Wednesday, November 20, 2013

We're Not in Uncle Fred's Barn Anymore!

In the early days of this country, contra dancing was a community event throughout New England.  Everyone gathered at "Uncle Fred's barn" or the community grange hall; musicians, callers, and dancers. No one paid to get into the dance. No one got paid to play music or call the dances.  It was a lovely gathering of folks who came together to socialize, court, and make something beautiful together. 
There is still a lot of that culture in modern day contra dancing, which on one hand is wonderful, but can often translate to an unwillingness to pay.  We sort of recognize that we're not in Uncle Fred's barn anymore - that there is hall rental and liability insurance to pay, that there needs to be a sound system these days, and musicians and callers often drive a long way to play for us. We're willing to pay something (usually less than $10) to dance, but communities often report strong push-back from the dancers if they want to raise the price to something even remotely resembling what one would pay for just about any other social activity or entertainment.
When I first started calling, I would hear other callers and musicians talk about "driving hundreds of miles for tens of dollars."  Now that I am a caller myself, I understand what they mean.  When I encounter musicians playing in restaurants or at festivals, I sometimes ask if they've ever played for contra dancing.  They're usually curious and start asking questions, but when we get around to the money part, they laugh in my face.  One man said, "I wouldn't pack up my equipment for that price!"  And this is from a profession usually considered "starving."
It is wonderful that contra dancing is affordable for most people. My community in Gainesville sends out regular notices telling folks that if they can't pay the entrance price, to contribute what they can and enjoy the dance.  But we also say, if you can contribute more, please do. Very rarely do we get a dancer who does either. 
If we paid more to dance, and paid our talent more, we would probably get a lot more high-quality musicians and callers interested in participating, but we would also lose some of that "Uncle Fred's barn" feel.  I'm sure there will always be tension between the two ideals. 
Most of us contra dancers can afford to contribute more to the cause.  If you're one of those who can, next time you go to a contra dance, hand over a $20 and say "keep the change."  Make sure you verbally appreciate your musicians, callers and organizers.  Trust me, they are NOT doing this for the money. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Dangers of Dance Camps

No, I don't mean knee problems or losing one's job due to taking off too much time from work in order to go to dance camps - the biggest danger in going to dance camps is in turning into a Dance Snob.  I've seen it happen many times and, indeed, it has happened to me.

We begin dancing in our home communities to local bands and callers.  We love the joyful abandon, getting lost in the music, the friendships.  Then someone says to us those six dangerous words that have been the downfall of so many; "You should try a dance weekend!"

I've been the one spouting those words myself and hearing the reactions from first-timers to a dance weekend:
  • "I never knew contra could be like this!!"  
  • "You were right.  This is way better than our regular dances!"
The trouble I've experienced and seen in so many others is that once we experience the dance weekends, the local dance with its newbie dancers becomes less attractive.  I know people who will literally not go to their local dance, but attend weekends only.  Others may go to the local dance, but complain the whole time about the band, caller, new dancers, and even the experienced dancers if they aren't as hot as the dancers at weekends. We get to where we don't want to dance with people who are not on our skill level. We may even complain at weekends at the slightest perceived inconvenience to our bliss!

Our most important and challenging task is to stay connected to our local dances, which is the heart of the community.  In the introductory workshops at our local dances, don't we tell the dancers that contra dancing is all about having fun?  There are no dance police.  There is no aspect of competition or performance.  "If you're having fun, you're doing it right!"  They hear those words in the introductory workshop, but then when they line up to dance, they hear these words:
  • Make sure you come back next week when we'll have a better band.  This one is so lame but we feel obligated to hire them every so often.
  • Oh damn, the caller is going to walk it through AGAIN!  Enough already, lets dance!
And then there are the actions (which, as we know, speak louder than words!).
  • Talking over the caller.
  • Trying to talk the newcomer through the moves instead of letting the caller teach because we know so much more than the caller.
  • Twirling, dipping, spinning, or otherwise confusing the newcomers to show what cool dancers we are.
  • Groping, leering, or drooling on the newcomers (or anyone else) because we're too sexy for this dance.
Our greatest accomplishment is not to master the latest flourish, but to nurture the community.  Show up! 
Your local community needs you.  And if your local community is "lame," it needs you even more.

Appreciate the band and caller, even if you know there are others out there who could do better.  Trust me, they are not doing it for the money!  Yes, offer constructive feedback, but always from a sense of gratitude and hope for their improvement, not as a complaint or put-down.

Volunteer!  Give your time and give your money.

I do still complain.  I do have trouble having fun sometimes.  Especially now that I am a caller, I tend to be especially hard on callers.  On my best nights I smile and try to listen and follow the caller.  When I'm at my worst, I whine and complain.  When I'm at my best, I have fun.  When I'm at my worst, I have a miserable time.  

It's ironic that our biggest challenge as dancers is to have fun, but that really is it in a nutshell.  Go to your local dance and HAVE FUN!  If you're having fun, you're doing it right!  Let go of the judgments and remember what it was like when you thought your local band and caller was the best ever.

Friday, May 31, 2013

One More Time! Or Two . . . Or Three . . .

One of the great experiences of Catapult! Showcase was to see various callers at work and to see how they function.  Some have their dances written on 3x5 cards, some printed off a spreadsheet, some call from a mobile device.  Some callers write their dances out while others use a shorthand known only to them.

One of the things I learned that callers have differing ideas about is how long to run the dance.  It's something I've always felt insecure about and I've tried to implement various practices to help me be more in control of the process - like jotting down the name or the shirt color of the couple at the top of the hall so I can keep up with when they've reached the bottom, or starting the timer on my tablet to know when the dance has run 7-8 minutes.  The problem is that in the midst of the walk-through and dialogue with the band, I usually forget whatever it was I had planned to do until about the 3rd or 4th time through the dance!  So I end up guessing.  If the dancers look like they're really having a great time, I'll let it go a little longer, if they look bored, I'll cut it shorter.

When I was working with Coracree on Sunday morning, Bill Quern, the banjo/mandolin player with the group, told me about someone he knew who calculated the size of various dance halls and the number of times the tune needed to be played to get the dancers at the top to the bottom of the hall.  For a hall the size of the Clarkston Community Center where Catapult! Showcase was held, 15 times through the tune would be just about the right time. I thought to myself, "I've got to count 15 times through?? I'll never be able to keep up with that!"  But Bill said they would play three tunes, five times each, so I only needed to start counting when the band changed to their third tune.  Whew!  That's easier.  I think that process worked very well, but I still have the prerogative to end sooner or go just a bit longer if there is good reason.  Here's yet another thing I want to discuss with any new band I work with!

Despite the fact that I have yet to successfully implement a method of keeping track of how long to run the dance, I still manage to hit between 7-9 minutes most of the time.  I know this because my sweetie, Dave Pokorney, video records so many of my dances from beginning to end.  So I have a exact measure of how long a dance ran. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


I arrived home from Catapult! Showcase last night exhausted and euphoric!  I worked with six hot bands and 5 smooth callers that were all so kind and supportive.

I'll write more about some of the highlights of the event, but one of the best is that I wrote my first dance!!  (Well, my first dance that actually worked anyway!) Andrew Levin of Waxwing sent a recording of two great jig tunes he wrote last week.  He called them Catapult Jigs and asked if I was inspired to write a dance.

My previous attempts at writing dances had left me frustrated.  I felt that if I wrote a simple dance, then it was probably already out there, and my attempts at writing a more complex dance ended up to not progress correctly (or not at all) or have some other problem.

In fact, it was probably a year or more ago that I tried to call one of my creations at my local dance.  It didn't progress and I ended up having to discard it and pull out another one.  And to add insult to injury, my colleague Jonathan King, then got up and called a lovely dance written by his 10-year-old daughter Ruthie!

Here is Ruthie's dance:

What's Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander
Ruth King
Improper Duple
A1: Neighbor Do-si-do 1 1/2, Partner Allemande Left 1 1/2
A2: Neighbor Swing, Women Chain
B1: Hey
B2: Partner Swing, "Goose/Gander"

The Goose/Gander is Men Roll Away Partner, and then Women Roll Away Partner across the set and both turn to face the next couple. (The two men end up trading places with each other).

This dance has the unusual trait that both swings end in the middle of the phrase, but my memory of dancing it was that it worked well.  I haven't called it myself yet.

Now to my dance!   And special thanks to Lisa Greenleaf who helped me perfect the progression.

Catapult Jig
JoLaine Jones-Pokorney
Improper Duple
A1: Neighbor Balance and Box the Gnat, pull by Neighbor to former Neighbor, Swat the Flea, pull by former neighbor to Current Neighbor.
A2: Neighbor Balance and Swing
B1: Long Lines Forward, Men take Partner home with a Give and Take, Partner Swing
B2: Balance the Ring, Petronella, Neighbor Allemande left 1 1/2

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Who's in the Spotlight?

Sometimes people become contra dance callers because they like the spotlight.  They like being on a stage with a microphone and everyone looking at them.  They like telling a room full of people what to do and having those people obey.  (They certainly don't do it for the money!!)

Sometimes those callers end up overshadowing the rest of the community.  They talk so much that they distract from the band or distract from the dancers' ability to enjoy each other and the music. 

I've been thinking lately about the place of the caller in the community.  When I am walking the dancers through the dance, I am in the "spotlight" and that is appropriate.  I have just a couple of minutes to teach the dance as succinctly and clearly as I can and hopefully they listen at least enough that the calls make sense once the music begins. 

When the  music begins, I am no longer in the spotlight.  The band and the music and the other dancers are in the spotlight.  I am simply there to direct traffic the first couple of times through the dance.  If the dancers need prompts beyond that, I want them to be as minimal as possible.  Ideally, I can drop out altogether and let the magic happen. 

It's tempting to be controlling.  But truly, the caller is just one cog in the mighty community of contra dancing.  No more important, or no less important than the other elements.  The magic is made by the community, not by any individual. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Catapult Showcase! Here I Come!

This is me all excited because I was selected to be one of the callers at the Catapult! Showcase.
Catapult! Showcase is the brainchild of Rob Harper, Atlanta dancer and organizer who thought the contra dance world needs a way to promote new talent to the national scene. Callers and bands apply to Catapult where a team of reviewers narrows the field to six bands and six callers who will be the talent for this four-day Memorial day weekend event. 
This is the second year for Catapult!  Last year I was one of the reviewers for callers which was a great experience and introduced me to lots of interesting folks all over the country.  This year I told Rob I couldn't be a reviewer because I wanted to try my hand at being one of the callers and was thrilled to get the word last week that I was selected.
I'll be paired with two of the bands for two different calling opportunities - one 2 hour evening slot and one 1.5 hour daytime slot.  I'll also be leading an afternoon workshop.  My plan is to hold a workshop on leading an introductory session and strategies to make your dance community more welcoming to beginners.
If you're looking for fresh new talent for your local dance event, or if you just want to dance to the newest bands and callers out there, register for Catapult!  And then introduce yourself at the event.