music for, and it's only 12 minutes of the three hours or so you'll spend learning to call--oh, and you'll need eyes for the actual calling part, though not for the rest of it.)

Consider the example of a professor of mine (programming languages) who had the habit of handing out long, difficult and complex problem sets as homework . His exams consisted of portions of those problem sets, cut out and pasted into a different order, perhaps with a few words and numbers changed. If you'd DONE your homework, the exam was not particulary difficult. If you hadn't, well, you were mincemeat.

And, in my opinion, this "homework" (whatever that means) is *ALL* you have to do to learn to call. (To "become a caller" you have much more work, of course.) Does that take an eight week workshop? I don't think so. It does take an afternoon. And it does take understanding and knowledge, thus this note.

It also takes thought and reflection and study. (This can't be stated often enough--learning to call is *reflective* work as much as it is participatory.) Before you get on stage, you have access to an enormous number of resources. When you get on stage, you have access only to what you've practiced and written down. Just like homework, eh?.

Use every resource you can find. Ask your friends to walk through your dances. Ask callers to critique your walkthroughs (send them to me in email.) When you're at a dance, continually ask yourself "how could I have done that better?" Ask for feedback from everyone who'll give it--you don't have to respect their calling to learn from their feedback. (That one's for me). And study (which does NOT mean "dance to," it means "study") the callers who do the job well, no matter whether you like them or the things they call. (This one's for Alan).

(If you want to "become a caller" instead of just learn to call, you'll have to come to terms with the notion that calling is *work*. You can't learn to call just by trying over and over--you have to think, and reflect, and observe. This is no big deal if you're preparing one slot--I hope you can spare an couple of hours in an afternoon--but if you want to become a caller you'll have to spend twelve afternoons to prepare an evening, and you'll have to do boring tiresome crud like make tapes and listen to callers you admire with a notebook in your hand, and so forth.)

90% or so of what you have to know to successfully call the dance you've chosen to call is stuff you really can do at home, or in your car, or while you're washing dishes. It's understanding your dance, finding words that communicate it to the common dancer, and learning and practicing those words.

(Yes, it's really that easy--but it can also be tiresome unless you're as geeky as I am, and if you *are* I am sorry for you. <g> The difference between being a good caller and a mediocre or bad caller is in fact almost completely defined by how well you understand your dances, and how quickly you can access and deliver that knowledge. If there's a way to obtain understanding and knowledge without the work of thought, reflection, and practice, I'd like to know what it is.)

(I do NOT think you need to "memorise" that information, though I do think it's good to be able to present it without reading from a card. I think it's quite reasonable, when you learn or discover something, to *write it down*, and I encourage you to write your dances down in a form that allows you to quickly recover the work you've done at your desk. I'll provide some concrete examples of that below.)

The other 10% of what you have to do to call your dance (note that once again, I don't mean "to be a caller," I mean to call a single slot in a multi-caller evening) is, IMO, stuff you can *only* learn on stage. And that's why it's so important to do your homework--the exam is to deliver the solution to the homework problem in three minutes or less, and you won't have time to do your homework after you get to the exam.

I need to define some terms. A "slot" is a period of time (usually 12 minutes or so) that includes "set formation," a "walkthough" in which the caller teaches a "sequence" made up of "figures", and a "dance," the first few "changes" of which are prompted by the caller. Note that we'll probably never refer to this usage of "dance" again until one of you comes up with a better word for it. :-) "Prompts" are the words the caller uses to remind the dancers to move after the music starts, and one time through the sequence is a "change."

My answer to our prospective new caller was "Before you get on stage, what you have to do to "learn to call" is understand the meaning of the phrase "doing your homework" (as well as understand why doing your homework is so damn important, of course.) Do you have to go to a workshop to do that? In a nutshell, well, no."

(My other answer to this question is "Prepare, prepare, prepare; practice and practice some more.")

The last shall be first--why is it so important that our new caller do her homework, whatever that means? A prosaic example is that there's always SOME hotshot somewhere in the room who was getting a drink or booking ahead or trying to pick up his partner instead of listening to the walkthrough, he'll shout out "Chain to who?!?" and you'll be on the spot. This is exactly why my cards never say "women chain across" or "women chain half". <g>

But here's a more interesting example from my own calling. One of my favorite sequences to prompt (I've never danced it, but the dancers seem to have fun) is

The Whip, by Tom Hinds (duple & improper)

A1 Nbrs allemande left 1-5/8 ; women do-si-do 1-1/2
A2 Ptnrs balance & swing
B1 long lines forward & back ; women chain to nbr
B2 Circle left ; star *right* (the same direction!)

Once, when I called this to a roomful of skilled dancers in Philly, they started to mumble during B2 that they "hadn't progressed." In fact, they'd progressed at the end of B1; the rest of the dance is just zesty exciting filler to use up some leftover music between partner swings and moves the dancers exactly nowhere. I knew damn well they'd progressed, so I proceeded to finish the walkthrough and call the dance.

What would have happened if I *hadn't* known that? What if I had actually *believed* these dancers? Can you say "crashed walkthrough?" I'd waste valuable time the dancers could be spending dancing fussing over the dance in my head trying to figure out what *I* had screwed up, and eventually discover that the answer is "nothing at all." And the dancers would see a caller who wasn't prepared--who didn't understand his dance--and would be less persuaded by my claim the next time round.

When the dancers shout out something like "We didn't swap," it's useful to know that if the dancers correctly execute the figure "twirl to swap" (which is curiously called "California Twirl" in many places) they DO swap. <g> The answer you need is "it works," and the *knowledge* you need to shout that out with a smile comes from doing your homework.

So what IS doing your homework anyway? What the heck do I mean by this? Simply put, "doing your homework" means choosing a sequence and translating the gibberish on your card into something (both you and) the dancers can understand. This includes several steps.

(Don't worry, be lazy. You'll save yourself a LOT of stress if you present a dance we already know and love. They don't want to be impressed, they want to dance (to the music and) with each other. And you'll impress them if you get them there in a hurry.

One reason I think we should be actively encouraging our most talented and skilled prospects to become callers is that many dancers become callers when they find some "really cool" dance they really really want to call (or, more prosaically, when they decide their local callers are calling boring dances.) This usually leads to failure, not success. Why not encourage these people before they find that cool but impossible dance?

(Mine was "Eye of the Storm" by the way.)

Note that the step "Prepare the prompts" is a STRONG limitation on the dances you choose. If you're a beginning caller, choose a dance with prompts you KNOW, like "Balance and swing." Don't choose a dance with prompts like "Pass through to an ocean wave, balance, neighbor by the right, men by the left, partner by the right, shadow by the left, partners swing."

Really. Batja's Breakdown is a damn good dance; even if you leave out the fractions it's still going to get stuck in your throat. And you do need time to--like it says on the inside of Lisa G's box of cards--"Breathe!"

(In particular, the chain and hey are NO FUN at all to teach in words from the stage if there's more than one beginner in every group of four. Make the caller before you do them. <g> The only other things I'll say about these moves is that I believe learning a half hey makes learning a full hey much easier, and that chaining to a neighbor instead of a partner makes learning a chain much easier.)

(Again, I would expect this to be self-evident, but apparently it isn't.)

Understand where the dancers are at all points of transition--at the beginning and end of every figure. Especially understand when the dancers have progressed. How do you get there? How did THEY get there?

How the heck else are you ever going to keep it all straight? And make sure it's legible, too. :-|

Work out the exact words you'll use to teach the sequence to a particular target audience. I mean the *exact* words, not just an approximation. (Then you can email them to me for feedback.) And remember, the goal in general is to get the dancers dancing as quickly as possible. The fewer words you use, the less time you spend talking. That's your goal--to shut up already. The net is for talking. <g>

Then, practice those words. Practice them. Then practice them again. (One of our new callers (Hi Mavis!) suggested that one could tape oneself, and then play back the tape, and ask "Will the dancers do what I want if they hear what I just said?") Your car is a good place to practice. <g>

Your target can be summed up in the phrase "clear, concise, walkthroughs using words in the common dancer's vocabulary."

Greg Frock suggests that *every* word you speak should have been considered, thought about, reflected upon. Sam Rotenberg says that you should never use a word ya don't need. Larry Jennings points out that a single word (snag, scoop) or phrase (Circle till you get straight) can make all the difference. *I* say that every word you use is one less word you can use somewhere else--in other words, if you want to talk about style or culture, you have to *make* the time for it from other parts of your evening. I also say that the best training for preparing dances is writing--writing nonfiction, nonfiction essays, essays for the net. <g>

As for the target audience, if you're a first-time caller, assume the dancers know how to do the basic figures, and then find a gig where they DO know all the basic figures. (If you're calling in a multi-caller evening, someone has to do it, but it doesn't have to be you! If you're a guest caller, the caller of the evening can do it, and will do it if they're doing their job.)

You want to present the *sequence*, not the figures--a lot of people fuss about how important teaching figures is, but in the vast majority of series the dancers will learn the figures from the more experienced dancers. (The dancers also have the power of hands-on demonstration. You don't.)

Furthermore, even if the beginners don't know how to do whatever it is you didn't bother to teach them because you sensibly took Kiran's advice about focussing on the sequence and not the figures, they can still get there from here via a well-presented sequence. Even if you say "end the swing facing across, with the lady on the right" without ever bothering with a swing, whatever the heck that is. It's precisely these transitions that make the figures flow together into a sequence and then with some music turn into a dance. (Auuugh, I said I wouldn't use it!)

(Caroline Fahrney listened to a tape I made of her calling, and after less than a minute she put into clear, concise words something I'd been trying to figure out hot to say for over a year. I can write, but she can THINK. <g>)

In other words, a caller's saying "Now you're going to circle to the left" leads me to the response "Okay, we'll do that just as soon as you tell us to." Just TELL us. You'll be fussed at about being unwelcoming (I sure was) but the dancers will dance better.

Don't give the inattentive hotshots even the slightest chance to move until they know where to go. YOU know what they're about to do, but they don't (unless I'm in the line. <g>) An example of this is "Women chain on the left diagonal." With that prompt, how many hotshots will think they're about to chain across and do it before they hear differently?

This really should be self-evident. Unfortuantely, it isn't. Remember my own example above, where I say "Allemande left 1+5/8." Yeah, RIGHT--even *I* was confused the next time I looked at that. The dancers actually DO move almost exactly 1+5/8 before the women do-si-do, but they don't even begin to think of it this way. Neither should you--you should, perhaps, *know* it this way, but thinking of it this way is a pitfall.

This brings us to the subisidary rules "Fractions are evil" (which is self-evident, and if it isn't you aren't qualified to be a caller anyway--argument by intimidation here) and "Stopping short of the brink is better than stopping long."

(In other words, if you must use a fractional description, make sure you stop the dancers *before* the place they need to be, not beyond it. So to use my example above, in the walkthrough I say "once and a half, to trade places" and I prompt the dance with "once and a half and a little bit more" without mentioning that the little bit more is exactly 0.125 or thereabouts.)

Once again, this means work out the *exact* words you plan to use. (Read that until you believe it, he mutters to certain people.) Then, *write them down.*

(In other words, "Make that star!" is much less useful than "Left hand star!")

Choosing a sequence whose prompts are words *you already know how to say* is just as important as choosing a dance that the dancers know how to do. "The Rendezvous" is a popular first dance because you already know the prompts and you get plenty of time to breathe. For this reason, I've never been able to call it. (I'll consider another example in detail--a hot sequence--in a moment.)

(Yes, you do know them. "Swing your neighbor" "Long lines forward and back" "Women do-so-do." "Partners balance & swing" "Circle, go all the way round" "Slide to the left and circle some more.")

Take the time to learn, up front, how to make the words of your prompts fit the phrasing of some popular dance tunes. If you work on *talking conversationally* *with* the music, you'll be a lot more pleasant to listen to.

Susan Kevra does a workshop in vocal technique (and a brilliant one) in which the callers spend time saying (to jigs and reels) whatever words they want to use to prompt the figure known as "long lines forward and back." Consider some real-world examples, crudely trasliterated.

Long long lines, go forward and back (Caroline Fahrney)
Lines go forward anna lines go back (Ron Buchanan)
Lines go FOWARD 'n' bac' (Me)
In lines at the sides, there you stand,
go into the center and back again (Beth Molaro)
CHARGE! .... retreat (Pete Campbell)

An exercise I use quite a lot is the "American Political Documents of the Founding Eras" exercise. Find some known text (the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg address, for example) and read it aloud to the rhythyms of common dance tunes on a tape of (if at all possible) *live* dance music. (I use a tape of the Last Gaspe which I hope the Last Gaspe will let me give you.) This is very silly. Don't do it at home. <g>

Prompt the moves on the beats before the beat on which you want the dancers to move. This is much harder to explain than to demonstrate, so ask me at a dance. In most cases, you'll prompt on beats 5-8 of the musical phrase, and the dancers will move on beat 1 of the next phrase. So you'll hear, if you're counting "1-2-3-4-prompt-prompt-prompt-prompt," and then the dancers will do what you prompted.

If you're one of those snobby dancers who refuses to count, GET OVER IT.

"Practice" means practice both with and without music. Tapes of live dances work best--I'm trying to get permission to pass some around. I like the method of going to the back of the hall and practicing while watching the dancers and listening to the music. If the caller happens to be calling your dance, you can pretend to be the caller and practice while the dancers do exactly what you're prompting them to do! I find this technique extremely useful when trying to build up the confidence to attempt a difficult sequence.

Many callers, especially beginning callers, spend a lot of time working out charts and tables of exactly what syllables they're going to say on whatever beat of the music. This is simply loony. I think these callers would be much better served by simply choosing four-beat calls (for example "left hands in, left hand star") and actually practicing with a tape for the fifteen minutes it takes to draw their silly little charts. What matters is not some theoretical chart of how you're going to prompt. What matters is how you DO prompt.

All you need to do is make sure you start in time to finish on time. "If you think you're going to be late, leave early." While it's VERY BAD for a skilled caller to prompt moves early, it's EVEN WORSE to get them late, and new callers are much more likely to be late than to be early. Once again, PRACTICE, DAMMIT.

[to be continued, including a detailed preparation for The Baby Rose.]

First draft, latter part

First followup

Larry Jennings writes:

Thanks for the feedback; it's always useful. This is not, BTW, the calling primer I've been planning for some time. That document will consider each of the specific suggestions in detail, and spend more time on things that aren't (as) important on one's first night, such as set management.

Speaking of set management, I forgot one key point that I'll put into the next draft, namely that *if you've done your homework*, the hardest thing you'll have to do *once you get on stage* is insure that the lines have taken hands-four all the way to the end.

I also agree that the callers who have the right stuff will have figured out the importance of phrasing things well, but I don't know if they will actually implement it well on their own. For example, I didn't understand the importance of a single word until recently--or at least not explicitly, though I did feel that every word should be, as Greg Frock puts it, considered.

Thus the list of rules, a VERY important one of which I left out, to wit:

(That concise formulation came from Caroline Fahrney after she listened to a tape I made for her. After less than a minute of listening, she put into words something I'd been trying to figure out for eons. I can write, but she can THINK. <g>)

In other words, a caller's saying "Now you're going to circle to the left" leads me to the response "Okay, we'll do that just as soon as you tell us to." So, just tell us what to do. You'll be fussed at about being unwelcoming (I was) but the dancers will dance better.

(An important idea that needs to be quashed, IMO, is the idea that callers need to explain things in multiple ways. That's fine when the goal is to try to teach people *how* to think, but callers want to teach the dancers *what* to think--in other words, to move them through the dance the first few times until their bodies learn what to do.)

I don't actually understand what's separate about it--I do think that it requires *dancing* squares as often as possible, as an aid to understanding them, but i don't understand what qualitiatively different things you have to do. You still have walkthroughs, prompting on time, and so forth--you just have more of it and a different formation, it seems to me (thus making memory and so forth correspongingly more important.)

David Kirchner comments that he believes the caller is much more responsible for driving the dancers' enthusiasm in squares, but I believe that once again that's quantitiative--much *more* resonsible, but a contra caller still drives the enthusiasm level (consider Cis Hinkle or Ron Buchanan.) (That specifically is what I find most lacking in the tape I gave you. I generally can do it, but it didn't come through in that tape IMO.)

I figure that it's probably time for me to start preparing and practicing some squares, and when the time and place is right I'll test my theory by calling one. <g>


I disagree on this one--I think that "slide" is one of those "power words," and shift will not communicate the idea to the dancers as well as slide will. (For one thing, I think of shifting as something you do from a standing start, and this move comes after a circle. From a standing start, I'd use shift if I had to, but I generally use "Look left and..." For another, I think shift is just a much less commonly encountered word, and that will require the dancers to think about the *word* rather than the action. And if I *meant* sashay, I'd *say* sashay. <g>)

Second Followup

Alan Gedance writes:

WHICH points??? Sheesh. :-)

I don't think there's any difference between calling contras and calling squares [the kind of well-phrased and well-choreographed squares I like to dance, not that primitive unphrased crap that some people call] except the amount of RAM you need to store the dance, the time used in preparation, and the input bandwidth and scratch memory to keep track of the dancers. It's a matter of *scale*, not a qualitiative difference.

I think more opportunites to call are more important. My point here is that *if* the workshops can kick these people into doing their homework, they'll be useful, but the people who'll do their homework don't need the workshops. They just need the slots.

They do need to be pushed in the right direction, but they need to be provided with opportunities they feel they can take at their level of skill. I wouldn't be a caller if I hadn't been presented with a LOT of opportunity--enough that the dancers' claims "It was only twelve minutes, you idiot, we still had plenty of fun tonight, so STOP FUSSING" rang true. It really WAS only twelve minutes, and the dancers were willing to tolerate a lot for that long, and I was able to give them better a short time (namely, a week) later.

(I really don't think one can learn to call without at least a monthly opportunity to do one or two slots, and I think weekly is much better. If the Callers' Collective set itself the goal of providing a weekly forum for practice to taped music, I'd consider it useful. As it is, I'm still looking for musicians. <g>)

Note that I also believe that the coordinating caller should be reviewing the newcomers' sequences and preparation, and I sure haven't seen the coordinator do any of that. (Considering that one of the new callers got to the stage having not prepared an easy dance....) (He does put some attention into the program, but seemingly not into testing the callers who fill the slots.)

THAT is the "limited utility" that I think they have and will come up in the remainder of the article. But they're NOT A SUBSTITUTE for doing one's homework, and I see too many people who think they can "learn to call" in a class instead of at their desk. (I also see too many people who think they can learn to call by "exposure" rather than by sitting at their desk, but that's a different issue.)

Some things they are good for are

But these are all things which are helpful *to callers*, not ways to *learn* to call.

I think that as long as we don't expect the callers' workshops to produce callers, they'll help people become better dancers. BUT I don't think it's generally worth spending weeks either leading people to become good callers, or dissuading them. I'd rather see the workshop time used for the improvement of people who have decided to *become callers* and have taken the step of learning to call.

Kiran Wagle <>