Carrillo Recreation Center, Santa Barbara

The View From the Mike

This page is "view" as in "opinion," and you'll find here some mini-essays, pieces with a viewpoint. Naturally I welcome comments. I will add to this page from time to time as I have more ideas to share.

Calling and Baseball
Welcome to the Twenty-Somethings
A Farewell to Squares
Some Words about Words

Calling and Baseball

The famous major league pitching coach Ray "Rabbit" Miller is said to have kept a small sign on his office door,  for the instruction of rookie pitchers.  It read:

Rabbit's Rules
  1. Throw strikes.
  2. Change speeds.
  3. Work fast.
Excellent advice for pitchers -- and, properly interpreted, excellent advice for callers as well.

Carrillo Recreation Center, Santa Barbara Throw strikes:  Choose dances which are effective for the crowd and the moment.   And accomplish what you want with them.    In baseball the word 'control' means not simply getting the ball somewhere over the plate, but placing the pitch in the exact spot desired.   The calling analogy is to not only choose the right dance, but also to use the dance effectively in the program, and to teach it in the right way for that crowd -- telling them enough, but not too much.  

Change speeds:   A pitcher can't throw the same pitch all evening, no matter how good it is -- because by the third or fourth trip to the plate, the hitters will be clobbering it. Speed and pitch selection need to vary.  In the same way, dancers want a good variety -- of feel, of energy level, of figure.   'Changing speeds' also lets the band display more of its repertoire:  nobody (least of all the band members) wants them to have to stay with just "smooth-flowing reels" all night long.  

Work fast:  People come to dance, not to listen to teaching or commentary.  My own rule is that if a figure takes more than a few words, I will just get down on the floor and demonstrate.  In pitching, an important benefit of working fast (i.e., taking minimal time between pitches) is that one's own fielders stay more alert and 'in the game'; the same is true in dance, as both the band members and the dancers stay more involved if there is less dead time.

Beyond the wisdom of Rabbit's Rules, baseball offers additional useful guidance to callers.   As the famous baseball writer Leonard Koppett pointed out, baseball thinking is very situation-specific: you are not trying to win 'a game,' but "this game, on this field, against this opponent, under these conditions."   The same is true of calling: it's not just 'a dance,' but this dance, for this crowd, with this band, in this hall, on this night.   And all those factors can affect the choice of material and its presentation.    You want dances that are hard enough to entertain these folks, but not so hard as to overwhelm them.   You'll teach the same dance differently to different groups.  And you'd prefer not to do a distinctive routine that was done at this same hall just last week.  (At my home dance, I try always to attend the week before my own calling dates, so I can scout this.)

A fourth well-known pitching rule, not on Rabbit Miller's list:  Always remember there are eight other players on the field.   Rather than trying to strike everybody out, the pitcher does better to make the batters hit playable balls so the fielders can do their jobs.    In the same way the caller needs to remember there's a really good band on that stage, and give them an opportunity to do their best.   And the dancers too:  like baseball, contra dance is a team effort, in which 'players' with different but complementary roles combine for the group's success.  

One set of baseball wisdom for which callers and dancers have no need, however, is Satchel Paige's famous Six Rules on How to Stay Young ("6. Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.")  Contra dancers need just one rule for how to stay young: come dance a lot.

Baseball fans may be curious at this point to know which team I support.   That's easy: whichever team I am coaching at the moment in Santa Barbara Pony Baseball.  No owners, no agents, no salaries, no steroids, and all games played in the daytime on real grass.


With the marvellous Changeling (Deb, Karl, and Lilly Clair Colon), Columbus, Ohio

Welcome to the Twenty-Somethings

Check out the picture at upper right of this page -- taken a few years ago at the Santa Barbara dance -- and you'll note immediately, there's nobody in it who is under 40.    Until fairly recently that was the situation not just in Santa Barbara, but at most Southern California dances.  With the exception of the occasional child or adolescent accompanying mom or dad (sometimes willingly, sometimes less so), you never saw a young face.  Contra dance -- at least in this region -- was a graying activity, and there were many times it looked headed the way of the dinosaurs.

Some of the best news the hobby has had lately is that if you were to take that same picture today, you'd undoubtedly see some twenty-somethings and college students in the line.  As NPR famously reported, "Youth flock to contra dancing" is a phenomenon all over the contra dance world.  This is a great thing both for the young people and for contra dance.

The really great news is that these young people have not just peeked in and danced, but have taken contra dance and made it their own.  Some have become callers, mjusicians, or organizers for traditional contra dances.   And then others have gone off in a really new -- and youthful -- direction and founded the 'techno contra' movement.

I've experienced techno contra only once, and I'll say up front that it's not to my own taste.   I like the glowing armbands, but the music isn't to my liking: I prefer the traditional fiddle tunes.  

But that's just one person's preference.  Indisputably, techno contra is contra dance: and indisputably, a lot of young people like it.   And that's great.    If they hear rhythmns I cannot, and manage to dance to those rhythmns, then instead of telling them to use 'my' music,  I should learn to listen better.  

In this way as well as others, when young people come to contra dance they are going to bring something of themselves.   We're not going to get younger people behaving and dancing exactly like older people: they're going to behave and dance like young people.   We should all welcome that.  If we get tempted to play the fuddy-duddy and say that this or that  'doesn't belong,'  we should probably just smile, hold our tongues, find a new partner, and get into line.     

Youth is notoriously fickle and prone to fashion, and it may be that youth soon flock to something else besides contra dance.   But that will be much less likely to happen if young people have made contra dance their own, bringing their own ideas.  

One aspect of contra dance that sometimes isn't much appreciated is that it is a true living folk art.  There's no one right way.   Everybody makes his or her own contribution.    As soon as dance acquires a central authority that tries to dictate a single 'right way,' it dies.  (All hands up, those who do Scottish country dance!)

So the double entendre in the title of this essay is intended:  if you're a twenty-something then I welcome you to the dance, and if you are older then I welcome you to the twenty-somethings and what they bring.   Let's all enjoy one another.  I hope we're going to be together for some time.

A Farewell to Squares

For many years I could be counted among the dwindling minority of callers who routinely include squares.  In fact, starting with the second full evening I ever did, and continuing for a run of perhaps 175 evenings, I had at least one square in every program (at public dances).    That run stopped two years ago, and I haven't used a square at a public dance since.

It's no secret that there are some contra dancers who dislike squares a lot, even to the point of sitting them out and/or complaining when they are called.   I used squares for a long time for two basic reasons:  (1) variety, and (2) many people do like them.

I think it's pretty clear how squares add variety.  They allow figures not possible in a contra set; parts of the dance -- the 'break' figures -- are not walked through; and they give the band has a chance to play "crooked" tunes which you may not hear otherwise.  It's a treat to dance to wonderful tunes like "Hangman's Reel" or "Ways of the World," utterly unusable for contras, but perfect for many squares.  

Oddfellows Hall, San Luis Obispo I also think it's clear that 'many people like' squares.  Partly this is because numerous dancers have come up and told me so.  But beyond that, there is that simplest device, the applause meter:  my experience was that squares generally rated at or near the top.   

Like most people who learn to call squares, I began with the simple New England quadrilles, which have much of the feel of a contra figure.  With more experience -- and exposure to some really fine callers, like the magnificent Kathy Anderson - I abandoned the quadrilles in favor of Fifties and other fast-moving figures which do not include partner changes and which keep almost all the dancers moving, almost all the time.    I found that these figures, which are very much unlike contra dances, got a better reception.    

In the past couple of years, however, I have discontinued calling squares.   I'm now like every other 'contra caller' who does a solid evening of contra dances and only contra dances.  

The reason is simple enough.  People who like squares don't complain if I omit them, but people who dislike squares do complain -- sometimes loudly -- if they are included.  That's really it.  No penalty for leaving them out; significant penalty for leaving them in.    (This applies to public contra dances; at private events, with the right crowd, I still use squares.)

From the point of view of building a repertoire, squares are expensive.  A typical square dance takes far more practice to prepare, and far more trial and error to perfect, than even the hardest contra dances.   Squares are also harder to collect since there aren't very many good traditional square dance callers still around.   So they are a significant investment of time and energy for not much reward.

I leave entirely moot the issue of whether people 'should' like squares, why they might or might not, why a small number of dancers really hate squares (it's surprising how strident the discussions can get), and so on.   Those topics can be interesting but from the point of view of a caller wanting to please his public, they have little relevance.   It doesn't matter why dancers don't like squares; the fact is many don't, and will complain or sit out if one is presented.  The remaining dancers may like squares well enough, but don't expect to have them and don't complain if they're omitted.   End of story.  End of squares.  Let's dance.  

Some Words About Words

It's a truism that every contra dance caller needs to find his or her own well-chosen words to present a given dance.   This applies both to calls and teaching.  No caller worthy of the mike would simply copy someone else's exact wording: you need to take a dance and make it your own.

Accordingly it struck me as odd, some years ago, to read a statement attributed to the famous caller Larry Edelman, where he noted that in learning squares, it was important to learn not just the moves, but the actual words used.   (I'm paraphrasing from memory here, and no longer have the original, so forgive me if something's been lost in transcription.)  But after more years of experience, I think Larry is exactly right.

Oddfellows Hall, San Luis Obispo Contra dances are lists of moves.  Ask me how my own dance 'Fiddler of Dooney' goes, and I will tell you, "Swing neighbor, ladies chain across, then on the diagonal..." (click here for the full story).  It's a list of moves, and I leave it to you to make it come to life with words.

But ask me how a square dance goes -- say the famous dance 'Star Line'  by Ed Gilmore -- and I will answer, "Up to the middle and back to the bar, with the ones across do a right hand star, go three quarters of the way, heads in the center for a left hand star..." (Best if we have room to walk it at the same time!)  You can reconstruct the moves from this, but that is not how I remember it: I remember it as a lyric.  

With contra dances I remember the list and have to construct suitable words each time I want to call it (words which may be different for different groups). With the squares I remember the lyric and have to deconstruct the list and teaching points.   The teaching points will vary from one group to the next, but the lyric, once the music starts going, generally will not.

I am not claiming all callers do this, of course; merely observing that this is what works for me.   (New England callers should note that the squares I am discussing here are Fifties and Appalachian figures, not New England quadrilles which would be called more like contra dances.)

In a sense what we have here is the distinction between speech and song.   A good speaker stands up before the audience not with a memorized text, but with a list of points he/she wants to make.  The actual wording is done 'in the moment' and follows what the speaker senses from the audience.    This makes the presentation lively, in contrast to hearing someone read a written text, which is deadly dull.

Songs, on the the other hand, are sung from a memorized lyric and are not improvised, or not much.   The life and variety come from the interaction with the music.  

And this may be what lies behind Larry Edelman's observation.   Calling a square is a lot more like singing than is calling a contra dance.   Of course a contra caller can shape his/her delivery to the music, like chanting.  But it's still quite different from calling squares: the caller is still trying to fade out and let the dancers just dance to the music, which the square dance caller does not do.   With squares the caller remains a fellow performer with the band throughout,  as a singer would be.

Note, I'm not suggesting that the way to call a square is to copy someone else's lyric: in fact, the one I presented above for Star Line is my own, and the times I've heard others call it, they have used different words.   But I do think a natural way to remember and get a grasp of squares is as a lyric.

Speech or song, take your pick: both fun in their own way, just not the same.  

Contents of this page Copyright 2009 by Jonathan Southard