Inside the Definitions—A Talk from the Canadian Mini-Lab

Clark Baker

The definitions are the guides for explanation of square dance calls. They offer a wealth of information on the execution of the calls we use. Some callers are unaware of the complete meaning of our definitions. For example, how does Do Paso end? Or is there actually a call named Left Scoot Back. This session will provide insight into several definitions which will help make callers more knowledgeable about definitions and call usage. The recent publishing of the new Mainstream Definitions document will also be discussed.

Most of this talk will be a discussion of specific Mainstream and Plus calls. We have picked a bunch of calls and questions that we have been asked over the years, and we are also interested in discussing any specific points you may have. Before we get into specifics, I would like to explain the current organizational structure of definitions within Callerlab. Next I will present some general comments and observations on definitions.

Current state of Definitions at Callerlab

Copies of our current definitions can be found on the CALLERLAB website under Dance Program -> Dance Program Documents. The definitions, including formations, styling, and timing are maintained by the Definitions committee. Its suggestions must be approved by the appropriate dance committee (Mainstream, Plus, Advanced, or Challenge). The Mainstream definitions are undergoing a complete rewrite the first part of which was published in July 2008. The Mainstream committee has an ad hoc committee which reviews these new call definitions before they are given to the entire Mainstream committee for approval. The Application Review committee, accepts questions about proper call use, and rules certain applications proper or improper. A collection of its rulings is available under Documents -> General Documents with the name "ARC History". The Choreographic Applications committee maintains Standard Application documents for Mainstream and Plus. These documents describe which call applications any caller can expect an average floor to have complete success with. They are available from the CALLERLAB Home Office. Most of what we will be talking about in this talk will be considered Extended Applications or just plain nuts.

Observations on definitions

"Square dance" is a special, concise language used by the caller to communicate with dancers while the music is playing and they are dancing. Our language has evolved from the set piece dances of the 1950's, complete with rhyming patter, to the ever changing patter calls of today based on a Mainstream vocabulary of about 100 phrases.

By the late 1950's, new dancers had to take a short series of lessons in order to become familiar with the square dance language of the day. By the end of the 1960's square dancing had evolved into what was documented in the Sets In Order Basic 50 and Extended 75 booklets. Each booklet contained lists of calls along with definitions (including pictures and diagrams) of how to do these calls.

In the 1970's Callerlab standardized the Mainstream dance program and soon after created a set of definitions, including styling and timing for these calls. While these lists and definitions have received some changes over the years, they mostly remain unchanged. There is an ongoing effort to rewrite the Mainstream definitions from scratch, and the first results from that effort have been approved and will be published soon.

The typical dancer and caller learned his calls in a set of lessons taught by a caller. In addition to learning what you were taught, each of you has a huge storehouse of knowledge based on the calls, combinations, and applications you have danced over the years. Little of your square dance knowledge is based on "book learning" by reading the definitions.

Our definitions are an attempt to capture the essence of each call. They tend to be a bit more formal than how you might hear a call taught. Each of the terms used in a definition should either be common English or defined somewhere else. If the calls has parts, the definition should reflect these parts.

Point 1: The words best used while teaching a call can be different from those used to formally define the call.

Example: Right And Left Thru could be defined as a 2 part call: 1) Right Pull By, 2) Courtesy Turn. Teaching it by simply saying "Right Pull By ... now Courtesy Turn" may not have the best success rate. You may want to point out that each guy has a girl beside them. This is the dancer they will be courtesy turning. Now, all right hand shake and pull by. Let go. Boy, courtesy turn the girl beside you. I find I have a lot of success with the phrase "scoop the girl around".

Example: Pass The Ocean has a much different dance feel than its formal 3-part definition. Callers often mention that the dancers on the right (usually the girls) will smooth this call out into a left arm hook with each other.

The CALLERLAB website, under the Documents -> Dance Program Documents section, has two great documents: Mainstream Teaching Tips from 2002 CALLERLAB Convention interest session and Plus Teaching Tips from the 2003 CALLERLAB Convention interest session

Point 2: The words best used to cue the dancers through the call may be different from those used to define the call.

Example: The 4-part mantra for Linear Cycle is Hinge, Fold, Follow, Peel. The call's definition has three explicit parts, not four.


By laying some important groundwork, we can make our actual definitions shorter and more general. Consider the call Right And Left Thru. What are all the possible starting positions? Lines Facing, 8 Chain Thru, the Heads or Sides from a Squared Set, the centers from a Double Pass Thru or Trade By, the centers of Lines Facing, Right-Hand Ocean Waves, and there are probably others.

The first important piece of groundwork is that each call requires a certain number of dancers. We say that Dosado is a 2-person call, Right And Left Thru is a 4-person call, and that Coordinate is an 8-person call. In our definitions we will generally define each call from its smallest place possible. Multiples of this starting formation are possible. This is described in item #1 in the Mainstream Preface. What is not talked about at that point is square breathing. This is the natural action that takes place as the formations change shape. For example, Spin The Top from ocean waves.

When a caller commands the dancers to do a call, they are already standing in some formation. They assume that the caller knows what he is doing and execute the call from where they are. In order to understand a definition, the reader must have some idea where the dancers are at the beginning of the call. Each definition begins with a list of possible starting formations. While these aren't meant to be restrictive, they usually cover all the common and most of the uncommon applications of the call.

While Right And Left Thru is most commonly danced from Facing Couples, it can also be done from a right-hand ocean wave. When teaching this, callers often ask the dancers to "rear back" (take a step backward out of the ocean wave) and see how they are kind of in facing couples. Instead of doubling the number of starting formations and adding extra words to each definition, the definitions have a preface with an "Ocean Wave Rule" which describes this situation once and for all. There is a corresponding "Facing Couples Rule" for doing ocean wave calls (like Swing Thru or Spin The Top) from Facing Couples. These are items #6 and #7 in the Mainstream Preface.

With this groundwork, a call like Right And Left Thru can be defined as follows:

Starting Formation: Facing Couples
Dance action: Right Pull By, Courtesy Turn
Ending Formation: Facing Couples
Timing: 6 steps.

Questions we need to talk about

Revised: $Date: 2008/10/28 03:22:33 $