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.

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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.