Dancing to Positional Calling

May 31st, 2023
calling, contra
In a contra dance when only some of the dancers should take an action, the caller typically identifies them by role: "Robins start a Hey for Four" (or "Ladies" with gendered calling). In positional calling, instead, the caller doesn't use role terms: "pass right shoulders to start a Hey for Four". While we often don't think of it this way, only the dancer currently on the right side would start a Hey passing by the right shoulder. It especially helps if this flows well from the previous figure: after a courtesy turn you can usually just say "Hey for Four" without clarifying anything about who starts it.

I wrote about positional calling back in 2019, but that was before I'd danced to it. I recently attended a dance weekend that used entirely positional calling, however, and now I have more informed thoughts!

This was in some ways a better-than-usual context for positional calling:

  • The callers (both of which travel nationally) were very experienced.

  • Being a dance weekend, ~everyone had danced before.

  • The callers were on board with the idea of positional calling, and enthusiastic about it. (This is second hand.)

And in others a worse-than-usual context:

  • Almost all of the dancers hadn't danced to positional calling before.

  • The callers were both newish to positional calling.

  • In filling a whole dance weekend with interesting dances you can't stick to the figures and transitions that are easiest to call positionally.

Looking at this from just the functional perspective of how long it took to teach dances, how quickly the callers were able to drop out, and how much confusion I saw on the floor, I feel like this worked much less well than role-based calling. For example, a phrasing I heard several times was to direct a call to "the person with their right hand free." Not only is this much wordier than "Robins" or "Ladies", but it's much less robust:

  • Say this comes after a Swing, where some couples kept a connection (and only the one on the right has their right hand free) but others didn't (and so have both of their hands free): many hands fours won't know who should begin the figure.

  • The interpretation of each call depends more heavily on the current arrangement of the dancers, so when people have made mistakes it's much harder to figure out how to get back on track.

The bigger issue, however, was that the callers often ended up using positional approaches to construct names for roles: "the people who ended the swing on the left", "the people who started the dance in the left hand role", or "left hand role dancers" as ways of saying "Lark" (or "Gent"). Mostly this is just wordy, taking more time and mental processing, but it could also be ambiguous when you don't know if the caller is trying to identify roles or current positions. I remember starting a regular duple improper dance, and they asked us to face our partner and take hands with our neighbor. Then they called something to the "people on the right". Did they mean the people currently on the right in each neighbor pair (Larks/Gents) or the people who started to the right of their partner (Robins/Ladies)? I remember this happening at least twice, intended one way in the first case and the other in the second.

I still had a great time dancing, and this didn't add enough delay and confusion to dampen my experience, but I'm really not a fan of this approach.

That said, I do still see a place for it: if you have an intractable divide in your community where some people strongly oppose gendered calling and others strongly demand "Ladies/Gents", positional calling can be a helpful compromise. Or if you're a caller that can't stand one set of terms but is often asked to call dances that require them, getting so good at positional calling (including dance selection!) that no one notices you haven't named the roles. But as a candidate for the future of contra dance calling I really don't think it's a good fit.

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