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
Calling and Baseball
Welcome to the
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
rookie pitchers. It read:
Excellent advice for pitchers -- and, properly interpreted, excellent
advice for callers as well.
- Throw strikes.
- Change speeds.
- Work fast.
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
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.
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'
lets the band display more of its repertoire: nobody (least
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
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
(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
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
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
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
there's a really good band on that stage, and give them an opportunity
to do their best. And the dancers too: like
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
fans may be curious at this point to
team I support. That's easy: whichever team I am coaching at
the moment in Santa Barbara Pony Baseball.
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
Colon), Columbus, Ohio
Welcome to the
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
adolescent accompanying mom or dad (sometimes willingly, sometimes less
so), you never saw a young face. Contra dance -- at least in
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
really new -- and youthful -- direction and founded the 'techno contra'
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
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
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
to get younger people behaving and dancing exactly like older people:
they're going to behave and dance like young people.
should all welcome that. If we get tempted to play the
fuddy-duddy and say that this or that 'doesn't
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.
soon as dance acquires a central authority that tries to dictate a
single 'right way,' it dies. (All hands up, those who do
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
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
(1) variety, and (2) many people do like them.
I think it's pretty clear how squares add variety. They allow
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
otherwise. It's a treat to dance
to wonderful tunes like "Hangman's Reel" or "Ways of the
utterly unusable for
contras, but perfect for many squares.
I also think it's clear that 'many people like' squares.
this is because numerous dancers have come up and told me so.
beyond that, there is that simplest device, the
my experience was that squares generally rated at or near the
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
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
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
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.
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
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
moves from this, but that is not how I remember it: I remember it as a
With contra dances I remember the list and have to construct
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
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
the squares I am discussing here are Fifties and Appalachian figures,
not New England quadrilles which would be called more like contra
In a sense what we have here is the distinction between speech and
song. A good speaker stands up before the audience not with
memorized text, but with a list of points he/she wants to make.
The actual wording is done 'in the moment' and follows what
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
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
the music, like chanting. But it's still quite different from
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
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
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2009 by Jonathan