Notes From A Contra Calling Workshop

November 6th, 2011
calling, contra
These were the notes for a workshop I taught on contra dance calling at Swarthmore College on 2011-11-05

There are a lot of different skills that go into being a contra dance caller. You need to be able to gauge the level of the crowd, choose appropriate dances, determine the right amount to teach during the walkthrough, use the right words in teaching, ... We don't have enough time now to talk about all aspects, so I want to get you on the path to calling a guest spot at a contra dance.

Many callers will let you call a single dance of the evening if you go up, introduce yourself, and ask nicely. In order not to make a fool of yourself, you need to be able to do two things: walk a dance through, and call (prompt) it with the music. Instead of choosing a dance that fits the level of the crowd, which is a skill you do need to learn, for now we'll just use a dance that should be appropriate for most crowds. Don't worry if it looks too easy: you want a dance that the dancers can help you recover from if you screw up. The dance looks like this:

The Baby Rose

David Kaynor

(Duple improper)


  • (16) Neighbor Balance and Swing


  • (8) Circle Left 3/4
  • (8) Dosido Partner


  • (16) Partner Balance and Swing


  • (8) Ladies Chain (to Neighbor)
  • (8) Star Left

The numbers to the left of the figures tell us how long each one takes. Notice that in each of the four sections there are a total of 16 counts. On each count the dancers will take a step. These are also usually called 'beats' or 'down beats', though these words are being used differently than a classical musician would use them. The dance needs 64 counts split up into four parts to fit the music. Let's walk this through. p> [ walk it through ]
[ have them each take a turn walking everyone else through it ]

In calling, you want to tell people what to do right before they need to do it. Your call will take some number of beats (probably two or four) and then on the next beat the figure should start. To tell people to balance and swing with their neighbor you might say:

with your neighbor balance and swing

The parts in bold are the syllables that go on the down beats. There are four of them, so this is a four beat call. A two beat version might be:

[beat] [beat] neighbor balance and swing

The [beat]s at the beginning are because the two beat call is shorter, and so you stay quiet during the first two beats, using only the last two. Let's look at one way of calling this dance:

The slashes are beats where you don't say anything, the bold syllables are said on down beats, and the remaining text is between beats. With some music, let's practice these calls all together.

[everyone calls together, with music, I drop out, people keep going]

[then we dance it, with an odd number of couples, so there's always a couple out, and whichever couple is out does the calling]

[repeat this whole exercise on a couple other dances]

Right now you're calling the same way each time. For a real dance, though, you'd slowly drop out, first reducing your calls, then leaving some out, until the dancers are dancing entirely from memory. The dancers learn the dance from the walkthrough and the calling, but they don't *really* learn it until you stop calling. You could just call the dance three times, and then drop out entirely, and hope. This would probably work, especially with an easy dance, but we can do better than that. Let's look back at the calls I wrote out for the baby rose:

[beat] [beat] neighbor balance and swing

That's quite verbose, really. After the first time through, you could probably reduce the calls a lot: "neighbor balance", "circle", "dosido", "balance", "chain", "star". A reduced call doesn't have to have all the information people need, just enough to remind them; the dancers already mostly know the dance at this point.

Perhaps they're doing well now, so for the third time through you start leaving out some calls you think they won't need. Once they're dosidoing they'll probably remember to balance and swing. They'll be already interacting with their partner, and if some of them don't remember they have plenty of time to figure it out and start swinging. You can try to figure out in advance which figures they won't need, but I think it mostly makes more sense to develop a sense of it by watching the dancers. Try leaving things out: if they stumble and look confused, call the next move on time, and they'll generally be fine. A small amount of confusion is ok and is expected: you're making the dancers work a bit, but it will pay off for them soon in having the dance memorized.

You're going to need to practice. You can call along to recordings, call to your set when it falls apart, and sit out trying to call at just the same time as the caller. Listen to the words different callers use in walkthroughs and in calling and pay attention to how well they work. Especially notice when one caller easily gets dancers through something that other callers struggle with or need a demonstration for. Figure out what you like about your favorite callers and what you don't like about callers who bug you.



  • ten simple dances written out with calls (pdf)
  • 50 good dances compiled by Bob Isaacs (doc)
  • the shared weight mailing list for supporting new callers
  • write to me! (jeff at alum dot swarthmore dot edu)

PS: I also made a lot of mistakes when I was starting, and if you're curious you can check out my calling log. You'll notice that when I was starting I called some dances I'd written a lot. I don't call them any more: they're not as good as the standard dances. Many new callers do this. It's better to call a dance that has proved itself through many evenings with many callers.

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