David's Blog

How To Be A Well-Known Dancer

During this time of social distancing, I thought it might be helpful to provide some food for thought so that when we all return to the dance floor, we'll be able to up our game. Here are some tips originally written for square dancers nearly 40 years ago, but I'm sure that you'll be able to make the necessary adjustments for the contra dance world. I look forward to seeing how many dancers will be able to put these tips into practice!

Dancer notes by George Pollock, Edmonds, Washington (from Washington State SD Magazine in the 1980's)

The following guide will assist you to become a well-known and frequently discussed Square Dancer: 

BE A PERFECTIONIST When you respond to the call, don't tolerate the slightest mistake by anyone in your square, including your partner. And be sure to draw attention to the culprit in a loud voice, otherwise he, or she, may repeat the error. Overlook your own mistakes, of course. 

PULL AND PUSH THE DANCERS There are times when dancers respond slowly to calls because they do not hear the commands clearly, misunderstand, or are inexperienced. Don't be misled by such flimsy reasons - pull and push the offender(s) into line, making certain that you frown sufficiently to show your displeasure. By all means, be certain that others in the square know exactly who it is. If the inept dancer who did not hear the call because you were talking; ignore this reason completely. 

HELP THE CALLER INSTRUCT Although the caller may be fully experienced and capable in his own right, don't trust him. He explains his instructions to the other dancers in your square. For greater effectiveness, explain what the caller really means while he is talking. This helps drown him out and reduces the amount of instruction that the dancers receive; after all, all they really have to do is listen to you. Your success in helping the caller will be amply demonstrated when no-one in your square (except yourself) is able to follow the actions. Now, simply revert to being a perfectionist and clearly condemn those who screw it all up. 

BE ALOOF AND UNFRIENDLY A top-rated dancer never undermines his superiority by meaningless friendly chit-chat in the square. Being friendly with less proficient dancers only encourages them to make mistakes. Do not let them forget that square dancing is entirely a matter of skill and never smile under any circumstances. Discourage the tendency of newer dancers to get the impression that square dancing is about having fun. If anyone in your square has fun, then you have failed. 

EXECUTE FANCY TWIRLS There is always the possibility that dancers in your square may not recognize your superb dancing skills. When this happens, commence high-level twirling - you can quickly spin your partner in reverse, and then adroitly snap her back into position. Invariably other dancers are impressed with the motion you have created. Ignore the unmistakable crunching of the vertebrae. Drawing attention to it only diverts other dancers and leads your partner to believe that they can fall back on this excuse when they collapse. So will everyone. You will be so remembered and well known that other dancers will avoid you. But such success does not come easily - you must work at it and follow the guide. When your partner deserts you, you'll know that you have made it big 

BE SELECTIVE Some dancers are more experienced and more capable than others - in fact, there may be some out there who are almost as good as you. Dance only with these dancers and be on guard when forming squares, otherwise, an inexperienced couple may infiltrate. By remaining vigilant, you maintain your high standards and high dancing level, and keep the new dancers together, where they belong - in that part of the hall where the sound is not as good, thus providing them with an excellent opportunity to learn from each other and continue their mistakes. Avoid helping new dancers lest you encourage them to continue square dancing and destroy what you have built up. 

EXPOSE NEW CALLERS From time to time you will encounter inexperienced callers. If you let these callers get away with anything, you are doing square dancing a disservice. Protest loudly when one errs, and make sure that the entire floor hears you. A caller, especially a new one, should not be allowed to become over-confident. By pointing out his or her shortcomings you will keep him or her at an acceptable humility level. Should such a caller eventually become a top performer, you can always remind them how you helped and encouraged them along the way. But chances are, they are going to remember you anyway. 

If callers and dancers follow the guidelines above, we will have a very harmonious activity, with just one caller and one dancer. 

Dolphin Hey - Everything You Wanted to Know, and Then Some!

Dance historian Allison Thompson and I had been independently researching the "dolphin hey," a figure that in recent decades migrated from Scottish country dance to English country dance and thence into contras. We combined our articles and came up with what is almost certainly the definitive story, including more than most mortals will care about. Seriously, it's a look at how these three related dance forms borrow from each other, a development with a long history but here recent enough that we have been able to track a very specific path. Read all about it on the CD+S Online website: The Dolphin Hey: The Evolution and Transmission of a Dance Figure

Becoming a Better Dancer

Becoming a Better Dancer

(This post is aimed articularly at English country dancers, but contra and square dance enthusiasts may also find food for thought.)

One of the challenges that callers face is that of teaching style to dancers. Note: by “style” I'm not talking about the over-the-top mannerisms that some dancers affect. Rather I'm thinking of moving gracefully, with ease and flow, connecting one figure to another, interacting with the other dancers. Style is as simple as the way we carry ourselves when standing still, and it also involves moving with intentionality, with precision, with energy.

In most dance settings, people are there to move and they resist (appropriately, in my mind) standing around listening to a caller natter on and on. But country dancing—and I include contras and squares along with English in this category—is more than just plodding through a series of prescribed figures.

Indeed, when I first was introduced to English country dancing, I resented the excessive time callers spent on imparting style points. In time, though, as I grew comfortable with the basic figures, I noticed how certain dancers moved on the floor and tried to emulate them. At that point, I was also more interested in what the callers had to say about how to move.

So, is there anything that interested dancers can do off the dance floor to improve their skill and style? Indeed. A series of six articles, Pills to Purge Mediocrity, provides a detailed set of ideas and exercises (both mental and physical) for dancers to consider, all wrapped in the notion of Personal Responsibility. He starts with the basics, how to stand and how to take the first step! A second essays looks at “developing a heightened sense of consciousness to dancing figures. Every figure consists of timing and shape, brought to life with expression.” Here, he focuses on one simple figure, the cast. Subsequent essays look at circles (connections, giving and releasing hands, timing), heys, preparing the step and working in ensemble, and the relationship between music and dance.

The six essays are a lot to read and to ponder, but I encourage serious dancers to make that effort, one at a time.

Old Movie Stars Dance to Uptown Funk

Looking for something to put you in a good mood? A contemporary mashup that combines dance scenes from classic movies set to a more recent funk soundtrack? Here you are! It's called "Movie Stars Dance to Uptown Funk," brought to you on YouTube. Great dancing, from a diverse cast including short clips of the Nicholas Brothers, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Laurel and Hardy, Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland... you get the idea. The editing is *superb* and the notes indicate that no speed adjustment was applied to the clips. Editors and dancers, sit back and enjoy five minutes of fun.

The Sleepwalker

Midwinter blues or post-holiday blahs got you feeling down? Here's a cure that'll bring you back from the doldrums. This short piece of colorful animation is based on a poem by Federico García Lorca; the images are what might result if Salvador Dali, Joan Miró and Paul Klee collaborated after a wild night of dancing to tribal fusion music. Enjoy Sonámbulo / The Sleepwalker by Theodore Ushev.

David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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