January 5, 2022

I’ve slowly been working my way out of the contra dance calling scene.  32 years ago I started calling contra dances and for the most part it has brought me great joy and a sense of belonging in a world I care about.  Lately, I’ve been finding calling contra dances to be less rewarding than it used to be for a variety of reasons.  I’ve also become a bit of a dinosaur in that I’m unable or unwilling to adapt to what modern contra dancers, mostly younger dancers, demand and expect of their dance experience.  Since I have other ways to remain very active in this wonderful world of dance and music, I’m quite happy to leave the contra calling to others as they explore different ways to teach dances and express themselves from the mic.

Contra dance calling: I’m only going to do occasional local (Portland) gigs and a select few gigs in surrounding communities.  Dance camps; occasionally, in the right places, who will hire me for what I do.  But for the most part I’m done calling contra dances.

English Calling: I mainly call locally anyway, but I’ll continue local calling and taking out-of-town ECD gigs as they come up.

Joyride: I’ll continue playing with Joyride as our schedules allow.

Fine Companions:  I’ll continue playing with Fine Companions as our schedules allow.

So, really, the only big change for the time being is that I’m going to be pulling back dramatically on my contra dance calling.  That includes weekends and camps, although I may still do some.  Feel free to ask, but please don’t be put out if I turn down your gig.  It’s got nothing to do with you and everything to do with how I see my role in the dance and music world changing.

I was asked my reasoning for not going along with the Larks/Robins terminology which is being adopted in many contra dance communities.  I wrote this not expecting it to be shared as widely as it was.  What I wrote was in response to Rick Piel’s request that I verbalize my observations and rationale for continuing to call in a traditional style.  If it interests you, here it is:

Thank you for your very considered note, Rick.  You are correct on all counts, but I want to elaborate on my reasons for calling with traditional terms, and they have nothing to do with anyone’s gender.

I am very aware and respectful of our non-binary, trans, gender-uncertain etc people in our dance and larger community.  My objection to the Larks and Robins movement in the contra dance world is simply that such terminology takes away any visual information with regard to who’s who in a dance.  Dancers can’t help each other figure out where they’re supposed to be.  Callers can’t make any assumptions about what roles dancers have adopted and thus cannot assist new dancers to get into the correct position to continue a walkthrough or dance.  It is true that with a mostly-experienced dance crowd, the L&R thing works ok because the dancers know the figures and have sufficient mental flexibility and adeptness to correct any positioning errors.  However with new dancers or insecure dancers, they either don’t know what to do or it takes them several seconds during a dance to process their role and execution.  Either way, the dances become tedious or break down entirely.  Too many times I’ve watched new dancers stumble through a L&R dance, never grasping what they’re supposed to be doing.  Too many times I’ve watched new dancers leave out of frustration. Too many times I’ve watched experienced dancers, even proponents of the L&R movement not even know their own role in a dance.  And too many times I’ve watched very experienced callers struggle mightily to convey choreography using terminology that simply does not help dancers.  There is no visual way to discern dancers, and contra (and English) choreography requires that exact discernment.  I will not leave my dancers, particularly new dancers on their own to struggle through “figuring it out”.
The dance on May 7 presented a case in point: A dance ended with circle left (all the way) and chain across. One minor set near the top (all experienced dancers) only circled 3/4.  I could tell they were in the wrong position by simply looking and I asked them to go a little further in the circle before continuing with the chain.  My ability to correct that little mistake prevented confusion and allowed the dancers to carry on seamlessly without the frustration of “what went wrong?” which severely interrupts the flow of a walkthrough and eventually a dance and an entire evening.
Woody called the contra dance last night.  I wasn’t able to attend because I had another gig.  But I am curious how it went.  He and I spoke last week about the terminology thing and his intent to use positional terminology.  He said that out of ~500 dances, he had to narrow his repertoire down to ~150 which could be called positionally.  I find it appalling that so many great dances simply cannot be danced due to constraints put on a caller by any organization.
The choice of Larks & Robins as a replacement for gendered terms was, I believe, conceived by dancers who had not considered the effect of that change beyond their own small group of experienced, flexible and adept dancers.  I’m dismayed that organizers across the country have been so quick to place those constraints on callers without considering the consequences.  If a non-gendered way to discern dancers is put forth and generally adopted I’ll gladly participate in that change.  I do want people to feel comfortable and welcome at dances, but more than that, I want dancers to be able to help each other, and as a caller I need to be able to effectively and efficiently help new and insecure dancers.
I know that the local L&R directive came from the contra committee and not the board.  And I know that I am welcome to call at the first and third Saturday dances when I’m invited and I can use descriptive terminology that works.  However, even at those dances, it is very discouraging to go into a gig knowing that a significant proportion of my audience already doesn’t like what I do.  Rick and others certainly have supported my choice of terminology since the May 7 dance, and I may need to re-think my reluctance to call contra dances.  Decisions often do get made based on who is most vocal in their opinion even when the vocal segment is in the minority.  So far, proponents of L&R terminology have been the only ones speaking out.  Others of us haven’t been very vocal in our dissent because we don’t want to be labeled as bigoted or uncaring.  I also know that the larger movement to use L&R terminology is a ship which has sailed, and my voice in the wilderness isn’t likely to cause a change in course.  However, I am encouraged by Rick’s and others’ comments of support and we’ll see how all this plays out in time.