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.


I try to learn as much as possible in advance about any out-of-town job. In this case, I had asked the organizer about their typical mix of dancers and any program expectations they might have. In addition, the printed directions to the hall were accompanied by a useful set of guidelines which verified what I had been told. “About our dance, our dancers and our dance community” read, in part:

“Round Hill is a friendly, hot dance. The general level of dancing is experienced, and we always have lots of people dancing with us for the first time… We are a family contradance, and we like modern active contras and look forward to one or two classic dances during the evening. We enjoy squares… We like to welcome newcomers with a mixer early in the evening… There is a twenty minute break about 9:30 pm… We like to waltz before the break, hambo after the break and waltz at the end of the evening.”

Not every sponsor is so explicit in detailing expectations, although there was the implicit difficulty of making beginners welcome while challenging the hot shots. Many years ago, I adopted Ted Sannella’s advice to plan a program in advance, rather than flip through cards on the spot. This way, you can balance the many variables—figures, formations, difficulty, tunes—when you have the necessary time. Ted also advised to come prepared with other dances, both easier and harder, for unexpected situations. So, the afternoon of the Round Hill dance, I took out my stack of dances and started spreading possibilities on the table. At home, in a three and a half hour dance, I usually program thirteen or fourteen dances plus several couple dances; here, with three hours, I suspected that I would have time for fewer than that. On the other hand, with a higher proportion of experienced dancers, I might be able to keep the walkthroughs short. I ended up with some two dozen cards on the table and narrowed the possibilities from this first selection. The others I kept for quick reference if changes were needed.

First dance of the evening, after the obligatory sound-check polka: This dance needed to be simple enough for the beginners to have a good experience. (During the beginners’ session, I urged people to participate in the first several dances, rather than just watch.) At the same time, I wanted a lively dance with a gimmick that might interest the experienced dancers. I selected Carol Kopp’s dance, “Aw Shucks.” It starts with the ones sashaying down and back (a simple figure that beginners enjoy) followed by the ones clapping with partner and neighbor (this reinforces doing something in time to the beat) and then swinging neighbors, which lets the beginners experience different styles of swinging rather than flailing about with an equally-inexperienced partner. Finally, the dance introduces the ladies chain. Music? Hot Southern-style reels.

A mixer next? This is an easy way to break up clumps of beginners and experienced dancers. A circle dance was one obvious possibility, but with those experienced dancers in mind I wanted something more unusual. Ted’s “Scatter Threesome” features lines of three individuals scattered around the hall. After some initial figures and a thorough mixing of the dancers, the dance ends with a basket swing, another popular figure for beginners. (I told my band, “Reels that are a little bit silly.”) At one point, the couples in each line of three (a woman who has a man on her left) must do a right and left through across the set. This inevitably causes confusion, since some couples are directly across from each other and some are on the diagonal. Why pick a dance that can be confusing? In this case, the recovery is easy—find two other nearby people and basket swing—and the beginners and experienced dancers alike can have fun laughing at the mix-up without an entire set melting down. I think that some experienced dancers take their dancing too seriously, expecting absolute precision; it’s worth providing an early opportunity for everyone to relax together and just have fun.

Time for another contra. I picked “With Thanks to the Dean” by Steve Zakon-Anderson. (To the band: “Easy-going, melodic reels, something like Silver and Gold Two-Step.”) Although it is a double progression contra, the flow of this dance is exceptionally smooth, with lots of physical connection (allemandes, swings, circles) so that the beginners usually have someone else guiding them into place. The double progression—no waiting out at the ends—should appeal to the experienced crowd. It’s an opportunity to mention Ralph Page, in whose memory the dance was composed, introducing to the newcomers, and reminding the experienced dancers, that they were participating in a social dance form with a history as well as a vital present.

Next, I planned to call “Hull’s Victory,” a New England chestnut dating back to the War of 1812. (Isaac Hull was captain of the U.S.S. Constitution; the dance commemorates the battle with the British man-of-war Guerriere, during which his ship was dubbed “Old Ironsides.”) Like so many other older dances, this is a duple proper, which provides a change of formation from the duple improper and Becket formation dances that dominate today’s contra scene. It’s also a way to introduce newer dancers to one of the classic dances in the repertoire. One of the musicians was less familiar with the standard tune and I briefly considered changing dances. I suggested Ross’s Reel #4 as a change tune and everyone on stage was happy. The distinctive balances—the first of the evening— rang out loudly on the resonant wood floor and provided an opportunity to comment on the beautiful hall in which we were dancing.

Time for something really different, a dance which might interest the old hands without losing the beginners. I chose “Ted’s Tempest,” which is based on that old Vermont dance, “The Tempest.” (Two active couples, progressing together, face down the hall in a line of four, with a side couple on each end of the line.) Ted Sannella’s composition features more activity and thus appeals to contemporary tastes; I was also able to pay tribute to an extraordinary dance leader. The traditional Tempest tune is a jig, which let us switch from the reels we had been using, another point in this dance’s favor. By the end of this dance, the beginners were dancing more comfortably and I noted that the experienced dancers were regularly inviting beginners as partners.

I knew that the program so far would leave energetic dancers wanting more excitement. Indeed, my introduction to the sixth dance, “Here’s a dance for those of you who want some more swinging,” was greeted with scattered cheers. I chose Gene Hubert’s “Swingaround,” which starts with four successive eight-count swings (neighbor, twos, same-sex neighbor, ones) and demands precision timing to keep the swings going without pause. This dance also introduced a less-familiar figure (pass through to a wave) at a time in the evening when dancers would be most alert. The dance ran smoothly with high-energy reels, although some men rebelled at the idea of swinging each other and stood in their long lines waiting out the phrase. In my eagerness to provide a quick walkthrough, I had neglected to demonstrate several ways of doing a gender-neutral swing.

At this point, I checked my watch and noticed that I was slightly ahead of schedule. (The dancers had cooperated in forming shorter sets and I was running dances for less time, to allow more switching around among dancers.) We could squeeze an additional dance into the first half. I reached into that backup pile of dance cards and selected “Mason and Garden” by Al Olson. After coming up the hall in lines of four, dancers bend the line and circle to the right, always good for some laughs since this direction is unexpected. That circle right flows nicely into an allemande left with neighbor which in turn leads into the start of a hey for four, a graceful way to introduce this figure which I wanted to use later in the evening.

It was an easy segue into “Al’s Advice” (Paul Tyler), which starts briskly and ends in long lines: balance partner, pull by, pull by neighbor, balance partner, pull by, pull by neighbor and on to the next,” a lively, foot-stomping way to end the first half.

By the time we finished a waltz and the leisurely break and a hambo, we had just about an hour left in the evening. I whittled my remaining choices down to four contras and a closing waltz. One dance would take longer than usual to teach and I wanted to let the dances run a little longer in this set. The beginners who were still with us could keep up, and the experienced dancers would be looking for their dance groove.

I had one more difficult dance to present. When I started contra dancing, in the early 1970s, triple minors were an integral part of the repertoire and they still offer possibilities and complexities not found elsewhere. Most newer dancers rarely encounter triple minors, though, and I thought they would enjoy that variety. (Among the other possibilities for the evening were a pair of squares and a set of Ted’s triplets but there wasn’t time for everything.)

Triple minors have a bad reputation among some contra dancers who want aerobic exercise. Many of these dances are graceful and stately, which gets translated into “slow and boring.” If these dancers are going to wait out twice at both ends of the set, they want lots of action while they’re dancing to compensate. One dance that fills this need is “Good Times” by Al Olson. It’s a triple minor improper and starts with a busy dip and dive figure, with everyone immediately doing a balance and swing— ones with the twos, and threes with each other. It rewards precise timing as well as forcing the inactives to keep track of their changing roles, although the second half of the dance is more forgiving. It was no surprise that this proved to be the most difficult dance of the evening. Despite my reminders about the need to wait out twice at the head of the set, experienced dancers would start dancing too soon, pulling others with them. However, several dancers that night and the next day made a point of singling out that dance as one that they had enjoyed.

Next was Susan Kevra’s “One Hundred Years of Mischief,” which incorporates the distinctive figure from the English country dance “Mad Robin.” (I had considered using Jim Kitch’s “Silver Anniversary Reel”—also with that figure—because it was written for Bruce and Sue Rosen. Bruce was playing piano that night and Sue was in the audience. However, Jim’s dance also includes a variation of the “cross to a wave” that appeared already in “Swingaround” and I decided that meeting this figure once was enough for an evening.) Dancers enjoy the partner interaction of the Mad Robin move, and this allowed me to make a brief plug for English dancing. I asked the musicians—Bruce on piano, Tom Phillips and Bill Christopherson on fiddles—to select a medley that included several lively rags, more musical spice for the evening.

Barely time for two more contras. Since we had already danced a hey for four in the first set, I knew it wouldn’t take long to teach “Morning in the Glen” by Glen Morningstar, a wonderful dance with two half heys and plenty of balances to punctuate the music.

For the last contra, we did “A Different Way Back” by Larry Jennings, the only Becket formation of the evening. It’s an busy dance with a good story line, including different interactions with four neighbors and finishing with two swings, a satisfying conclusion for all concerned. I was also able to say a few words about Larry’s significant contributions to the dance community.

We were near the end of the evening and I decided to run over a little. Dancers formed a Sicilian circle for Pat Shaw’s “Waterfall Waltz.” The night before, when I called this as the last dance in another town, one woman was exuberant in her delight and wanted to know more about English country dancing. Dancers explored this elegant introduction to waltz country dancing, and then we switched over to free waltzing with partners.

What made this evening’s dancing possible? What factors contributed to being able to present a pre-planned program with few changes? There are many answers:

1. Clear guidelines by dance organizers of the sort of program they welcomed,
2. A dance community that welcomed beginners and brought them onto the floor,
3. Careful selection of dances in advance,
4. And, of course, a talented group of dance musicians able to play different styles of music with zest.

Fred Breunig, fiddler, caller and choreographer from southern Vermont, once commented that he liked to program an evening that he himself would enjoy dancing. I agree. In my own dancing, I like variety; I find an entire evening of fast-paced “swing partner / swing neighbor” contras to be boring. Although I am well aware that tastes differ, following Fred’s advice has worked well for me.

How did this program provide that variety? We danced thirteen dances (plus a hambo and two waltzes) in a little over three hours, including a leisurely break for refreshments. Formations included one duple minor proper contra, seven duple minor impropers (including one double progression), a triple minor improper, the Tempest formation, one Becket formation, a Sicilian circle, and a highly-irregular mixer. New dancers were exposed to most of the common figures used in contemporary contra dancing; I introduced several less-familiar dance figures and formations as well. Music included stately reels, driving reels (including sets which were distinctly French-Canadian, Southern, and Irish), rags, two different sets of jigs, and the tunes in three-quarter time. The program included one chestnut and compositions by ten different modern choreographers; we celebrated the present and acknowledged the history of this dance form. Some of the beginners stayed to the very end. The dancers applauded loudly for the band. All in all, it was a good night’s work.