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Positional Calling

June 27th, 2019
calling, contra  [html]
Some contra dance callers have been trying out positional calling. Beth Molaro wrote:

By having the dancers identify positionally which side of their partner they are dancing on (the right side dancer or the left side dancer) and then making it clear that when they swing with whoever they swing with that they must end in their position. You can also refer to their position if you need say the right side dancers to do something in the middle or anywhere. It seems to be working pretty easily.

There are many figure combinations that imply who will do the next thing through momentum and there are many sequences where it simply does not matter who is where and it will still work. Identifying those places in your dances are helpful . I think that most of the success of this comes down to the teaching.

What's nice about this is that by referring only to positions you're able to teach and prompt the dance without needing terms for the roles. That makes it gender-free, but without introducing a new term for people to push back on. Done well, the dancers don't even notice you're doing anything unusual.

Some people have been suggesting that instead of pushing Larks/Ravens advocates of gender-free dancing should try to spread positional calling. I think whether this is a good idea depends on circumstances:

  • If you're a caller who wants to start calling gender-free in a community that is divided on the issue, then I think positional calling is very promising. You can put the time into figuring out which dances work best, good phrasing that feels natural while just not happening to mention roles, and practice teaching so everyone still gets what they need from you as a caller. As far as I know, no one dislikes positional calling in itself: the only opposition is around cases where dancers don't know what they're being asked to do, and as a caller you can figure out how to avoid that.

  • If you're a dance community that has a lot of people who want gender-free dancing, this is less useful. Because a caller needs to put in a lot of work to learn how to call this way you can't just say "Would you like to call our dance—we use positional calling" the same way you could with alternate role terms. At this point if a dance wants to be fully gender-free Larks/Ravens makes a lot more sense.

One question here is what people see as a better fit for contra dance long term. Is positional dancing a compromise that lets people dance gender free in communities where Larks/Ravens is, for the time being, too controversial? Or is Larks/Ravens a temporary solution while people learn how to call well without referencing the roles at all?

I lean towards the former: role names let the caller communicate clearly to the dancers, and say more with fewer words and simpler phrasing. Long term it would be very weird to be in a culture where there are two roles but we've all agreed never to discuss them by name. But I'm also happy to see callers exploring positional calling, and if contra ended up with just "there's a right side dancer and a left side dancer" that could be a fine outcome.

(Positional calling has been moderately common in English Country Dance for a while, helped by "first/second diagonals" and "first/second corners" being part of the lexicon. I'm less excited about introducing those terms into contra, since the more jargon we have the harder it is for someone to just show up and dance.)

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