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.

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Humility

I realize this is crazy. A new caller, not even a full year into this new role, calling in communities along a cross-country road-trip? Who does that?

I guess I do.

These past two weeks I’ve gone to two different dance camps and talked with three of the national callers I most admire. I admitted to all three that I realized this was an insane idea. I also admitted to all three that this is how I learn. I would make a terrible Italian; I’m not very good at doing life slowly. I learn in big leaps. That’s how six months after I first picked up a dance card I was calling my first full evening. (Also, I have a fantastic community of other callers pushing me to develop my skills. Shout out to the New Mexico Caller’s Collective, started by Erik Erhardt.)

Watching these national-circuit callers do their stuff on stage was a practice in humility. There is so, so much to learn, and I have so far to go. It is also incredibly humbling to see how willing these guys are to be mentors to young callers like myself. Who does that?

I guess callers do.

This is part of the folk process. This is how we sustain our community: we bring up the next generation and help them succeed. Right now I am accepting all of this help, all of this mentorship. I will be for years. For now, I can only try to accept their generosity as gracefully as possible, and hope that someday I am able to give back to the community in a similar way.