Sidmouth Callers Workshops 1998

At the 1998 Sidmouth Folk Festival Mike Courthold and myself ran a series of workshops for callers. These are my notes that were handed out at those workshops.

These notes have been designed to give you things to think about rather than tell you what to do or how to do it. There are very few hard and fast rules when calling - what works for one caller or one situation may well not work with a different caller or a different situation. There is no substitute for experience.

Perhaps the main thing to remember is "be adaptable".


Preparing an evening

There are a lot of things to take into account when preparing for an evening.E.g.:

Your preparation needs to be done far enough in advance that you have time to warn the band of any special tunes that may be required.

Be ready to change the programme at a moments notice. You might find that the group you are calling for is significantly different to the group you prepared for.

Try and plan the evening with an idea of the whole flow. Vary the energy level throughout the evening.

Preparing a single dance

These are my thoughts on prepararing a single dance taken from a thread on the rec.folk-dancing newsgroup:

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My theory is that a caller can only call a dance well if they can mentally dance the dance from every position in the set simultaneously. My aim when preparing a dance is to reach that state of "enlightenment", then to make sufficient notes on a crib card that I can reach that state again quickly ( i.e. while the dancers are making up sets for the dance ).

I don't actually prepare the call or the walkthrough explicitly, what I prepare is the crib card. A few of the things I want to know whilst preparing the dance ( and might well note on the card ) are:

Once I have a dance in my head, the actual words I use to describe the walkthrough or call the dance are fairly automatic ( this can mean automatically good or automatically bad ). I rarely specify the words I want to use for the walkthough or call on the crib card, the main exception to this is when I have found that a particular set of words gives me problems ( see Jim Saxe's list of confusing words for some examples of this ).

To try and summarise:

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Walking through a dance

Assuming you have prepared correctly you should be able to do this with no more than an occasional glance at the crib card. It is usually very obvious when a caller is just reading instructions from the card.

Watch the dancers on the entire floor, not just the set immediately in front of you. Look for signs of confusion. If somebody is doing something wrong try and find another way of explaining it.

Choose your words carefully - see the section headed "Ill-chosen words" for examples of words and phrases that might prove confusing.

Calling a dance

Timing is all important - when to put the calls in so that people can hear them and understand them in time. You need to be calling just ahead of the phrase of music. For example, if each step is represented by a dash or an underlined word you might choose to call "Timber Salvage Reel" as follows:

Timber Salvage Reel

_ _ _ _ dosido the one below
A1 1 - 4 Dosido your neighbour _ _ _ _ dosido your part ner
5 - 8 Dosido your partner _ _ _ _ first couple balance and swing
A2 1 - 8 First couple balance and swing _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ 1s lead down the hall _
B1 1 - 4 First couple lead down _ _ _ _ turn and lead back _
5 - 8 First couple lead back, _ _ _ _ cast around for a right hand star
cast around the twos
B2 1 - 4 Right hand star _ _ _ _ back the other way with a left hand star
5 - 8 Left hand star

There are several things to note:

As the dancers become more familiar with the dance you might want to call but with shortened decsriptions. This might lead to calls such as the following:

_ _ _ _ dosido the one below
A1 1 - 4 Dosido your neighbour _ _ _ _ _ and your part ner
5 - 8 Dosido your partner _ _ _ _ 1s balance _ _
A2 1 - 8 First couple balance and swing _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ 1s lead down _ _
B1 1 - 4 First couple lead down _ _ _ _ _ _ _ and back
5 - 8 First couple lead back, _ _ _ _ _ _ right hand star
cast around the twos
B2 1 - 4 Right hand star _ _ _ _ _ _ left hand star
5 - 8 Left hand star

In general people have come to a dance to dance rather than to listen to the caller. This means that you should stop calling as soon as you can, although no sooner. In practice you might find you have to call a dance all of the way through

Practice to records. Pick a dance and some suitable music then practice fitting your calls to the music. Record yourself doing this, then play back the recording and try and dance to it. If the band agree, you might also like to record yourself at an actual dance. This sort of self analysis is very useful, but also very difficult.

One of the nice things about calling is that you can get almost instant feedback on how you're doing. Basically, are the dancers doing what you want when you want them to? This applies both to the walkthrough and the dance itself. Be honest with yourself, but avoid being overly critical. If people are having trouble following your instructions think about how you can explain things in a different manner.

Think about the quality of your diction. Do you pronounce words clearly or do you slur them? Look after your voice - there are some singers excercises which you might find useful. One easy one is to sing softly on your way to the booking - this warms up the vocal chords gently.

Watch other callers, see what language they use. Different callers have different ways of explaining figures. Even if you like your way of explaining something, have a couple of alternative explanations ready in case your normal explanation doesn't work.


Sooner or later you will make a mistake - you might miss a move out in the walkthrough, the instructions you have on your card might be wrong, you might call the wrong move during the dance. Making a mistake is not a crime, what matters is how you handle the mistake.

It is sometimes possible to cover up the mistake. If you're calling for an audience of beginners and you call a circle left instead of a right hand star during the walkthrough in some generic sicilian circle dance the chance are that no one's going to notice (unless the previous movement was also a circle left). If you're calling at a Sidmouth LNE and you get Nottingham Swing wrong people are going to notice and pull you up on it.

Don't try and blame your mistakes on anyone else. You might even have to accept the blame for some mistakes that weren't yours.

On occasions you might find that you've picked the wrong dance - usually much too difficult for the dancers on the floor. You have two choices:

1. Drop the dance entirely and waste the time you've already spent on it.

2. Carry on teaching and possibly waste even more time.

This is not an easy decision to make, you just have to rely on your judgement. Make sure that this doesn't happen on the last dance. You want to leave people on a high.

Ill-chosen words

This is taken from rec.folk-dancing and was put together by Jim Saxe.

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Below is the beginning of a summary of the examples given in the responses I've received, together with examples I've accumulated from my own dancing and calling experience. But first some comments and caveats.

The examples given below and in the later installments to follow should be read with a critical eye. Ideally, they would clearly illustrate direct connections between poorly chosen words on the part of callers and confusion on the part of dancers. In practice the words reported may not be what a caller actually said, but only what the caller remembers having said or what a dancer remembers having heard. Any confusion that was later observed may have been due to a variety of causes, which might or might not relate to the caller's choice of particular words; for example, the caller may have chosen inappropriate material, failed to understand the dance thoroughly before presenting it, failed to verify that all dancers were correctly positioned after each figure in the walk-through, or failed to maintain the dancers' attention. Or other words that the caller said earlier than the ones reported might have sowed the seeds of confusion. Or the words in the example might be words that some caller avoids (or that somebody thinks callers should avoid) for fear that they *might* cause confusion. The same words that are effective with one group of dancers may be ineffective with another group. Alternative "better" wordings suggested in some of the examples may not actually be more effective in a given situation than the original "bad" wordings. Contorting your teaching in order to avoid the words used in a "bad" example--or in order to set the context for some clever bit of "good" phrasing--may do more harm than good. In short, these examples and any associated commentary are no substitute for your good judgment.

I've made some attempt to group the examples into categories-- sound-alikes (covered in this message), ambiguities, timing problems, etc.--but many of the examples could equally well fit into two or more categories. In such cases I've made somewhat arbitrary decisions, being more concerned with writing the examples down that with devising an ideal system of classification.

Thanks to all the people who've help me compile the examples in this message and in the messages to follow, either by their responses to my queries on rec.folk-dancing or through recent private conversations. These include: Bob Archer, Jenny Beer, Bo Bradham, Roger Broseus, Ron Buchanan, Harold Cheyney, Brent Chivers, Charlie Fenton, Jim Fownes, Michael Fuerst, Anne Hillman, Donna Howell, Larry Jennings, Jon Leech, Alan Gedance, Jonathan Griffiths, Jackie Hoffman, Paul Marsh, Greg McKenzie, David Millstone, Russell Owen, Obejoyful, Ted Swift, Tony Parkes, Dan Pearl, Ted Swift, Kiran Wagle, and perhaps others whose names I've inadvertently omitted. My thinking about words to use in teaching and calling dances has also benefitted (I hope) from interactions with many other dancers, musicians, and callers over the years, and I won't even attempt to list them all. Of course none of the above-mentioned individuals necessarily subscribes the opinions expressed in what follows. In fact, I'm not so sure about some of those opinions myself.

Enough preamble. On to the examples.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

First, here are some examples involving sound-alike wordsówords that sound similar to other words because they share a syllable or even a vowel sound. Note that not all these examples necessarily involve ill-chosen words. In some cases the potential problems might be avoided by more careful enunciation or more careful teaching rather than by a different choice of words.

A caller's use of a particular word may have the unfortunate effect of suggesting a different usage of the same word. Here are some examples that I subjectively chose to categorize as sound-alike phrases, rather than in some other category.

If the hall is noisy, the acoustics are poor, and/or the sound system is poorly adjusted, or the callers' enunciation and mic technique are poor, it's easy for some words to become completely lost (i.e., be sound-alikes for nothing). This can be particularly troublesome with words like "not" and "don't":

While I'm on the subject of sound-alikes, here are some examples of words that may not cause any actual confusion, but that suggest stale puns.

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A few other examples:


Music is an integral part of the dance, but often overlooked. The same dance can have a completely different feel when done to different tunes or types of tunes. The more you know about the music the better your calling will be. It helps if you can play an instrument (you don't have to play to any great level), and it is even better if you can play for dancing at some point.

Even if you don't play an instrument just knowing a little about music theory will help enormously. As a caller you will have to select suitable music for a dance, pick an appropriate speed, be able to count bars and give very clear signals on the timing of moves.

Whether you play an instrument or not try and sit in with a band for an evening to get the "bands eye" view of the event. You'll find that it is very different to the callers perspective.

Working with a band

Be nice to the band - they can be your best friend or your worst enemy. You should be in partnership with the band, not fighting them. Remember that they're people too and also want to enjoy the evening.

Communicate with the band in advance. Make sure they know about any special tunes that you require. Even if there is a tune that you know the band has in their repertoire make sure you've warned them about it in advance - they might want to practice it specially. Although some bands are capable of sight reading almost anything it isn't fair to ask them to do this, particularly because most caller's copies of music are extremely badly written out. Think what it would be like if someone gave you a dance written down almost illegably on a scruffy piece of paper and expected you to call it there and then.

Bands vary enormously in their repertoire. Some can give you almost anything from ceilidh style jigs to Playford to American, others are much more restricted. Find out what the band's repertoire is and work within that. If a band are unhappy about playing a particular tune don't force them into doing it - you should always be able to find another dance.

Help carry their PA in and out. Get the first round of drinks in while they're setting up. These two simple acts will endear you to the band forever. Talk to the band, don't just use them as a tool. If necessary ask their advice - good bands are skilled at reading the tone of an evening.

Try and give the band helpful instructions about what you want them to play - "32 bar anything" doesn't really give them any guidance, "32 bar Irish jigs" narrows things down a lot more. If you know a few tunes yourself you can always ask for "something like Jump at the Sun". Saying "something like" means that the band doesn't feel forced into playing "Jump at the Sun", however it will help their decision making (of course this assumes that they know the tune you're suggesting would be suitable).

Starts and stops are always important. Some bands always use the same introduction, others vary the introductions. The important thing is that you know what is coming so that you can provide a nice clear call at the appropriate moment. It is usually worth telling the dancers what the introduction is going to be. You will need enough musical knowledge to latch onto a two or four bar introduction.

Find out from the band how much warning they like that the dance is going to end, then make sure that you give them that much warning in enough time for them to make use of it. E.g. a band would like to change back to the original tune for the last time through a dance. If you give them the "one more time" warning one bar before the end of the penultimate time through the dance they are not going to have time to comunicate that they are changing tunes so the information is of very little use to them. Much better is to give them the "one more time" about 8 bars before the end of the dance.


There is a variety of conflicting advice available on the tax aspects of calling. This section attempts to list the things that are almost certainly true.


These are some personal thoughts about calling which are intended to go beyond the basic mechanics. If this all seems a bit "airy-fairy" feel free to ignore this. At one stage I wanted to call this section "The Zen of Calling" but decided that would be too pretentious, however I do think there are certain similarities, particularly in the idea of everything being part of a whole.

I like to use the analogy between reading a sentence and dancing a dance. A sentance is made up of individual letters - when we first learn to read we spell out each letter one by one, then put the letters together to make up words, then put the words together to make up sentences. As our proficiency in reading increases we start to read a word at a time, then we read groups of words at a time. I am told that some speed readers can read a whole page at a time.

The point I am trying to make is that we can move from considering individual components to considering a bigger structure - in this case a word or a page. It is possible to view a dance as a series of moves - to perform the dance you do the first move followed by the second move and so on. This is the way most people start dancing. Better dancers then start to put the moves together to make bigger patterns and flow from one move into the next. Rather than a dance being a collection of individual moves it is now a 32 bar flowing pattern. Every so often the circumstances will be right to take the dance from a 32 bar pattern repeated several times to one long sequence that lasts for the time the music is playing. About once a year I get that "I wish this dance would never stop" feeling - the dance is right, the music is right, the other dancers are right - everything comes together at the same time.

On extremely rare occasions (about 4 times in 10 years) the entire evening comes together as a whole. Everything is right, there is no stress. The evening almost runs itself, the caller's job is then to get in the way as little as possible.

The following points are pretty random and are just areas you might like to think about.


Zen in the Art of Archery - Eugen Herrigel

Copyright © Bob Archer 1998

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This page last modified 29 November 1998