Applying Our Research

by Clark Baker

I started dancing in 1974 and calling in 1977 with almost all of my calling in the Challenge programs. This is about as far as one can get from beginner dance parties! How and why did I make the transition and what have I taken away from these seminars?


Like Susan, I feel that most of you in this room have more experience than I do, do more beginner parties each year than I do, and you should be telling us what you know instead of the other way around. Of course, some of you are on the program this weekend, and you have shared and continue to share your expertise, and we appreciate that. I guess by having us on the program, you get a different perspective, that of a newbie what has taken the information from the seminars and tried it out on their own.

For most of my dancing and calling career, I hadn't given beginner parties or community dancing a second thought. I was dancing and calling challenge and the harder and higher the level, the better. I did attend Father/Daughter Girl Scout dances for about 6 years, and do remember paying attention and being impressed with the job that Mil Dixon did. I knew that I couldn't do it.

In the mid-1990's I topped out of C4 and was looking for a different activity, one with more dancing, and somehow hit on the local contra dance scene. Don Beck had taken us there in the 1980's but, back then, I didn't "get" it at all. By 1995 I was ready for New England Squares & Contras and soon we were weekly participants. Soon enough, Miriam and I were attending the NEFFA Festival. Throughout all of this I was paying attention to how different the contra activity organizes and how they allow newcomers in at every dance and how they teach with an economy of words and require no lessons.

With a more favorable attitude towards this simpler form of dancing, I started paying attention to those in CALLERLAB who know about and share the same interests, including attending the CDP dances. Eventually I was attending the BDPLS, perhaps not with a strong idea of actually calling beginner parties or calling in schools, but in seeing what is involved.

I started small

I would bring my calling equipment with me when I went to Thanksgiving (a large event with grandparents, cousins, etc.). I got a square up and did some dancing. I had purchased several contra dance 45 RPM records and would teach and give this a try. Working with one square and people I know is low pressure and low risk.

I brought my equipment with me to our summer family vacation place. One time they needed me to call a beginner party and I did it. Again, I knew some of the people and they weren't expecting a lot so it worked out fine. Mostly I did squares, with perhaps a few untaught line dances since I had purchased the records for Macarena and Electric Slide.

One time at the summer vacation place, I was on the auditorium stage with my niece (probably age 14) and a bunch of little girls (ages 6 to 8). They had been inventing and practicing some dance routine to Britney Spears and, when things were winding down I asked them if they wanted to try some other dancing. They were suspicious, said OK, but one said she had to go soon but could try a little. I had CD's of some specially edited pop music I use for contras and put it on and, with me, we had 8. I think I started in a circle and eventually got us into squares and I was figuring out what we could do as I went along. I am sure we did Grand Square. This was a great experience for me as the feedback of how well each idea worked was instantaneous. It also got me thinking about how to handle groups of one gender. I kept the interest of the girl who "had to go soon" for about 45 minutes. When parents arrived to get their kids and go to lunch, one of them asked what we were doing, and was it square dancing. The girl replied that no it wasn't square dancing it was more fun.

Accept some gigs

From my web page and being early in the alphabet, I would always get calls from people looking for a caller for a party. Usually I would talk to the person, figure out if they were looking for our side of the world or the contra side, and send them on their way with few referrals. One call came in and it sounded like a gig I could do—call a dance for about 50 resident advisors in a large dorm at a local university.

They were looking for square dancing and I gave them square dancing. No patterns or set dances, just patter called squares with allemande left, right and left grand, dosado, promenade, stars, circles, and grand square. This was teaching and calling in my comfort zone, and I knew I could do it. Also, I was dealing with college students and I am around them in my normal dancing.

I continued to accept occasional gigs for 40th birthday parties, wedding rehearsal dinner, freshman orientation, etc. Mostly I did the same format that had worked for me. Only squares, only patter squares, little teaching, and lots of dancing. At one event I got brave and tried doing Tooty Ta which we had been shown at BDPLS. It kind of bombed and I lost the trust of the guys dancing it who felt they were being made to look foolish. I don't like being tricked into doing something that I won't like and I decided right then not to ever do that to my dancers.

Time Passes

At each BDPLS I dance the dances, am always on the lookout for stuff I can use, take occasional notes, but when I come home, it all gets put on a table or in a box, and never really gets used. I have never started collecting set dances. I do the Virginia Reel each dance and have a Virginia Reel record and call sheet. Recently I looked through D4BP in order to find another longways dance for a Father/Daughter Girl Scout dance. There were several that I felt comfortable teaching and calling and I ended up using Barley And Oats and it went over very well. I will use it again.

I know I need to start a "little black book" or card file of dances. I do use the square where couple #1 turns back to back and walks around the outside, passes each other twice, and allemandes left the corner and all swing partner and promenade. I like the way that dance builds and has the surprise of everyone turning back-to-back and the mob scene of everyone going around the outside. It is the only other set dance I do.

I have enjoyed dancing Kiwi Ring every time it has been shown. Chris Pinkham has picked up this dance and uses it regularly. He even presented successfully it recently at a Mainstream dance in a situation in which it would be unusual to do anything but Mainstream patter and singers. All I need to do it print it out, have a place to store my dances, and purchase the proper music.

I remember watching Greg present a variety of grand marches and other ways of organizing large groups of people into squares. So far I haven't needed any of that, and if I did, I would have to find his handouts and review them.

A limitation I seem to work under is that if I don't find a particular dance fun or compelling for me, I am unlikely to offer to people at a beginner party. I am not into line dancing or partner dancing so I don't show those dances. I carry the music for 3 dances with me: Macarena, Electric Slide, and Cotton Eye Joe. Later I collected the Cha Cha Slide and, most recently played Hoedown Throwdown. It was released in February 2009 and a how-to video is available on YouTube. If people want or expect a line dance, I can play it, just not teach it.

Where I am at now

I have been doing more calling in schools, especially with grades 5 through 8, perhaps 8 to 12 squares at a time. Usually I meet with each group 3 to 8 times. The first meeting is always like a beginner dance, dancing and adding new calls one by one. The second and third meetings review what we have done and add big figures like Dip And Dive or Allemande Thar. I pick these from the presentation I gave last year Teaching Square Dancing to Grade 7.

Occasionally I am invited into friends classroom at the end of a school year to do some dancing with their class. If they are a math teacher, they are looking for my relating the dancing to some math concepts. I do a mixture of ONS stuff, along with a dose of challenge dancing concepts, and perhaps even some Hexagons. Sometimes I will use the Mini-Squares CD with them.

In the last year I have started accepting bookings for Father/Daughter Girl Scout square dances—the very dances I took my daughters to and knew that I would never be able to be the caller. So far I have done 4, have one more scheduled, and expect these three towns to become regular gigs. I believe the F/D dances are a special situation, and I am currently open to ideas and material which works in this situation.

One resource you may not be aware of are the syllabi from the Ralph Page Legacy Dance Weekend. For our purposes, One Night Stand Dances, I highly recommend the comments and dances presented by Lisa Greenleaf in 2006. They are available here and start on page 15.

What next?

Basically I am lazy. I need to be more organized, collect appropriate dances and music, and integrate them into my beginner party repertoire. I continue to attend BDPLS because I enjoy the people, the presentations, and the dancing. Apparently it takes a lot for me to collect a dance and feel that I can use it in the way I do beginner dances. In the final analysis, it hasn't been specific dances that I have taken away from the BDPLS, but a sense of what style dances I like and don't like, and each presenters' philosophy of how to do a party dance.