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Points for Better Calling
Rich Reel 28 Sep 2014
This growing list highlights what I believe are the fundamental aspects of optimal square dance calling.
I refer to these points from time to time to help improve my sight calling and/or evaluate written material.
Understand that no human caller can keep track of everything listed here while they are calling.
Callers learn how to use aides, including notes and memorized material, to allow them to focus on a more manageable number of these items.
With experience, more and more of this becomes second nature.
I've found that callers have widely differing views on what constitutes good flow.
Perhaps you may wish to consider the following points but if you disagree,
and have reasonable justification in your mind for doing so,
you may find dancers that will agree with your point of view.
If you ever get the chance, try dancing in a square to a recording of yourself!
- Changes in body flow make use of hands/arms to transfer momentum Examples of good flow...
- [W]: Allemande Left - Sudden reverse of direction, but arm hold facilitates a tight turn and counters centrifugal force
- [W]: Swing Thru - Dancers reverse rotational direction, but arm turns transfer momentum
- [W]: Acey Deucy, Recycle - Sudden flow reversal for centers but they get a gentle nudge from the ends
- [F]: Centers Trade, Bend The Line - Centers move forward then backup but can push off each other
- [W]: Walk And Dodge, Partner Trade - Sudden reversal for "dodger" but handhold transfers momentum
- Timing can substantially affect the smoothness - See 'Timing' below
- Over Flow - Each dancer should rarely be made to turn more than 1 full turn around a handhold or in place
- In the Advanced call Motivate, the lead center goes 1-1/4 turns around the center of the wave.
This falls under "rarely".
- Excess Flow - Each dancer should rarely accumulate more than 2 full turns C.W. or C.C.W. without reversing
- Balanced Flow - Each dancer wants to go to the left about as often as they go to the right
- Typical standard arrangement choreography tends to have boys going right and girls going left
- Counter the girl-left/boy-right trend of standard arrangement calls with calls like Zoom, Cloverleaf, Separate and Centers In + Cast Off 3/4 (all from standard arrangement)
- Using some calls in sashayed arrangement counters the trend of standard arrangement. Use non-standard arrangement judiciously.
- Hand use
- Use the available hand
- A hand just used for a Pull By or an Arm Turn is not available for 2 beats
- In the accepted call Scoot Back, the same hand is used 3 times (considering the typical next call).
It works because Scoot Back takes time to do
- If you need to use a call that will result in bad hand-use, add a pause. Class level Basic example: [P] Centers Square Thru 3 (pause) Star Thru
- Alternate hands - Example: [W]: Single Hinge, Swing Thru is not as nice as Cast Off 3/4, Centers Trade.
- Examples of good hand use
- [SS]: Heads Square Thru 4, Swing Thru, Boys Run, Bend The Line, Reverse Flutterwheel (hand use is best for boys)
- [P2r]: Centers Square Thru 3, Allemande Left
- [0L]: Pass The Ocean, Swing Thru, Spin The Top, Single Hinge
- [1P]: (Girls in the center): Girls Swing Thru, and Turn Thru, all Star Thru, Boys Trade
- [2P]: (Boys in the center): Boys Square Thru 3, Left Touch 1/4, Chain Down The Line
- Keep everyone moving and enjoying the dance - Avoid having inactive dancers just standing around
- Give inactives something to do - "Clap hands", "Cheer 'em on!", "Stand there and look pretty!"
- When calling several calls to the centers...
- Have outsides watch ("help") centers do something difficult
- Have outsides memorize a few calls the centers are doing for "their turn"
- Have Ends (of 2-face lines or waves) Circulate a couple times while you give the centers a few calls
- Cueing - Let dancers anticipate difficult or unusual flow or get affirmation when they need it to keep moving
- If dancers are doing the call correctly but seem hesitant say: "yes, yes, YES!"
- See many examples below
Timing is a powerful tool that professional callers use to great effect.
Timing tricks can be so subtle that they go unnoticed to even those with many years of calling experience.
- "Stop and go" lowers the energy - The best dancing is smooth and continuous from start to finish - Always have that next call ready on the tip of your tongue
- Exception: workshop or class: Pausing briefly before and after a hard call lets dancers see the formations
- Even if dancing to you can't be non-stop all the time (teaching, explaining, etc.), at least incorporate bursts of calls that are smoothly timed
- Call so your dancers can keep their dance motion smooth with the music
- Call just ahead of the dancers. If you call too much ahead, your dancers will feel rushed
- Watch dancers in the slowest square you wish to keep dancing and call the next call just before their hands touch to make the ending formation
- It's ok, even desirable, to stack a few calls together in quick succession, but you must ALWAYS wait for your dancers to complete them at a comfortable pace,
or they will feel the need to dance ahead of the beat eventually leading to stop-and-go dancing with perfectly timed material
- Calling a long series of perfectly timed calls can leave squares with weak dancers struggling
- With harder material, I've seen success with "predictable stop and go", e.g. calling one call every 4 beats, even for 2 and 3 beat calls.
- Walking distance - Ends of lines or waves naturally have a longer distance to walk
- Give dancers with shorter walking distance an extra short call:
Example: Add Centers Trade between Couples Circulate and Ferris Wheel
- Account for thinking time - Vary the timing of your delivery depending on how much think time is required for that call
- Normally the last syllable of a call lands 1 or 2 beats ahead of the down beat when the dancers step into that call
- A totally expected call, e.g. Right And Left Grand after Allemande Left, need be only 1 beat ahead
- A harder call could (and probably should) come 3 or 4 beats ahead
- When replacing an expected call with a surprise/unexpected call (e.g. facing lines Right And Left Grand) it should come 3 or 4 beats ahead.
(ahead of when they could start it because they're still finishing calls that come before)
- Give your dancers the down beat
If you count with the music 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, and repeat, you should hear that beat one is naturally more important than the others.
Similarly beat 1 of 4 (i.e. beat 5 of 8), and the other down beats (e.g. 3, 5, 7), are more important as dance beats.
Depending on the phrasing of the music, beat one of 16 or 32 or 64 beat phrases can be even more pronounced than the other beats one.
In the best music for square dancing, beat one of each musical phrase is often emphasized or anticipated in the beats leading up to it in the music.
As natural as it is to want to start dancing on beat one, it is also natural for lyrics to start on beat one.
This leaves the newer caller in a quandary.
If you give your commands in place of the lyrics - typically beginning on beats one, the dancers will begin hearing the first syllable of your call on beat one,
hear the last syllable on beat two or three, interpret those syllables as a call name, think about their place in the formation and their roll in that call,
and then finally step off to begin their dance action, hopefully on beat 4, but possibly on 5 or 6 if they have to think, or re-think a wrong anticipation.
You can potentially offer a better dance experience by "prompting", that is, thinking of the dancers, and timing THEIR actions to the music rather than your words.
You need to take into account how much you're going to say, and how much time they'll need to think.
You probably already do this for Grand Square: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - Sides - Face - Grand - Square - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 -...
As you develop your calling skill, more and more of your calls can be issued in a similar way offering your dancers an ever improving dance experience.
Unless you can prepare or create call mini-sequences that total 8, 16, 32, or 64 beats in length, it is generally only the first call that can reasonably be expected to fall on beat one.
After the first beat, it is usually satisfactory to keep your calling aligned to 2 beats: ONE two THREE four FIVE six SEVEN eight...
Unfortunately a number of square dance calls take 3, 5, 10 or other non-even number of beats to complete so some fudging of the timing is required.
(This is an advanced calling skill I wish I knew more about so I could share more with you!)
As you think about how exactly you want to time your calls, review the section above "Account for thinking time" and practice.
Then watch as you deliver your calls as you had practiced to see how your dancers respond.
Did they step off when you expected?
Judging the difficulty of a series of calls is crucial to your success.
It can also be the most daunting.
There are many factors that interplay to affect the overall difficulty.
- Rarely used call - Dancers don't have that call in their ready-recall memory - Re-introduce the call starting with its most familiar usage
- Rare usage of a call - Dancers may not have seen it used that way before, or it was too long ago - Use the call several times in familiar ways first
- Unfamiliar formation - Dancers may not understand an uncommon formation - Pause a moment and describe the formation
- Formation unclear after a previous difficult call or series of calls - Dancers may be too flustered by the last call to begin processing where they are - Say the formation name
- Unfamiliar Position / unusual arrangement
- Arrangement has a profound effect on difficulty, even into Advanced
- Many callers use standard arrangement almost exclusively so their dancers will be completely unfamiliar with some positions in even the most common calls
- Be aware of arrangement at all times and understand its effects on difficulty
- I find the most successful callers are tracking arrangement at all times.
Just as you should know the ending formation before calling any call,
you should know the exact position of boys and girls in that ending formation as well - or don't call it
- To more gradually explore non-standard arrangements, consider an arrangement where only half the dancers are in unfamiliar positions
- Confusion with calls that have a similar sound or feeling
- Enunciate clearly Example: Chase Right and Face Right
- Use confused calls together in a single tip to let dancers practice hearing the difference
- Pause the dance briefly and let the dancers hear both call names. Example: (in a Thar) "FREEZE! ... Note I could call Slip The Clutch or Shoot The Star; which will it be?!"
- Dancer Expectation
- Familiar call combination - Dancers hear certain call combinations frequently and are expecting it - It's more difficult when you deviate
- Flow or hand use - Dancers expect hands to alternate and flow to change with those hand changes
- These tactile clues giude dancers naturally in certain directions that you can use to your advantage.
- Focus of attention - Parallel Waves may be thought of as "a wave of 4", "a box of 4", or "centers and ends"
- Changing the focus from one to another in unfamiliar ways forces the dancers to do more thinking
- Increase difficulty gradually - Dances do not expect a sudden hard call within an easy sequence.
- Gradually introduce more elements to think about so dancers are not caught off guard
- Let dancers know an upcoming sequence will be difficult or unusual
- "Trust me on this one"
- Pause, lower the music
- "Think about <call name> from here"
- ...before call is delivered (pre-cueing) - Set dancer anticipation; alert them to pay attention
- ...as call is delivered (emphasis) - Voice inflection can alert the dancers to expect something unusual
- ...after call is delivered (cueing) - Reinforce memory or teach without being obvious
- Use a different voice for your cues - Avoids confusion with actual calls
- Avoid excess cueing
- Clutters the sound waves - Forces the dancers to pick calls out of chatter
- Sounds like "spoon feeding" - Consider less demanding material
- Can confuse non-native speakers
- Call Stacking - Use to make a series of easy calls more challenging (avoid when calls can be shortcut)
- Strategic Timing - Deliver the next call the moment the last confused dancer figures out where they are,
or when wondering dancers get close enough to a formation to pull it together from the next call.
- Dancer Confidence - critical to establish in the first few sequences of every tip
- Comfort with caller's voice - Dancers can clearly hear and understand all calls and cues
- Expectation they can dance the material - Material is appropriate difficulty for the dancers
- Trust caller knows what s/he's doing - Choreo, resolves, cues work more often than they don't
- Caller is confident - Dancer's confidence often mirror's the caller's
- Sound - Caller's voice is crystal clear, includes adjusting equipment, speaker placement, room acoustics, etc.
- Distraction - Peripheral activity, talking (in the square and out), styling, unusual music
- Background noise - Echo, reverberation, conversations, fan or other noise, music with instruments interfering with caller's voice
- Points of reference - Room has odd shape, hall is very large, dancing outside with no wall or boundary
- Dance Surface - Sticky/slippery, uneven, hard (concrete), slow (carpet) and/or otherwise uncomfortable
- Light - Too bright (e.g. reflections off the floor) or too dark to see well
- Easy is better - When in doubt, call too easy
- A few enjoy challenge; everyone enjoys dancing
- It's hard to call easy - At least aim for "easy"
- List Coverage - Use every call on the list, more than once if possible.
After the tip, review what you didn't use and consider emphasizing those calls next time
- Usage of each call - Use each call in a variety of ways, and from a variety of formations
- Formation - Use easy calls to get into less common formations: e.g. "I", Hourglass, Circle all facing out
- Arrangement - Explore all 6 arrangements in a particular formation using easy calls. 'Normalize' after only a few calls
- Opening Calls - Try to use a different get-in every time
- Ring/Thar/Circle Figures - Avoid using the same memorized figures every time
- Review your notes and choose an interesting opener each time you call
- Resolve into ring figures - A fun use of the standard memorized figures
- Ring figures that resolve at home or stir the bucket - What a surprise!
- Let the majority be simple and elegant - An element of surprise is always fun, but not every time
- Have a few total-surprise get-outs - Use sparingly to keep 'em special
- Balance Allemande Left get-outs with direct-into-Right And Left Grand get-outs - At Plus don't forget Dixie Grand
- A few "at home" get-outs will impress the dancers
- Gimmicks - A little goes a long way
- If they get it, it's fun; if they don't, it's weird
- "Directional calling" can be difficult for non-native speakers
- Modulate/adjust difficulty - Make the dancers work a little bit then give them a break
- Plan a Harder tip - Pre-announce so those that are less serious about choreography can plan to sit out
- Make it a point to make the first and last tips extra easy and extra successful
As a dancer, I enjoy a dance with a distinguishable beginning, middle and end
- Tip Length - Typically between 10 and 15 minutes + break - varies significantly from club to club
- Square up - less than 2 minutes Fill all squares, write down key couples, etc.
- Patter - 4 to 12 minutes, or even less Once or twice through patter record, 6 to 12 sequences. Include bucket stir
- Singing call - 3-1/2 minutes Skip the singing call altogether if patter runs long. Many dancers really enjoy the singing call - ask them!
- Total tip over 20 minutes is getting way too long, even for class or workshop
- Difficult material is tiring - Keep those tips a little shorter
- If dancers get silly and start making mistakes, it's time to wrap it up. I call it "Brain Is Full Syndrome"
- To make the greatest impact at a festival where other callers are present, make your tip the shortest and the easiest (consider this a privileged insider tip!)
- Sequence (Card) Length
- Approx 120 beats = 1 minute (2 beats/second) - (Square dance tempo = 120 (older folks) to 134 (young kids) beats/minute).
The average is 126 to 128 BPM for today's dancers
- Opening Biggie: 5 to 10 calls - Usually easy with one 'at level' call, can be a circle or ring figure
- Dance sequence: 30 seconds to 1 minute - 15 to 20 calls, occasionally longer ok
- Workshop sequence: 1 to 3 minutes - Resolve quickly (as best as possible) after fixing mistakes
- Rest between tips: 3 - 5 minutes - Once through a record at low volume, longer after a hard tip
- Some clubs have Rounds, Lines, CW dance, etc. between tips which will determine the break
- Some clubs have star tips AS the break - Avoid having at-level dancers sitting out a break, a star tip, and a break
- Always choose music with a good beat that makes folks want to get up and dance
- Only use music you are thoroughly excited about
- Please use variety - I find it unpleasant to dance to "the latest modern music" every tip
- Avoid music (singing calls and patter) that doesn't fit your natural vocal range.
Your music should not make you sing too high or too low (and potentially hurt your voice)
- Since the BPM (beats per minute) is essentially constant in square dance music, choose a wide variety of genre
- Intro/One-Night-Stand: Choose up-beat familiar tunes
- Teach/Workshop: Choose generic boom-chuck that won't distract (I call it boring music)
- Even if you like silly songs or like to rock the house, don't forget the sweet songs that get everyone singing
- Every week do one or two of your best songs, even at the risk of doing them too often.
- Theme Tips
- Fun and easy (for the first warm-up tip and the last tip)
- Challenging - Pre-announce so people can plan sit-outs
- Workshop (call focus or concept focus)
- Silly - Perfect time for a gimmick or two
- In one club I teach two classes. The second class wants the opening tip to have all the hard teaching as their brains start to fade later in the evening
- Have a good time! - Relax. Smile. Calling is fun isn't it?!
- Stage Presence
- Dress like a professional (even if calling is just a hobby)
- Avoid being fidgety with your hands: Hold mic in one hand, cord in the other
- Everyone can sing - Yes you, YOU CAN sing!
- The most important thing to help you sing better is to care about your singing. Choose to be a good singer
- The next most important thing is to totally know your material so you can relax.
- Practice and practice and practice. In the car, in the shower ... a lot!
- Focus on the pitch - being on-key. Try to nail the pitch spot-on
- If you feel you're off pitch, avoid holding out long notes
- If you feel you're off pitch, sing more quietly. (so they can't hear you :)
- Still can't nail the pitch? Consider simply speaking parts of a song - it can sound better
- When you sing more softly, you can sing higher and lower. You can also sing more in-tune and you can sing longer. Let the mic do its job
- Make sure you can clearly hear your music.
Match the volume of your voice exactly to the volume of your music.
Blend like harmony.
If you aren't hearing yourself and the music...
- Move closer to the speaker
- Reposition the speakers
- Set up a monitor
- Use earphones, whatever it takes. Don't think this isn't important!
- Don't fight with music that's not in your vocal range (too high / too low).
Choose a different song. It's ok; there are a lot of good songs
- Plan to learn 10 songs to get one. Your best songs are much easier to perfect
- Be YOU - Don't try to sound big. Use your everyday speaking voice. Just have a good time
- Breathe - Sing and speak naturally, but from low in your abdomen. Good posture helps. Push a lot of air
- Sing with your mouth open - Drop your jaw, cheeks in. Think 'deep auw'
- Enunciate - Make your voice crystal clear - Can they understand every word?
- Don't work hard - Let your breath and the microphone carry your voice. If your voice gets sore, something is wrong
- R...e...l...a...x... - With so much going on it's easy to get tense and this will ruin your beautiful singing voice
- Advanced Voice
- Call to the beat of the music - Add filler words to create energizing rhythm in the sound. Learn a LOT of singing calls to help with this
- Exploit YOUR unique skills - Do things you can do easily: whisper, yodel, whistle, falsetto, impersonate, accent...
- Use dynamics - Sing softly then increase volume to build energy and excitement
- Sing your patter - as if it were a singing call. Especially nice for your last tip
- How do I sound? - If you don't have a partner that can be honest, ask one of your adversaries.
Have one of your friends shoot a video of you calling
- Music Volume
- Slowly lower music prior to speaking, slowly bring it up to fill between calls
- Take music volume way down while waiting for dancers to correct problems.
Stop the music (or turn all the way down) while explaining (and for announcements).
Think musical chairs: music = dancing; no music = no dancing
- Loud volume creates energy - but only if the calling lives up to it!
- When singing, make sure you can clearly hear your music (as detailed above). Ideally set it at the same volume as your singing voice
- When calling difficult material, lower the music so your words will be heard clearly
- Connect with your Dancers
- Tell a joke or a little personal story (keep it short!)
- Interact with them
- Laugh with them
- Admit your mistakes openly and honestly. Don't apologize, just acknowledge the mistake and move on
- Customize Your Routine
- Choose special music for the group, season, holiday, and occasion
- Specialty tips - Us the event theme, workshop, class level, intro, 2 couple, 6 couple, mixer
- Warmly receive each and every 'thank you' - with undivided attention and sincere eye contact
- Thank each person that helped in any way, publicly and privately
- "Let's have a big hand for <the last caller>"
- "It was really a pleasure to call for you guys this evening"
- ...using a dancer's name - Some dancers are very sensitive about mistakes, especially in front of other dancers, while others aren't
- Prefer indirect hints: "We're looking for R-H waves with the Boys looking out"
- ...or selective cueing: "...and the very centers look over their shoulder for the end of a line"
- ...or selective calling: "Those looking out of the square, do a U-Turn Back real quick"
- ...or selective timing: "Psst, over here ... no here ... Swing Thru!" (just when they're close enough)
- ...or corrective calling: "Bend The Line we have standard lines, dance Forward And Back"
- ...or positive reinforcement: "Trust <dancer's name>, s/he knows what s/he's doing!"
- ...blaming dancers for mistakes - The caller should be so perfect!
- There are always ways to make things more clear - Don't say the same thing in a louder voice - try a completely different explanation
- All mistakes are really the caller's - Part of the job is good judgment about the dancers' abilities
- ...getting upset at the dancers - It's not a way to create fun atmosphere. Word gets around about bad attitude
- ...getting stressed - Call at a sustainable level that allows enjoyment of the activity
- See Personal Difficulties below....
Be aware of personal difficulties
It's a regular night, but dancers seem to be making more mistakes than usual, tempers are short, folks may simply not be as polite as you (or they!) are used to.
What's wrong? Many things could be. Consider...
- Hearing problems
- Long Day / Long Week - folks tend to be more tired during an evening session (especially on Friday)
- Difficult and draining situation outside of dancing - You may want to ask them privately about their week
- Aches, pains, and/or discomfort
- Missed dinner / medication
- Unable to sleep well the last few nights
- New and nervous about their dancing
- Rusty - Thought they knew the calls better - may be embarrassed
If you find yourself getting upset at someone - Stop and consider...
- Consider other possible interpretations of their actions
- Consider other possible reasons for their actions
- Consider things in your life that might be making your fuse shorter than usual
- Never discount anyone
- Even the awful dancers have friends and some of them may be important to you
- That one irksome dancer may someday be running the club and hiring callers
Some Closing Thoughts
- Some days are good, some days are bad. That's how it is with everyone
- If folks are having a good time, the caller must be doing things right (Take notes!)
- Creative and unusual material is like spice - a little goes a long way
- It is truly difficult to call easy material
- Dancers have the most fun when they're doing things they didn't know they could do
- "Good judgment comes from experience which comes from bad judgment" -- Will Rogers
- The ideal caller is really a follower - the skill and energy of the dancers guide every call.
- I'd love to somehow accumulate XX years of calling experience in under XX years!
See more of my site! - click here
Richard Reel Hayward California USA