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“Practice...and practice...and practice”

The tune is marching through my head -- time after time -- even as I type this, the tune is, literally, marching through my mind.

I cannot transcribe it into words -- and my fleeting & inept attempt to do so almost stopped its march through my mind.

My point is so obvious I almost hesitate to make it. It is only through practice & practice & practice -- it is only through almost nightly devotion to the task -- in my case calling dances -- that one gets good at it.

I am rusty. I get little -- very little practice. I get to call, at most, ten dances a year. As a caller, I have many good nights, but I have some shaky nights as well -- and much of that is due to the fact that I am rusty: tunes don’t march through my mind because my life is filled with so much else: travel, Scottish dancing, tennis. I run dance camps, live life with my wife & visit my extended and far flung family.

Though I have many good nights where I call well, I deeply envy the really good callers who get so much practice that they are consistently good, night after night after night. Oh, I wish, I wish, I wish I could get more practice….

The onus is on me: make yourself call, a voice inside me says. Corral a group of friends, practice on them, and then practice some more on them, and then….

It is true that many moderately good callers are “moderately good” because they haven’t gotten the “flying time,” don’t have the resources, can’t recruit their friends to come dancing so they can practice calling.

I am not blaming them, or me, I am only saying that, in most cases, it is obsession that attains excellence -- in violin playing, in piano playing, in the pursuit of excellence in any field. If you become obsessed you will find time somehow, friends somewhere. You will become good, because you are obsessed.

So why is that tune running through my mind tonight? For the past two nights I have corralled eight friends (which include me & my wife) and I have practiced calling squares, contras and English Country Dances. The tune my mind is so-to-speak humming is one of the three English country dances I taught. I do not, off the top of my head, know which of the three is marching through my mind.

Does it matter which it was, and its exact name? It matters, a little, but a start has been made: at least the tune is running through my mind, and the reason it is in my mind is because last night & the night before I practiced my craft.

Practice & practice & practice. One woman once approached the greatest pianist of his time and said “I would give my life to play as well as you do.” He said, “I did, madam. I did.”

Practice & practice, and yet more practice. Yes, there needs to be an ability there to begin with, but once you begin in earnest, excellence can only be attained by, as one great square dance caller said, “flying time:” Go out there, call, utter it, try it out on real live people. You will automatically memorize certain dances -- because you’ve called them twice under pressure, or twice in two weeks -- and suddenly, the moves are all there, by heart.

Heads, fwd & back, sides fwd & back, head ladies chain. Sides ladies chain, hds chain back, sides right & left through, hds out to sides to form line of four (all the preceding, 32 beats). Fwd up 8 & 8 fall back, men dosido the man opposite you. Fwd up eight & 8 fall back, men allemande left 3/2, b&s opposite (16 beats), promenade home to man’s home place. Grand Square. A Ted Sannella square. I know it by heart because I called it many times last night.

Need I say more?

Added Ten minutes later.  Much of what I said above came as an interruption so that I never got to my main point.

The point I was going to make is that I am not one of those people who is truly obsessed by calling. I am not behaving like a person who wants nothing else but to be one of the world’s greatest callers.

How do I know? Because I wrote the above when I realized I was on my way to doing something that would silence the tune that was in my head. I decided I had worked hard enough on calling and I planned to enjoy myself by listening to a Bob Dylan CD I just bought.

It was then that I realized I am not one who is truly obsessed, and that I would not become a great caller. A budding “great” caller would have immediately gone to look for the list of dances he called last night. I knew where I could get my hands on the tapes I played last night. It would be easy to put on all three English Country tapes and determine which I was humming and what dance goes with it and what the moves of the dance are. The “budding” great caller, eats, sleeps, talks, dances. In short, obsesses. He or she consumes tunes hour after hour after hour. He or she, would have automatically, unthinkingly, followed up on the tune that marched through their head. They would have found the name of the tune and determined which moves go with this tune.

Me? I want to listen to what I want to listen to & I don’t want to continue what is an essential part of that trite, hardly-ever-explained word “practice.”

What is practice? Practice is when, the next night, you put the tape on again. And, in your mind, you run through the dance without any actual dancers.

No…no…no…” says lazy me. Let’s listen to Bob Dylan, or gain some praise by writing this very column you are this second reading.

I am avoiding my duty. My follow-up sucks. Yes, I have built a small dance room at the end of my house, and I’ll corral willing & able friends who’d love to see me get better -- who think my calling is good enough to dance to, who love to dance yet one more night a week, and yes, I will get better -- but not much better if all I do is write about it, or more precisely, if I do not become truly obsessed with calling.

Written nine days later.

“Mary’s she my friend. I believe I’ll go see her again.” Bob Dylan has won, triumphantly. It is not even close.

Here is what has been “marching” through my head: “Hey Mr Tambourine man sing a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.”

I won’t go on, but I’m 90 per cent certain that 90 per cent of the lyrics of that song marched through my dream -- which lasted, it seemed to me, most of the following few nights.

Bob Dylan’s songs are bewitching: sometimes the tune, sometimes the lyrics. I should be dreaming square dance calls. I should be humming contra tunes and English country dance tunes.

Just three of Bob Dylan’s songs, maybe two hours of listening, won hands down. He banished all other thoughts, all other tunes. When I was walking around the house, not thinking, one or the other of his songs, his lyrics, popped into that vacant-for-a-moment mind. And it was pleasing, in fact, so pleasing, I wanted to repeat the pleasure -- and have done so, many times in the past few days: I’ve listened to my new Bob Dylan CD quite a few times.

The English Country dance tune? Gone. Overwhelmed. It’s a nice little thing, and if I cared enough I could focus on it. But it needs my devoted, my exclusive, attention. Other kinds of music must be silenced for awhile.

To be a great caller, one must be obsessed with calling, and oblivious to much else in the world around you.


I finally did manage to gather some friends and for something like 15 weeks in a row, I called contra dances every single week.

I returned to England, called a few dances, and praised poured in: “I don’t remember your calling this well…You really are calling well…I am amazed at your control…you explain each move so well…”

Constant practice made me so confident! I was at ease, in control. There is no doubt that “flying time” makes all the difference in the world.

Copyright 2006   Henry Morgenstein

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