Gotta get back on the horse sometime.

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From behind the mic at the last full evening I called: David Kaynor’s Friday night dance in Greenfield, MA.  June 19, 2015.

It took about eight months, but I finally miss calling. That’s 241 days. Or in midwife time, I am 34 1/2 weeks along, with a due date right around the corner. HOORAY! I’ve missed feeling excited about calling for dances.

I’ll admit, when I stopped calling last summer I was pretty exhausted by it. There were lots of practical reasons why I needed to stop when I did, not least of which was that I was starting a major transition to a graduate program that would at times threaten to take my sanity. (Quick aside: Good call, eight-months-younger Danielle. You were right.)

Looking back, though, the single biggest exhausting thing was not related to a time crunch at all: I was emotionally drained. Specifically, I was drained by having to win over a new crowd each night. Starting in August 2014 I called in 12 different states, and never called at the same location more than once. This went on for 10 months. By the end of it, I was wiped.

The difference comes down to the home-team advantage. When I started calling in New Mexico it was to a close community of friends who had become like family. They were excited to see me up there and enthusiastically cheered me on. It was easy. They were always happy, simply because I was one of them.

Not so when you’re an out-of-town caller. I’m not suggesting that dance communities are unfriendly towards visiting callers – on the contrary, dancers, musicians and organizers all across the country have warmly opened their homes and their dance floors to me. It’s just that whenever you walk into a new dance as a visiting caller, the dancers don’t yet have a reason to trust you. You have to work to earn their trust and good will. And it’s hard work.

I have found this work to be the most difficult of anything else involved in the tasks of calling. There isn’t anything you can really practice, exactly. Yes, you want to be prepared, call an interesting dance, read the crowd and all that. But winning over a crowd has to do with so much more than doing a technically-proficient job.

A new crowd reads absolutely everything you do as a visiting caller. They notice what you wear and how you introduce yourself. They watch whether you dance on stage or stand calmly by the mic. They pay attention to whether you tell jokes or stories, whether you are verbose or terse. It matters how friendly you are before the dance and during the break, how comfortable you look up on stage, whether you seem to be having fun or not, whether you remember people’s faces and names who you’ve met earlier in the evening.

I do it too, if I don’t know the caller. What reason do I have to trust them until they give me one?

So other than the old adage that time heals all, what else has changed to reset my dial from burned out to fired up? Answer: dance weekend fairy dust.

This past month I’ve attended two events that gave me the fuel I needed to feel the love again. I got a boost in caller’s courage at the Ralph Page Legacy Dance Weekend, and got a big warm East Coast community hug at the Flurry Festival.

Last month I attended the Ralph Page Legacy Dance Weekend in Durham, NH on a caller’s scholarship. (Shout out to the awesome scholarship committee!)

The weekend was so many kinds of wonderful – heartwarming, encouraging, exciting, relaxing, stimulating, thought-provoking, challenging, reassuring, hilarious, confidence-building, rejuvenating, and above all, sweet as pie. Afterwards I felt more connected to the tradition of American folk dance than I ever have before. It reinvigorated me to get back up behind the mic to share these rich traditions with modern communities. Conversations with other callers gave me the information, context, and inspiration to move forward as a new caller. I was reminded that I could contribute my own “flavor” to the melting pot that is the ever-evolving folk tradition.

Then this past weekend I finally attended the Flurry Festival in Saratoga Springs, NY. It lived up to all the hype. The workshops were great, the dancing was fantastic, and best of all, I realized that I know people!!! There were friendly faces all over to dance and chat with. It was encouraging to realize that I am indeed gaining ground in finding community here in this north east corner. Maybe I am succeeding in putting down roots among these beautiful humans, after all.

And finally, both of these weekends highlighted how lucky I have been with wonderful mentors. I’m not sure how aware they all are of the impact they’ve had on me. I think this will merit its own post in the future, but for now: thank you, kind caller mentors. You have helped more than you know.

Maybe I’ll even stare down the barrel of a microphone in 2016. Go for gold, eh?

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First snow

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Steamy windows at the Bennington, VT contra dance

It seems fitting that I called my first Vermont contra on the night of the first snow. I drove there with flurries coming at my windshield, and drove back seeing white margins to the slick road. And I felt so totally at home in this chilly corner of the country. It’s going to be a great winter. Or, as my dad puts it, an “epic season” – let the snowboarding commence!

Calling-wise, it felt good to be back behind the mic. I was pretty pooped after the grand journey, and took a month off to settle into New England. Now I’m excited to be making new ties in the surrounding community.

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Spare Parts with Eric Buddington

Tonight’s dance was full of excited beginners who made me excited to be there. I know I’m doing my best when I laugh so hard watching the dancers laugh that I almost miss a call. Sifting through my box to find the dances I want continues to be less efficient than I would like it to be, though. I think it’s time for a purge, to get rid of dance cards that I know I’ll never use. Like spring cleaning. With snow on the ground.

Life is good.

Texas Part 2: Dallas Life Lessons in Perfection (and lack thereof)

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Sound check with Sibling Revelry at the Dallas dance in an old converted movie theatre in Carrollton, TX.

As a one-year old caller, there are some aspects of calling that I am starting to feel confident in. I feel confident that I have a pretty good stage presence. I feel confident in teaching a hey to groups of beginners. I feel confident in using creative, rhythmic calls, and in dropping them as the dance progresses. 

Then there are the things that actively challenge me. I feel shy when asking a band to change tempo if I haven’t worked with them before. I am wary of getting lost while calling a double-progression. I don’t know how to handle peer-to-peer “corrections” from well-meaning dancers to other dancers on the floor – especially when the “corrections” are incorrect.

I also have now twice had difficulty getting first-time contra dancers to do any sort of bicycle-chain (some call it chainsaw) formation. What about these moves am I not teaching clearly?  Whether I have taught it as a promenade, or a whole-set circle, or a grand right-and-left, something has gotten muddled each time I am working with more than 30% beginners. And in Dallas this weekend, this challenge was combined with another: very chatty beginners.

So here’s the scene: What looked like about 40% absolute first-time dancers, 60% pretty experienced dancers, fifth dance of the evening, decided to do “Salute to Larry Jennings” by Ted Sannella. The dancers had been progressing really nicely and I was able to drop out calls for each of the first four dances. I wanted to keep the experienced dancers engaged and thought the new folks could handle this dance with a good walk-through.

Then the grand right-and-left happened.

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My office! Dallas dancers as viewed from the stage.

There was lots of chatting on the floor. There was a group of new dancers clumped together in the back. There were experienced folks at the top of the line who were looking antsy to dance. And there was absolute confusion at the bottom of one set. The grand right-and-left just wasn’t working, the chatting was getting more restless, I was being asked questions from the floor, and… I got completely flustered. Do I answer the specific questions from individual dancers? Do I start the walk-through over, yet again? Do I go out on the floor and rearrange couples myself? Do I choose another dance? (Tried that, by the way, to disappointed shouts from the experienced folks.) 

Finally some of the experienced dancers helped out by breaking up the new folks in the back. I still don’t think many people actually heard the instructions because there was too much chatting. I wasn’t able to drop the calls during the dance. And some of the new folks looked utterly bewildered throughout. 

End result: We got through it. But the walk-through was painful, and I lost the confidence of some of the dancers on the floor. I don’t blame them. I would have been frustrated with the caller, too. In this dance I didn’t succeed in teaching clearly, or in facilitating fun for all people on the floor.

Lessons learned: Two days later, I’m still not sure. Maybe I shouldn’t have called it in the first place. Maybe there was a way I could have gotten the rapt attention of everyone in the hall first. Maybe there was a better way I could have asked new dancers to dance with experienced dancers. Maybe I was using the wrong language to teach the move. Possibly all of the above are true. 

When all was said and done, it was still a fun night. The dancers in Dallas are lovely – welcoming, experienced, and very kind to this visiting caller. They dance in a converted movie theatre on first-Saturdays, which has a way cool vibe. The band, Sibling Revelry, was very pleasant to work with and I had several great chats with people during the break and after the dance.

I do feel like I failed the dancers for that one dance. But I also am trying to keep in mind that I was able to successfully call 11 other dances that went smoothly and gave (I think) the crowd a good time. I guess you can’t win ’em all – although, of course, I wish I could.

Texas Part 1: The Austin Allure

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Rich MacMath calling before me at the Austin dance.

The Hancock Rec Center was already buzzing with activity when I arrived for the dance. A group of people milled about on the wooden floor, waiting for the lesson to start. Rich MacMath started the lesson by getting everyone to laugh, and it only got better from there.What. A. Dance!

The dancers were experienced, responsive, and joyful. The music was energetic and fun. The house band changed throughout the evening as players came and went, skillfully led by Max (fiddle) and Earl (mandolin).  And when it was my turn to call, this crowd gave me the warmest welcome I could have asked for on my first night of my tour.

What can I say? I love Austin. This is a welcoming, funky, sultry city. My host, Elise, graciously welcomed me into her home where we chatted over coffee about music, politics, travel, family, and change. The first night I arrived we went to an old-time jam (scroll down for a recording!) and took a nighttime drive around the city. She gave great recommendations of things to do, and we even got to work together when she played in the contra dance band.

Oh, and did I mention: HONKYTONK. I two-stepped. Is that even a verb?

Austin, I love your strange antiques-shop aesthetic, your warm residents (and residences), and your commitment to having a good time. Thanks for the wild ride. I hope to see you soon.


Clip from Tuesday’s old-time jam:

Budding caller en route: 6 tips from booking 6 tour gigs

Timouth Contra Dance, 2004Contra dance in Tinmouth, VT, 2006: where I started contra dancing in 2003, and will now be returning for the first time in six years to call the November dance.

After exchanging more emails than I care to count, I currently have six gigs currently booked in a four-week period, and more in the works. Gosh darn it, this may turn into a real tour.

I have already learned so much about different dance communities just by going through the process of contacting them about their booking processes. What seem like revelations to me are old hat to more experienced callers, I’m sure, but this has been quite a learning process. Below I’ve listed a few lessons learned so far.

1. Contact dance organizers EARLY (six or more months in advance) to book gigs. Even if they ask you to email back in a few months, that’s better than missing an opportunity to call. Some communities book only twice a year; January/June or March/September are the two I’ve come across most frequently so far. Some book year-round, a few months out.

2. Don’t contact potential hosts too early. People can only think so far ahead in their personal lives.

3. Include links to videos of yourself calling in the first email you send to make it easier on the people doing the booking. If they are serious about your inquiry, they’ll Google you anyways.

4. Follow up, follow up, follow up! Emails can get lost in the cracks for so many reasons. Many dance organizers have busy lives, and inboxes – especially if they are planning a big event like a dance weekend.

5. Contra dancers, callers, musicians, and organizers really are some of the sweetest people on the planet. Really. I am astounded by the level of care and detail that goes into their emails.

6. Once you know you will be traveling through a particular area, look on a local dance website for a list or map of regional dances nearby. These lists/maps have been incredibly helpful in planning my route. It narrows down my search to manageable geographical clusters, and keeps me from spending hours tabbing between an internet search for “[State] contra dances” to Google maps.