Monday, April 20, 2009

Should Square Music be "Square?"

Dance musician Michael Shapiro recently asked me a question about the music for squares: He said some callers tell him that the music for squares doesn't have to be "square" (32-bars, AABB), and wondered how this could be.

I replied:

It depends on the style of square dance.

A New England square is basically a contra in a square formation: It fits perfectly in an AABB pattern, with the prompts happening on the 7&8 (or perhaps the 5,6,7&8) of the previous phrase. The break figure is also choreographed to fit an AABB pattern exactly. So for this, a square tune would be absolutely required.

A Southern square, on the other hand, is called in 4- or 8-beat (2- or 4- bar) phrases rather than thinking about the 16-beat (8-bar) phrase (the entire A or B). So while it could use a "square" tune, it can also use tunes with AABBCC or AABBC structures, or a tune in which one part has an extra beat.

The calling is connected to the beat, but the phrasing of the dance and the phrasing of the tune aren't necessarily tied together. The choreography is a bit more fluid, so a swing could be eight beats one time, 12 or 16 at another time in the dance, while certain other moves (chains, right-and-left-thru) would typically start only at the top of a phrase. Good callers use this fluidity to improvise, adding or removing figures. (Of course, they must know what the dancers are capable of, a skill that takes experience to master).

By the way, this is why Southern and Western squares can have swings that start at the top of a phrase and end in the middle of a 8-bar (16-beat) phrase -- because the dancers aren't hearing that longer phrase, but rather the 8-beat phrase.

A Western (patter) square can follow the phrasing tightly, as in New England squares, or loosely, as in a Southern square. The difference between patter and Southern (besides the accent) is that in Southern squares the caller actually "follows" the dancers in a sense, watching until they are about two steps from finishing a move before beginning the next call.

It is possible to have a New England-style square that is choreographed for AABBCC, with a short (BB) break so as to stay on the same music for the same actions throughout the figure, or with an AABB break and not worry about ending on the B2 (but still sticking with 8-bar (16-beat) phrasing.

Choreography for Southern and patter squares can be AABB, or AABBCC, or AABBCDE, or some other mess that the caller would prefer not to explain to the musicians or dancers. The break in such a dance might be shorter, or not. The trick would then be ending with the music, or just having the dancers promenade until the band finds a place to go out. (For the caller, ending a square is an art unto itself, because he/she must signal to the band while still calling to the dancers).

A singing square, of course, is as tightly choreographed in its own way as a New England square but requiring a specific tune in a specific key.

Square calling is also dependent on the musicians' style. The Missouri Old Time music of guys like Chirps Smith, Jim Nelson and Geoff Seitz is very conducive to Southern or patter squares because the beat is more predominant than the phrase or the tune. The question "are we in the A or B?" doesn't really matter. Musicians playing New England or French Canadian-style tunes would be more conducive to New England squares.

Callers need to understand what they are asking for, particularly if it's not their "home" style. When I left Louisville, I had to learn anew how to listen to the band because a different style predominates in this area. This affected my contra calling, and also taught me to prepare certain types of squares for certain types of bands.

It would be expecting a lot for callers to understand the intricacies of every musical style as they relate to square-dance calling, and I'm certainly not as expert a square-dance caller as I hope to become. When I think of contra callers who are true masters at calling squares, I think of Tom Hinds, Kathy Anderson, Carol Ormand, Ron Buchanan, Bob Dalsemer, maybe David Kirchner.

A note about choreographic differences:
Southern squares -- think visiting couple squares (first couple swing, first couple lead right and do something with couple two, then lead on to couple three, etc.) (Meanwhile the inactive couples get to either watch or flirt or be creative/spread meyhem).
New England -- big focus on Heads vs. Sides choreography (heads do this, now this, now this, now everyone find your corner...)
Western -- focus on everybody active. Although there is Heads/Sides choreography here as well, the inactives won't stand there for more than one or two moves.

Michael also asked about crooked tunes with extra beats or bars, say sections of 8,8,10,10 instead of 8,8,8,8 bars.

This is trickier for sure, but I suppose a caller who knew the tune could add extra balances or something in those places. Most of my notes above are about extra sections (AABBC, AABBCC) rather than extra measures. Extra sections are not really a problem when calling Southern- or Western-style dances, IF you know the band will be playing a tune with extra sections.

I hope other experienced (and beginning) square callers will weigh in here -- maybe tell what sorts of music you prefer and what styles of squares you prefer to call and dance to, and why.



Billy Boyer said...

Thanks Jerome for the explaining the differences in style. So far, I've mostly called New England squares. I'd like to start trying some patter call squares. Can you suggest any fairly easy Southern squares that dancers seem to particularly like?


mac said...


I don't consider the square you called to be a NE square. It didn't fit the rigid structure and used figures I don't think you would see in a NE dance (like gents star while the ladies prom the other direction). I don't remember the whole figure to see how it fit the music - but the break was 5 phrases long - you wouldn't see that in a NE square. Some dances have components of more than one 'type'. This one fits that category. If you want a good starter square - a lot of callers seem to cut their teeth on 'forward 6 and back' I can get you details.


Swing Jerome! said...

By the way, a very fine reference for calling New England squares is Tom Hinds' book "Calling New England Squares."


Southern (visiting couple) figures are often pretty simple, which means they can be easily taught -- but also means non-moving dancers can loose interest. So get 'em moving while teaching, be clear and let 'em rip. (Mac is a good model).

In addition to the dance Mac mentions, I like "Circle Right Dip & Dive" in which the active couple leads right, circles halfway, then begins a sequence of dip-and-dive with that couple and the one opposite (1s, 2s and 4s in the first round). They duck under the 2s once more, lead right, circle halfway with the 3s, duck through and lead right to the 4s. Circle halfway and start another sequence of dip-and-dive (1s, 4s, 2s). Then everybody home, everybody swing, (maybe do a break) then twos lead the figure.

Others include: Ones lead right, circle up four (with all your might), First couple take a little peak, step right back and swing your sweet, first couple peek once more, step right back and circle up four... and on to the next....

Another is Birdy in the Cage, which can progress with various foursomes, 1&2, 1&3, 1&4, or picking up couples, 1&2, 12&3, 123&4. Active lady in the middle while all circle, Birdy hops out and Crow (active gent) hops in, then he too rejoins the circle. Birds in the middle should be active (i.e. not dead ducks).

Look up Kentucky Running Set. The figures aren't particularly complicated -- they may seem laughably simple the first time you see them, but resist the urge to complicate the breaks. Keep it simple. With the right teaching and patter, they're funner than kittens AND puppies.

Many visiting-couple figures can be done in a big circle of couples. Picture a becket Sicilian circle with the insides progressing CCW and the outsides progressing CW. From the dancer's perspective, couples just slide left to face the next couple.

Billy Boyer said...

Thanks for the tips! I'll look those dances up and let you know if I can't find them.

Martha said...

Interestingly, one really good web resource for Kentucky Running Sets is the Cambridge (England) dance site. Cecil Sharp collected the dances and they've been dancing them ever since in England.

I also have access to a video of Kentucky Running Sets that John Ramsay made years ago, in, of all places, Kentucky. If you'd like to see it some night, let me know!