Callers

Here are a few favorite simple dances to get you started as a caller or dancer.

To develop your repertoire further, and for tips on calling skills, take a look at the suggestions in the Books for Callers dropdown. 

Overview

There are two distinct situations in which you might be asked to call a dance:

  1. A party gig or a one-time event. You are calling for a crowd made up almost entirely of beginners or people who have never encountered contra dancing. Perhaps the crowd has a wide range of ages (a school or family dance), maybe it's a celebration that includes some contra dancing (a wedding or graduation party), or a social event for an institution or school (college dance, corporate party, etc.) This sort of dance can generally be called a "Community dance;" a discussion of the dynamics of such events is beyond the scope of this article. There are excellent sources of dance repertoire and calling instruction for these situations available in print and online. Here are a few suggestions:
    • New England Dancing Masters books: the standard sources for simple dances for a community dance setting. Accompanying CDs are also available with recorded music for specific dances.
    • Family and Community Dances booklet: Includes some sample repertoire as well as information about teaching, calling and organizing community dances.
  2. A contra dance that is part of a regular series, maybe a series that you are organizing. Probably there is more of a mix of beginners and people who have encountered contra dance before. In this situation you might choose repertoire that is simple and easy to teach while appealing to more experienced folks.

There is a lot more to the selection of repertoire and knowing your audience than we can get into here. Check out the Calling Books tab for some tips, or consider attending a calling workshop or camp course to gain a deeper understanding of these skills.

Dance Repertoire

In the dances below, the figures are divided up into A1, A2, B1, and B2 based on which part of the music they accompany, with numbers in parentheses that indicate the number of musical beats that a given figure should take. If any of the figures are unfamiliar, you can probably find descriptions of them by searching online. Or, take a look at the glossary in Ted Sanella's book "Balance and Swing." The sources and authors for the dances are listed, where known. 

Summer Sunshine, Paul Balliet, 1994; from Sue Rosen

Longways, Duple Improper

A1: Balance the wave of 4 (4)
      Neighbor swing (12)

A2: Ladies chain across and back (16)

B1: Circle left 3/4 (8)
      Partner swing (8)

B2: Circle left 3/4 to wave of 4 (8)
      Balance the wave, walk forward to new wave (8)

Note from the Author: The only unique item for experienced dances is the unusual start position, which repeats near the end of B2. Take Neighbor's Right hand, women take Left hands to form wave.

Jefferson's Reel, traditional (aka Jefferson & Liberty); from Carol Ormand

longways, duple proper

A1: circle L one time around (8)
      circle R one time around (8)

A2: same 4, star R (8)
      star L, end at home (8)

B1: actives separate from partner and go down the outside of the set (8)
      actives turn around and walk back, returning to place (8)

B2: actives split the inactives to make a line of 4, go down the hall (6)
      actives make an arch with their joined hands, pull inactives through the arch (2)
      actives face new inactives in a line of 4 (actives still face DOWN, inactives face UP)
      in a line of 4 walk UP the hall; make a new ring of 4 (8)

Unruly Reunion, by Robert Cromartie; from Carol Ormand

longways, duple improper

A1: Down the hall 4-in-line, 1's in the middle (8)
      turn alone, return and fold the line. (8)

A2: Circle left (8)
      Circle right (8)

B1: Dosido Neighbor (8)
      Swing Neighbor (8)

B2: Long lines forward and back (8)
      1's swing (8)

Family Contra, by Sherry Nevins; from Rebecca Lay

longways, duple proper or improper

A1: balance the ring 2x (8)
      circle left 1x (8)

A2: balance the ring 2x (8)
      circle right 1x (8)

B1: neighbor Do si do (8)
      partner Do si do (8)

B2: face Neighbor, take inside hands w/partner, (8)
      Do si do as a couple 1 1/2 to face new neighbors (8)

Note from Rebecca: I love Family Contra...Most of the time, everyone is connected to someone else, which minimizes the opportunity for getting lost. It's also a longways dance that feels like a "real" contra, but it doesn't matter if people cross over at the ends.

Broken Sixpence, by Don Armstrong; from Rebecca Lay

longways; duple improper

A1: Neighbor do si do (8)
      two gents do si do (8)

A2: two ladies do si do (8)
      Ones swing, end facing down (8)

B1: go down the hall, 4 in line, turn alone (8)
      up the hall, bend the line into a ring (8)

B2: Circle Left 1x
      star Left 1x

Note from Rebecca: If I'm asked to teach a pre-dance "Beginners Workshop" at a contra dance, I often teach participants Broken Sixpence at the end of the workshop, and then do it as the first dance of the evening.

The Baby Rose, by David Kaynor; from Rebecca Lay

longways; duple improper

A1: Neighbor balance & swing (16)

A2: Circle L 3/4 (8)
      Partner do si do (8)

B1: Partner balance & swing (16)

B2: ladies chain (8)
      star Left 1x

Note from Rebecca: I often use Baby Rose to teach a Ladies Chain and star because the rest of it is so simple.

Cranky Ingenuity, by Bill Olson; from Rebecca Lay

longways; duple improper

A1: Circle L 1x (8)
      as a couple, Do si do Neighbors (as in Family Contra) (8)

A2: Neighbor Do si do (8)
      Neighbor swing (8)

B1: Gents Allemande L 1 1/2 (8)
      Partner swing (8)

B2: Circle L 3/4 (until you face up or down) (8)
      balance the ring (4)
      California twirl (4) (in each couple, Gent lifts up joined hand and lady walks under to face new neighbors)

Note from Rebecca: Cranky Ingenuity is in that great category of dances that satisfy everyone in a mixed crowd; it's not confusing for beginners (and has lots of neighbor interaction, so beginners get to dance with lots of different people), and experienced dancers love it, too.

Frederick Reel, by Tom Hinds; from Rebecca Lay

longways, duple improper

A1: long lines forward & back (8)
      ladies Allemande L 1 1/2 (8)

A2: Partner balance & swing (16) (end facing DOWN the hall/away from the band)

B1: go down the hall, 4 in line, turn as a couple (8)
      up the hall, bend the line into a ring (8)

B2: Circle L 3/4 (8)
      Neighbor Swing (8)

Note from Rebecca: Frederick Reel is great for orienting beginners because it begins with long lines going forward and back--something that everyone does, all together

Airpants, by Lisa Greenleaf; from Rebecca Lay

longways, duple improper

A1: Neighbor balance & swing (16)

A2: long lines forward & back (8)
      Ladies Allemande R 1 1/2 (8)

B1: Partner balance & swing (8)

B2: Circle L 3/4 (8)
      Neighbor do si do 1 1/2 (8)

Push the Button, author unknown; from Rebecca Lay

longways, duple improper

A1: Neighbor balance & swing (16)

A2: long lines forward & back (8)
      ladies chain (to partner) (8)

B1: ladies do si do (8)
      partner swing (8)

B2: Circle L 3/4
      balance the ring (4)
      pass thru up or down (pass R shoulders with this neighbor to meet new neighbor)

Note: Rebecca Lay learned "Push the Button" from Rick Mohr, who got it from George Marshall, who collected it in the early 1980's from an unknown source. It was originally called "The Button Push;" Rick added the balance in the B2 to improve the timing and changed the name.

These books provide great sources of dance repertoire for callers, along with information about how to learn to call and various discussions about other related topics relevant to the contra dance community.

TITLES TO CHECK OUT

  • Contra Dance Calling: A Basic Text by Tony Parkes - A comprehensive guide to calling contra dances.
  • Zesty Contras and Give and Take: A Sequel to Zesty Contras by Larry Jennings - A large selection of dance repertoire, discussion and advice about calling, and a great deal of information about all aspects of organizing and presenting a contra dance.
  • The Contra Connection and Basically for Callers - Booklet containing reprints of articles from the CDSS News by Larry Jennings, Dan Pearl, and Ted Sannella covering a wide range of topics about calling, programming and organizing contra dances.
  • Balance and Swing by Ted Sannella - A collection of New England contras, squares, and triplets, including suggested music. Also includes a useful glossary describing the most common dance figures.
  • Notes on Teaching Country Dance by Bruce Hamilton - This booklet focuses on English country dance calling, but includes useful suggestions about calling technique and leadership in any context.
  • Books that are out of print but are useful if you can find them:
  • Introducing a Beginner to Contra Dancing (pdf) by Chris Weiler - This article, published in the CDS Boston Centre newsletter and based on conversation from the Boston Area Contra Community email group, discusses the fine art of teaching a beginners session at a contra dance.

Calling for contra dances is a fine art and a science, with subtle skills that can take a lifetime to master. It's also easy to get started; all you need is a collection of simple dances, an understanding of the basic figures, and a sense of how they fit together to match the timing of the music.

This article is aimed at anyone in your community who wants to learn to call contra dances. For the purposes of this tutorial we are assuming that you have experience dancing contra dances (i.e. you know the basic figures well enough to explain them to others), but that you are calling for and teaching a group of dancers that includes a sizable portion of beginners.

GET STARTED

Before going any further, click on the dropdown above to read about Basic Contra Dance Form.

As a caller your job is to teach the dance and the dance figures (usually without music as a walkthrough), and then prompt the figures while the music is playing so that the dancers continue to do the dance in sync with the music. For more discussion of the mechanics and techniques of this take a look at the books on calling. Before you try to teach and call a dance to a room full of dancers, put on a CD of contra dance music at home. Learn to recognize the different parts of the music (A1, A2, B1, B2) and how they fit with a given dance. Practice calling in time with the music. Make sure you prompt a figure BEFORE the dancers are supposed to start dancing it, so they know what's coming next a little ahead of time.

Here is a collection of dance repertoire for you to get started. Good luck! And remember, there are lots of people who are eager to help you, and lots of resources available online and in print to guide you. Be in touch with CDSS and we'll help you find what you need.

WEB RESOURCES

There are a many resources on the web about calling, some of them quite extensive. Here are a couple of places to start:

Resources for contra dance callers compiled by William Watson
Thoughts about calling dances by Seth Tepfer
Cracking Chestnuts videos: A page with links to YouTube videos of all of the classic American contra dances that are featured in the CDSS publication Cracking Chestnuts: The Living Tradition of Classic American Contra Dances.

Here is a collection of advice about how to get gigs or find opportunities to perform. These ideas are mostly aimed at dance musicians, but parts of this are relevant to performers of all stripes.

The overarching theme is this: if you're looking for gigs it doesn't matter how good you are if no one but you knows it. Whether you are aiming for a career as a touring musician or just interested to participate in your community as a performer, it's just as important to develop relationships and visibility as to develop your talent.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

Cultivating new generations of performers is critical to the strength of our dance/music communities in the long term. And, it doesn't have to be threatening to established performers. New and/or young performers bring their friends and peers to the scene. More attendance means more income and more gigs for everyone, and a thriving creative musical culture nurtures - and is nurtured by - a thriving intergenerational dance community.

Up-and-coming performers are often the most dedicated fans of their more experienced counterparts - the most likely to buy CDs and books, take lessons, attend as many shows as possible, and go to weekends and camps where they can dance, sing, jam and hang out. Also, performers can make dedicated organizers. I recommend that groups seek out young performers and enlist them in an organizational capacity as part of an effort to expand youth participation in the whole community. Young folks who are invested in the community on several levels (dancer, organizer, musician) can make a tremendous contribution.

The fact that there are numerous young folks out there who love traditional music and are dying to find ways to play more is a good sign for all of us. I hope we can all get excited about harnessing their energy and talent.

HOW TO GET RICH AND FAMOUS

So, let's get to the details. Here's how to get rich and famous as a traditional musician.

  • Play as much as you can with as many different people as you can. Go to sessions, parties, open band events, workshops, camps, etc. Stay up late and look for opportunities to jam. Before you can expect to be hired as a performer you have to develop relationship and become trusted by the people who do the hiring. The more they see you and hear you, the more familiar you become.
  • Take lessons with musicians you respect. They will see what skills you have, and put you on their list of people who might be able to play for a dance or do a gig. Ask them what you need to work on. Ask them if they know of opportunities to play.
  • Travel outside of your home state or region. Especially if you are a musician or band from somewhere with a really strong and saturated scene of musicians, you might find it easier to get gigs in other areas. See "cold call" below.
  • Look for other musicians at your same level and get together and jam regularly. Playing with people whose skills match your own is a good way to get over being shy or intimidated, to develop repertoire, and to explore musical ideas together. Your group may develop into a band, or just provide a supportive environment for everyone to improve.
  • Mention your interest. People don't automatically know you are a musician who is interested in opportunities to play. Talk with established musicians, callers, organizers, dancers, and friends, and let them know that you are looking for gigs. Tell them what you do, who you play with, other gigs you've had recently (if any), and ask for their suggestions. They may not book you instantly, but at least your name will get out there. You never know where a gig offer might come from.
  • Organize things. If none of the organizers in your area are open to hiring you, become the person who does the booking and hire yourself. Don't go head to head with an established dance; that's a good way to lose friends. Start something new, or get involved with running a less popular event and see if you can revitalize it. Consult with organizers, performers, and dancers near you, and find out what niche needs to be filled. You might discover that there used to be a dance in an old Town Hall somewhere, and the time is ripe for the series to start up again. As an organizer yourself, you can hire more well known musicians and callers to perform with you at your event. They get a paying gig, you'll learn something by working with them, they'll get to know and trust you and your skills, and maybe eventually they'll ask you to join them or fill in for them at a gig. As your event grows you'll get better known by dancers/audiences in your area, which makes it more likely that you'll get asked to do bigger gigs.
  • Set your sights on smaller, less well known, or more out-of-the way gigs first. Don't expect to make a lot of money, and do expect to drive a long way. It's worth it. You'll get performance experience and references you can use later. As you build up name recognition and experience you become more of a known quantity and less of a gamble for the bigger gigs to hire you.
  • Cold call. Most dances or performance venues have web sites with contact information for the people who do the booking. Also try the DanceDB or Dance Gypsy or CDSS. In the contra or English dance world (more so than in the world of folk clubs or singer-songwriters) you can get gigs just by writing to or calling these people. You don't necessarily need a fancy press kit or a web site or a resume. Just a friendly email with a bit of information about your band and maybe a few references will do the trick. By and large the bookers are dancers or musicians just like you. They are volunteering their time to help organize their local dance. If they don't want to hire you or they are already booked for a given date most of them will say so politely. Be aware that some events have regular house bands, some have open bands a certain day of the month, some have a limited quota or a lottery for out of town bands, etc. But it is always worth asking. It helps if you can ask about a specific date, saying something like "my band will be touring in your area on X date, and we're wondering if you'd like to book us."
  • Offer references. If you've worked with a famous caller, if a dance organizer somewhere knows and enjoys your music, if a well known musician can vouch for you, etc., ask those people if they are willing to act as references. Mention those names when you contact organizers asking for gigs.
  • Look for events with a guest slot. Some established series or bands regularly hire guests or look for subs for one member of their band. This can be a great way to play with more experienced musicians and to get some exposure without needing to have a whole band on your own.
  • Play at Campers Night, Late Night, Gatherings, Parlor, etc. Most CDSS Camp weeks (and many other dance festivals or camps) include opportunities for campers to play in an open band or to put together smaller combinations to play a short dance or concert set. Take advantage of these venues - you'll have a chance to show the audience what you can do, and also demonstrate your ability to the organizers and staff of the event. These are the people who may hire you for other events after they've seen what you can do.
  • Keep in mind that organizers (many of whom aren't musicians) often think in terms of name recognition more so than skill. People running events have tight budgets and limited funds, and if not enough people show up to cover expenses the organizers sometimes have to foot the bill. They are looking for performers who they known will draw an audience and contribute to the ongoing energy and momentum of their series. You may be just as talented as the musicians they hire, but if your name is not known among audiences in the area, it is still a gamble to hire you. The process of becoming hirable is just as much about becoming known as it is about becoming skilled. At the same time, dancers and audiences love to discover new musicians and become fans of up-and-coming bands. As you do more gigs and build up name recognition, you'll start to develop a buzz around what you do which will propel you into new opportunities.
  • Know your stuff. When you do get an opportunity to play somewhere, be prepared. Know what you are expected to do, and be totally ready to do it. Be confident, be organized, and present yourself as capable, while also being humble. People will form impressions of you quickly that may be difficult to change later. Your attitude and demeanor are at least as important as your musicianship to the organizers' and audience's impression of your skill.
  • Play with other people who make you sound good. Even an experienced musician can sound terrible in the wrong combination of other musicians. Some people's musical styles and tastes fit together really well, and others just don't. Look for people to play with who make it feel easy, who enable you to do better than you thought you could. Help the people you play with to be that person by communicating your needs: "when you do X it makes it hard for me to do my best" or "I really like when you do Y because it allows me to really rock." Solicit that kind of feedback about your own playing from other people.
  • Set up a long term mentoring relationship with someone who plays your instrument or has skills you'd like to acquire. Look for experienced people who are inclined towards mentorship. In every community there are established leaders and performers who are excited about sharing what they know with new folks. You may be able to find someone who will take you under their wing and give you a lot of help.
     
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