by Zoë Madonna
(Above link: the author calling in Oberlin this past February.)
CDSS recently published the results of their contra dance caller’s survey, which they solicited submissions for in May 2013. I remember submitting my entry on one of the final days; I had seen the survey link earlier in the month but surmised that I should wait until I called my first dance in public before I could call myself a “caller.” I called the dance (The Baby Rose by David Kaynor) at the Glenside, PA open mic without any disasters, so I figured then I was qualified to submit. Earlier this year, I looked at the survey and found myself categorized in the 8% of callers under thirty. The contra scene is full of musicians under thirty, but callers under thirty seem pretty hard to come by on the national scale. At most dances I’ve attended recently, callers have been over forty and well established in either local or regional scenes.
If I had done most of my dancing anywhere but my college, where young callers are the norm, I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to start calling or even thought of learning, but now that I’ve called more guest dances than I have fingers on my hands, I don’t regret the decision to learn at all. For me, there’s a very real surge of energy that I feel every time I’m behind the mic; a symbiotic relationship with the band, the dancers, the sound of the feet on the floor. I’m calling my first half evening in two weeks at the Oberlin dance, and I’m looking forward to calling for and playing with familiar faces again.
But enough about me; what about you? Do you want to learn to call but aren’t sure where to start? Is your dance community either in need of a new caller? Have you thought “maybe when I’m older, I’ll learn to call?” If you want to learn to call, there’s no need to wait for a magic age. Here I’ll offer you some of the resources I used when I was learning to call, and I’m sure that with some Google magic you’ll find some others.
Seth Tepfer’s website, Dance Rhapsody, was probably the most helpful site I found before I started calling. Not only does he have useful notes on programming, running a beginners workshop, and effective walkthroughs: he has posted a handful of dances useful for novice callers. Check out the “great dances for novice contra callers” handout for a straightforward graphic explanation of calling on the beat of the music.
Cary Ravitz’s website can be a little bit dense, but it’s an incredible resource; head to the “For Beginning Callers” section. He’s written many dances too, and they’re all organized by difficulty. Take a look at the “contra dances by” section on his calling home page if you’re not easily overwhelmed.
YouTube may seem obvious, but it’s an invaluable resource in two senses; if you pick a common dance, chances are you’ll be able to find a video of someone (or a few someones) calling it, and you can also search for videos of callers you admire and pick up some style tips. Nils Fredland, George Marshall, and Susan Kevra are nationally known because they have style; what’s your style going to be? Think of the callers you’d drive an hour or more to dance with, and use them as role models.
I called to the wall of my dorm room for about two months before I called for the first time, practicing to recorded music. Pick a recording with a strong beat; it’ll be easier to follow and call on time! I recommend Rodney and Randy Miller’s New England Chestnuts, The Moving Violations’ Faster than a Walk, and Airdance’s Flying On Home.*
Your local dance callers and organizers! If the same person consistently calls your local dance, get to know that person and ask for a guest slot. If there’s an open mic night, sign up. Don’t get intimidated by telling the organizer or the main caller for the evening that you’ve never called before; they were all there before you, and chances are they’ll be overjoyed that there’s a young person who wants to call a dance! If you’re nervous about being up behind the mic with no “safety net,” ask a more experienced caller to get up there with you for your first few dances and be a safety net.
If you don’t want to learn on your own, ask the organizer if they know anyone who does caller’s workshops. I wasn’t there because I was abroad, but last fall Akron caller Michael Hamilton hosted a workshop for beginning callers at Oberlin, and all the participants called one dance at the dance later that night.
Last of all, you are your own greatest resource. Calling isn’t an easy job, and gigs won’t drop onto your head; if you want to call, you are the person most responsible for making it happen. Reach out to other callers, pick some favorite dances, and emanate joy in what you do!
* all available at the CDSS Store
A singer, dancer, musician—and Oberlin junior―Zoë Madonna interned with CDSS this past January.