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Calling Contras at Porchfest 2024

A street filled with people at some sort of festival as viewed from the porch of a house on that street. In the foreground, on the porch, a man with long black hair is standing at a microphone.

Photo by Julia Wise

For the second year in a row Jeff invited me to call contra dances with his band Kingfisher on his porch for Somerville Porchfest, for dancers in the street. I wrote a bit last year about some of the interesting challenges in calling at this particular event and they were the same this year:

  1. We wanted to prioritize music, so made limited time for teaching and walkthroughs.
  2. There were a lot of would-be beginners milling around, but given lack of teaching, they would be pretty confused if they joined the dances! (At the same time, an event like this is a great opportunity to bring in beginners who happen upon it – if they have fun, maybe they’ll come to BIDA!)
  3. During a typical contra dance evening, I structure my program to build skills gradually, teaching dancers new figures and techniques. Since people were coming and going, there was no room for that at Porchfest.

Some things I did differently from last year:

  • I put two circle mixers in my program, specifically to have dances that all could join in for. Circle mixers tend to be simple and if something goes wrong and someone ends up without a partner they can easily drop out or go to the “lost and found” in the center to find a new partner and rejoin the circle. Mixers are tolerant of some chaos.¹
  • I treated it more like a typical contra dance event in that I kept control of dance duration, signalling the band how long to play their sets for. (Last year, thinking of it more like a concert with contra dancing on the side, I let the band make these decisions, which I thought was an error, in retrospect.)

Some things I mostly did the same:

  • I made announcements before each dance, telling people what to expect and gently encouraging or discouraging beginners as needed. I did this last year, but this time I prepped them in advance and was clearer and more confident in announcing them. This sounded like:
    • “This dance will have a brief walkthrough. If you want to join, find an experienced dancer who can pull you through it.” (As with last year we would sometimes do a full walkthrough, but often we would do a rolling start².)
    • “This dance is a circle mixer that anyone can join.”
    • “This dance will have no walkthrough and is for experienced dancers. If you know how to do a hey, you’ll be fine.”
  • I kept dances pretty simple. Nothing that required much teaching or would be error prone.
  • With only one exception (deliberately, this year³) I kept it to dances where interaction was limited to dancers’ minor sets, to minimize cascading confusion.

I’m not sure which factors account for it – having dances specifically for beginners, being more clear and confident in announcing dance difficulty, my state of mind, or the rowdy crowd being at the Guster show instead – but this year felt smoother and more in control. Fewer beginners joined for the dances I established for experienced dancers, tons joined for the mixers. I heard from dancers afterward that there were some tipsy dancers, but no one disruptive. (Last year I observed new dancers joining the line with drinks in hand!) It wasn’t as hot as last year, which meant dancers were less tired and more coordinated.

We had a long line that spanned half the block. There were some traffic issues; the street was supposed to be closed, but some cars made through and I had to coordinate dancers allowing them to pass on the fly, which was annoying and awkward. Jeff wrote a bit more about his traffic logistic thoughts.

For the last dance of the afternoon I called “Train Delay,” a dance with a shadow interaction – my one exception to the remain-in-the-minor-set rule. I announced ahead of time that it was for experienced dancers, but I noticed a number of beginner couples joined, all in a row. I made a follow up announcement, in case they hadn’t heard, something like, “This dance will have figures that we haven’t done yet and is for experienced dancers. If you’re new… well, you’ll probably have a good time, but you might struggle a bit first.” I wasn’t well-prepared enough to pull out a backup dance instead and I didn’t have time to do a long walkthrough; Kingfisher had another gig that evening and we only had time for a quick dance left. I saw some dancers give each other looks, but they stayed in line.

And it turned out fine! The first couple times through the dance were indeed messy in the section of the line where beginners had joined, but everyone managed to progress. The shadow interaction seemed more helpful than confusing to the beginners, somewhat surprising me, because it gave them another consistent person to look for during the dance. After a few times through the beginners were fully incorporated and the dance ran smoothly.

In a 1½ hour event we got through seven dances (including the two circle mixers) and Kingfisher played a tune at the start to warm up and a waltz at the end, which was roughly what I had aimed for.

This was my program:

  • Tica Tica Timing/Old Time Elixir #2, Dean Snipes/Linda Leslie (No walkthrough)
  • Adams Amble, Linda Leslie (Circle mixer)
  • Butter, Gene Hubert (No walkthrough)
  • Midwest Folklore, Orace Johnson (Rolling start)
  • The Second Time Around, Jim Kitch (Rolling start)
  • Coke the Floor, Marian Rose (Circle mixer)
  • Train Delay, Maia McCormick (Rolling start)

I tried to annotate where we did no-walkthrough and rolling start dances, but I was taking pretty messy notes during the event. It’s possible I actually did do a full walkthrough for one of those.

The dance is “Adams Amble” by Linda Leslie and the tune is “June Apple.”

  1. At a typical “one night stand” dance, with dancers who have never done it before and may never do it again, a caller will usually program an entire evening of barn dances similar to these – mixers, strip-the-willow, virginia reel, etc. – rather than longways contra dances, where even the simplest ones require learning a few figures and the mechanics of progression as a couple from one set of neighbors to the next. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to only dances like that, since the band wanted to play sets for contras and there were a good number of experienced dancers. ↩︎

  2. In which the band starts playing lightly during the walkthrough, providing a smooth, unmarked, transition from teaching to dancing. ↩︎

  3. I made an exception accidentally last year 😳 ↩︎

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