It's like 8 Mile, but for Square Dance
A couple of weeks ago the biggest square dance game in town, the twice-monthly Tractor Tavern square dance hosted by The Tallboys, asked if I was available to call their dance. "Of course!" I said. I hung up the phone (not really, this was all arranged by text) and started figuring out how exactly I'd make myself ready to call this dance. Calling a square dance is a cross between a wedding toast, a rap battle, and public karaoke. Full disclosure: I wasn't ready.
I've written in this blog before about the benefits of social dancing, and participated in the form of house dances, neighborhood square dancing, and even a square dance festival of sorts. I'm a big believer in how square dancing brings communities of people together to make their own fun, to connect with each other with some reasonable social touching, in how it offers mutli-generational entertainment that is highly interactive, kinetic, and inclusive. Check out this lovely video by Doug Plummer, if you don't believe me. But I've only flirted with being a caller, usually under duress.
Happily I've had a front row seat to a lot of great callers, so I started my preparations by finding recordings of callers I have known. A bunch of audio recordings from the Gypsy Squares square dance provided a rich store of not only contemporary callers calling dances, but also tracks of callers instructing dancers. From those tracks I started creating a set of calling cards -- notecards with the calls and instruction of a square dance figure written out.
Then I started going a little further afield. TClaw, a charismatic caller from Tennessee, has posted an ever-evolving square dancing handbook which presents not only figures and patter but also discussions of race, gender equality, and the economics of square dancing. More academic sites, seeking to preserve dance traditions from a variety of communities, describe lots of dance figures and often include examples of calling language. Sites like Bob Dalsemer's West Virginia Squares, or Cambridge University's dance club site, the Round, which includes a goodly collection of Kentucky dances, or even Portland's own Bubba Guitar, a site where the late Bill Martin catalogued the dances that would launch the vibrant Portland square dance scene. Any one of these sites offers enough information to move from rank amateur to calling competency.
But finding the information isn't the trick to becoming a square dance caller. Doing it, actually opening up your mouth and blurting out words intended for dancers, that's the necessary step. It can be easy to think about square dance calling for a long time, to research it ad nauseum, even to write down the language you imagine using as a caller. All are good steps, necessary even, but not sufficient. At the end of the day, you've got to call.
This morning I created looping tracks of a few of my favorite old time fiddle tunes -- tracks I could press "play" on and let roll for 20 minutes at a time. I picked a dance from my new cards, and I started calling out loud in my home office while the music rolled on in the background.
I'm a terrible caller. That's what it feels like, anyway. At first I'm self-concious as all get out. Clever words I imagined in my mind's ear refuse to come out of my mouth. I pick the wrong words, deliver them in the wrong time, get tangled up and fall behind. huh...that's not half bad patter actually. Maybe I can use that...
But soon enough things start to smooth out. There's just an initial hump to crawl over, and the only way over is to start. After a few times through I know what to say, and I can relax into it. And once I'm relaxed it's easier to play with the words, make some substitutions, try out a little patter now and then. I've got almost a week of practicing ahead of me, and I'm beginning to feel that it's going to be alright after all.
Maybe you live in the Seattle area, and you can watch this particular experiment play out in person (8-11pm at the Tractor Tavern, June 22nd) -- I'd sure welcome a lot of friendly faces on the dance floor! Or maybe you've got a group of friends or family that would dance if only there was a caller. Let it be you! If community dance is something you're interested in, there's no better place to start than Dare To Be Square West, in Vancouver, B.C., November 13th-15th. Or hit me up (contact form on the About page) and I'll send you some copies of my calling cards. In the meantime, wish me luck!