March 27, 1953 - May 25, 2009
"Heads Left Fan The Top ... the other left ... trust me ..."
"If you don't know where you are going, don't go there"
Memorial gathering to celebrate the life of John Sybalsky
Westhope Presbyterian / Taiwanese-Presbyterian Church, Saratoga, CA
September 7, 2009
Private letters of condolence can be sent to
If you have memories, stories, or pictures of John that you would like to share on the site, please mail them to Clark Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org, and they will be added here.
A scholarship fund is in the process of being set up through Callerlab's Foundation. At the moment it has not been finalized. Please be patient.
John learned Modern Western Square Dancing at MIT's Tech Squares in 1971 and started calling in 1973. He was immediately interested in Advanced and Challenge dancing, and called for several workshop groups at MIT. His longest running square dance weekend (20 years) was at Cherry Ridge and attracted many of the top challenge dancers. He called at the National Square Dance Convention, the National Challenge Convention, the American Challenge Convention, the New England Square Dance Convention, the Annual Jubilee (Santa Clara County, CA), and other weekends, festivals, and conventions around the United States and overseas.
John called for three clubs each week in the Bay Area. Stanford Quads, started in 1983 and, patterned after MIT's Tech Squares, is an APD Plus club and John has been its caller and teacher the whole time. Interlocked Squares is a C-1 club and John was one of its callers. Top Cats dances C-2 and C-3A and John was also its caller.
John joined Callerlab in 1979, and has served on many committees, including Formations, Definitions, Plus, Advanced, Challenge, and Research & Development. He started the Web Site committee, was its first chairman, and this led to getting Callerlab on the internet. He was chairman of the R&D and Advanced committees. In 1989 he was appointed Parliamentarian and held that position ever since. A collaboration with Bill Davis resulted in the publication of The Big Five which contained, among other things, definitions of calls from Mainstream through C2. When Callerlab needed Advanced and Challenge definitions, the starting point was The Big Five. Callerlab's Advanced definitions were a giant step forward from their previous efforts, mostly due to John's efforts.
John was elected to Callerlab's board of governors in 1988 and has continued to be re-elected every time he ran. In this capacity, he brought his knowledge of running a business, interest in how to make good use of volunteers, and makes sure that everyone follows the rules (see Jim Mayo).
Callerlab has an annual convention and John had an unbroken attendance record. He was a frequent speaker on a wide variety of subjects. Recent talks included: How People Learn, Simple Sight, and Inside the Definitions. John led the evolution towards the use of alternative music for patter music and gave a talk on the subject in 2001.
It is the rare caller who is able to take in new dancers and train them year after year, and at the same time entertain dancers at the C3 and C4 end of the activity. John was that caller.
He is survived by his mother Helen Sybalsky, his brother Bill Sybalsky, and his significant other Betsy Lasarow-Tozzi.
More photos and videos can be found here. The photos are here.
Revised: $Date: 2009/09/24 15:02:27 $
Clark Baker, friend since 1975 and caller
May 27, 2009 My history of square dancing and calling is very intertwined with John's as he was several years ahead of me in both. Often he taught or mentored me for my next step. Here are a few of those occasions. Spring of 1975 saw a new group take advanced lessons from John Sybalsky. Many from our Krash Kourse gave them a try, but they weren't for everyone. John pushed us past our limit and I felt like I couldn't keep all the new calls straight. The first night he taught Swap Around and Reverse Swap Around each from both positions and then expected us to keep them straight. I also remember being confused about Pass In vs. Quarter In. While I felt completely lost, he said our group was doing good. It was at this group where I was exposed to the idea of writing down call definitions and learning rules. Callerlab started in 1974 and I joined in 1980 at the urging of Don Beck and John Sybalsky. This organization of square dance callers holds a convention, mainly a series of lectures and panel discussion, every spring and I have only missed one. Square dancing has not always been very friendly towards challenge dancing, and this distrust was reflected in Callerlab. ... My first years in Callerlab were spent following John Sybalsky around, trying to figure out where I could fit in and perhaps contribute. At some point I switched from dancing at weekends to calling at weekends. My formula for success was to work with another caller who is better than you and can make you look good. For me, this was John Sybalsky. ... John called for us at the Tech Squares Weekend (a hard Plus level). He was able to make it hard, sometimes really hard, but still let you know that you were in his capable hands and everything was going to be ok. I think of John as putting the "wind in your face dancing" back in challenge square dancing. For a while we had gotten way too stop and go, and John put the dance back. At Cherry Ridge we would swap calls for the first tip of each session. John is so much better at keeping track of the dancers and resolving than I so often I would just let him do the resolving. Sometimes we were able to swap calls and resolve, perhaps with only one or two whispered hints. It was even more exciting when I was on the wireless mike and out of nonverbal communication range. I learned a lot calling those weekends with him. I especially appreciated the 5 hour drive out and back where we could catch up on everything.
May 28, 2009
Attached Photo was taken by Josie B. after Bill Davis' Memorial dance on March 29. 2009 We will miss John. Roger Smith
Laura Baker, Clark's daughter
May 28, 2009 When I was about 9 years old and we were driving up to Lake Shore Farm for the Tech Squares weekend with John I remember a conversation which went something like this: Me, interrupting: How far is it? John: 90 miles Me, interrupting a while later: How far is it? John: 180 miles Me, even later: How far is it? John: 360 miles Me, beginning to catch on: How far now? John: 720 miles At this point I realized that I hadn't been really listening to the answers, and that John was just playing with me to see if I was.
Joe and Sandy Caldwell, Atlanta/Virginia Beach dancers
May 28, 2009 Many years ago, we attended an Advanced and Challenge weekend in Toledo. We met John there and were talking to him about the lack of really challenging Plus dancing in most places. We had so much fun discussing a wide variety of things that spilled over into the evening. He invited us to Tony Packo's after the dance, where we met many callers and dancers who had only been names to us. A few weeks later, we received an email from Clark Baker inviting us to a Tech Squares weekend in New Hampshire. Clark said that John had asked him to invite us. John said he wanted us to know just how much fun Plus could be. That was the beginning of our association with Tech Squares, and our friendship with John continued over the years. We wanted to dance with him the last time we were in San Francisco, but he was working out of town. The last time we saw him was when he showed up unexpectedly (except to us) at our tape group in Atlanta. We had a great time dancing with him in our squares. We have kept in touch by email off and on over the years, and Joe and I will really miss him. Our prayers are with his family and friends.
Jim Mayo, caller, first chairman of Callerlab
May 28, 2009 John was a good friend for many years. Clark's web site provides much information about his contributions to square dancing and CALLERLAB. I worked with John actively throughout his membership on the Board of Governors and know, perhaps better than anyone else, how important were his contributions to the organization. John brought with him to his early participation on the BOG a commitment to openness. He believed that CALLERLAB belonged to the members and that all the actions of the leadership should be made easily available to any member with an interest. His was a persistent and often lonely voice urging fairness and full disclosure. He was uniquely able to argue his position vigorously, and then to accept and support the decision of the majority. He will be sorely missed.
Kathy Godfrey, Boston area dancer
May 28, 2009 My first exposure to John was at a C2 workshop he was co-calling with Clark at MIT. In the tradition Clark mentions above, my first week in the class featured Walk Out to a Wave and File to a Line. Needless to say, I was happy to get a copy of John's The Big Five to help me soldier on. (I think I was soon after treated to a discussion of who can roll after Chase Right.) I also discovered, in the small world of MIT, that my non-square-dancing significant other knew John also, but in the context of MITSFS, the MIT Science Fiction Society. John had a knack as a caller for keeping you on your toes with "change of focus" calling—the last call may have left you thinking about waves, but the next call would be in your box. This can make even Mainstream/Plus surprisingly tricky if you're not paying attention. He also was ahead of his time in using "non-square-dance" records that happened to fit the tempo requirements (such as the theme from "My Three Sons" or the original recording of "Wheels" by the String-a-Longs). His deadpan, slightly sardonic delivery mirrored his humor off the stage. No one else was quite like John, whether behind the mic or not.
David K. Z. Harris, Stanford Quads dancer
May 28, 2009 In 1987, I started to date a squaredancer. She already danced at two groups, one was with John Bowman, and the other was Stanford Quads. Initially, I tagged along to watch, but I was intrigued by the puzzle aspects of the dancing, so Beki got me started with classes at Sunnyvale Singles, and Bill Davis' couples club. (Quads was already well into their class sessions.) The two classes taught differnt call orders, and I was attending two classes a week, so I came up to speed pretty fast. I was also going to Quads on Sunday night to watch, and asking some senior dancers to explain calls that I didn't know yet. One night, Beki took me up to John, explained that I knew more than 3/4 of the basic and plus calls, and asked whether he thought I might be able to handle a tip at Quads... John looked me up and down, looked at Beki, and said "Blood on the floor." :-O Beki stood up for me, and John relented..."If you find a square with six others willing to let him dance, he can try it." Ken Olum, Judy Anderson, Betsy Lazarow, Stuart, Mark Brautigam I think were in my first square. I did OK at first, and then John turned up the heat, and I was quikly dancing "See 7". Thanks to good dancers, I made it through. In a couple more weeks, I was dancing at Quads regularly. :-) Later, in 1989, Beki and I got married. Most of our shared social life then involved squaredancing, so we decided to have a squaredance at our wedding, instead of a normal dance, since many Quads folks would be there. We asked John if he would call even though he would be a guest, and he graciously accepted. We did a demonstration tip for everyone. I danced with my mom, Beki with her dad, and my aunt and uncle (Plus dancers) took the other two parents in the head square, while Quads folks danced with all other comers in three other squares. After that, the non-dancers caught their breath, while Quads folks "showed them how it's done", with John calling Beki's favorite, "The Devil Came Down To Georgia". (Try that in a wedding dress, and slick-bottom shoes sometime!) Thanks to John especially, and to all the Quads folks, for such wonderful memories.
Ken Robinson, dancer in NJ
May 28, 2009 If Helena were still alive, she would have already written pages of memories, but since I have to do it myself... I remember Helena talking about meeting John in the mid 70's on her "infamous" trip to the NE Square Dance Convention (either in '75, '76, or '77). I don't remember when I met him for the first time. It was either in the late 80's when we went to the NE Square Dance Convention or when we started going to the National Challenge Convention (early to mid '80s). To paraphrase Ed Foote — It was always a pleasure to hear him call and to dance to his calling. The best dances I can remember were the ones with you at Cherry Ridge ("John calling John, John calling Clark") and the Tech Squares Plus March weekends. I will always remember his "Cheshire Cat" smile and full beard. He will be missed by the whole Square Dance activity.
Alan "Puck" Stevenson, Stanford Quads dancer
May 28, 2009 I started dancing at Stanford Quads in 2006 so haven't had as much time to know John, but he has earned my greatest respect. On May 17, 2009, the last night he called for Quads, there was a dancer that got lost on the floor and didn't know what to do. This was in a back square with a few squares between them and John. Seeing something that didn't look right, John did a sequence of about three calls and the square formed around the lost dancer as he stood there, putting him in the right place at the right time. People often joke that the caller should call what the floor is dancing, but I actually saw John do it to save a dancer.
Barry Leiba, New York dancer
May 29, 2009 I first met John in the early 1990s, at what was then the National Advanced and Challenge Convention in Virginia Beach. I got to know him more when another (alas, also departed) square-dance friend suggested that I go to a dance where, as he put it, John "Check Your Right Hand at the Door" Sybalsky was calling. Over the years since then, we'd become friends, getting together for things other than square dancing. I've wine-hopped in Napa Valley with him twice, and talked late into the night at square-dance weekends, long after the dancing ended. [Please read the rest of Barry's memories at his blog]
Maria Hurley, Tech Squares dancer
May 29, 2009 I remember John from when he learned how to Square Dance at MIT, and his early years as a caller. I grew up in Winchester, and started Square Dancing in High School. Going to Tech Squares was nice, because it was fun, and there were plenty of guys. I remember going to lots of dances in and around Boston with groups of dancers from Tech Squares and just John. I remember how much fun we all had going to the NE conventions, and out to UAmherst and down to Rutgers and DC for their major conventions. Having a car meant that I got talked into lots of trips! I also remember being dragged on the floor to do challange dancing, down in DC, with "those kids" even though it was above my head, because I was female, and could usually fake it. I never got into challange dancing, and after marrying and having kids and moving away from the Boston area, have seldom danced. There aren't any clubs like Tech Squares around here! I remember when he first started calling, and how every time I heard him he'd have gotten better. It was something he really loved and worked on. I'm sorry we didn't stay in touch... Maria Hurley, Malvern PA, formerly Winchester, MA & Steve Blatman
Kindra Van Spyk, Stanford Quads dancer
May 30, 2009 I thought that I was above average plus dancer and it seemed like I just Knew what the next call was going to be from all the callers that I would dance to, so I was talking to some friends and told them this, one of them told me to come to Stanford Quads and dance to John and you wont be bored. Well it took me a week or two to get there but boy what a time I had, I think that they had told John about me and he was ready. We were dancing basic and mainstream no plus and John had me pulling my hair out, then when we went to plus ho boy seemed like I kept hearing my name called out "no your other left". It took about 2 months before I became a Quad thanks to John. At the end of the night at Quads we work our way up from plus to as high as we can go one night we went all the way to C4 it was the time when we had Vic Cider, his wife, Rob French, and some other C4 dancers with us that night. It was decided that Rob French would call for the group and it was go for it anything and all things were fair game, they started and as things went Vic was getting bored so he turned around and was dancing backward to the calls and John turned followed right along. the other dancers were having a few problems and here John and Vic pointing to where they should go and dancing backwards to boot that will be one of my best memories of John. Kindra Van Spyk a Stanford Quad forever love John. and NO YOUR OTHER LEFT
Carol Tapp, Atlanta dancer
May 30, 2009 Several years ago, because my name is in Zip Coder as contact for upper level dancing in the Atlanta area, I received a telephone from someone who said, "My name is Betsy. My partner and I will be in Atlanta on business next weekend and would like to dance while we are there. Do you know of any upper-level dances over the weekend?" A C-2 group meets in my basement/square dance hall on Friday nights so I told Betsy that and asked if she and her partner danced C2. She said, "Yes," so I invited them to come. She asked me to have the Morlans there, as they were friends, but not to tell them who it is that was coming, as they wanted it to be surprise. On Friday night a couple walked in and she said, "I'm Betsy and this is John." I had never seen them before and didn't get any last name, which is OK in square dancing groups. We danced for two and a half hours — with me still in the dark as to the fact that this was a well-known caller who calls all levels. I realized they were good dancers and we really enjoyed the evening (see Sandy Caldwell's comment earlier). John and Betsy were among the first to leave, and after they left, George said to me, "Carol, do you know who that was?" My comment was, "Sure! John and Betsy!" When George told me it was John Sybalsky, I was really surprised. He was so humble and one would never have guessed he was a top caller! If I had known that, I would probably have invited him to call for us (for pay, of course)! I have since danced to him at C3 and really enjoyed his interesting correography. The square dance world will miss him. I send my sincere sympathies to Betsy and the rest of John's family.
Richard Stone, APO brother, Tech Squares dancer
May 30, 2009 I first knew John as a fellow Brother of MIT's chapter of APO. (APO is a national fraternity geared to volunteer work and community service.) The fine soul that everyone here writes of was as evident then as it would be in years to come. Understandably, most memories people are writing have to do with John and square dancing. At MIT, I knew John was one of the several Brothers of APO that were also in Tech Squares. I wasn't to find out John's full impact on square dancing until after I returned to Cambridge many years later and joined Tech Squares myself. (Yes, you don't have to be a student to join.) But, John covered many fields, and I wanted to include into the list of memories an area I hadn't seen mentioned as yet. I didn't even know it existed until the mid-90's. By then, I had moved to the Minneapolis area, gotten married, and dropped out of square dancing (in that order). I saw that John was going to call a local dance, so I stopped by to say "Hi". During one of the breaks between tips, someone commented that John had such a good voice for calling and wondered if he worked on his voice. John said he did work on his elocution, and mentioned that one thing he would do to this end is sing Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs. That John was a Savoyard was new to me, so I mentioned that I was also an aficionado of G&S. You'd think I'd have known better. John immediately went into a rendition of "When You're Lying Awake" from Iolanthe, the longest of the G&S patter songs, with a look that I should join in. I did, but John was the far better performer (duh!), and even included some appropriate physical acting for the song. It reminded me, and taught the assembled dancers, that there is always more to this caller than you think. He will always be missed.
Christopher Johnston, childhood friend
May 31, 2009 John was a close friend during the 1960's. We grew up living across the street (Croft Rd.Town of Poughkeepsie,NY) from each other. Our fathers both worked at IBM. We attended the same schools although as I was a year older, were not in the same class. We had many common interests, and became companions. Our friendship was enhanced exponentially when we became members of Boy Scout troop #23. We also built tree houses and forts, assembled many projects out of "Popular Electronics" and formed secret clubs based on the "Man from U.N.C.L.E.". I was often impressed with John's home environment. Upon entering the living room the first impression was "wow", a base fiddle and a piano. The entire family including John's younger brother Bill, often played together. Here I believe I first experienced classical music, and in "stereo" playing on his fathers receiver. There was often the aroma of fresh baked food from the kitchen. John's mother (Helen) was a nurse who became the school nurse at school. John was so very easily likable, he was energetic yet easy going, intelligent and witty, with a great sense of humor. I have so many more fond memories which will keep John's spirit always with me.
Don France, San Jose challenge dancer
May 31, 2009 John's passing leaves a BIG hole in our local square dance community; he helped Fannie & me hold together our C-1 club starting in '95. More importantly, thru numerous trials & tribulations of the reincarnated C1 group, Interlocked Squares, John was always the "rock" of good sense and good humor — helping us and the board of directors maintain our sanity and (most recently) revitalize the club with a class in 2007. We learned of John as we were advancing up the levels from Plus & APD to Advanced to C1; by reputation, we were too intimidated to visit Quads until we reached C1 level. When he offered a C2 class (I think it was '91 or '92), we had just finished learning C1 — BUT some dancer-friends encouraged us to try it, since who knew how soon another class might be offered. We were pleasantly surprised to find John to be such a big, teddy-bear — kind, patient, quick-witted humor and exquisitely competent! John will be sorely missed! Betsy & John's family are in our thoughts and prayers. -Don & Fannie
Michael Maltenfort, caller in Chicago
June 3, 2009 Many of us enjoyed John's calling—both his choreography and his personality at the microphone. My favorite memory of John was his explanation of how to Trail Off. He explained that this call was a variation of Peel Off. "On Peel Off," John told us, "you go away from the center of your formation. Just like how you peel a banana. For Trail Off, you go across the center." And then John deadpanned, "Like you trail a banana." This line got some chuckles from the floor. More importantly, this nonsense helped people remember the idea of Trail Off. When I taught Trail Off this year, I used John's line (giving him credit, of course). Now a new crop of dancers know these calls because of John's little joke. When I called Peel Off just this week, I heard "like a banana!" from the floor, a nice tribute to John.
Marianne C. Jackson, Dancer by Definition and Square Dance Caller - Cincinnati
June 5, 2009 Marianne C. Jackson, Dancer by Definition and Square Dance Caller - Cincinnati, Ohio My clearest memory of John goes back to the 1993 Pittsburgh Callerlab Convention: I had just designed a Caller Workbook. I thought there had to be a better way to help new callers learn the basics to learning about calls and patter. Several big name callers had reviewed the worbook and thought it was good but not too many new callers would be willing to put in the homework time. A couple of callers were on the attack and he intervened on my behalf. I was in tears and thought I should just quit. I am very glad he came to my rescue and defended me. YOU MEET SOME OF THE BEST PEOPLE WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT.
Lynne Toribara and Brian Howard, Stanford Quads dancers
June 5, 2009 I dragged my somewhat apprehensive husband to observe a Quads class after reading about the group in a newspaper article. I assured him that it might be a fun way to get some physical activity into our lives. The class had already been in session for a couple of weeks, so I wasn't sure if we would be welcomed at this point, but Betsy immediately took us under her wing. She positioned us in a square directly under the caller's penetrating gaze, and assured us that John would take care of us. This wasn't my idea of an inconspicuous entry to the class, but, as I later discovered, there was no place on the dance floor that you could hide from John. Anyway, I reasoned, the class had only been going for a few weeks. They couldn't have learned that many steps. Also, I had done some square dancing in my teens (about a thousand years ago). How hard could it be? Well... I had never danced to a caller who could make such complicated sequences out of so few steps. He left me in the dust. I would dredge one step out of the depths of my murky memory only to discover that he had called three additional steps and I had no idea where I was supposed to be. And what was this "all positions" stuff?? I was a GIRL, for Pete's sake. Fortunately, the square was stocked with friendly Quads who guided Brian and me around. At the end of the first dance, I was ready to collapse. I certainly didn't have enough energy to run screaming from the floor, which was my first inclination. John cocked his head and fixed me with a beady eye. "This is it," I thought, "he's going to kick us out of the class." "Hmm," he said, "somebody has square danced before." That was another thing I found out about John. Never a discouraging word — no matter how much we messed up. And he had the uncanny knack of looking over the dance floor and figuring out where the problems were, and how to fix them: "Guys should be facing out. Lynne, you are now a guy. Trade with Brian. Brian, you were right in the first place. Stick to your guns!" As we scrambled to comply with his instructions, he would give additional helpful hints: "Nope nope nope nope nope nope, yup yup yup yup yup yup." We stuck out the class, and finally (when I had figured out the difference between Acey Deucey and Relay the Deucey and the various Spin Chain moves), we became Quads. Thanks to John, we had been bitten by the square dance bug, and danced fairly regularly with 4 different groups. But we always considered ourselves to be, first and foremost, Stanford Quads. John encouraged us as we struggled through the A2 level. He was by far the finest caller and teacher that we ever experienced. His challenging and sometimes diabolical calls always kept us on our toes and often caught us flat-footed. He exercised the mind as well as the body. Dances were never dull when John was calling. Brian and I will miss him very much.
John & Miriam White, PACE Nor-Cal dancers
June 7, 2009 As part of the Charter Membership of PACE Nor-Cal, we were privileged to have known John for over 29 years. He has been a huge asset as a Caller, Teacher, Leader and Dancer to our Square Dance community and Challenge Movement. If we ever had a problem with a call or sequence on a tape, we would ask John, since we danced weekly in his clubs for many years. John, you are too young to leave us. PACE as well as all your students and dancers will miss you and your choices of music. Are you still calling?!? Maybe the Lee Kopman joke that circulated twenty years ago is true!!! A man was standing in line at the Pearly Gates waiting while St. Peter I-D'ed, x-rayed and patted people down when he heard music. Surprised, he asked St. Peter if they had square dancing in Heaven. St. Peter said "Of Course." The man said "Who's calling? He sounds pretty good." St. Peter said "Oh its God calling, but he thinks he is Lee Kopman." Missing you, John, John & Miriam White
Ken Ritucci, caller, Callerlab Accredited Caller Coach
June 15, 2009 I have known John for over 25 years and although our paths didn't cross too much since he moved out west, it was always nice to see John at the Callerlab Conventions. What impressed me about him was how he really wanted to teach other callers and he would make himself available whenever Callerlab had a Caller Coach interest session. When I approached John about doing a school in the San Jose area, he was thrilled. This would give him the hours he would need for being a Caller Coach. It would also give him and I a chance to work together. John would be proud to know the school is filling up and he will no doubt be there with me. I will miss you John.
Gay Callers Association
June 18, 2009 The June 2009 issue of the Call Sheet (the Professional Journal of the Gay Callers Association) has a nice "John Sybalsky: Memories" article which they kindly gave me permission to republish here. A higher quality PDF of the reprint can be found here.
Bob and Holly Huenemann, Stanford Quads and Interlocked Squares dancers
June 19, 2009 Furry Lisa, yes, Chicken Yodel, yes. But that only scratches the surface of John's tune list. He took great delight in finding truly outrageous, hugely annoying music to use. He seemed especially fond of the Cajun Accordion. Does anyone have access to John's Ipod, or whatever he used? I would love to see the list of titles. Holly and I had danced for a while, and we decided to go to the Quads dance. It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Thanks to folks like Bill van Melle and Pat Ho, we made it through a few of the moves. Their ability to dance their own part flawlessly while helping a completely clueless square still amazes me. I will never forget telling Holly "We're going to learn to dance like that, or I am going to quit dancing". And thanks to John's infinite patience, we actually did get some of it figured out, up to C1. Thank you, John, for never once making me feel stupid as you corrected my many mistakes. You were truly a gentle giant, as well as being a genuine genius in a couple of areas I know a little something about, and probably others as well. Rest in peace.