Thursday, November 19, 2009

Waiter, There’s a Duck in my Soup

A most interesting thing happened the other night.

I called David Kirchner’s dance “Duck Soup”, which has, as one of its many charming features, the opening move “circle right”. I remember David calling it when he lived in St. Louis, and his admonition “to the right, to the right” rings in my ears any time I’m giving directions when I’m the navigator in a car (“Turn right at the next block. To the right, to the right.”)

It’s not for nothing that experienced contra dancers consider Circle Right the hardest move in contradancing. We circle left so often that to circle right really takes a mental effort. So I reminded everyone of the reputation of this move when I started the teaching – “The dance begins with the hardest move in contra dancing,” and I made a special effort to remind people every time through the dance, as well.

Yet after the dance was over, a friend of mine said “Nice calling – except that you confused us by calling ‘circle left’ a couple of times.” “Oh no!” I said. “@#$%!” I said. “But I tried so hard to make sure I called the circle right,” I whined. His view was corroborated by my husband, and later, at a gathering after the dance, by several other people. And it wasn’t just once or twice that I made the error, they said, it was several times, maybe three or four.

I checked to see if the evening had been recorded. It had been. “Okay,” I thought. “This is seriously weird that I don’t remember having done this, but it’s better to know the truth. Maybe I can figure out why I did this.” So I got a copy of the recording and prepared to be depressed.

I listened all the way through, nervous, worried, waiting for that awful moment where I screwed up. And I waited. The little blue bar was getting near the end, and I still hadn’t heard it. There was a moment when you could hear the crowd shouting “to the right, to the right” but I went back and double-checked what I had said in the moments before, which was “New Neighbors circle right.” I got all the way to the end and hadn’t heard a single “circle left”.


I sent an instant message to my friend about what I had heard. “The recording lies,” he said.

When I invited people to this week’s Calling Party, I mentioned the oddity and got these comments back:

Several of us learned later that the recording bore out Martha's pristine calling, and we were openmouthed. We compared notes, and we all remembered the same experience, repeatedly, occurring in our different places in different lines -- a whole foursome going left, muttering (or exclaiming) "right" as we corrected, and people complaining about the caller getting it wrong. So it wasn't just us! Mass hallucination? We talked about it, and figured that just hearing "circle" was enough for us, en masse, to default mentally to "circle left" if the caller didn't specify otherwise. That blows my mind, personally, as I frankly haven't been dancing *that* long and am surprised I already have that visceral a reaction.

What we expect definitely influences what we perceive – it’s a well-known psychological fact. We can also create false memories that seem to us as real as anything we ever actually experienced. I guess that callers need to work earlier to create the proper expectation!?

Ever see the emails in which we are asked to read a paragraph in which letters are missing in words and our brains fills in the gaps? I think that’s simply what’s at work here… If we fill in the gaps (correctly or incorrectly), that’s what gets filed away in our memory.

Here’s what I actually said, as captured on the recording:
Intro:With the music, circle to the right."
1. circle to the right, to the right, 3 places
2. new neighbors, circle right, to the right
3. new neighbors circle right…right!
4. new neighbors, right, to the right, to the right, to the right
5. new neighbors, circle right, right, to the right
6. circle to the right
7. new neighbors, circle
8. …(nothing)
9. to the right, to the right, 3 places

At the Calling Party we tried to find an explanation – any explanation – that would make this apparent mass hallucination go away. It was suggested that it could have been another dance – but the only other dance with a circle right was called right after Duck Soup by the very friend who initially told me I had goofed. It was suggested that someone was calling in the line – but the misperception happened to people in all lines, even to someone who was sitting out. It was suggested that the sound was echoey enough in the hall so that people confused “right” with “left”. And so on. Nothing terribly convincing.

One person did suggest that, if the dancers were not listening when I said "next neighbor circle right", that they might have interpreted my iteration of "to the right, to the right" as a correction instead of an emphasis. That almost makes sense, actually, or comes closest.

What do you think could possibly have happened?


DK said...

What a fun story! Sometimes I think it would be great if we just went around recording our whole lives so we could go back and resolve disputes like this. (Except for all the times it would be absolutely horrible.)

I suspect the conditioned expectation of the word "circle" is the most likely explanation. A great way to start a square is to say "All join hands and circle to the RIGHT!" and everyone laughs and reverses direction because of course they all started circling to the left as soon as the words "All join" came out of your mouth.

However, it should also be noted that "right" and "left" are not always easily distinguishable from one another, especially in a noisy hall. I am assuming that Martha's recording came directly off the board. It might be instructive to also stick a recorder in the back of the hall and compare the two afterwards. Caroline always used to record herself this way, even if is was relatively easy to record off of the board.

My love to all in St. Louis.

Swing Jerome! said...

When prompting a circle right, I'd suggest dropping the word circle entirely, or using it only after saying "right," for example, "Right, to the right you circle." If the teach was clear, people know it's a circle, the essential element is "right!" And it gets distinguished from all those other "circle" moves, such as circle left, and the other left...

You might roll the "r" even.

A comparable situation is when you have a group of four balance the ring. I make a point to say "ring balance" and avoid saying "circle" anything, because people, even knowing a petronella turn is in the dance, will circle left at even a hint of the word "circle."