I used to write pretty often….


Virtues of Inactivity

The Virtues of Inactivity

adapted from a post to rec.folk.dancing, 2003

A caller wrote, discussing dancing a few decades back: "The
actives often got to swing when the inactives didn’t; they went down the hall
and back while the inactives waited, that sort of thing."

That single word "waiting" doesn’t do justice to the many
possibilities open to the inactives in these older dances:

• They get to talk to each other, and not just those interrupted
conversations that we have with a partner in the more modern dances, where you
get a few beats of conversation before you’re off somewhere else again.

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Caller Leadership

Caller Leadership

adapted from a 2011 post and an exchange with a caller friend

On one of the caller listservs to which I belong came this comment: “I would be interesting to hear how other callers incorporate other formations in their programs and how they and the dancer feel about it…”

Most of the responses, mine included, spoke to what we as callers do in our programs and why. Embedded in our answers is the reality of being hired professionals at the mercy of the dance organizers and subject to local customs. For example, one caller wrote: “My region is not very square-friendly, at least not at a contra dance. … So given the local atmosphere, I stick to mostly improper and Becket contra dances.”

The Big Question hidden behind all of our responses so far is, “To what extent should callers select a program based on the wishes of the dancers?” Granted, unless one meets those expectations at least in part, one will have a hard time getting hired again. I’m well aware of that reality.

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Hot Modern Moves

Hot Modern Moves

Written in 2003, but still
applicable, alas, to today’s dance scene…

I was calling recently in a large
city for an evening of contra dancing and a guy comes up to me afterwards with
nice comments about the evening. We get to talking and he mentions in passing
that I’m quite a “traditional caller.”

“Thanks,” I say, and upon reflection,
I consider that perhaps this wasn’t meant as a compliment. I ask him, “But what
do you mean by ‘traditional?’ ”

He explains that there’s a
genuineness in my calling and that I seem to respect the dances a lot. I’m
happy to hear this, and I explain to him that I live New Hampshire, where
there’s a long tradition of contra dancing, and I do try to respect that

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Where’s the Partner Swing?

Where’s the partner swing?

Adapted from a post to rec.folk-dancing
in 2004

A few weeks ago, when one couple at the
head of the set asked me that very question—I was happy to note that they were
smiling as they spoke—I referred them to Section III, Subsection 2, paragraph
A(5) of the Caller-Dancer Compact, which simply states that a pair of dancers
who feel that a particular dance doesn’t give them enough swings together may
remain as partners for the next dance.

Callers (contra callers as well as
modern western square dance callers) have been dealing with the overactive 10%
subgroup for a long time; this is not just a contemporary issue. (I suspect
that it’s probably the same in the international folk dance community, where
some folks who dance a lot are wanting programs with lots of more complex
Balkan dances while others are content to have more variety.)

> actives crossing over before the
caller says to do so

and others wrote to say, "What’s
the problem?"

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Why Dance?

Why dance?

adapted from an essay prepared for the Smithsonian
Festival of American Folklife, 1999

Growing up, I never felt comfortable dancing. I was one of
those guys who stood on the sidelines in junior high school, waiting for the
slow numbers where I could shuffle my feet awkwardly while clutching a partner.
In college, I danced to rock music in large part because my girlfriend liked to
dance and I wanted to be with her.

Discovering contra dance in the 1970s was a revelation. I
liked folk music already, and this dance music felt familiar, that foot-tapping
sound of the fiddles backed up by solid rhythm. Great music, friendly people,
and a logical flow to the dances all combined to provide a satisfying way of
moving to music.

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Contra Dance Disapora

Contra Dance diaspora: A collection of stories about the spread of contra dancing

altHow this collection came to be: My work on the Bob McQuillen documentary, Paid To Eat Ice Cream, helped me realize how many stories of the previous generations of dancers had been lost. The New England Folk Festival one year held a “Remembering Ralph Page” session that attracted fewer than two dozen participants. Some potential participants were committed to other workshops at that same time, to be sure, but many of the people who had danced to Ralph Page simply were no longer alive. As I continued to search for photographs and films and stories from earlier eras of traditional squares and contras, I resolved that no matter what I was able to locate, at least I could ensure that more recent generations left a better record of their involvement.

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Family Dance

Family Dances

adapted from a
post to the trad-dance-callers group, 2005

Last night, as
it happens, I was calling at the 22nd annual family dance sponsored by the PTO
in the small city where I live in northern NH. I’ve called at each of these
dances for no pay—"community service" is how I think of it—though I
do ask for a fee at the other such dances I do in neighboring towns. Music was
provided by a family band—a mother who is a fine fiddler and two of her
kids—which adds a nice touch to a family dance. (One parent came up to ask the
pianist, age 14, if she would be interested in giving piano lessons to his

Good turnout,
somewhere between 150 and 175, with kids as young as 3 (and a few who were
probably younger than that as well) on the dance floor. They could walk without
falling over, but just barely! Two hours and a little bit more, with a short

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Writing Contra Dances

Writing contra dances

adapted from a letter to a dancing friend who had expressed interest in writing his own dances

I’d like to try to write some dances – I guess start with a contra.  Would you please send me some standards in the correct format and provide any pointers? Writing dances somehow seems similar to blocking actors, and I enjoy working that puzzle.

Basics: A generic contra dance consists of 32 bars of music, an A part (8 bars, or 16 steps), which is repeated, followed by two B parts. There are exceptions (Money Musk is only 24 bars, for example, and David Kaynor’s original Cherokee Shuffle fit that slightly crooked tune); similarly, some tunes follow a different musical pattern (e.g., ABCB). For now, stick with the standards.

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