Calling Dances at Porchfest

Last weekend I called contra dances at Somerville Porchfest on Jeff’s porch, with his band Kingfisher.

There were some interesting calling challenges that were different from usual, so I made a few notes:

  1. Porchfest is a music event. We wanted to devote time to music, not me talking. Jeff requested I do no walkthroughs, short walkthroughs, and rolling starts. I wanted to have as low risk of making errors (which are time consuming and might interrupt music) as possible.
  2. A lot of non-dancers made up the audience—some drunk. I wasn’t sure how much to expect people with no contra dance experience to jump in, but the answer turned out to be at least a few every time—at least one with a White Claw still in hand!
  3. There was no time for a workshop, both because of point 1 and because people were coming and going continuously, not mostly coming at the start.
  4. Relatedly, there wasn’t much point in thinking about the flow of the program since there wasn’t really a way to ramp up the skill level of the dancers over time. (There was some flow switching from lively to mellow, etc., which the musicians and I negotiated on the spot.)

Here are some things I did to adapt to this:

Every other dance I did was “no walkthrough.” The ones that I walked through were split between actual (very quick) walkthroughs and rolling starts where the band came in pretty quickly during the first time through. I didn’t do more than one walkthrough for any and—as far as I could tell—I didn’t make any errors that should have caused me to bail on a dance. Phew.

I selected simple dances. I tried to choose some dances that were distinctive without complex figures, for example Cis Hinkel’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”

I tried to avoid dances with interaction outside of minor sets. If a minor set got confused it wouldn’t throw anyone else off. I inadvertently threw in one, though—I didn’t take good notes on my program but I think it was David Kaynor’s “Mary Cay’s Reel.” There was some confusion, but I think it worked out OK—everyone got where they needed for the partner swing.

I didn’t want to fully discourage new dancers, but I knew they would be lost no matter what—the figure names would be gibberish to them. With too many beginners the line would fall apart, but a small number would be OK. I couldn’t say, “Exactly four new people can join the line,” though!

I tried making announcements like, “We will have a brief walkthrough for this one, so if you are new, find a partner who can pull you through a contra dance,” and “This dance will have no walkthrough. If you know how to do a hey, you will be fine, otherwise maybe sit this one out.” Invariably we’d still get a totally new couple or two joining, but the experienced dancers did a great job keeping them on track. I noticed a few times new dancers encountered each other in line and stood confused or wandered around each other for 64 beats, but then the dance would progress and experienced dancers pulled them back in.

At some point a dancer came up to the porch to report the experienced dancers were getting tired from shepherding new dancers and to ask if I could help. Given the constraints I was a bit at a loss, but I kept calling for longer than I would normally in the next couple dances and I think that helped.

I gave Kingfisher the freedom to choose their set duration (that’s usually the caller’s responsibility) both because I was overwhelmed attending to the dancers and I wanted the band to have freedom to play how they wanted, but I think this was an error. I don’t think any of the dances were wildly long or short, but it seems hard for musicians to keep track of how long they’ve been playing or monitor the dancers for when they look tired and I probably should have just kept control of that.

Overall I think this went pretty well. It was a little chaotic, but it seemed like dancers had a good time. We had enough people to keep contra dancing through the end of our slot and Kingfisher got to play almost continuously. At our peak we had probably 20-30 dancers and more in the audience just listening. I heard reports from the audience that when I announced people could do more dancing like this at BIDA some of the non-dancers seemed interested. Also we made it into the paper!

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