Online Callers’ Workshops
By Brooke Friendly
I was supposed to travel to Asheville, NC, in May 2020 to lead a weekend ECD callers’ workshop for a group of callers from the Southeast. Then it got cancelled. Those first few months of COVID shelter-in-place, I didn’t know what to do with myself. My one joy was looking after my grandchild while my daughter taught her high school Spanish classes online. Then, in early May I was a guest for the Historical Tea and Dance Society’s 5 Things series, and it felt pretty good.
That experience, plus discussions with my daughter about online teaching, led me to send the following email to the organizers of the Asheville weekend: “...wondering about the possibility of doing an online series before we meet in person (whenever that might be). The idea being to do some of the lecture and discussion stuff over time and give us more time to do exercises and practice calling in person. It could be any number of meetings... Each session would be a different topic...”
The organizers responded with: “We both love this idea! It seems that at the in-person callers’ classes we often have to skim over or skip topics due to time constraints and this would give us a good forum to explore a greater variety and/or in more depth.”
I had done plenty of weekend, weeklong, and single session callers’ workshops. This was very different. I looked at my copious notes, outlines, and handouts from my various in-person callers’ workshops and began thinking about a structure. I smiled when I realized that I could cover all the topics for which I had developed information, plus add to them—we would finally have time to get to everything I might hope to explore.
I ended up creating an eight session online course meeting every other week for two hours with an optional third hour for chatting and more questions. We ended up using the full three hours; folks didn’t want to stop. And we did have both more variety and more depth than we could possibly cover in an in-person weekend or weeklong workshop. And guess what? We didn’t get to “everything.” That was part of the fun: discovering there is always more to learn, to discuss, to dig into.
Another big part of the fun was stretching my teaching (and technical) skills and discovering new ways to explore the material. There was homework! Reading, writing, thinking, projects. The every-other-week format gave participants time to do follow-up work from the previous module and preparatory work for the upcoming one. Each module included lecture, exercises, discussion, screen-sharing, breakout groups and pairs, sharing, and Q&A, with a strong connection of group work to lecture and homework. I wove some theater improv games, movement, and vocal exercises into most modules to get us out of our chairs as well as build other useful skills.
The eight modules were: Introduction (qualities of a good caller, feedback guidelines, setting goals); Music (important parts of a dance tune, communication with musicians, doodling...); Teaching and Learning, Part One (preparing to teach, preparing to go on stage); Teaching and Learning, Part Two (teaching, learning, prompting); Teaching and Learning, Part Three (style); Global/Positional Calling; Program Planning (how to create an evening dance program, repertoire and resources); and Social/Community Considerations (crowd management, helping, inclusivity and safety).
Parallel to this, a group from the Pasadena, CA, area had been the high bidder on my offer of a weekend callers’ workshop through a CDSS online auction in March 2020.
“I liked the openness, and the attitude that we were all of us learning (even the instructor), and we were all on a journey to be better... and as callers and as students there was no finish line, and no grades, and no “perfect,” and no judgment.”
Once I started the Asheville course in late May, I offered the same idea to them. They started a similar course in January 2021. Each group ended up adding an additional session for folks who wanted more on specific topics.
“Who would have thought that an online caller workshop could be so effective? Brooke had us doing useful exercises I’ve never done in any other workshop, and they’re ones that I’ll keep using after the workshop.”
The second course content was slightly different (new people with different experiences and goals), and the structure was better (I learned a lot from teaching the first course that I applied to the second one). One of the students in the second course is a chemistry professor specializing in pedagogy. She generously met with me afterwards and helped me refine the syllabus and structure. Now I have an even better plan in case I get to do this course again!
During January-March 2021 I also taught two three-session online callers’ courses for CDSS, focused on global/ positional teaching. These were extremely rewarding. I found myself stimulated by the questions and forced to become more articulate around something that has been part of my teaching since the ‘80s.
Preparing and teaching these online callers’ courses was a huge amount of work and a huge amount of fun. I learned so much, and the happy “dance geek” and “teaching and learning geek” parts of me were deeply fulfilled.
As much as I love being in the same room with others, I have to say that I adore teaching this material online. While certain aspects of a callers’ workshop—such as practice calling with feedback—don’t work, the online format can give more opportunity for deep exploration and more breadth than is usually available in person. It is also accessible to folks with travel and/or financial restrictions and allows for a tremendous variety of teaching and learning methods. I think these types of workshops will continue to hold great value, even when we can travel and dance regularly in person. I hope to do more.
Brooke Friendly has taught dance using global/positional language and strategies in schools, university, lifelong learning, and community settings since 1981. Known for her warm yet commanding personality, clear teaching, sense of whimsy, and focus on community, she has been on staff at weeklong camps, weekends, and festivals throughout North America, England, and Australia.