Calling dances, a few opinions, by Emily

Why do we call? Calling can be for personal enjoyment, because we enjoy dancing and want our group as a whole to keep going strong. It’s a way to improve our own public speaking skills, and to grow in grace and tact in dealing with others. It’s a way of giving enjoyment to others.

The view from the top: Caller body language, voice.

Let’s start with how to hold ourselves. As a caller, what should your posture be, and what can your body language communicate? Callers can direct quite a bit of the energy on the dance floor through their own body language- by having good posture(not gorilla posture), smiling, using various hand motions(which can also be part of the teaching style) instead of being a stick. You can also occasionally verbalize why you enjoy the dances, “Here’s the fun part; I like this dance because…”

Annunciation is key. I do not have a good voice for calling. It’s quiet and thin. But if I enunciate, I can still be a good caller. Sometimes there’s no getting around the noise and people still can’t hear me. If you do not enunciate, I guarantee you will fail as a caller. People simply won’t understand you, and that will be the end of the dance. Even if you have a good strong voice, Enunciate.

Now let’s look at, who are we calling to? Beginners. At OldDD always have beginners, we always have children. We call to all ages, boys and girls. The latest thing for some dance groups right now is completely gender neutral calling, or positional calling. We specify our calls for ladies and gentlemen. We call to dance ability on a scale from complete and absolute beginner to somewhat experienced.

While not strictly a  class, dances are a teaching environment; most people on the dance floor can’t dance without listening to instruction(There’s a Biblical life lesson there), in part because our group always has a high percentage of beginners. In reading about other caller experiences, I saw groups saying things like, “we only walk through a dance once so people don’t have time to get bored and start talking.” Or, “once we had three beginners, but we worked through it.” We don’t usually have the luxury of only doing one walkthrough. I would guess we almost always do two; but past three people really do get frustrated, either because they haven’t learned it by then, or because they already know the dance and would rather be dancing. So after two walk throughs, think about changing your teaching style to fit the issues on the floor. It is necessary for people to listen. It is necessary for the caller to be succinct, and brief as possible. The more you talk, the less people listen. Experienced people get bored, beginners get intimidated. The whole group doesn’t have to get the whole dance down perfectly. When you prepare to call a dance, look at your dance card and decide which is most important for people to grasp. If they miss parts of the dance, skip to the next step and recover- the most important steps are the ones that progress.

Troublemakers: Personalities on the dance floor and crowd control.

Folk dancing is an interesting thing and it can draw interesting people. Dancers should not be teaching from the floor. If dancers want to help from the floor, they can direct attention to the caller by looking at the caller, use subtle body language that is not offensive(I’ve seen people push others on the floor when they didn’t know where to go) such as, pointing with a smile, leaning, leading gently. Ideally dancers should not ever be physically touching other dancers to show them where to go. Sometimes young children need to be led, but usually it’s the parents dancing with them and they can do it themselves. Some people will always resist instruction(young boys!). There are people who hate to be taught anything and are always interrupting, or never stop talking, or people who don’t want to be at a dance and refuse to learn the steps. At our events you can always ask the dance security team to deal with really horrible people, or you can ignore them. I’ve found as a caller it’s generally your peers who bristle when you get bossy. So be extra gracious with them, or get extra help. Calling can be a great way to practice self-control. I don’t get in trouble as much as I used to! Other ways to reset and get attention when people start to drift: pause for a few seconds. The dancers notice that it’s quiet and look to the front. Tell the group they have a minute to talk amongst themselves to work on a new or complicated step. That way they can talk to their set without talking over the caller. You can also just ask the group to be quiet, with grace.

Preparing to teach.

The more time you spend preparing the better. A good caller knows the dances through and through; though knowing the dances doesn’t in itself make you a good caller. When you prepare for a dance, go over your dance card(show example of a dance card), make sure you understand your notes. What are the unusual parts of the dance? What is the progression? Compare to several different videos of the same dance. Listen to the recording you’ll be using, and go search for additional versions. Look at the dance in the context of the dance list for the whole evening. Will people be coming into your dance high off of “Yellow Stockings” and need to calm down? You do not want people getting overly hyper at a dance! Or is everyone too sluggish and not having fun, how can you communicate joy? You can tell dancers, this dance is slow and graceful. Or this dance is peppy and energetic. Immerse yourself in the music and steps before ever getting to the event.

Caller Colin Hume has some of the best online resources I’ve found so far on calling, including a good prep checklist:

  • Do I understand the instructions?  Are they correct?  Does the dance work?  Does it fit the music?
  • Do I like it, and will the dancers like it?
  • Can I call it?
  • What are the problem spots, in terms of positioning, timing, style?  How will I deal with these?
  • Should I modify the dance?  Why is the dance the way it is?  Is the style consistent? This is particularly relevant to historical dance interpretations.
  • How shall I write it out on my card?
  • Who is it suitable for? A good question when you know there will be children present.

Hume also says “It’s not enough to understand the movements; you’ve got to know the lengths of the different elements of the dance, and relate this to the music.  You don’t need to be a musician for this — you just need to know about beats and bars.” You must know the timing of the dance.

So preparation and knowing the dance thoroughly is key. Know your dances well enough so that you don’t have to be looking at your card the whole time. However, just knowing the dances does not make you a good caller. You also need to work on having humility, charisma, and speaking clearly.

Planning the dance card: Plan a variety of tempo and formation. Start the evening with an easy longways dance. Make sure you have a balanced list, understanding of your crowd. We have a young group that enjoys peppy dances, but we aren’t going to do the hyper dances all evening. Some slower tempos and waltzes throughout, with occasionally different formations like three couple sets or circles add interest to the evening. Generally dance cards start out with the easiest dances and work upwards in ability, to end with more complicated dances. Though at our public events we have such a high turn-over rate that we never reach a very high level of dances.

Teaching the Walkthrough: Welcome everyone to the dance! Ask people to find a partner and make lines, or circles, or whatever formation is appropriate. Tell the gentlemen where to stand and where to lead their lady.

Learn to teach to different learning styles. You can’t just say “Turn two hands.” Those beginners in the crowd will be like, “Hands? What hands?” How do you explain this step to an auditory learner? A visual learner? Kinsthetic learner? I’ve heard it said you should have two ways to explain every step- I think you could have more, though you won’t ever have time to say it that many ways. You need to be able to look out at the crowd, see who is having trouble comprehending and hopefully why, and adjust your explanation accordingly. I would say this is an art form that could be fine-tuned throughout a lifetime of calling. Think hard about this before every dance! Auditory- using succinct words to be descriptive. (“partners are going to now turn two hands halfway” or “Partners turn two hands halfway”) Also, playing the tune once through and having people just listen to mark the distinct phrases of music that fit the steps. Visual- who in this crowd could demo the dance well? How can you as the caller demonstrate the steps? Kinesthetic- sometimes, not too often, the caller can go onto the dance floor to personally direct a hands-four. Or, ask another caller who is on the floor dancing to do so; or, rearrange the dance floor so beginners are next to experienced couple.


“Be able to explain the steps to the dancers:

What you’re doing

Who you are doing it with

Where you’re going to end

You can add words of direction: Face your neighbor, this is the way you’re going. With your partner, turn two hands.” -Colin Hume, seriously, visit his website.

Calling the Dance

Always start with hands four. Note which steps are progression steps, placement of the set(partner, corner, neighbor). The words you call during the actual dance will of necessity be much briefer even than the explanations of your walkthrough. The goal is to get from explaining a Turn Two Hands in the walkthrough, down to saying only, partners turn, or turn, or even not calling at all, during the actual dance. Be sure to use the same words in your walkthrough as your calling during the dance or people will be confused. The timing of your call is extremely important- it has to be slightly before the step begins. If you call at the point when the dancers should be moving, everyone will be off time and behind.

“This is absolutely vital.  The commonest complaint about a caller is: he was late on his call.  The instructions have to get to the dancer, be interpreted by the brain, signals have to be sent to the arms and legs — it takes time.  A dancer may know a dance perfectly: she doesn’t have to think ahead — each movement comes to mind as she needs it.  A caller has to think ahead, so that she can call ahead. The Golden Rule is: The caller must have finished calling a movement before the first note of that phrase of music is played.  With standard figures which don’t require a lot of words, each figure is normally 4 bars — 8 beats.  Call the figure on the last four beats of the previous phrase.  This gives you about seven syllables, which is normally plenty.  So count “1, 2, 3, 4, call the next part of the dance”.  It’s so simple and straightforward, but I’ve never heard anyone teach it.  It’s better to talk in the rhythm of the music; it interferes less with the music that way.” -Colin Hume again

What if the whole dance dissolves in a mess? You can try again, teaching the walkthrough in a different way, or judge the crowd and decide to end as gracefully as possible. Follow it up with an easy dance.

And at the end of the dance, remind people to thank their partner, and generally for men to lead the ladies off the floor.

Assessing the caller: useful questions to help give feedback

Was the caller succinct?

Did the caller enunciate?

Did the caller seem prepared?

Was the caller on time with their calls?

Was the caller gracious? How did he present himself- body language, facial expression, posture?

What did the caller do best/worst?

Exercises for calling practice:

Plan your own dance card

Dance while counting steps, one per beat

Call a dance with no music, only a metronome

Calling from memory without a card

Calling on the fly- a line of dancers, take turns calling out steps to generic music