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