Friday, December 21, 2012

It's GOOD for you!

There is an ongoing debate among callers about calling "Chestnuts" (old traditional contra dances) and other formations of dances like proper dances, triplets, squares, etc.  In most contra dance communities that I am familiar with, these dances are not really appreciated and can cause grumblings and outright revolts among the dancers. It sometimes seems like callers are the nannies forcing cod liver oil down the throats of reluctant children (the dancers) telling them, "But it's GOOD for you!"

I agree that these old dances can be good for us.  They broaden our perspective and our skills and gets us outside the box that is modern contra dance.  They also remind us of the history and the evolution of the dance form over centuries.

In colonial America, there were no air conditioned halls, no sound systems, and people wore a lot more clothing than they do these days.  A dance as rigorous as a modern day contra would have caused these folks to pass out from heat stroke!  The dances in the old days often involved one couple doing a figure while the other couple watched, sometimes these dances were fairly balanced with the ones and the twos getting an equal amount of time to dance while the others watched, but some were quite uneven - such as "Chorus Jig" where the twos hardly participate at all.  Modern contra dancers chaff at all this "standing around."  I know that in New England, Chorus Jig is revered, but in the dance communities in the rest of the country that came to be in the 1950s and 1960s, it is not revered and can even be abhorred.

The first time I danced Chorus Jig, I was partnered with a new dancer and we were starting the dance at the bottom of the hall as 2s.  My partner kept asking, "Why aren't we getting to dance?" I know that in many communities, the 2s sneak swings, but my policy is to not put extra moves, twirls, etc at new dancers.  Perhaps I should have in this circumstance.  The dance ended about the time we got to the top.  Afterward I tried to explain to her that this was an old traditional dance from early American times.  She wasn't impressed and neither was I.

I play recorders and crumhorns in a Renaissance ensemble, Musica Vera.  We always get a good audience for our concerts and audience members comment on how they enjoy hearing the old music and instruments that they rarely get the chance to experience.  But I don't know of anyone who has gone home and thrown out all their modern recordings in exchange for recordings of early music.

I understand that this music and these instruments are obsolete for good reason!  Music and instruments have evolved.  Are our "chestnut" contra dances obsolete for good reason?  Should we be making the effort to keep them alive as Musica Vera does with Renaissance and even Medieval music?

And is it the responsibility of the caller to make the dancers happy, or to give them what's "good" for them?  I have wondered how to balance the need to expose our dancers to a wider variety of dances and the need to keep them happy and coming back for more contra dancing!

I appreciate a caller who dishes out the chestnuts in teaspoon-fulls rather than by the gallon.  Give me no more than one chestnut or alternate formation in each half of the dance.  Recently I attended a dance where there were three uneven dances and two squares called back-to-back.  There were several complaints from dancers especially about the two squares called back-to-back.  I know that callers do this because it takes longer to set up squares than it does a contra, so it saves time to do the two back-to-back, but if someone sits out the first square, getting into the second one is quite difficult so the person ends up sitting out two dances.  At this event, the two squares took over 20 minutes to teach and dance.  One man complained that he drove two hours to get to the dance and sat out most of the second half due to the two squares back-to-back.

I also look at each dance and see how much teaching is going to be involved.  I want no more than 2 dances an evening that will require in-depth teaching.  I'm looking for that perfect balance between introducing new (or old in regards to chestnuts) concepts, and letting the dancers enjoy the process they already know.

Callers need to be gentle in dishing out the chestnuts, squares, triplets and in-depth teaching, and dancers need to remember that contra dancing is a complaint-free zone.  It won't kill us to do a chestnut now and again, and we might even find the fun in them that people long ago did.  I even succeeded in dancing Chorus Jig without complaining the last time it was called in my community ;-)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

One Night Stand Dances

When I was a fairly new contra dancer, I was at a festival of some sort where it was advertised that there would be a contra dance.  I was thrilled!  I went to the event expecting what I had experienced at our local contra dance. What a disappointment!  The caller called "lame" dances like the Virginia Reel and circle mixers.  I was so busy complaining that I didn't notice that everyone else was having a blast!

Here I am all these years later calling "one-night-stands" (where the majority of the dancers have never contra danced and may never do it again) and yep, the Virginia Reel.  The first ONS dance I called was in Sept 2011 for a wedding.  I had heard horror stories about weddings where everyone was drunk or no one would get up on the floor and dance.  This dance was being held at the home of the bride's family on their tennis court.  I was imagining all sorts of awful scenarios, but I knew the band and had worked with them before and I had asked caller friends for help and I was as prepared as I was ever going to be.

A great piece of advice I was given was to "get them dancing as quickly as possible" which was spot-on.  I chose to open with Glowworm Mixer which is a dance so simple that it can literally be taught in 30 seconds and anyone can jump in at any time.  I had about 10 folks willing to dance when we started, but people standing around were joining in when they saw how easy it was.  Because it was so simple, I asked the band to play a really lively fun tune so it wouldn't get monotonous too soon.

I soon had 40 to 50 people eagerly awaiting the next dance.  All ages were dancing. Grandmas were dancing with children and the young adults were having the best time of all.

Another piece of advice is to NOT call dances that progress like a contra dance.  The progression is the place where newcomers are going to get tripped up and it just takes too long to explain it.  Without the experienced dancer to take the newbie by the hand and lead her to the next couple, progressions are just too confusing.

I lined them up in a long ways set and did Galopede and then got them in squares to do Nine-Pin Reel.  I didn't worry about teaching them to swing, I let them do elbow-swings or two-hand turns or whatever they wanted.  I called a dance I wrote called A House Divided where I let the Gator fans and the Seminoles fans "compete" in the dance.  I concentrated on silly and fun and the dancers had a ball.  I have had two invitations to call other events from people who attended that first ONS dance. I consider that a success.

I had not been calling very long at all when I was invited to call a contra dance in another town.  I was told that they didn't hold an introductory workshop because the beginners never showed up until halfway through the night anyway, and that I'd have experienced dancers for the first few dances.  When I got on the stage to call the first dance, I asked "How many of you have never contra danced before?"  35 hands went up!  There were only about 10 experienced dancers.  So I ended up doing an introductory workshop anyway.  If I had that evening to do over, I would instead treat it like a ONS dance.  I would get them dancing quickly and not move into contra dances until more experienced dancers arrived.

I've been in other situations where a third or half of the dancers are experienced contra dancers and the rest are newbies.  This can be a bigger challenge to call than a ONS dance, because you want to please the experienced dancers, but make it accessible to non-dancers.  In this situation, I count on the good-will of my experienced dancers.  I hope they won't be like I was the first time I went to a ONS dance!  I actually called a dance like this last week.  I put in several super easy contras, but also several circle mixers, and of course, the Virginia Reel.  In my experience, you need 2 -3 experienced dancers for each newcomer in order to do a contra dance. My experienced dancers were extremely gracious, asking the newcomers to dance and smiling through the old chestnuts they hadn't danced since 3rd grade.

There is a reason why contra dance is learned in community.  There is a reason you can't go to Arthur Murray studio and take contra dance lessons.  I knew someone who tried to teach contra dance lessons for a community summer class but it didn't work well.  It is just not something that can be learned outside the parameters of the contra dance community.  It takes a village to hold a contra dance! 

Dances mentioned in this post:
Virginia Reel (Did you know this dance was Henry Ford's favorite?)
Proper Longways Set (shorter lines work best)
A1 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Partner Right Allemande
A2 - Partner Left Allemande, Partner 2-Hand Turn
B1 - Partner Do-si-do, Head Couple Sashay down the set and back
B2 - Virginia Reel (head couple R elbow turn with each other, L elbow turn with next person opposite gender, R elbow turn with each other, L elbow turn with NEXT person opposite gender, all the way to the bottom of the set.  Head couple sashay back up the set, separate from partner and everyone follows the head person of their gender to the bottom.  Head couple makes an arch and everyone else comes through.  New head couple at the top of the hall.

Note:  B2 is never finished in one phrase of the music.  Let them take as long as it takes and as they come back up the hall at the very end, the wait and clap and I start them on whatever phrase of the music starts next.  I don't try to make it start exactly at A1.

Glowworm Mixer
Circle Mixer
A1 - As a couple, Promenade four steps, face your partner and back away 4 steps, look at the person to the left of your partner, take four step to that new partner, right elbow turn (or right allemande) four steps, end in promenade position and the dance begins again here.  The dance is only 16 beats so four times through the dance is one time through the tune.

Proper Longways Set (shorter lines work best)
A1 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Long Lines Forward and pass your partner to swap sides of the set. (I demonstrate how to do a half-gypsy rather than just walking past.  They always hoot at that one!)
A2 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Long Lines Forward and pass your partner to swap sides of the set.
B1 - Partner Do-si-do, Partner Swing
B2 - All make a tunnel while the head couple goes through to the bottom.  New head couple.

Nine-Pin Reel
Square Dance + one extra person in the middle - the Nine-Pin
A1 - Head couples Circle Left around the Nine-Pin, Head couples Circle Right around the Nine-Pin
A2 - Side couples Circle Left around the Nine-Pin, Side couples Circle Right around the Nine-Pin
B1 - Nine-pin swings one person in any couple while his or her partner goes to the center.  Nine-pin swings one person in any other couple while his or her partner goes to the center.  Nine-pin does this with all four couples and then joins the four in the center where they circle Left until caller says "BREAK"
B2 - Five people in the center scramble to swing someone - the one left without a partner is the Nine-pin the next time through (but being the Nine-Pin is such fun that no one is disappointed to be the Nine-Pin!)

A House Divided You've seen those car tags that say "A House Divided" and has one side in the colors of a particular sports team and the other side another team, implying that one member of the couple is for one team and the other member is for a different team.
Proper Longways Set
A1 - In a huge oval, Circle Left then back by the Right
A2 - Partner Left Allemande, Partner Right Allemande
B1 - Top couple Sashay down the set and back to the top
B2 - Top couple "Peel the Banana" (couple separates and goes down the outside with the rest of their line following them, BUT the leader must make some action that those following must imitate.  For example, the leader of one side might be a Florida Gators fan and do the "Gator Chomp" while the leader of the other side might be a Florida State fan and do the "Tomahawk Chop."  Or if they are not sports fans, they can flap their arms like they're flying, or hop like a rabbit or whatever they want to do.) When the head couple reaches the bottom, they make an arch and everyone comes up through the arch, making a new head couple and the dance begins again here.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dancing with Newbies

I am grateful to have a good group of "dance angels" in our community in Gainesville FL.  These are folks who are committed to being at the dance in time for the introductory workshop and asking beginners to dance - not just one or two dances, but all night long, I've watched as our dance angels approach the newcomers and ask them to dance even the last dance of the evening.

They're not just any experienced dancers though.  We didn't simply ask "Who wants to be a dance angel?"  They were invited specifically because of how they are with beginners, and they having been willing to "get trained" in how to dance with beginners.

We started our training by talking about our own experiences when we were first dancing and what kept us coming back.  I was surprised at the large percentage of our dance angels who kept coming back "despite" the other dancers rather than "because of " the other dancers!  We put a lot of thought into what it means to be a welcoming partner to a beginner.

Early on, we read Bruce Hamilton's document "When You're Not the Caller" and we also looked at "Five Common Myths About Beginning Contra Dancers" by Greg McKenzie.

From these documents and our own experience, this is what we've learned:

The beginners learn much more from the other dancers than they do from the caller (despite what the caller may think!). The caller is saying something that sounds remarkably like "blah blah blah" to someone who is new to the terminology, even if there has been an orientation workshop.  It takes a while for the words to make sense!  But watching the other dancers and being led by your partner and your neighbor through the maze is what really helps.

How does a dance angel best do this?  With body language rather than words.  If the experienced dancer is trying to explain the moves, the dancer just hears more "blah blah blah."  But a smile and directing the neighbor's left hand into the center for a left hand star brings it all together.  The experienced dancer especially does not want to try to talk over the caller.  Set the example that "we listen when the caller is talking."  Even if you think you could do a better job than the caller at explaining it, you are doing more harm than good by teaching the new dancers to ignore the caller.

Drop the fancy stuff.  When dancing with a new-comer, forget the twirls.  You want the person to begin to feel comfortable and safe so predictable is best.  Focus on moving in time to the music and being exactly on time for every move to reinforce to the newbie that we're dancing, not just wandering aimlessly.

As an experienced dancer, you may get bored if you're not doing a hundred flourishes a dance, but this is not the case with a newcomer.  If you encounter someone who is doing remarkably well and expresses interest, you may ask permission - "Would you like to try that twirl at the end of a Ladies's Chain?" and with permission try a gentle, one turn twirl.  If they're interested in doing more, its' great incentive to say, "Next time you come, I'll be glad to try (X) move with you!"  You can be sure he or she will be back next time!

Contra dancing should be a "complaint-free zone."  Don't complain about the band or the caller or the other dancers.  "This is one of our worst callers.  Come back next time and you'll have a better experience."  or "This band is awful, but we keep asking them because we don't want to hurt their feelings."

The message this sends to a new dancers is: "I can't have fun unless the dance is perfect. and I'm going to complain about everything that isn't perfect." The new dancer realizes that she is far from perfect and that she must be ruining it for everyone! Newbies are very self-conscious that they might "mess things up."  They're used to seeing dancing as more of a performance like on "Dancing with the Stars." It's a culture shift for people to realize that contra dancing is strictly for fun and that the "messing up" can be as much fun as "getting it right!"

If you let your partner know that you are having fun, even when she wanders off in the wrong direction, you'll allow her to get a little closer to that realization that she can relax and enjoy the dance.

Monday, November 5, 2012


No-Walk-Throughs are so much fun - more dance, less talk.  Especially no-walk-through medleys!  And you don't have to have an advanced group of dancers to call one either!  I try to incorporate at least one no-walk-through in every program, and always keep one handy in case I have limited time for the last dance.
But there is a knack to calling a good no-walk-through. The first step is to choose an appropriate dance.  You can't just take any simple dance and trust that it will work.  Some simple dances have a move that must be explained beyond the call.  A good example of a easy dance that would not make a good no-walk-through is Ben's Spin-off #3.  This simple dance is one I often use early in the evening to teach Allemande.  But the Allemandes come fast and furious and would be really difficult to clearly articulate in a no-walk-through! 
On the other hand, some more complex dances could make great no-walk-throughs.  Here I am calling Bayou Delight as a no-walk-through at Vernals 2011 with the band "Montage."  Because the only unusual move is the first one, I can warn them about that before the dance begins and they're good to go!
When practicing your calls for a no-walk-through, plan more attention for things like which direction they will be facing when they finish a move and who they are looking at.  These things are usually established during the walk-through.  For example, here are my calls for the first time through The Young Adult Rose by David Kaynor:
A1 - Neighbor Balance and swing,
A2 - Take hands in a ring and circle to the left 3 places, pass your partner by the right (instead of pass through) and meet your shadow.  Allemande R with your shadow once around.
B1 - Back to your partner for a balance and swing.
B2 - Face across, two women chain.  Left hands in for a left-hand star, look for a new neighbor balance and swing.
And then there are the no-walk-through medleys!  I like a medley with 3 or 4 dances, taking each one through 5 times.  If you try to put too many different dances in the mix, the dancers never get to relax and enjoy the one they just mastered!
Not only do the dances need to be good no-walk-throughs, they also need to flow well from one to the next. For example, you wouldn't put a dance that ends with a slide left to the next couple, before a dance that begins with a Balance the Ring.  As you are putting together a medley, physically walk the path of the transitions from one dance to the next from all four positions.  Walk it as Man #1, Women #1, Man #2 and Woman #2.  The moves should flow as well from one dance to the next as they do within the dance itself. 
I've been wanting to call an "all-hey-no-walk-through" medley!  These dances would be awesome together:
Hey Ya'll by Dean Snipes (Improper Duple)
A1 - Neighbor Balance and Box the Gnat, Neighbor ALL Right 1 1/2
A2 - Women pass left for 1/2 Hey, Neighbor Swing
B1 - Men Allemande L 1 1/2, Partner Swing
B2 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Circle L 3/4, Pass Through to the next

Delphiniums and Daisies by Tonya Rottenberg (Improper Duple)
A1 - Neighbor Allemande L 1 1/2, Women Chain
A2 - Hey
B1 - Partner Swing
B2 - Circle Left 3/4, Neighbor Allemande R 1 1/2

Hey in the Barn by Chart Guthrie (Improper Dple)
A1 - Neighbor Balance and Swing
A2 - Women Chain, Half Hey
B1 - Partner Balance and Swing
B2 - Women Chain, Half Hey

Butter by Gene Hubert (Becket) - because it's becket, the first time you call it the circle left needs to be all the way around instead of 3/4.
A1 - Circle Left 3/4, Neighbor Swing
A2 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Women Chain
B1 - Hey
B2 - Partner Balance and Swing, Slide left to the next couple.

If you can, stop or reduce calling after the third time through the first dance, then start again in B2 of the fifth time through.  Dancers will perk up their ears because they know the change is imminent!

Other dances mentioned in this post:
Ben's Spin-off #3 by Gene Hubert (Improper Duple)
A1 - Neighbor Allemande R, Women Allemande L 1/2, Partner Allemande R, Women Allemande L 1/2
A2 - Neighbor Balance and Swing
B1 - Circle Left 3/4, Partner Swing
B2 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Women Chain

Bayou Delight by Ken Gall (Becket)
A1 - Right and Left Through (left diagonal), Women Chain (straight across)
A2 - Women Pass Right, Partner Gypsy and Swing
B1 - Men Allemande Left 1 1/2, Neighbor Swing
B2 - Balance the Ring, Neighbor Roll Away with 1/2 Sashay, Circle Left 3/4

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Introductory Workshop

I put a lot of work and thought into my Introductory Workshop.  I realized that when I called a ONS (one-night-stand, like for a wedding or other venue where there are few or no experienced dancers), I wanted to get folks dancing as quickly as possible.  I didn't want them stand and listen to me teach for very long before they started moving to the music.  I have an easy dance called "Glowworm Mixer" that I can teach to non-dancers in less than 30 seconds.  People reluctant to dance see it and think, "Hey I can do that!" and they can join in at any point after the dance has already begun.  

I wanted my Introductory Workshop at a regular contra dance to be just as welcoming and encouraging.  I base my workshop on the work of George Marshall.  He is so good with beginners and I wanted to know what he considered the "bare essentials" that the dancers need to know before we could actually line up for a contra dance.

I have attended many Introductory Workshops where all the basic moves are taught and then the newbies are thrust into the first dance without ever having moved to the music at all.  In my experience, they won't remember 10% of what happened in the workshop when the music is playing and the caller is saying "Blah blah blah" and dancers are all reaching out to try to point them in the right direction. 

I am so grateful to have a large group of "Dance Angels" in my home community in Gainesville so it's always great to teach there where there are so many experienced dancers willing and even eager to help new dancers learn.  Even in other communities, I always ask for the experienced dancers to partner with a newcomer and we don't start the workshop until every newbie has an experienced dancer partner.  If there are not enough experienced dancers, I treat it like a ONS dance until there are.  I know that while we callers *think* we're teaching the newcomers, it's really the experienced dancers that they learn from mostly.  My job is to let them know that they can do it and that they'll have fun.

I teach new dancers to listen for the 8-beat phrase of the music, having them clap on beat one as the band plays a tune.  I teach them to give weight and we circle in 8-beat phrases. I teach them to swing, including the buzz step.  Then I line them up, teach the directions, identify neighbors/partner, progression and what to do when you are out at the end of the line and we dance "Broken Sixpence," a dance where every move is exactly 8 beats.

When the "real" dance begins, each dance will teach a new move until by the end of the first half, the newcomers will have experienced most of the basic moves and had a great time doing it. The experienced dancers have done what they do best - guide the newcomers to have a blast and enjoy the dance.

Glowworm Mixer - a traditional circle mixer.  It is only 16 beats so the dance repeats four times during a 64 beat contra dance tune.

(4) With your partner, promenade in ccw direction 4 steps.
(4) Face your partner and back away 4 steps
(4) Face the person to the left of your partner and walk towards that person 4 steps
(4) Allemande left with this person and end in promenade position ready to start the dance again.

Broken Sixpence - Don Armstong
Improper Duple
A1 - (8) Neighbor Do-si-do, (8) Men Do-si-do
A2 - (8) Women Do-si-do, (8) 1s Swing in the center of the set
B1 - (8) 1s between the 2s go down the hall in a line of four, (8) Turn alone and come back up.
B2 - (8) Bend the line to a Circle and Circle L, (8) Star left. 1s look down and 2s look up to see a new neighbor ready to start the dance again.