NEFFA Essay: Minutes Of Two Discussion Sessions At The 1998 NEFFA Festival

Prepared by Larry Jennings, Moderator

Retrospect: I shared with the attenders a bit of how much these sessions have meant to me, especially since my declining health was increasingly limiting my participation, even in sit-down activities. I reiterated my determination to provide minutes for my 1997 sessions, as well as for 1998. I was therefore crushed to find that my tape recorder failed for about half of the first hour and was seriously spoofed by noise from downstairs in the second hour. I have therefore given even more than usual of my own opinion, including an essay on the pros and cons of one versus two walk-thrus. Note also my convention: “Larry” represents me at the NEFF; “I” am myself at my desk later.

Larry Jennings


Larry started things with a remark. “I feel that a leader should lead; I feel that people like to have the leader lead. They don’t want to be led to a place that they don’t want to go, but, if they have faith in the leader, they will diverge somewhat from the direction that they might have gone otherwise. In other words they are willing, even eager, to take advantage of the leader’s vision.”

Larry advised the participants that they should always be thinking of rebuttals for what he says; you should always be questioning Larry; he will tell you what to think, and then you will tell him why you don’t want to think that.

So Larry gave an example of what they should think: that a leader starts with the respect of the dancers and therefore can have a great deal of influence by his actions as a dancer; in fact rather more so on the floor than through the microphone. Of course, he can fritter away that respect.

Getting no rebuttal on that assertion, Larry threatened to start calling on people by name, but allowed that he would offer one or two more outrageous statements in an effort to get a voluntary response. Unfortunately the recorder chose that moment to stop recording for an entire half hour.

Perhaps it was then that I brought up a genuine problem to be faced by any caller anywhere, but especially by a guest caller visiting an unfamiliar group: if the walk-thru isn’t going well, what’s the problem? It may be, of course, that you just aren’t cut out to be a caller; you find it hard to do your homework, to choose succinct, information-laden words, to spot groups of dancers who are out of position, etc. Assuming that you, the caller, are on top of all those issues, there still may be occasional buzzing that indicates that something is wrong. If you merely misspoke yourself you can usually get help from the dancers. There are two other possibilities: you have underestimated the abilities of the group or you have overestimated the abilities of the group. The appropriate action for the first of these (boredom) is to start the dance, for the second (confusion), to do another walk-thru.

The choice between these two mutually exclusive actions is not always obvious. Perhaps the caller can get advice from an experienced, senior member of the committee. More likely she just has to use her own resources. In any case, just to have thought about the possibilities is a valuable asset. Certainly little advice was available at the discussion session if, indeed, this was the next topic. But it does segue into an actual topic of the session: should the caller favor a single walk-thru or would two be better?

Robert Cromartie, who not two hours earlier had run one of his always successful one-walk-thru sessions, was somewhat unwillingly cast in the role of a defender of the merits of a single walk-thru. And even Robert agrees that an appropriate program will have, say, 1/4 – 1/3 of the dances with a second walk-thru or, at least, more than one. (I.e., a single walk-thru with an additional review of a portion of the dance.) Sentiment at the session ranged all the way from there to the point of view that the standard is, or should be, two walk-thrus. That standard relieves the caller from having to make decisions, but is too lenient in my view. On the other hand, at one time, I had the impression that dancers were taking the point of view that a second walk-thru was always boring and unnecessary and I prepared the attached apology for a second walk-thru.

The topic which occupied most of the rest of the session was “icky men”. Presumably we should also discuss “icky women”, but it seemed to be tacitly agreed that women are not a problem. I take up where the tape recorder decided to engage in its assigned task.

It starts with a reference to several participants who had asked me earlier to define an icky man. I dismissed the question when it was first broached, promising to return to it if necessary. When I offered to return to it, I was met with a loud chorus: unnecessary. The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t matter whether the man dances strangely or has his paws in the wrong place or needs a bath or speaks inappropriately; if he is icky in your view then he is icky.

I was pleasantly surprised at the number of participants, including several men, who reported that they had experience taking action. Two people reported taking the icky man out to lunch in an effort to make the situation less confrontational. One man switched roles with his partner for the change that they were joined by an icky man. Summarizing, it is a community problem that needs to be addressed by the community. In particular, the caller cannot usually provide the one on one, immediate action that is most effective.

Some additional ideas: If you have a name for a problem and talk about it, that in itself may make a difference. Dilute the problem by getting more non-icky dancers. In the beginners session, focus not on figures but on social issues. Especially since the rules at a contra dance are different from those that prevail elsewhere. Rather than having one big group in a beginners session, break it up into small groups, each led by a regular dancer doing it however he prefers. One of the ickiest things a man can do is to wear only a tank top (rather than a shirt with sleeves). No one really enjoys talking to an icky man about his shortcomings, but it has to be done; maybe different members of the committee could take turns. A written piece describing the rules might help.

Larry, with some emotion, thanked the participants for being part of a session which he enjoyed greatly. He remarked that, in spite of some inauspicious circumstances, he hoped there would be many more such sessions. I might remark that it wasn’t lost on Larry that the concluding applause was unusually supportive and he appreciated it very much.


Larry started the discussion with a case study reported in his piece “Set Management” on the Web. It particularly addresses a situation where the center set is overcrowded yet there is a side set with so few dancers that it is unviable. [Viable set: enough dancers so dance ends before the initial top couple gets back to the top; adequate average skill level to do the next dance comfortably.] My thesis is that the caller need not plead with those in the center set; the crowding is their problem. I do advocate that he insist that all sets be viable using a hierarchy of ploys. Foremost among these is convincing the caller that he “should” worry about the correct things. Then he might spend the first 25 seconds after the previous slot insuring that the dancers know, before they stake a claim to position in a set, where they should join if they happen to be concerned with avoiding the delay inevitable if there is an unviable set syndrome. If that ploy fails the conscientious caller has to call on his authority and move people around. Usually it will work to move the unviable group to the center of the hall. Hopefully, in the long run, the dancers will appreciate that it is their own time they are wasting, but they sure are slow to learn.

Sometimes ploys arrive as gifts. For example, the floor under the usual location of the center set at Glen Echo has buckled forcing it to relocate. Or the impetus may come from a chance ally. I understand that Ranger Stan declared that all sets at Glen Echo must terminate above a blue line.

The problem of getting the dancers to dance with all kinds of people was raised. One solution is to make announcements to the effect that this is the policy. One caller, at least, reported, to Larry’s amazement, that such an announcement actually worked. However, note that everything that takes time is an investment of your capital and it behooves you to verify that there are not other, better, ways to achieve your goals. In any case, the situation is not hopeless; there are things that you (singular and plural) can do to influence the personality of your series. Even more so, a visiting caller often receives more courtesy than do the locals; a committee would be well advised to suggest to the visiting callers what they might do to help you achieve your goals.

The discussion drifted from the problem of how to entice dancers to dance with all kinds of people to what to do about partnering in the vicinity of an icky man. Thus we were back to where we left off the previous day. Most of my tape features what was going on in the room downstairs. So I offer only a very few remarks here. Most important: it was generally agreed that the best action was for each offended person to tell or otherwise make clear to the offending person that the problem exists. And, further, that it is often wise to consider consulting with other dancers to assess how egregious is the problem. Maybe a plan for concerted action will form.

Finally, Angel Roman reports this anecdote. A woman, when told that a subject of the discussion session the previous day was icky men, responded, “Oh, I didn’t think it was permissable to discuss that.” How can we address problems if we can’t even mention them and give them a name?

Scroll to Top