Beginners' workshops

adapted from several posts over the years about how to bring newcomers into the dancing

Many dance communities include a session beforehand explicitly aimed at newcomers. During this time (half an hour or more in some locations), the usual pattern is to lead folks through a series of figures to prepare them for the dances to come.

The argument is that newbies need to know this information, and that a beginners session is the best way for them to learn it. My own experience learning contras came in an era when there were no beginners' sessions, so that's certainly influenced my approach. I think the best way is for the caller to plan a program carefully, introducing basic figures at the start of the evening and teaching more complicated movements, such as a hey for four, when the beginners can be assisted by more experienced dancers on the floor.

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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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Challenge Dances and Inclusiveness

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

From 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.

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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.

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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]."

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Creating a Vision

adapted from an e-mail (2003) to an organizer dealing with strident demands by a few dancers for more challenging dances

What you're going through isn't unique to your series. It's happened at most contra dance series with which I'm familiar, and for that matter, a similar thing happened in the modern western square dance movement, both in the early 1960s and again more recently. There seems to be a tendency for a small group of active dancers—what Ralph Sweet once labeled the "overactive 10%"—to try to make things fit their own view of how dancing should be, which leads to the gradual—or not-so-gradual—exclusion of just plain folks who like to dance but perhaps not as often as the others.

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Demonstrations vs. Words

Adapted from a rec-folk-dancing post (1998) in response to a dancer who said that callers should stay at the microphone rather than coming onto the floor to demonstrate figures.

> The only figure that must be demonstrated is the courtesy turn. That's also the figure that's hardest for new dancers to learn.

Hmm...  it IS one of the figures I demonstrate most often, partly to show an alternative to the twirls and partly to demonstrate how folks can connect via eye contact to turn what might otherwise seem a boring filler for the men into a fun figure for all.

The most common reason I jump down from the stage to demonstrate a figure (which I do far more often than asking dancers on the floor to demo something) is to make a point about styling.

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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 daughter.)

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 break.

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For Love or Money

Adapted from several posts and letters to caller friends over the years

Bill Martin wrote:

> If a dance looks like it will be a real party -
> "great music and huge crowds of enthusiastic dancers" - I would pay to play!

Other musicians and callers have touched in recent postings on their reasons for playing or calling. Some in the dance community are trying to earn a livelihood from their work; for most of us, it is something we do on the side.

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Adapted from a post in which someone argued that a dance series should stick to contra dances and not bother with other formations.

> The concern here is to attract and retain beginner dancers.

We're in agreement on this. Well [I equivocate], maybe not total. My concern is to make the dance one where beginners will have a great time, and where the regular mixed-ability dancers and the hard-core hot-shot dancers and the elegant excellent dancers all have fun as well. If the beginners and the other dancers have a great time and don't come back, I still feel I've done my job. (If they don't have fun, then I share a large part of the blame.)

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Hot Dances

Adapted from a letter (1999) to a dance organizer in another community; his organizing committee was hotly debating what sort of dance should be encouraged

What is the vision of the series?

Let me add right away that this isn't just my question—it's the one that was put forward by Larry Jennings over several decades. (In fact, I think that pushing this question was one of Larry's most important contributions to the dance world; he obviously made it part of my consciousness.

Some of the answers to the vision thing may come as you and your committee discuss whether your aim is to build a community dance or a so-called dance community.

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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 tradition.

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It's Fun To Hunt

October 8, 2020 - in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic

More than 50 years ago, the noted New England caller and dance historian Ralph Page started sharing information he had gleaned from searching through old newspapers and other journals. In more than a dozen articles in his Northern Junket magazine, Page described dance events ranging from public events to small family gatherings, all presented under the headline “It's Fun To Hunt.” In recent years, others have found new ways to collect the history of different forms of country dancing. I'd like to share some examples and encourage readers to start their own quests.

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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.


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Music: Meat and Potatoes

adapted from a post in 2007

I 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 good.

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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.

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So, Why Are They Called Chestnuts?

This one has appeared on various other people's websites, so I thought it was time to put it on my own.

published in CDSS News, #169, November/December 2002

It started simply enough, with a question posted from Baltimore to rec.folk-dancing, an Internet discussion group:

I know a “chestnut” is a traditional contra dance, typically associated with a particular tune- but it seems no one in Baltimore really knows why “chestnuts” are called chestnuts. I did come up with some wise-crack explanations, but none that have any credibility. So, dear readers, I ask: Why are “chestnuts” called chestnuts?

Several people replied, some citing dictionary definitions and some web pages showing the origin of the phrase “an old chestnut,” but no one knew for certain how the term came to be applied to those older contras. David Smukler opined, correctly, that the term was somehow connected to the seminal albums of New England Chestnuts by Rodney and Randy Miller, but he, too, wasn’t sure how the term gained its contra dance sense.

I live in New Hampshire and I’ve been part of the dance scene here as dancer and caller for about thirty years, so I thought I’d quickly find an answer.

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Square Dance Calling

2011, a response to a caller

> I haven’t even ventured into squares because I don’t know how to call them and don’t know where to learn.

For starters, Tony Parkes includes a helpful discussion of squares in his Contra Dance Calling text book.

Calling so-called “New England squares” is much the same as calling for a contra dance; figures fit the phrasing of a typical AABB tune. Ted Sannella’s two collections (Balance and Swing, Swing the Next) contain many examples of these style of dances, and the syllabi of the annual Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, available online, are a valuable resource for more such dances.

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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 response.

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).

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Triple Minor Contras

2010: from a letter to a caller seeking advice on how to introduce her dancers to triple minor contras

There are several parts of Cracking Chestnuts, 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.

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

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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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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?

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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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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David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


Email David