What is a Contra Caller?

What, Exactly, Does a Contra Dance Caller Do?

A caller plans and runs the evening of contra dance.

It’s an art and craft that includes:

  • Efficiently and effectively teaching beginners before the start of the evening of dance.
  • Selecting dances that are appropriate to the level of the dancers present that evening: generally easy at first to help assimilate  newcomers and yet still fun so as not to bore the experienced dancers. Then, responding to the “vibe” of the group, to gauge and select more challenging dances.
  • Selecting a variety of dances for the evening that incorporate a diverse set of movements, mood and feel.
  • Working with the musicians 1) to establish the right tempo for the dances: often slower at first, but then faster if desired; 2) to suggest musical styles that may best fit particular dances (for example, for jigs or reels, smooth or bouncy, etc.); and 3) to smoothly begin and end each dance.
  • Establishing a rapport with the dancers and musicians to create a warm, inviting and enthusiastic atmosphere.
  • Teaching each dance effectively with clear instructions and minimal, efficient use of words (teaching is done as needed—with advanced dancers, some dances do not have to be taught).
  • Calling each movement timely and succinctly so as to provide the dancers with “just in time” cues and yet not interfere with the music.
  • If the skill level allows, calling in such a way as to train the dancers to perform each sequence of moves without the caller’s help. This allows for unobscured music.
  • Listening to feedback from musicians and dancers and making adjustments as necessary (different tempo, more or less instruction, more or less calling, incorporating preferred movement, etc.).

How does it all come together?

A contra dance can be thought of as a triangle of energy with the three vertices being the musicians, the dancers and the caller. Magical evenings occur when all three come together, feeding off of each others’ energy to raise and sustain an atmosphere of fun and joy.

The caller’s role in this is paramount. Good music and dancers without a good caller may not be magical. Poor teaching, lack of rapport or inappropriately selected dances can lead to frustration. But a good caller can make even new dancers feel like they are good, and by working with the musicians to match music to dances, set the right tempo, and feed off the energy of everyone in the hall, the caller can help make magic.

by Beau Farmer, Tapestry Contra Caller

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