Here are the two key scenes that caused me to create the chart that accompanies this article: a chart that plots each move used in a contra dance.
Prepare to Call an Evening Dance
I was at a dance that had a high number of newcomers mixed in with some highly experienced dancers. The caller was doing fairly well, in fact his choice of dances was insultingly simple -- stars, circles, walk up and down. Then he chose to call Stoolies Jig by Cammy Kaynor. The dance is a wonderful dance -- but it contained two.. (really three) moves that were in none of the dances he called before. One of the moves -- half a figure eight above -- is a move that baffles some experienced dancers -- and he was facing a large hall half full of inexperienced dancers. What possessed him to introduce this dance at this point? Well he loved it, so he thought hed call it. It was a disaster -- and it is one of my very favorite dances.
Example number two. At a dance I was calling, the dancers suddenly started screaming: You cant do that Henry. No, no, Henry. Thats the second dance in a row youve called that doesnt have a partner swing. I was flustered, yet pleased, delighted that the dancers could so clearly, in a good natured way, tell me how they felt. I tossed the dance card away and picked another dance. Soon thereafter I created the chart that accompanies this article.
One cannot -- should not -- ever predict the exact sequence of a whole evenings worth of dances. Of course you can do that if you are at a dance camp and know exactly who will be there -- or, if you are the regular caller for a regular group of dancers. But If you dont know the caliber of the dancers you will encounter -- the exact mix of experienced & inexperienced dancers -- then you should not plan a whole evenings worth of dances. Still, you can plan a great deal.
I almost always open with Dog Branch Reel by Bob Dalsemer. He once mentioned that Dog Branch Reel is a good dance with which to judge a crowd of dancers' familiarity with contra terms (Actives Swing, end facing Down; circle left 3/4; Inactives swing end facing up). Once Ive called Dog Branch, what next?
There are several principles that guide my choice of dances. I try to make sure I do not introduce more than one new move per dance. When I say new move, I am thinking of (for newcomers) such relatively complicated moves as ladies chain, right & left through, cast off. For a group of relatively experienced dancers, moves that need to be introduced one per dance -- and repeated in the subsequent dance -- are, half a figure eight above, Contra Corners.
I have a bias that guides my choice of dances. I love to swing my partner; I love to swing the opposite lady. The first item on my dance chart is Partner swing; the next item is Opposite swing. I try to make sure that virtually every single dance in the chart has a partner swing, and that many have an opposite swing. I am a relatively inexperienced caller; I will, in time, learn to incorporate dances that do not include partner swings -- but I will never, ever, call two such dances in a row.
Ive only skimmed the surface of what the dance chart will reveal to a neophyte caller. Early in my career the gifted Michigan dance caller and dance writer, Glen Morningstar, consented to call one dance late in an evening of dances I was calling. The dance he called contained a gypsy and I immediately realized none of the dances I had called that evening contained that lovely move. When I call, I try to make sure that at least one of the dances of the evening contains a gypsy -- which often melts into a swing.
More than anything else, this chart will force a caller to think ahead, to choose ten dances and to plot out those ten dances. I do not want to tell you how many grossly unprepared callers I have come across, callers who grope through a stack of cards and suddenly extract something they clearly have not looked at until this very moment. This chart might also make a caller realize, as I did once, that two of my easy dances for a group of beginners were so similar (The B parts were identical), that I might as well have done the same dance twice.
All Ive said has no relevance to truly great callers, callers whose minds are filled with dances, callers who know, instinctively, which dance is right for which occasion. Such callers occupy the rare air of all great performers: they dont think about what they do. Consciousness gets in the way.
The rest of us -- the vast majority of callers -- need to be conscious. We need guidelines; we need charts. We need to think through the process. We need to see exactly what we are going to do -- especially since what we are going to do, is going to be done to others.
Specimen Dance Chart
Ptr Swg N'br Swg Fwd + Back DoSiDo Gypsy Alamn L Down Hall Circle Lds Chn Star Cal Twrl Hey Half Fig8 Box Gnat Prom R&L Thro' Marian's Delight X X X X X X Salmon Chanted X X X X X Circle Mixer X X X X Slaunch Donegal X X X X X X "Great Dance" X X X X X X One for Lit Josie X X X X X X New Flow X X X X X X Finn's Bessfang X X X X X X 3 3 3 X X X X X X Pittsfield Hey X X X X X Jed's Reel X X X X X Zombies of Sugar Hill X X X X X X
Copyright © 2001 Henry Morgenstein