The following notes are based on my own experience as a caller with many bands over about 15 years. I do not profess to hold any special knowledge about calling for dances but anyone beginning to call might find something of value here.
Perhaps the most important thing is to reflect on who your audience is and why they are at the event you are calling for. Although I do call for dance clubs most of my experience is with English barn dance and ceilidh audiences. At a barn dance many people will be there because they are invited (Weddings) or are part of a group (Sports club, PTA etc); the fact that it is a barn dance rather than a disco is not of prime importance to them. On such occasions I would try to follow these guidelines:
Sexism in calling can be a real problem. My strategy is to use the terms “Man/men” and “Woman/women” and avoid other terms for the sexes. I also try to limit the use of “..the first man” or “the women's side” etc. but I also explain that these are really terms which describe positions in a set and are historical rather what must be the case now.
- The audience are there to have a good time. If they wanted to take lessons they would be at an evening class.
- Keep it simple. Don't use a programme which requires the teaching of lots of different figures, it slows the evening down.
- Don't correct what doesn't matter. If a set forms up with the men on the wrong side it isn't the end of the world. Concentrate on helping the dancers learn the moves which give the dance its essential character and which will help the dancers feel good about what they are doing.
- Respect the dances. Most callers enjoy dancing and hold the country dance tradition in high regard. I have seen a few callers who have, by their manner shown little respect for the dances they are calling and thus hold them up to ridicule. It is important to make the dances fun but it is also necessary to display the inherent worth of the tradition on which the experience is based.
- Plan the programme carefully. I find certain dances fit well into different parts of the evening. A very easy dance to begin, perhaps a circle dance to follow to mix people up and break the ice. After the interval Cumberland Square might get things off to a good start. I often find that when I come across a new dance I am attracted to it not just for its inherent quality but also for its ability to enrich a certain part of a programme — “That would be a good dance to go into the interval with”.
The formation of the dances should be varied to keep up the interest of the dancers as should the rhythm and tempo of the music. I never do two dances back to back with the same formation and I also try to rotate through jigs, reels, hornpipes etc.
- Smile, enjoy yourself. Even when the room is full of £$!!*??~#s wearing cowboy hats who to the end of the evening are convinced they are at an American Square Dance — smile. Even when asked for a foxtrot or quickstep — smile. This may well be the first time people in the audience have ever come across their own traditional dances, at least make it enjoyable so they go away with a positive opinion — we all had our interest sparked by someone. When we call we are helping to keep our dance tradition alive and well.
How to run a ceilidh — online booklet by Derek Kingscote: addressed to organisers rather than callers, but check it out anyway
Barn Dances and How to Make Them Work — archived online page: also addressed to organisers rather than callers, but again, worth checking out
A Caller's Check List — “a list of questions to ask when someone asks you to call a ceilidh for them” by Hugh Stewart. Read this!
round.soc.srcf.net/dances/calling — Brief and very good advice on calling for the first time, from Anthony Stone
So… You want to be a Caller, by Charles Bolton. Small booklet of useful advice.
Calling for Contra Dances: A Basic Text by Tony Parkes. Second edition now out. Published by Hands Four Books. A substantial and well-considered volume. Although aimed at American readers and New England-style dances, much of the advice on calling applies to English barn dances. Covers Getting Started, Delivering the Calls, Choosing your Material, Working with Music (i.e. tape/band/etc.), Sound Equipment, Calling for Special groups, etc. An excellent read. Highly recommended for beginning callers willing to put a bit of time into self-improvement.
https://colinhume.com/callers.htm — suggestions for callers, by Colin Hume. Very comprehensive. Might easily be too much to digest at first, but it has good stuff.
users.waitrose.com/ ~cresby/songs/calltips.htm — “Mr Red” has collated useful little tips from a number of callers
www.sailpb.com/barn-dance-bands-and-caller.php — Tony Slinger has helpfully listed a sample programme of dances.
cdss.org/resources/resource-portal/callers — an enormous collection of resources from the County Dance and Song Society (CDSS) who now sponsor this website.
Community Dances Manual, originally pub. by EFDSS, in 7 booklets, now extensively revised in the 2005 edition.
The Barn Dance Book by John Reay, pub. by Barn Dance Publications, Surrey, 1990. Good set of 65 varied dances, occasionally idiosyncratic. Tunes too, but only one tune per dance. Section on dancing and playing in a country dance band.
Callers' Choice vols 1 and 2. Pub. by EFDSS (see above). Two volumes, with nearly 20 useful dances in each volume, with some tunes. From EFDSS or DLBMusic.
The Barn Dance series (Barn Dance Party, Barn Dance Fiesta, Barn Dance Shindig, …) by the Ring O'Bells Band containing a varied set of dances with tunes (two or three per dance). Accompanying CDs available, see the main stockist, Barn Dance Publications, listed below.
Elements of English Country Dance, edited by Hugh Stewart. This does not contain any dances but it describes the background, the styles, the moves, etc. in a readable and very informative way. Inexpensive. Recommended. You can browse it on-line, or buy it as an e-book or go to 'The Round' for routes to a paper version.
The Country Dance Club Book, edited by Hugh Stewart. This by contrast gives instructions for 100 popular dances, with background information and many helpful hints on how to call them, plus explanations of figures and all sorts of useful advice. My top recommendation for any caller thinking of moving on from the barn dance scene to the Dance Club scene. Read more about it here.
The Oak Tree, edited by Paul Hudson. Published by Dave Mallinson Publications, 1999. Contains 36 dances graded easy/moderate/advanced with appropriate tunes (2 per dance), plus a glossary of dance terms and two sample programmes for an evening's dancing, one for less experienced and one for more experienced dancers. An interesting and varied selection.
The Willow Tree, by Hugh Rippon and Dave Mallinson. Published by Dave Mallinson Publications, 1996. Contains 26 dances, some traditional and some by Hugh Rippon, with appropriate tunes (2 per dance) beautifully presented. All suitable for barn dances.
Twentieth Century Dances (Dawnsiau yr Ugeinfed Ganrif) edited by John Mosedale and Eddie Jones. £7.50 from the Welsh National Folk Dance Society 37 new dances, some easy some harder, some interesting new ideas to try. Includes preferred tunes for some dances, very clear and readable score. Bilingual Welsh-English (except that the titles of dances and tunes are Welsh-only, which is fine, but a guide to pronunciation might have been a good idea!)
Antony Heywood's Country Dance Database is a huge compendium of over 20,000 dances. Good for looking up dances when you know the name, the source, or the author. It doesn't give the full instructions, just a list of figures, so you can't learn the dances here.
Hugh Stewart's Dance Finder is similar — again no actual instructions, nor figures.
John Brown's Ceilidh Caller site, although it seems to have been abandoned only part-built, has a list of dances (not all of them included here) and a short informal page for new callers. You can download that page from www.ceilidhcalling.co.uk/ docs.php in both HTML and PDF format.
Getting hold of music is the band's job, not the caller's job. There are lots of tune books in print. If you're just going to get one book, I recommend either Band Swing or Join the Band, both with good tunes already organised into sets for dancing. You can just pick them up and go. Remember to get a copy for each player: the authors have earned their royalties. Can be obtained from standard bookshops, I believe.
Band Swing and its sequel Band Time edited by Pete Mac. Published by Dave Mallinson. Has a useful idea: easy versions of some of the hard tunes, e.g. 'Son of Levi' is an easy version that can be played alongside or instead of that tricky little number, Levi Jackson Rag. ISBN 9781899512560 and 9781899512751. Note: there are second parts available for these books, provided free by the Cat's Whiskers band (bravo!) downloadable from: midlandsbarndances.co.uk/ PeteMacBooks.html
Play In The Band, edited by Barry Moule. Published by Cotswold Music Society. 1995. ISBN 1 870635 19 1. Also has those extra things you sometimes need, like “Happy Birthday”.
Join the Band by Barbara Wood. Tunes for near-beginners as a core repertoire, with simplified parts for real beginners. Also ideal for a young person's band. Might only be available from Folk Camps publications. ISBN: 0 85418 079 6. Companion volume for transposing instruments (Bb, Eb) ISBN: 978-0-9538659-3-2.
If you have to keep the costs down, you can find a list of suitable tunes via the 'Music' page, and then locate the tunes themselves on the web. It's a very personal list. Your taste might vary.
See my other website at colinhume.com/abc.aspx?Title=* for a list of over 1,200 tunes available there. Many are set tunes for specific dances, but there are plenty of others. See also the ABC search engines mentioned on the Music page.
Tel. & Fax: +32 (0)9 372 96 35
Many titles kept in stock — see the website.
Used to be conservation-oriented, now trying to become modernist. Magazine, library. Membership includes insurance.
Suppose someone twists their ankle at a dance, or slips and breaks their arm. They then decide to sue for loss of earnings. I've not known this happen, but it could, and I can invent scenarios where the caller might easily be judged liable for not exercising due care. For example, one of the sets got very boisterous and the caller didn't check them; or there was a problem with the floor and a woman got her heel stuck and twisted her ankle. (That happened to my wife.) In that second case it might be held that the caller should have inspected the floor and at least have warned the dancers.
EFDSS members are insured for folk activities, including calling, and you can also insure the band as a whole, but I believe that doesn't cover loss or theft of kit.
Specialist insurance services, including explicit insurance against public liability while calling and cover against theft, are available at reasonable cost from Musicians Insurance Services (with whom I have no connection).
I've also been given a recommendation for New Moon Insurance — I checked a few sites and the comments were uniformly positive.
Finally – if you drive to do a paid engagement, you may need business insurance for your car.