NEFFA Essay: Best Of Both? Some Of Each?

Cynthia Van Ness, M.L.S. – April 1999

Originally published on rec.folk-dancing. Reproduced by permission.

I don’t need to name names. We travel great distances to festivals featuring these hot callers, and we dance ourselves delirious for hours on end. They’ve got challenging dances that we don’t do at home, great stage patter, excellent enunciation, crisp voices. Man, I love you guys & gals, all of you.

This post isn’t about you.

I just came home from an out-of-town dance weekend with great callers, one of whom posts here and is finally headlining outside of his region. Since we’ve hired him over the years, I am just a smidgen proud to have helped a local caller get a name for himself.

So what happens to most of us after these hot weekends? We go home and look at our local dances with harshly critical eyes. Once you’re outside Boston, I am convinced that every dance organizer and dance gypsy in the land thinks their community dance, well, sucks. You know the common complaints — eternal beginners, center set syndrome, excessive hot-dogging, leerers & gropers, booze breath, chronic lateness with figures.

We look at the schedules, recognizing the callers. “Oh, Joe Schmoe. He’s so hung up on English Country that his contra dances are slower than molasses in January.” “Oh. Mary Contrary. She gets snappish if she has to explain or teach much.” And so on. And all of this may, indeed, be true of our local callers.

But this hot, out-of-town weekend made me realize something. Mr. and Ms. Headliner had a room full of eager, capable dancers, because we all learned how to dance at the hands of Joe Schmoe and Mary Contrary. And, regardless of their flaws, they did something right, because we all loved contra dance so much that we started hitting the road whenever we could.

How much heavy lifting do our caller superstars have to do once they start touring to festivals and weekends? How often do they have to fix set meltdowns and teach basic figures? How often do they adjust down their programs down to trudging, beginner level? (I eagerly await touring callers’ answers. I am fully aware of the possibly that I am overestimating the ease of their jobs and am risking serious flaming. If you must flame, please take a deep breath first.)

Anyway, my point is not to denigrate the people who make possible the great festivals and weekends that I go to. It is to point out the effects these experiences have on dance travelers, who return home to ordinary community dances, with folks who like to dance but may not love it, and who dance without much skill or precision. The folks who show up for other reasons–to hear live music, see musician friends perform, enjoy smoke-free and alcohol-free socializing with other adults, and so on. There’s nothing like a dance festival to make us resent them and their clumsiness.

It leads us to desire “experienced only” dances that yank away the welcome mat from our doors. It makes us want high-level, precise dancing all of the time. It makes us uninspired by community dances that offer lesser dancing but more neighborliness. It make us forget who taught us how to contra dance to begin with: our local, unsung callers, the same folks who teach over and over again those basic figures. These callers, dull and plodding though they might be, are carrying the real weight of our dance culture.

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