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Great Callers - How They Prepare

The previous column was written by a man who knew very little about calling -- but because he knew little, he could articulate that little well & clearly. Everything I said is true, but one sentence in the article reveals how little I know about the "higher level" of calling contras. I wrote that truly great callers "occupy the rare air of all great performers: they don’t think about what they do. Consciousness gets in the way."

To some extent that’s true, but such "unconscious" behavior is preceded by a great deal of conscious behavior, a great deal of intelligent thought about the structure of contras and the sequence of dances presented on a given evening.

I program a night’s dance on the basis of "introducing" moves to new dancers; great callers think of much else -- much much else.

Much of what I am about to tell you comes from the single most wonderful book ever written about Contra dancing, Mary Dart’s PhD Thesis "Contra Dance Choreography" which is available as a book -- a very expensive book that is worth every penny you spend to buy it -- and you must buy it if you are a caller or a serious student of contras (or you can get it from your local library -- on inter-library loan if need be).

Mary Dart points out that great callers choose dances to promote certain behavior between the dancers: "many callers program dances early in the evening in which the dancers relate to the whole hall of people, and then program dances later in which the primary interaction is between partners." (page 130) She goes on to say that "Another aspect of social interaction within an evening of dance is contact between persons of the same gender." (p. 131) George Marshall said: "There are dances [in which the] women interact...with each other more than they do with their partner or their neighbor, and men interact [more]..., and I often will put these dances in specifically ...as a relief to having always interacted with the opposite sex." (p.131)

Great callers choose dances based on which band is playing. Larry Edelman said: "How I program an evening depends on the musicians and what their strengths are....most of the callers whose programs I’m critical of don’t do that." (p. 131)

Great callers choose dances to promote a certain level of physical activity. Ted Sannella: "You don’t want to have a whole lot of vigorous dances in a row. You want to include a slow dance, or something that is a little less tiring every now & then, so the dancers won’t be exhausted." (p. 132)

Great callers choose dances based on the size of the hall and the number of dancers. Steve Zakon-Anderson: "Ah gee, the hall is really long, the sets are real long, have I got something that’ll work in a double progression? Because otherwise I’ll never get everybody active." (p. 133) Don Theyken: "If you know you’re going to have a big crowd....you don’t do a lot of ‘down the center & back four in line.’ You find dances with other progressions." (p. 134). Tony Parkes: "A large dance is one that uses a bigger space than you’d expect...a square that has a ‘promenade’ outside the set, or a contra that has a ‘hey for four’...I’ve learned the hard way to avoid large dances in the middle of an evening when attendance is at its peak." (p.134)

Great callers have many variables that they juggle as they call an evening’s worth of dances. I focus primarily on which are "new" or "difficult" moves within a dance. They focus on much else: promoting certain behavior between dancers, the band & its strengths, the size of the hall, the number of dancers, the time of the evening, the vigorousness of a dance & the vigorousness of the dance that preceded this dance.

All this is conscious behavior, not "unconscious" behavior.

Great callers are great because they work hard to achieve greatness. To find out some of what they do, you must read Mary Dart’s wonderful book: "Contra Dance Choreography."


Copyright 2003   Henry Morgenstein

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