Helping in a square

(German translation available here)

E-mail by Clark Baker, April 1997

Date: Wed, 16 Apr 1997 15:14:56 -0400 (EDT)
From: Clark Baker
Subject: Helping (was non-graduating new dancers)

Kaye's mail discussed how she began square dancing, mentioned that it takes at least 3 people in a square to break it down, talked about older people who dance slower but are still dancing (and that this is a good thing), and ended with the following:

One last comment. I have found that it can be a real personal challenge for me when dancing with some less experienced dancers in the square to do everything I can to keep the square going. And, I must confess that I have had some great fun as well as feelings of triumph and accomplishment when I have had this attitude.

Recently I posted my comments on "helping" in a square to the sd-callers e-mail list because the subject had come up. I would like the readers of the square-dancing list to consider them also. I have revised them slightly to incorporate the useful feedback I received.

The issue of unsolicited helping while square dancing is very complex. Read that sentence again.

The net gain from helping a square (the gains from getting more material minus the loss due to ill will and bad feelings) may not be as large as you think.

Don Beck told me "if you get thanked, then you got caught". Help should be provided in a way that the dancer being helped doesn't know or feel that they are being helped.

Some issues to consider:

  1. What level is being called? Perhaps helping (often delivered and perceived as pushing) is more appropriate at Challenge than Advanced or Mainstream/Plus. Certainly in some areas in Challenge, it is espected that the square will work together and try very hard to not break down or to recover and keep going. There are probably Mainstream areas which require no helping and in which it would be considered rude.

  2. How strong is your square compared to the level being called? If the square should be able to dance the level, then no help should be required. Sometimes there are dancers new to the level who explicitly ask for help. Providing solicited help is very different from providing unsolicited help.

  3. Do the other dancers look like they want help? Can they receive help? Some dancers become very confused when you move or adjust them. I know if you move me to a spot different from where I was headed, it takes a while for my mental model of the square to match the real square.

  4. Some dancers give help by talking a lot. It is very easy to talk and listen to the caller at the same time (I know because I am guilty of talking in the square too often). It is very hard to listen to two people at once. Don't give help by talking.

    Kathy Godfry adds, "I think there is one exception to this. Sometimes, a single word or two might save the day, where no amount of pointing will help. I'm thinking of when a dancer has obviously misheard the call, and is doing the wrong call correctly. For example, "split" or "not split" might be the clue that keeps a circulate from taking the square down. You must be able to say it without interfering with the next call. And you can always explain that you were talking to yourself to make sure that you didn't mess up :-)."

  5. Some dancers give help by pointing. I find this works well. However, it is obvious that you are telling the whole square that you think a certain dancer needs help.

    Kathy adds, "You can "help" in a hopefully subtle way by being proactive in looking for the next dancer(s) you're supposed to work with: catching eyes, reaching for hands that you anticipate will reach for yours, nodding slightly in response to questioning looks ("It is you I'm supposed to pass through with, isn't it?"). A lot of this just falls into the category of good team effort while dancing, and shouldn't be construed as considering other square members needful of help. Conversely, dancers should be taught to keep heads up and put their feelers out if they are momentarily lost or confused, so that they can receive these signals. No matter how good you are, someday you'll need them, too."

  6. Some dancers help by physically assisting (by pushing, pulling, bumping, or even by grabbing the shoulders and stearing) the wayward dancer. While it gets the job done, I bet it upsets a lot more people than you think and should be generally avoided. Wouldn't it be nice if dancers had a handle in the middle of their back which you could grab onto to move them around? :-)

    Kathy adds (and uses a big word I don't know :-), "I would like to second heartily Clark's abjuration of pushing. I can't think of one instance in which it's helped a square. And please don't "time out" immediately and start nudging people who don't move instantly. It always puts me in mind of the impatient jerk behind you at the red light who sounds his horn the instant the light turns green, and all it does is honk me off. There's almost always time to let dancers think a moment and react by themselves, and that's better for everyone."

  7. Some dancers help by dancing with the music and being in the correct place at the correct time. This is a very good way to help. This is what you are supposed to be doing. If I were lost, why not have the other 7 dancers continue to dance and let me A) notice that I am lost, and B) find, by myself, the moving vacant hole where I belong? If the square is strong enough, I prefer to have the other 7 dancers dance around the "free electron".

    Don Beck commented to me that if the square is supposed to have 2 lines of 4 and one person is lost and everyone else is properly dancing their part, the square will look like a line of 4 and a line of 3 to the lost dancer. That dancer may be able to find their proper place. However, if a "helper" is busy trying to chase down the lost dancer then the square looks a lot different. Now the lost person has to be helped into place. By helping we have caused the need for helping.

  8. Some dancers help by assisting the adjacent dancer with a little push in the correct direction as they leave them. I find this insulting because it says to me that the helper thinks I needed the help. This is one of the risks of helping. The person being helped is always receiving little "you need help" messages.

    Some dancers have acquired a style of dancing which has them "push off" of adjacent dancers. Sometimes this push is in a misleading direction and confuses dancers who expect all pushes to be in helpful directions. I can't think of the example right now but I assume that you know what I am talking about. Please don't adopt this piece of bad piece of styling.

Time out for a story

While dancing in a square in the back of the hall at a C2 Challenge dance on Long Island, I paused slightly before some call. None of the people in the square knew me. Some lady immediately pushed me toward the correct spot. Being a good, modest C4 dancer and caller, I was a little surprised. At the next opportunity, I delayed my dancing again, and again was pushed to the correct spot. I decided to let this lady push me through the whole tip! I hope she had as much fun pushing me as I had playing with her.

Back to serious business

  1. Some squares are so bad that, even if you fixed their first mistake (say in the first 5 calls), they would make another mistake in the next few calls and still never get a sequence. It is important not to try to help these squares.

  2. My experience is that people who become used to helping can't turn it on and off at will. They are always in "help mode" if it is needed or not. See #15 below.

  3. Some people who "help" are not always the best dancers. They may be correcting the square to their view of how it should be which is, in fact, wrong. Even some good helpers make a mistake and then "fix" the whole square to match their mistake. I know I am helping too much each time this happens.

  4. When dancing with new dancers learning to dance, I try to slow my reaction time down and let them initially lead our couple in the correct direction. This lets me know that they know what they are doing. For example, on Wheel And Deal, Bend The Line, Couples Circulate, I wait and see if they will start to do the call correctly. I believe there are more dancers than we imagine who are pulled through a lot of calls by a strong partner (i.e. dancer near them). They should learn to do the calls for themselves from the beginning rather than learning the skill of following and floating through the square.

    Learning how to be a good or great Angel is beyond the scope of today's discussion.

  5. If all the squares have helpers doing a good job helping then the caller, who is probably one of those good callers who calls to the floor level, will be able to call a better, more challenging dance. This will cause the helpers to have to work that much harder, and the squares without a helper to break down for sure. This is not a good cycle to get into.

  6. As you become a better dancer and caller, you will gain knowledge as to who should be where in a square. When two dancers get switched, you may be tempted to use this knowledge to "fix" the dancers who are switched. I have seen attempts to fix this situation break down a square. If nothing had been done, the square would have probably gotten to the Left Allemande with two dancers switched. If I am one of the two I make sure I have eye contact with the other dancer before I switch back with them. The first time I interact with them I may simply say, "we're switched". The next time I will trade back.

  7. A really good square fixer knows when to let mistakes happen. Square dancing is a very forgiving activity. What is the point of turning someone around when the next call is Tag The Line? The extra time to turn them around may cause the square to miss the Tag The Line. If you did nothing, they will be fixed by the Tag The Line. What if the next call isn't Tag The Line but Couples Circulate? Well, 7 of the 8 dancers are circulating in one direction, the 8th figures it out without much fuss. A lot of mistakes will fix themselves.

  8. Some people who end up helping all the time, complain about it (perhaps among themselves, but the attitude gets out). "I wish I could go to a least one dance a month where I didn't have to help pull everyone through." This bad attitude doesn't encourage anything good.

  9. For a slightly different viewpoint on the "helping" thing, see the excellent article How May I Help by Barry Clasper.

  10. This entire e-mail is mainly focused on helping in MWSD after graduation. My recent 5 years experience in contra dancing, at which new dancers are welcome every night, and which doesn't have formal lessons, has given me a broader prospective on helping. Much of the learning which goes on at a contra dance is implicit, while much of the learning at MWSD lessons is explicit. The beginner at a contra dance is helped through a lot, and knows that they are receiving help. This is OK.


If you add up all the benefits and risks above, you will find that helping in a square is a risky business and, while you (the helper) know that it increases your enjoyment of the dance, you might be incorrect in believing that it increases the square's enjoyment of the dance.

All that said, I wouldn't have been able to write it if I didn't have a lot of experience helping squares. If you are ever in my square and want help, say the word. If I ever give help when it wasn't wanted, take me aside after the tip and tell me.

At a recent class-level dance in L.A. a square was forming on the side which wanted to "try" the Mainstream tip even though they hadn't learned all the calls yet. I joined the square they asked if I knew Mainstream. When my partner and I said yes, they said they didn't know all the calls and to "pull us through". We had a great tip—a lot of noise, a lot of movement, and a little dancing slipped in every now and then. We walked through several calls after the tip (Recycle, Tag The Line, Cloverleaf) and danced another Mainstream tip. It was also a blast. Square Dancing should be fun.

Clark Baker, Belmont, MA

Revised: $Date: 2005/11/26 21:53:16 $

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