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.


Remember the words of Polonius in Hamlet? “To thine own self be true.” What does that mean for us as callers?

Phrased differently, is the caller’s role to follow the dancers or is it to provide leadership? This might take the form of presenting a program that is slightly different from the norm. It might mean taking a little more time to bring out style points, or to discuss safety on the dance floor, or to illustrate through example a particularly interesting / challenging transition, or even in the middle of a walkthrough to remind dancers of some basics that may never have been learned or that need refreshing—”A ladies chain across takes eight counts, four for the two women to cross the set and four for the courtesy turn. The same timing applies to right and left, four to cross and four to turn.” It might mean calling more often than is the norm; several times I’ve been quietly thanked by dancers who note that most callers only call a few times and how stressful this has been for them trying to learn a dance.

I highly recommend Bruce Hamilton’s little booklet, Notes on Teaching Country Dance, published by CDSS. Although Bruce’s background is Scottish and English country dance, much of what he says also applies in the realm of contras and squares. In his section on “Leadership and Social Aspects,” Bruce writes:

It is crucial to understand this: people accede to your authority because that’s the shortest way for them to get to dance. Generally speaking, they do what you say, not out of respect for your experience, because they think you know more than they do, because you have a big voice, because it’s a habit they picked up in school, or anything like that. They do what you say out of enlightened self-interest.

He goes on to say that because the caller has been given this authority, it is important to exercise it.

The most common example today in “our” dance community is the contras vs. squares divide. It’s important to remember that we are part of a long and braided chain, that these two country dance forms have been in and out of favor at different points of time. The longways dances of the late 1700s and into the 1800s were pushed aside by the quadrilles, and then both forms were abandoned on ballroom floors and replaced by couple dances such as the polka and waltz. Contras were, for much of the last century, appreciated in only a handful of communities while squares were enjoyed by (literally) millions of dancers. We get excited because 700 people are dancing contras in the main hall at NEFFA? Modern western square dance callers remember occasions when they called to 700 squares. Callers such as Ralph Sweet who tried to interest their square dancers in contras found a closed audience: “Contras? Boring! You do the same thing over and over again. What’s the fun of that?” And today, in this mostly contra-centric universe, the wheel turns again as we see the rise of communities of young dancers who are enthusiastic about southern Appalachian old-time music and squares and want nothing to do with contras.

People like what they know. If callers only give dancers what they already know, how will they discover the delight to be found in other dance styles? Does this mean that an event advertised as a contra dance, one should only present a program of polkas and tango? Scarcely. But keep in mind that an evening billed as a “contra dance” is a new phenomenon; the first such events date back only about 35 years, to the Boston area in the mid-1970s.

My home dance bills itself as a contra dance, but I think of it as a country dance, and that term in my mind encompasses more than long lines. Even within the strict contra designation, there are proper and improper dances, duple and triple minors, and I believe that each has a valid place in a program. I remember a dancer who started at our local dances and then, after several years, went cautiously out into the broader world, to one of the more distant hot (or cool) venues. She reported that she had had a great time and then added, “There one thing I don’t understand. All they did, the whole evening, was hands four improper or Becket dances. The whole night!”

After this post, I soon received a note from a friend elsewhere in the country: “I got the impression you were urging people to be true to their own ideas and not follow the guidelines of the organizers who hire them.”

His point is well taken. When I’m hired for a particular series that has a clearly-stated vision, I do my best to meet those expectations. And yes, there are times when I’ve turned down jobs because I felt those expectations were so alien to my own philosophy that I had no desire to be part of such a series. Similarly, I’ve turned down jobs because I didn’t want to work with the band hired for the occasion. Once the dance is taught and started, there is usually little for the caller to do—apart from minding the crowd and troubleshooting potential (or kinetic) trouble spots—save listen to the music. With some bands, I felt I wouldn’t enjoy the music, and felt further that their music wouldn’t bring out the best dancing. (I’m being civil—more bluntly, I felt that there were some bands whose music encourages poor dancing.)

But I digress… In this, as in most things, it’s a matter of balance. At my regular monthly dance, because it’s sponsored by our band and I’m the regular caller, I’m beholden to no committee and am responsible only to myself, my fellow bandmates, and to the dancers. I offer the sort of program I think appropriate and we reap the consequences. Our attendance has fallen over the years, and it’s possible that one reason is dance enthusiasts who want a less varied program traveling farther afield to get what they want. At times I worry about the future of the dance, and at times it’s dispiriting seeing a hall with half the number of dancers there once were, but I am also aware that these things go in cycles. And I am proud that my regular dancers aren’t fazed by triple minors or duple improper dances because they are familiar with them and can bring others along, that the mention of an oddball dance (“Okay, everybody, before you find a partner for this next dance, we’re going to do something unusual. You need five people, any five people, in a ring”) doesn’t send them racing to their seats or booing.

The leadership issue is certainly more subtle than the comments I hammered out so quickly in my last post. Leadership isn’t a matter of “my way or the highway.” It means, in this realm, having one’s own vision of How The Dance Should Be and finding ways to bring it ever closer to that ideal.

> If the series says “contras, and no more than one square,” I think it’s fine for a caller to say, “Hey, I specialize in squares. Could I offer three?”

Exactly. Indeed, that sort of negotiation is one way that one can provide leadership, by not simply nodding and saying, “Okay, one square.” I recently was witness to this very thing when Sheila and I spent a night with a nationally-known caller. There is a well-attended series several hours from his home which had never invited him to call. Lo and behold, in came an offer, his first time. He couldn’t make the date due to prior booking and they proposed another which he could.

So, in wrapping up negotiations, he raised the question: “You may know that I like to call not just contras. Is that okay with you?” And back came the reply, “Our dancers don’t like squares.”  He continued the conversation and the organizer said, “Okay, just one.”

To his credit, he pushed a little harder. “Well, doing just one doesn’t really let them get the idea. I’d like to do two, so that I can build on what they’ve learned in the first one.” he was looking for some flexibility from the organizer; if not, he was willing to say no.

The organizer came back with an okay to do two non-contras in the course of the evening, provided that there was room on the floor, noting that squares aren’t as space efficient. The caller agreed. There was little point in pushing further;t the organizer had shown good faith and flexibility, and her stipulations were reasonable.

Another established caller took a similar position years ago when she was much in demand on the circuit. Folks would line her up for a dance weekend and after negotiations had been concluded—fees, travel, schedule, musicians—there’d come the comment, “… and we don’t want you to call squares.”

She held her ground, politely but firmly. “I call contras and I call squares. If you don’t want to hire me, that’s fine… no hard feelings. But if you do hire me, I will call contras and I will call squares.” And in most cases, with the usual “Don’t say we didn’t warn you / our dancers don’t like squares / not too many, please” she ended up being hired, calling some squares, and receiving dancer evaluations full of praise for the squares.

So, it’s a process of bringing people along. I agree that offering six lengthy style points at an evening dance would be overkill. Indeed, Ted Sannella would only offer a few in an evening, but I find it’s a rare caller these days who will do even that many. (And I laud communities who make an explicit expectation that the caller offer one.) Taking my cue from Ted, I cheerfully go out onto the floor once or twice in an evening to demonstrate something rather than simply talk more from the mic.

Callers are indeed hired to give folks a good time. My point is that one can give folks a good time in different ways. If you’re trying to change a culture’s diet, you probably don’t throw out all the food at one. You introduce a few fresh fruits and vegetables to the meat and potatoes, perhaps change the seasoning a little, offer an unusual appetizer or dessert from time to time. And so with the dance.