Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Calling Party April 29

Wonderful calling party last night! We've been really having good ones, lately. I wish I knew what magic it is that always brings the perfect number of people - somewhere between 12 and 16 folks - AND that it's almost always nearly perfectly gender-balanced. Since we're all pretty good at dancing both parts, the gender balance isn't really necessary, but what are the odds, with such a small, random-ish sample of people, that it would be so consistently close to half men and half women?

Still, what makes it good is the fact that the callers have been bringing interesting dances and calling them well, and that we have such a warm and friendly dance community!

Billy wasn't there in person, but his spirit was there - we put up the list of dances he had organized for Saturday, and called them in order. By limiting the dance time (if it works, it works!) for each dance, we got through all of them, plus a bonus dance from John Coffman. (John and Cathy drove all the way up from Cape Girardeau - we'll be trying to return the favor in June and July, and get some of the good experience calling there that they have offered us!)

This Saturday's dance should be a good one - interesting dances, all. Here's Billy's layout:
---Hatchling Dance: May 2nd, 2009 7:30-10:30pm---

The Baby Rose - David Kaynor (improper)..........Joe Felson

Frederick's Contra - Tom Hinds (improper)........David Keller

English Wings - Bob Green (proper)............Kay Tomlinson

Joyride - Erik Weberg (improper).......................Bob Green

Yellow Stockings (proper)......................Missy Reisenleiter

Dip n Dive - Tom Hinds (improper)..............Martha Edwards

---Waltz and Break---

Procter’s Reel – Joe Felson (improper).............Joe Felson

Levi Jackson Rag - Pat Shaw (5 couples).........Bob Green

The Tease - Tom Hinds (improper).................Dale Wilson

Virginia Reel unsimlified vers. (4-6 couples)........Billy Boyer

Summer of '84 var. - Gene Hubert (improper)....Martha Edwards

MN-NY Happy Returns - Carol Ormand (Beckett).....David Keller


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Comments on Sun Night - April 26, 2009

Congratulations to David, Karen and Billy for a very successful program. Things went pretty well and when they didn’t – you kept your head and recovered nicely.

A couple comments:

Billy – nice job on the square. You started by saying “the first move is..” and then caught yourself and realized you can make the first move anything you want – and then you did. You can have a lot of fun with squares when you take advantage of the freedom it allows.

If there was nay general constructive comment I could make is the teaching still needs improvement. Much of the teaching is still just reading the figures off the card. In the calling parties and at the Childgrove dances you can get away from this – but it makes you seem a bit removed from the dancers. One reason you can do this is that most of the dances are very well written with familiar moves. You need to challenge yourselves to teach in a more instructional and relaxed manner. Find a good dance or 2 that has some figures that need to be taught to even the best dancers. The Accordion that Billy called has a bit of that.

I am sure that you have heard callers make special note of who you should look for or where you should be. A dance early in the evening had a Calif twirl to a circle with new neighbors, but away from your partner. No mention was made that it was with a shadow. Work on being more conversational and friendly toward the dancers during the teaching.

I recommend you try to find calling opportunities with less experienced dancers. Another possibility is the call squares – they require more detailed teaching. I know you are getting tired of hearing that – but it is great experience.

And listen to other callers teach. We bring in some top callers here – they are fun to dance to – but listen to the little details that set them apart from the others.

Once again – nice job!

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.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Three Dances this Weekend

Hatchlings are busy this weekend in St Louis!

1. The Webster Groves English Country Dancers on Friday night at the Monday Club. Workshop at 7:00pm, Dance from 7:30-10:30pm. Music by the Hibernia Station band, calling from Hatchlings Bob Green, Kimberly Hall and Kay Tomlinson.

2. The St Louis English Country Dancers on Saturday night at the First Congregational Church on Wydown in University City. Check the website for details. We have it on pretty good authority that Hatchlings Missy Reisenleiter and Chrystal Gallacci will also be calling some of the dances.

3. The Childgrove Country Dancers on Sunday night at the Monday Club. Workshop at 6:30pm, contra dancing from 7:00 to 10:00pm. Music by the Mound City Slickers. Calling from Hatchlings David Keller, Karen Jackson and Billy Boyer.


Monday, April 6, 2009

April 4th's Hatchling Dance

Well, this last Hatchling dance was really a challenge (that we met successfully, I'd say).

A few minutes before starting time, a whole group of newcomers came in, all but one of whom were foreign students. So not only were most of them not dancers at all, but there were a few language problems, too! I think nearly all of the callers started sweating about then. I know I did. "Are my dances too hard? Should I change what I planned to call? Will I be able to teach clearly enough so that most of the group really gets it?"

To our credit, I think every Hatchling did very well. And only one of us actually changed our dance. The double figure of 8 in "Dosigates" was just too much for about 1/2 the people, so Bob switched over to "A Roll in the Hey," and called it seamlessly. So it was very good practice for us as far as teaching goes. But I found it (the calling, and the dancing with many newcomers) to be very exhausting, though ultimately very satisfying.

One question that I've asked before (in a comment), that this experience made me wonder about again: Has anyone thought about having the Hatchling dance be on a Friday instead? This isn't the first time that Dan and I have missed the Sunday dance because we felt too worn out after the Hatchling dance. Dance weekends are one thing . . . the energy of the whole experience bouys you up. But as far as regular dances go, I'd much prefer to have a day of rest between. Anyone else feel this way, or are we just the biggest wimps in the Contra community??

Anyway, I'm proud of the Hatchlings' performance on the 4th, and I think most everyone had a good time. Some of the newcomers said they'd be back. We'll warmly welcome them again, if so, and hope that our teaching, calling, and dancing with them had something to do with it.