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)


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

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:

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.


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.