Social Justice in the Buckle of the Bible Belt

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Kentucky dirt roads

“What were your impressions of today?”
“My impressions are that if I’m not careful, I might move to Kentucky.”

Almost as soon as I crossed over the border from Tennessee, the landscape changed. There were more hills. Thicker trees. It reminded me of home in Vermont.

The weekend was spent drinking tea, eating garden-fresh veggies, walking, and discussing matters of social justice. Berea is a unique place. A small city of about 14,000, it boasts a lively artistic community, the first abolitionist church in the south, and the liberal arts Berea College. It is a hub of progressive thinking located in the buckle of the Bible belt.

On Saturday afternoon we went to a panel on community policing and police brutality. It was hosted by Berea College students and featured four community panel members, including the city mayor and the chief of the Berea police department. The dialogue in that room was incredible. There were high tensions due to recent events in Ferguson, MO, which is just under six-hour drive away. This being the first meeting between the Berea police chief and the Berea college students, it could have been an ugly conversation. In fact, I’d say that in most communities it would have been an ugly conversation. But there was a stronger force held in the room than anger or frustration or sadness or fear: respect. All parties ultimately respected themselves and each other to such a degree that real, productive dialogue could occur.

I couldn’t help but think back to events that I have witnessed in Albuquerque over the last several years, with a police force that now has a national reputation for excessive brutality. There is so much anger in Albuquerque over the killings at the hands of APD officers. How could some of the earlier conversations gone differently if all participants agreed to the same rules of conduct that were followed in Berea this past Saturday? Could they be implemented now, or is there such a thing as it being “too late” to expect respect?

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Sunday afternoon concert by Dr. Javier Clavere

On Sunday morning I attended the worship service at Union Church, where Rev. Kent Gilbert (also my wonderful host for the weekend) preached a powerful sermon on forgiveness. Stakes were high here, too, because the church is working hard to pass a fairness ordinance in the city that would protect LGBTQ individuals against discrimination due to perceived gender identity or perceived sexual orientation. The final public hearing on the ordinance was Tuesday. No one knows how the city council will vote.

These kinds of communities are so inspiring. Rev. Gilbert told us in his sermon about how back in the early days of Union Church, many men couldn’t attend the Sunday service. They were too busy riding shotgun around the church – literally, riding around with shotguns at the ready – in case anyone decided to attack the anti-slavery church in a slave-holding state. Shotguns aside, how much have our politics really changed?

I left Kentucky wondering when I could return. And I haven’t even mentioned the new English Country Dance series, the Berea College professor who played all of Mozart’s sonatas in a weekend, or the lively contra dance in Lexington. All of these things make up what a community should be: joyful living, plus a fierce drive to work towards social justice and equality for all. Someone get me an “I ❤ KY” tshirt or something, because I’ve gone ALL fangirl.


Texas Part 1: The Austin Allure

Rich MacMath calling Austin

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:

Collective energy – Notes on the new New Mexico Callers Collective

NM Callers Collective Practice Party - Jan. 2014Callers Collective practice at Erik’s house, with dance angels – Jan. 2014

I mentioned the New Mexico Callers Collective in a recent post, and got enough questions from dancers in other parts of the country that I think it merits its own blog post. So here goes: My experience participating in the New Mexico Caller’s Collective, which was started last summer by Erik Erhardt.

The Key Ingredients

INTEREST: During last summer (2013), one of our regular dancers asked Erik to teach her how to call contra dances. From this request, he started what would later become the New Mexico Callers Collective. I highlight this genesis because I think it is an important point. In our community, it took a request from a dancer to a caller to get the collective started. Sometimes it is important that we give our leaders the permission to lead by inviting them to share their expertise. This gives our leaders the confidence to share their knowledge knowing that it is welcomed and valued. So, first point: the momentum must come from the community.

SPACE: Erik invited others that he thought may be interested in learning to call, and we began to meet. We met for the first few times at a local dance studio that had a cheap hourly rate. Then Erik offered his new home as a place to meet, as it he had remodeled it to have a large enough wood floor to be used as a dance space.

Important considerations for the location:

  1. Accessibility
  2. Affordability
  3. Power for stereo, speakers, microphone
  4. Dance floor!

SUPPORT: Our community has been incredibly supportive. They want to see new talent on our stages. We have dance angels who come to callers workshops when we need extra dancers. The crowd is patient and encouraging if a new caller makes a mistake (and, let’s face it, oh boy do we!). This is another key ingredient to making our collective a success: our community values this growth, and is investing energy into it.

Prepping for my second full evening with my new (and obnoxiously pink) card box - Feb. 2014Prepping for my second full evening with my new (and obnoxiously pink) card box – Feb. 2014

Setting Clear Guidelines & Expectations

Right from the beginning we had a clear outline of what each collective meeting would accomplish. Perhaps most importantly, we set up clear guidelines for how we would interact with each other as developing callers, and how we would give feedback to each other as we were going through the learning process.

The feedback model that we adopted on Erik’s suggestion is as follows:

  1. After a collective caller has called or taught a dance in the workshop, they have the opportunity to say what he/she liked about it. Then the group has the opportunity to say what they liked.
  2. When the strengths of the walkthrough/lesson/dance are pointed out, then the caller says what he/she wished could have gone better. Similarly, the group then shares what they would have needed to be done differently if they were new dancers. Framing this in terms of “I would have needed…” keeps the critique helpful, specific, and encouraging for the new caller. Examples of using this feedback model include: “I would have needed your calls in B1 to come earlier,” or “I think I needed to hear a different choice of words when you were describing how to do the hey,” or “I needed to hear you enunciate more clearly and with more confidence, so that I could follow your leadership more easily.”  (In contrast, feedback models that are NOT helpful may have sentences that start with “You should have…”, “I would have done it this way…”, or “You were late.”)

Why is this feedback model so important?

Using this model helped us build trust and good will among the callers in the collective. Instead of criticizing each other, or telling each other how we would have called their dance better, we were supporting each other in learning a new skill. We were also leaving space for each caller’s individual style to develop.

Topics We Have Covered

In no particular order:

  • What is the role of a caller?
  • Teaching the lesson
  • Clear walk-throughs
  • Choosing language carefully
  • Starting a dance with the music
  • Understanding the dance itself: how does it progress? How long does each move take? Where is each dancer at each moment of the dance (Gent 1, Lady 1, Gent 2, Lady 2)?
  • Dropping calls in the dance
  • Music structure: A1, A2, B1, B2, and how this ties into the dance choreography
  • How to talk to the band, how to cue the end of the dance
  • How to get back on time if you’ve lost the beat or missed a call
  • Microphone skills
  • Programming an evening
  • Calling squares
  • Finding new dances
  • Organizing the dances you have
  • Adapting to the crowd you have, not the one you hoped you would have
  • Practice, practice, practice!

We used each other as guinea pigs. Each caller got the opportunity to practice with the group, using the other callers as dancers. This helps everyone learn together – you’re not just learning calling skills while you’re behind the mic. Listening carefully from the dance floor has taught me a lot about what I like – and dislike – about how other callers teach or call dances.

New caller Ben Werner calls at the Zesty Contra Bootcamp - Jun. 2014New caller Ben Werner calls at the Zesty Contra Bootcamp in Albuquerque – Jun. 2014

The Results

This Saturday, June 7th 2014, we are calling our first big gig as a group: The Albuquerque Folk Festival. This is a BIG DEAL for us. Usually a popular regional caller is invited to call this dance. On the roster for the evening this year, we have 8 brand-new callers who were not calling contra dances a year ago. And we have two more who had been calling before that but are honing their skills in the collective.

Let me repeat that: Eight. New. Callers. In one year.

How did we get here?

After the collective had been meeting for a couple of months, we each called at an open mic night. Then a few of us who felt ready paired off and shared an evening – one of us would call the first half, one of us would call the second half. By January, the first of us called a full evening. This month, the second of us will call a full evening.

The Value

The collective is the reason I started calling. It is ironic, because I joined last summer mostly to support what I thought was a cool new project run by a friend of mine. I was reluctant to try it, and skeptical of my ability to do it. Now almost a year later I can’t get enough.

I am certainly no expert in this. But if you think that your community would be a good home for a caller’s collective, I say go for it. Find an experienced caller to provide the expertise, find someone who is willing to coordinate the logistics, find some dance angels if needed, and find a group of people who are interested in learning how to call. In a little less than a year, the New Mexico Caller’s Collective has changed the face of our local dance community dramatically. I believe it will continue to positively diversify and strengthen local talent for the future of New Mexico’s dances, and I can’t wait to see what new heights these folks will reach in the coming years.