Family Dances

adapted from a post to the trad-dance-callers group, 2005

Last night, as it happens, I was calling at the 22nd annual family dance sponsored by the PTO in the small city where I live in northern NH. I've called at each of these dances for no pay—"community service" is how I think of it—though I do ask for a fee at the other such dances I do in neighboring towns. Music was provided by a family band—a mother who is a fine fiddler and two of her kids—which adds a nice touch to a family dance. (One parent came up to ask the pianist, age 14, if she would be interested in giving piano lessons to his daughter.)

Good turnout, somewhere between 150 and 175, with kids as young as 3 (and a few who were probably younger than that as well) on the dance floor. They could walk without falling over, but just barely! Two hours and a little bit more, with a short break.


No shortage of energy! The secret is to keep things moving, pick simple dances, teach them efficiently, and let 'em have fun. I love doing these dances. Unlike calling for the hard-core dancers, who are going to come back to the next week's dance (or the next month's) because they're committed to the dancing, at these one-night stands you have the chance to make a real difference in someone's life, to show them a good time. Maybe they'll grow up to continue dancing, maybe not, but they'll remember having fun at a dance. The little ones come all dressed up in their party clothes, and I loved watching a 6-year-old take care of a younger sibling on the dance floor. And no center set syndrome, either!

Here's the program from that night's dance:

Get everyone there in a tight huddle, explain the plan for the evening, ask kids to keep an eye on their parents and to speak sternly to them if they see any of the grownups running in the hall. Went right into the first dance, a play-party, because it gets everyone singing and involved from the start.

1) Jump Jim Joe: I picked this one because we had small numbers at that point and because there were so many very young children. As it turned out, many of the kids already knew the tune and dance from school, and started singing it, so I didn't have much teaching to do.

2) Traffic Jam (John Krumm): By this time, there were lots more people in the hall. I like this dance because you don't need a partner to start out, it's quick to teach, and it gets everyone moving. Dancers are getting accustomed in this dance to listening to the musical phrase and moving in time to the music.

3) Chimes of Dunkirk (book of same title): they get to choose (and keep) a partner this dance. It reinforced moving to the music with the clapping and stamping, which fit the tune perfectly. The going down the center for the first couple is pretty exciting for the younger kids.

4) Low-Backed Car (in Dudley's White Mountain Reel book): Biggest challenge here was getting folks into sets short enough to be manageable. Seven or eight couples maximum is the right number. Again, the tune helps people regulate their movements, with the clap-clap-clap, stamp-stamp-stamp phrasing. Dance reinforces the longways formation and has another sashay to the bottom to please the younger kids. I LIKE clapping dances—they really involve the dancers more and help them with the timing, I think, because it involves several different parts of the body.

5) Blobs (by Marion Rose, from CDSS News and her Step Lively series): After dances in short sets, it's nice to have the variety of a long set. With this one, I took a minute (30 seconds, maybe?) to talk about timing, demonstrating the forward and back. (It's not really four steps but three and close.) And sure enough, I noticed that on this dance people's lines were moving much more in unison. The dance uses forward and back which they've had already, introduces circle left and right (not a difficult concept for most folks) and introduces the star in an easy way, since stars can have 4, 6, or 8 people in them. No need to get fussy about a proper wristgrip, just get that hand in and start moving.

6) Sasha (from Bob Dalsemer's book Folk Dance Fun, and in the same Step Lively collection just mentioned): After so many longways dances, time to do something in another formation. Sasha is also a mixer, and by this time in the program folks are feeling more comfortable. Hardest thing about mixers is that some of the youngest kids can get attached to their parent or sibling, but in this dance if they don't separate on the elegant walking around part, no big deal. It lets those who want to mix do so without being too demanding. The dancers responded with enthusiasm—I was pleased that so many of them joined in, singing the tune as they did the elbow hook turns... a good note on which to end the first half.

short break

I had thought of taking a slightly longer break, but many kids were starting to run around, so I started the dancing up again to curb that. The musicians were still eating, so it was easy to line up for...

7) Zodiac: Like Jump Jim Joe, this play party involves dancers in making the music by singing.

8) Fan Dance (aka Hat Dance / Broom Dance): I forgot to do this last year, and I was reminded within a few minutes of the evening's start that I'd better not forget it again! So I grabbed my fan and had it sitting out to remind me. It really is the number 1 crowd-pleaser and the only real work is teaching it with enough levity to set the right mood, that and making sure that the musicians know what's coming, since it means that they have to play for a long time. We ran it for 15 minutes or more, enough time to give everyone a chance to sit in the chairs and to play with the fan.

9) Simple square, sort of Solomon Levi idea: This was a bit of a stretch, given the ages of some of the dancers, but I modified the dance, keeping more connection among the dancers (circle left and right) and eliminating a promenade. At that time in the evening, teaching a promenade would have been too much teaching involved.

10) Haste to the Wedding: the only Sicilian circle of the evening, which provided more clapping, some variety in formation, and introduced dancers to the idea of a progression involving everyone.

11) Un Deux Trois, Poussez: Along with the Fan Dance, this is always a must-do on a program, one kids remember and enjoy. Simple, easy to teach, fun to call in French, too!

12) Waltz: One of the dancers was a sixth grader who's been coming for years. Tonight, she told her mom that if would be fine if the mother just dropped her off instead of coming along—she's obviously getting close to That Age. I told her that Un Deux Trois would be the last dance and she looked stricken: "You're not going to have a waltz?" So of course we had to have one.

The mother of that girl showed up at the end of the evening to pick up her daughter and told me, sotto voce, how much these yearly dances have meant to their family. Heck, it's become a tradition!


David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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