Calling the First Dance for a Community

A room with contra dancers holding two hands with their partner, in motion. In the background I'm calling with a band.

Photo by Tom Stoddart

This week I called the Nantucket’s First Community Contra Dance. It was an unusual gig. The organizer is starting a contra dance community from scratch on the island. There were a small handful of experienced dancers she knew, but aside from them, the crowd was entirely new.

It’s common for an evening dance to have a short (15–30 minute) workshop to teach beginners the basics. It’s not enough time to teach everything that’s needed to dance. Callers augment this by briefly teaching figures and techniques over the course of the evening during walkthroughs – and by relying on experienced dancers to direct newcomers on the floor, sharing knowledge and technique explicitly and implicitly. Since this dance had only a few experienced dancers in a crowd of about 45 people, I couldn’t rely on the latter at all.

This matters more than an experienced dancer might think at first blush! There’s a long list of knowledge that is needed for even the simplest modern contras that experienced dancers take for granted: hands four, improper formation, progression, waiting out (and crossing over while waiting out), geography (across the set, side of the set, up the hall, down the hall), lark/robin roles, ending swings with roles on correct sides – and that’s before we’ve even talked about how one actually dances any of our extensive repertoire of figures. It’s a weighty collection of things for a beginner to learn in one go.

This was also different from what callers often refer to as a “one night stand” dance, such as a wedding, where you have a crowd of dancers who have never done it before and may never do it again. At a dance like that, there isn’t much interest in learning. At ONS dances, callers typically call “barn dances” that are simple, require minimal teaching, and tolerate chaotic dancers.

By contrast, at this dance, the organizer is deliberately trying to establish a community of regular dancers and – while dancers have come first and foremost to have fun (the ultimate priority of any evening of contra dancing!) – they were also there expecting to learn. I tried to program somewhere in between an ONS and a beginner-heavy contra dance and be strategic about my teaching:

  • I opted to forego a beginner lesson and teach entirely during walkthroughs over the course of the evening
  • I started with some basic mixers and barn dances that could be done without much trouble
  • I progressed to simple contra dances…
  • Starting with one that is “neutral” – i.e., it doesn’t have two roles in any way that matters…
  • Followed by one that has roles but doesn’t really matter where you end the swing…
  • Followed by ones that have roles and it does matter where you end the swing.
  • With the exception of the neutral one, all of the contras were becket with a slide left progression to avoid beginners having to learn about and remember to cross over at the end of the set.

By all reports the evening went well. Nevertheless, being as this was the first dance with this many beginners that I’ve called (even “beginner-heavy” dances I’ve called are no more than 50% newbies), I made some errors and learned some lessons for the next time.

This was my program:

Easy Circle of Fun
Linda Leslie
Circle Mixer
Fwd & back (✕2)
Ptr alle R
Ptr alle L
Pass ptr by R
New ptr DSD
New ptr sw (elbow swing)

This dance introduced progression, allemandes, the swing (an elbow swing), and the promenade (with dancers simply holding hands, no particular promenade position).

I started the evening with this simple circle mixer. I took a moment to teach some technique for the allemande, emphasizing giving weight so you could feel connection with you partner, but not gripping.

Progressing was the trickiest part, since it depended on ending the swing where you started. I pointed out direction of progression early, but also told them it didn’t actually matter if they went back the other way by accident. The dance went well with a person occasionally getting stranded, but they generally found the other stranded person in the circle and joined up with them.

Accretion Reel
Chris Page
Scatter Mixer
Bal ring
Scatter, promenade single
Rt sh round a new ptr
Ptr sw (elbow swing)
Promenade as couple
With another couple circle L
Circle R

I originally intended to start the evening with this one. I figured I could do it without a walkthrough, just by teaching the (very simple) figures as the music played. I liked that it removed any need to find a partner for the first dance and would tolerate lots of chaos. But I swapped it out when I arrived. The room was echoey and I was concerned I wouldn’t be clear enough for a no walkthrough. But I kept it for the second slot with a walkthrough. It’s a chaotic dance to begin with and I think it hit the right level of fun and chaos for the room.

Longways Neutral
Fwd & back
Pass ptr R and face back in
Fwd & back
Pass ptr R and face back in
Ptr sw (two hand turn or contra swing for those who know)
Top couple sashay to bottom, everyone else move up

This dance introduced longways formation.

This is a typical barn/family dance. It’s easy and went smoothly. I suggested that those who knew the contra swing could do it, all others to two-hand turn.

Jefferson and Liberty
Duple Neutral
Circle L
Circle R
Star R (hands-across)
Star L (hands-across)
Ones down the outside
Ones return
Line of 4 (ones in ctr) down the hall
Back up four steps
Ones arch, twos dive through

This dance introduced duple formation (hands four), ones and twos, and progression as a couple.

This is a classic contra dance (or at least a variation on one) that is role neutral. My favorite moment illustrating how little I could take for granted with new dancers took place during the walkthrough: I told dancers to take right hands with the person diagonally across from them to make a right hand star and walk it “in the convenient direction” – then watched as one minor set walked it backwards!¹

But the dance worked well, though some dancers struggled with:

  1. going down the outside of the set²
  2. making sure the ones were in the center of a the line of four³
  3. arching and diving on time – dancers were often late for the circles

The choreography is forgiving enough that none of these presented major issues. It all held together and everyone got to their lines of four for every down-the-hall.

Festival Reel
Will Mentor
Slice L
Long lines F&B
Star L (hands-across)
Star R (hands-across)
Robins DSD
Larks DSD
Ptr B&Sw

This dance introduced Larks/Robins roles, duple improper formation (and then becket) as well as the contra dance swing and ending on the correct side.

It is the first modern contra dance in my program, starting just about halfway through the evening. I took a moment before the dance to teach roles and demonstrate the contra dance swing. I also demonstrated ending the swing on correct sides, though this particular dance is forgiving if you don’t. This went smoothly, though I made one minor error:

Because the dance starts with 8 beats to slide left I had dancers go forward and back twice the first time to eat the time. Each successive time through, it took them a while to slide left and get across from new neighbors, but they never forgot my original instructions to do the F&B twice, which made them regularly late for the stars. Fortunately the choreography was forgiving.

I chatted with Will Mentor after this dance, and he pointed out to me that the first figure is actually slice left, not slide left, meaning you are intended to go forward and back as you shift to the left. So this was merely miscalled on my part and I made a note for next time. I’ve also corrected the choreography above.

After this dance, the band played a waltz and we took a break. We returned with:

Midwest Folklore
Orace Johnson
Slide L, circle L 3/4
Nbr B&Sw
Circle L 3/4
Ptr Sw

This was the most difficult dance of the evening. If I did it over, I’d likely take it out. Of two lines, one ran smoothly, but the other never got it and completely fell apart midway through. (I would have stopped at that point, but the dancers were valiantly determined to pull bring the line back together, so I gave them a few times through to give it a go!) These were the points of difficulty:

  • As is fairly common to becket dances, but unlike the dance before and after this one, there’s little time for the slide left in this dance. It flows smoothly into the circle left – but that requires dancers know where they’re going when they slide left, otherwise they get behind immediately. Dancers were often late or occasionally didn’t slide left at all, despite my prompting, stranding couples in the middle of the line.
  • In the biggest surprise of the night for me, “circle left three places” was the most challenging figure of the evening! I saw some foursomes circle all the way around, halfway around, at one point ⅝ of the way around ending in a diamond! I’m not sure if I could have taught this better – perhaps with a slower “Mark each spot someone is standing on around this ring in your mind. You are going to circle to the left and end on the third spot,” or just better ensure they knew who their neighbor was and where the side of the set was. But possibly I should have just left any “fractional” figures out of the evening.
  • Dancers didn’t know how to recover when couples were stranded alone in the middle of the set which sometimes caused cascading confusion as they tried to get into any circle of four that was nearby during the A1. (I gave some tips on recovery before the next dance.)
Festival Waves
Will Mentor
Robins walk fwd to long wave of robins
Bal wave
Robins back, larks walk fwd to long wave
Bal wave
(Larks walk fwd to) Nbr DSD
Nbr sw
Larks cross by R, ptr sw
Long lines F&B
Slice L

I consolidated the dancers to a single line. I figured we had a small enough group to fit in a single line and that it would actually be beneficial for the dancers to be closer together as well as for the dancers who were really getting it to be able to assist those who were a little more confused.

This dance took a bit more teaching than I expected – dancers, being new to their roles, didn’t always respond immediately to robins/larks – but after the walkthrough, it went smoothly.

Coke the Floor
Marian Rose
Circle Mixer
Fwd & back
Fwd, robins back out, larks face ptr
All sashay R
All sashay L
Ptr B&Sw
Promenade (CCW, robins outside)
Robins turn back over rt sh as larks continue fwd
Prom with new ptr

I closed with this circle mixer. It went smoothly, though dancers were conservative about how far they would sashay and kept turning back to sashay left before I prompted it. I threw in a few calls of “You can go further! And back to the left now,” to encourage them along, which helped. The turn back from promenade progression took some fussing, but everyone seemed to get it in time for the big circle at the start.

Some things I’m thinking about for the next time I call a dance like this:

  • I would have liked to get in more than eight dances, but, given that I opted not to do a usual 30m workshop at the start, knowing I would spend more time during the dance teaching, I think it’s a respectable number for a 2½ hour dance.
  • Along those lines I would have prepped more simple barn dances that needed less teaching. Because we are trying to establish a new contra dance community, I thought it was good that we got to some simple contras, but I would drop the most complex one and would have liked to have a barn dance to return to when things got complicated, to give the dancers a break and keep the momentum going. (To some extent this is a repertoire problem that will solve itself as I continue to grow my collection. In the second half I knew I wanted to call a beginner dance, I just had blown through my prepped beginner dances in the first half, whoops.)
  • I incorporated some tips on how to recover when things went wrong later in the evening, but I wonder if I should have done that more clearly earlier in the evening.
  • I also wonder if I should have made some notes about the music. I don’t typically teach beginners anything about the music, but, since there were few experienced dancers with the intuition or knowledge to keep others on time, maybe I could have helped along those with musical knowledge if I mentioned that a figure was 8 or 16 beats long and aligned with the musical phrases. (I did see some people intuit this when I dropped calls – which I didn’t do much – but not everyone.) Or perhaps it’s just the nature of a dance like this that the timing will be fuzzy.

Despite my notes on things that could have gone better, my impression is the dance was a success! There was an enthusiastic and intergenerational group of dancers. The organizer gave me some hearty compliments on my calling (thanks, Graeme!) and said she received many people asking when the next one would be – and disappointed responses when she said it wouldn’t be till fall! The dancers seemed excited to be learning and were attentive the whole time. We kept the mood light and even during the train wreck dance I saw a lot of smiles on the dance floor. It seemed like a good time was had by all.

A room with contra dancers holding two hands with their partner, in motion. In the background I'm calling with a band.

Photo by Tom Stoddart

A huge amount of credit goes to Graeme for putting this event on. And thanks to Sam Zakon-Anderson and Eric Boodman for being such a friendly, talented, and accomodating band. Also a huge thanks to Maia, as ever, for being my calling mentor/partner-in-crime and giving me a ton of really good advice and dance suggestions before the event – some of which I even followed.

  1. My guess is that, because the star R flowed out of a circle R, this particular foursome still had the momentum of the circle R in their head. I gently corrected them with, “I saw one set walked that star backing up, which is super impressive, but I did actually mean for you to walk forwards.” ↩︎

  2. I think what happened here was just leaving the line made them uncertain and they didn’t want to go very far? ↩︎

  3. For sets that got this wrong, their progression reversed. ↩︎

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