Essays IndexHenry's Home Page

Letter to Another Caller

I tend to work alone.  I’ve never “shared” the work of acquiring dances -- or swapped dances & tips in long sessions with others.  I tend to be a loner.  So it is odd -- and good -- to have to “share” with you.  I owe you -- and therefore I am doing something I don’t usually do: writing about a dance I just called.  Analyzing the dance, the dancers.

The florist group of eight or so that gathered early (hell of a snowy night.  Lots of people called me to say they couldn’t come) contained six raw beginners -- never been near (well one dance?) a contra dance.  I ran them through “Dog Branch Reel” --  no music,  just six people at first (a disaster) and then eight -- and that went well.  So I moved on to the second dance I had chosen to do -- when I thought I’d be facing mostly experienced dancers -- Robert Cromartie’s “Al’s Safeway Produce”.

It has a lovely opening series of moves -- Star Left to Alaman Left opposite.  Big Mistake.  Big problems.  Alaman Left on side -- for newcomers?  No way -- not after a Left hand Star one full time.  One full time?  Then Half Alaman another person, then the ladies Alaman Right one and a half in the middle?  Big problems.  And when I persisted -- half straightened that out and sailed through the easy (but busy) middle of the dance, the Star Right to a Star Left made newcomers go in every direction but the one they were supposed to.  Big mistake.  I knew I should not do that one tonight -- and then people streamed in (12 more?) and the dance began.

First dance: “Dog Branch Reel.”  Let me tell you -- easiest dance ever -- and yet it does not “condescend” -- experienced dancers don’t complain this is too easy.  They like the dance: A1   Dosido opp; Ones Swing / A2  4 in line; Trn alone / B1 Circle Left; Swing opp / B2 Fwd,bck; 2s Swing. It’s a great dance -- it’s got three swings -- cpl 1, opps, cpl 2 -- so everybody swings everybody, and the rest is easy-pie, but keeps people moving -- up & down the hall (trn alone!), circling -- and forward & back.

No Ladies chain -- No R&L through.  There is nothing that an idiot can’t do in this dance.  I am beginning to believe it is the greatest contra ever written.  It teaches active & inactive -- keeps people active -- yet gives rest time.  People aren’t moving all the time -- while 1s swing, 2s rest....

As I told you, writing you is good for me.  I’ve just decided to write a short letter?  a short article?  forwarding “Dog Branch Reel” as the best dance to introduce non-contra people to some basics of contra -- and yet give them a dance they enjoy & can’t goof up.

I’ve just looked up “Broken Sixpence” -- THE dance everybody uses first, the fail-safe dance for beginners.  I’ve always found it boring -- all those Dosidos, and a Circle Left followed by a LH Star back.  Boring.  In fact, I think dance number two for “greatest opening dances ever,” might be Don Theyken’s “Dawn Dance.” It has easy Dosidos -- but two, not three.  It has Circle Left, Swing opp.  You get to swing a stranger -- and you get to Balance & Swing your partner -- and one couple learns to Face down and the other learns to Face up.  Broken Sixpence is boring -- and teaches nothing about contras.

Dance number two?  To be honest, I can’t quite remember.  I was scrambling to get something easy.  Everything I’d prepared was a little too difficult for the crowd I was facing.  About five of the beginners were clumsy non dancers --  they weren’t going to get it tonight.  They moved slowly, clogged up and destroyed every foursome they joined.  I just remembered Steve Zakon’s description:  “Like deer caught in headlights -- paralyzed.”  One was a man I’d convinced to come (Well -- my contra video convinced him).  He is almost hopelessly clumsy and often stands on one side of the set when he should be crossing (R&L through), and crosses (Ladies Chain) when he should stand still.

I remember grabbing a dance card for one dance (dance number three, I’m sure) that I know works -- a crowd pleaser -- and a mixer.

The men have their backs to the center of the circle, women face in.  Everybody starts on their right foot (So women should be a little to the right of the man so step one -- their R foot, doesn’t step onto the man’s foot).  To be honest, I don’t say all the preceding when I teach the dance.

(Right after I typed A1, the phone rang.  A local caller, tonight’s caller, phoned me because he wanted me to give him a dance he loved --  the very mixer I am typing for you. It was real easy to tell him the dance -- and I told him that so few people were there last night, it’s okay if he calls it tonight.  I expect somewhere around 140 people will come to the dance.  At least forty people are here from Lansing for a ski-dance weekend.  They just didn’t make it up last night.)

Al   Right, Left; R, L; Step on R, Lift L; Step on L, Lift R
(In essence, after four steps, people “balance” twice):
Now the men go forward, women back, and repeat the preceding.

A2   Dosido;  Seesaw

B1   Gypsy;  Promenade

B2   Men move up; -- Swing the next.
 

Like Dog Branch, this is a “fail-safe” dance. Who the heck can’t walk four steps? And dosido & seesaw follow each other -- whichever shoulder you do, next do the other one. And a gypsy in a mixer means everyone makes eye contact with everyone else.

But the best part is the first part. After a few tries, everybody gets into the marching spirit of the dance: 1, 2, 3, 4 step, lift, step, lift, 1, 2, 3, 4, oompa, oompa.  Anyway, it’s a great dance, a great mixer.

I think I did “Marian’s Delight” next. I have a sieve for a memory. I know I called Marian’s delight -- and I probably called it next because it has a gypsy -- and a nice easy, yet unusual move.

A1   B&S Below

A2   Fwd & Bck;  Ladies Dosido 1 1/2

B1   Partner Gypsy;  Prtnr swing

B2   Men Alaman L 1 1/2;  pick up CORNER (shoulder-waist-hold), Promenade across set, (Butterfly Whirl)

Three quarters of this contra is terrifically easy, yet it contains a Balance & Swing with opposites, a Gypsy & Swing with partner, a fancy Dosido (1 1/2) -- and it keeps everybody moving all the time yet it is not frenetic, frantic.

And then it contains a lovely, unusual move -- a move I just realized you execute with your corner -- someone you didn’t ask to dance

The last move of the dance is really easy -- if taught correctly.  When the man picks up his corner lady, he’s only two steps away from where he’s got to go.  He’s not going far -- just across the set. You almost have to show this move.  The man puts his hand around the corner's waist (she puts hand nearest him on man’s shoulder), he takes two steps across the set, makes sure to let go of his left hand which he has entwined with the other man -- and then, if he wants, he’s got time for a lovely Butterfly Whirl.

You don’t have to swing the corner lady -- you don’t have to worry about “where do I put my arms around this strange lady.” Put your arm around her waist, her arm is on your shoulder -- it's whirl time.

As I keep telling you -- and this will be the last time -- my telling you all this makes clear to me why I love to call certain dances.

This dance was a success -- it always is.  It “broke down” the first time I called it -- I didn’t teach the “corner lady across the set”-- and that’s where it goes wrong, if it ever goes wrong.

At this point -- or close to this point in the dance -- I sensed I’d really tuckered people (30 dancers?) out.  Time for a Waltz Contra.  I chose a Sicilian, “Margaret’s Waltz” -- and I mucked it up.  I’m not sure of the exact timing of the Al & A2, I’ve called this dance only once before.  It’s a pretty good dance, but it’s a little tricky in that at one point the two couples end back to back, turn around & stick right hands in for a RH Star.  If I remember correctly, you don’t call waltz contras.  If you want me to write down the moves -- and explain the waltz contra, do let me know.  I’ll do it in my next letter.

As I was typing the next dance I realized that I preceded “Winter Wedding” with “Delphiniums & Daisies” by Tanya Rotenberg.  I realized it because, at the dance, I pointed out that both start out with the same two moves.  I love Tanya Rotenberg's dance -- I know you have it because I sent it to everyone at the Caller’s workshop -- but my version was wrong.  A couple of callers (who called in Tanya Rotenberg’s presence) said that in B2 where I have “B&S partner” it should be "Ladies Gypsy & then Swing partner".  I like the new version better:  many dances have B&S -- not many dances have “ladies Gypsy.”  As I said when I first recommended this dance, this ain’t an easy dance to teach -- and the trick is in teaching the 1 1/2 Alaman at the end.  I’ve taken to stopping the dancers before they start that Alaman Right & saying -- "Alaman one half, then another half, then another half -- and then start your Alaman Left with a new person."  I think this trick works -- 1/2--l/2--1/2.  I’ve had no trouble with the dance since I began that.  One caller told me he “solved” that problem by eliminating the Alaman Right -- making people swing their neighbor -- which is exactly the move used by Steve Zakon In “Winter Wedding.”

As I write about these two, I realize they are tremendously similar -- Al is exactly alike; B2 is almost exactly alike, in A2 Winter wedding has sort of a “weird” hey -- and B1, part two is exactly alike -- partner swing  (By the way, changing the ending of “Delphiniums” destroys the most beautiful part of the dance -- Alaman R 1 1/2 to Alaman L 1 1/2)

I next called Winter Wedding by Steve Zakon. A fellow caller came up to me afterwards and said I’d gotten one of the moves wrong. You told me you had a version that differed from the one Steve called at Brasstown. In any case, here’s my version:

A1  Alaman L neighbor 1 1/2,  Ladies Chain

A2  Ladies pass R shldr, Gypsy neighbr left, L turn 1 1/2

B1  Pass R shldrs, to Swing partner

B2  Circle L 3/4, Swing neighbor

The dance went well -- especially since I called it after a dance that was so similar.

At some point I called “Dutch Skipper.” That didn’t work very well for a couple of reasons. I hesitated to call this dance because it contained a R&L through -- and Cast off, neither of which appeared in any of the other dances I planned to do. And I didn’t teach the R&L through well enough. It is a same sex R&L through (My notation failed to say -- trn as cpls! -- I had to apologize), and I tried to demonstrate the eyes locked, no touching R&L through -- but I also said touching is okay.  My clumsy dancers did not do well with this weird move -- R& L through.

There is another reason I think this does not do well with beginners.  Timing is of the essence -- It is the beauty of this dance.  It is not a busy dance, although towards the end it does get a bit busy -- and it is at this point that beginners mess up -- and they then mess up the beginning of the dance for the next couple.

With good dancers, or even slightly experienced dancers, this could be a good dance -- same sex contact, everybody gets to move, inside-outside, across set -- and 1s swing while 2s rest, 2s rest....  But with raw beginners it breaks down -- and it reveals the one thing raw beginners are terrible at: being at the right place at the right time.

I am getting tired!  This is a huge letter!  I’m taking a break, I’ll analyze some more dances later.

I remember doing four other dances. One of the first after the break -- if not the first -- was “Aw Shucks,” Another sure fire dance with not one, but two unusual moves: Sashay down & back -- and the peppy clapping -- Together, Right, Together, Left, SPIN, Tog, R, Tog, L, Swing.

The rest of the dance is easy -- except for the Ladies Chain -- which at least is chain & back so newcomers get lots of chances to learn it.

Another lovely “fail-safe” dance I did after the intermission was Glen Morningstar’s "Mostly Hey.” All simple moves (except Hey) and everybody moving all the time (Down Hall, Swings) -- and there’s a Gypsy -- and after the “difficult” Hey there’s lots of time (16 beats) for mixed up people to get back to their partner.

Another reason I like to teach this dance is a little “tip” I always give which makes the Hey easier -- and gives a man a sense of being a part of a Hey that actually begins with ladies, pass R shldrs.

When the foursome is coming back up the hall, one man is in the middle, holding hands with both ladies.  If be just takes a BIG step backwards to get out of the way while simultaneously “handing” the ladies to each other, the whole Hey works beautifully.

Anyway, it’s a terrific, fail-safe dance.

Late in the dance I saw that I had 90% experienced dancers and I decided to go back to Cromartie’s “Al’s Safeway Produce.”  I could teach it; it would work.  The trick in teaching is to emphasize how very-very short the Alaman Left with neighbor is: just half a turn, and boom, the ladies are at it.  I taught it, people got it -- but I don’t like the dance.  Too busy.  The first half of the dance -- unless done by experienced dancers -- is a frenetic bunch of hand motions -- and every move in the second half is to 8 beats of music.

Eight different moves may be too many moves for a dance -- especially when almost all of the moves are 8 beat long moves.  (This theory is open to attack.  I just made it up -- and I will test it as I analyze more dances).

"Baby Rose."  Again too busy -- again 8 moves for 8 beats -- except B1 where the Swing is probably a 12 beat Swing.  Maybe a good dance for experienced dancers -- but again I sensed my group was “running” to complete this move so they could start the next move.

At this point I think I’ve analyzed all the dances I called.  To be honest, I’m dying to call another dance soon (I won’t for a month) so I could analyze the dances.  This is fun -- and I’m learning a lot.  For instance, I'm now much better at remembering dances -- because I've analyzed dances.  Here are a couple of dances called last night which I like -- and they are not part of my repertoire.

A real easy (except for Hey) dance -- and one with lots of movement.  Duple improper.

Actives in middle, line of 4 Dwn Hall, Trn alone, Come back (mddle couple back to back, face outside person)

Hey with active couple going out, passing Right Shldrs with opp

Gypsy neighbor, Swing neighbor

Lines Fwd&bck, Actives Swing

Except for the last eight counts, everybody's moving all the time, but it has no complicated moves, and you Gypsy & Swing a neighbor, and Swing your partner.  As the caller pointed out, you don’t do much with your partner & in fact you gypsy & Swing your neighbor -- but you end with a ‘reconciliation” -- actives Swing their partner.

He called a very difficult (definitely not for beginners) but a very lovely dance ( I later learned this is Ted Sannela's "Fiddleheads").  It uses a Petronella figure. Duple improper.

Actives cross (by R shldr & loop left -- both will end up in different Petronella diamonds -- he dwn set facing up, she up facing dwn);

Petronella balance circle, Twirl

Petronella balance, Twirl -- Both actives trn around, Swing prtnr

Go down center actives, Turn as cpl Come back, Cast off

Circle left 1/2, Swing opp

Funny effects at top and bottom. Top -- one lady by herself; bottom, three people -- who should do Balances & Petronella turns.  It is a very busy dance -- and has a move that appears in no other dance -- Cross, Loop Left & far away from your partner.  But people love the Petronella balance & turn -- and after the second such balance, if the active couples whirl around at just the right time, it’s a terrific swing that picks up momentum from the Petronella turn -- and you come at your partner from such an “awkward” angle -- you whirl around, and there they are.  Difficult -- but rewarding.

One move that seems easy (Cast off) is actually very confusing for beginners.  If your dancers know Cast off, the second half of this dance is easy -- but the moves are quick -- unforgiving -- Cast off, Circle, Swing opp -- and quickly, Cross, Loop around, get ready to Petronella.

When dances are “busy” at the beginning & end they really pose a challenge.  The middle of this dance is “forgiving”.  If you don’t do the Petronella stuff on time you’ve got plenty of time to recover so that the active couple can take a leisurely walk down & back & Cast off.  But if you get “Cast off-Circle-Swing opp” late -- you’ll mess up the beginning of the dance -- which means you’ve gotta run, scurry, to get to your group of four to Petronella.

Beginners really mess up this radical separation-from-your-partner-dance.  When they are not there for the Petronella squares, they often destroy the whole line.  In this dance two beginners don’t mess up one foursome -- they mess up two foursomes.  Four beginners in one line could mess up sixteen people -- essentially destroy one whole contra line -- which is what happened last night.

I will stop.  I enjoyed doing this.  I hope you enjoy reading.  I learned lots of things -- so believe me, I ain’t doing it for you -- but I am looking forward to “doing it for you” again!

Thanks.  In many ways you are making me a better caller.


Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

Essays IndexHenry's Home Page