Planning a Program

Planning a Program

While clearing out some files from an old computer, I recently came across this piece published in the CDSS News, #157, November/December 2000, under the title “Contra Calling.” I tried to outline the sorts of decisions—choreographic and musical—that a caller makes behind the scenes. One of my programs today might include different dances, but the process I go through, 15 years later, is much the same.

Inside the Caller’s Mind

Planning an Evening’s Contra Dance Program
by David Millstone

Planning a program of dances involves more than just picking dance cards at random. An evening of contra dancing is a expression of a caller’s vision brought into focus by a sponsor’s expectations. How do you plan an evening for a public dance which will include a mixture of beginners and experienced dancers? What are the questions that the caller must ask when working with an unfamiliar group? Here’s the process I went through in planning an evening program this summer for the Round Hill Country Dancers in Greenwich, CT, a venue where I had neither danced nor called before.

Contras? Squares?

Members of the governing board of Country Dance and Song Society recently had an e-mail exchange about how to boost attendance at some of our summer camp weeks. Among other topics, we talked about how American dances might best be incorporated into other programs. One energetic and thoughtful young dancer ended his post with this comment: “For young American-only dancers, the key to enthusiasm is to have age peers enthusiastically interested in whatever is being danced. We all know this. My point is that “[contras and squares] vs English” is not the right grouping with regard to enthusiasm, but rather “contras vs [squares or English].”



Someone on the SharedWeight discussion group mentioned that Charlottesville, VA, dance organizers had recently started asking callers to include a mixer in the first quarter of each evening’s program. This raised a small buzz of comments about the place of mixers in a program and, more generally, whether organizers should be telling callers what to do. Here, slightly edited, is my response (March 3, 2012).


I’m fascinated by this discussion about mixers. with most of the comments so far indicating that a) the authors don’t like ’em, b) they don’t use them, c) they don’t see the point, and d) dancers don’t like ’em.

This strikes me as another example of people liking  what they are accustomed to. One of my caller mentors was Ted Sannella, who usually programmed a mixer as the third dance of an evening; Tony Parkes, also, I believe, puts one there for similar reasons. By this time, the caller can assume that the bulk of the dancers have arrived, and a mixer gives everyone a chance to see everyone else who’s there. Mixers come in all shapes– Sicilian circle, big circle / big set,  scattered couples, lines of three… They are a systematic way of taking new couples clinging to each other and mixing them up. They give experienced helpful dancers a chance to learn who’s new, to note that person to ask later in the evening. They add choreographic variety to a program.


Triple Minor Contras

Minor Contras

from a letter to a caller seeking advice on how to introduce her
dancers to triple minor contras

are several parts of Cracking
the book about older dances authored by David Smukler and me, that
will help you in introducing them to your dancers. David S. has an
excellent piece on “How To Call a Chestnut” and another on
“Triple Minor Mathematics,” both of which offer useful
tips. In addition to these general remarks, we talk about particular
difficult moments or special moments in each of the dances we
present, and you may find that those comments help you. The book is
available from the CDSS store.

biggest challenge is, of course, the progression, getting the 2s and
3s used to the notion of switching roles each time through the dance.

Ted Sannella

Ted Sannella

Callers Mary Devlin and Philippe
Callens encouraged dance communities to find a way of recognizing Ted
during a “Ted Sannella Memorial Week,” November 11 – 20, 2005, at
the time of the tenth anniversary of Ted’s death. This was my

One way to celebrate his contributions
is simply by showcasing many of the different formations Ted utilized
in his choreography. In many ways, he was a staunch tradition­al­ist,
avoiding using the term “half figure eight,” for example, since
it wasn’t part of the traditional contra lexicon. (He’d say
“cross through the couple above, then go down the outside.”) At
the same time, he was a wonderful innovator, drawing from Southern
squares (lady round two and the gent cut through) and from English
(his triplets were inspired by dancing Fandango at Pinewoods).

Musical Meat and Potatoes

Meat and Potatoes

from a post in 2007

think that good music for contras consists of well-phrased melodies
backed by solid rhythm. I want the music to tell me what to do. If
the melody disappears into an endless fog of non-stop improvisation
and the beat similarly wanders off the rails, I have to resort
to—aagh!—counting to keep track of where I am in the dance. Not

Changing Contra Choreography

Changing Contra Choreography

adapted from an e-mail to a fellow caller, 2005

Dancing with Dudley in the early to mid-1970s, I remember doing a lot of traditional material—that’s when I learned Rory O’More and Chorus Jig and Lady of the Lake and Sackett’s Harbor and Petronella and Lady Walpole’s Reel and Money Musk and other standards. Other material included some compositions by Ralph Page and then, toward the end of the 1970s, some new compositions started making the rounds, dances by Tony Parkes and by Ted Sannella. Sandy Bradley came through New England on several occasions with her lively personality and all these great western squares, which certainly got our attention.

Programs were much more relaxed through the 1970s… an individual dance would end and there might be five minutes of visiting and standing around before we lined up for the next dance, unlike today’s norm of dance dance dance.

Challenge Dances

Dances and Inclusiveness

from a post to the trad-dance-callers group, November 2004

time to time on discussion groups, someone inevitably will argue that
the solution to declining attendance is for the organizers to arrange
for more challenging dances. The best way to keep dancers interested,
so goes this train of thought, is to offer ever-increasing levels of
challenge to provide fresh stimulation.