Notes from a Caller's Workshop

(Sidmouth Folk Festival 1996)

These notes are the jottings I made at a workshop series run by Martyn Harvey, Nick Walden, and Gordon Potts. Apologies to them for what I have missed or muddled.

Subsequently I have received comments from other experienced callers

Keeping It Interesting

In hornpipe dances like Mock Turtle Hornpipe you can suggest a different stepping for each part of the dance: step hop, 1-2-3-hop, etc.

Use new or unusual dances: dances with a hook, such as Stepping Stone Rag, where the hook is that everyone finishes at a different time, or Daniel's Delight [which I don't know - TG] where the hook is that the middle couple do the work; or alternatives to old chestnuts, such as Hebridean Weevil or the Foula Reel as a strip-the-willow alternative to The Willow Tree. Put optional additions in for experienced dancers, or choose simple dances so that they can figure out their own variations, or vary the dance, e.g. by starting a square with the bottom couple.

Clear Calling Works

For beginners' barn dances we tend to restrict our choice by avoiding reels, ladies chains, etc. But many of these figures can be danced if they're called clearly. Simplify the figure.

Try using siding as a figure but call it as "Face, take left hands, do half a left hand turn, change hands, and turn back - now do exactly that but don't hold hands."

Ladies Chain: 1st time, leave out the hand round the waist and call it as "women turn each other with right hands, then take the man's left hand and do a left-hand turn"; 2nd time, tell the men to help the woman with their spare hand; and later, tell the men to move a bit to the right. [See comment below.]

Tell people which way to face at the end of each move, so that their hesitation is reduced. Eg for a gallop down and back and cast, tell all the others to face up. (And use pictorial ideas, like 'peel a banana'.) Similarly, in a swing before a grand chain, tell them to end ther swing facing their partner.

In a strip the willow figure, call to the sides, telling them to step forward and the person in the middle with their left hand. Ditto with an all-4-ladies-chain.

Preventing Mistakes

Sometimes you can see in advance that there will be hard bits in a dance. One example was Jig-a-Jig Square, where on the second time through the 1s tend to start tunnelling instead of waiting. Suggestions were to emphasize the potential error, possibly by questions ("Now, are any of you going to make that mistake?) or even over-the-top threats ("And if any of you 1s start tunnelling, I'll .... "), although not everyone was happy with that approach.

Use The Space

If you find yourself in a big square hall, use The Mozart or double Sicilian circles.

In long thin halls do 5-couple longways across the hall.


For experts, climax before the interval.

The last few dances should be easy to call and easy to do. The very last dance should be best of all. General opinion was that it should definitely not be a partner-changing dance.

Suggestions for last dance from various people present: Foula Reel, The Rifleman (simplified - gallop instead of promenade), Up the Sides and Down the Midde, Quorndon Hill Gallop.

Keep a few 'bankers' - dead certs - to use when things get sticky. Particularly if you try a new dance or if a dance might be too hard, have a banker to turn to: "OK, let's abandon that one, all form a circle with your partners and we'll do XXX" (eg Blaydon Races).


While the dancers come onto the floor, tell them a story to keep their attention while they get sorted out, so that you keep their attention. [See comment]

Name the dance as soon as you invite the dancers to form sets, so that people can decide they don't want to dance that particular dance (or that they specially do want to); don't get them up and wait for sets to be formed before announcing the dance and have some of them think "Oh if only I'd known it was this terrible dance I wouldn't have got up".

Working with the Band

Some of the really good ceilidh bands are not versatile; instead of having a tune for everything, they have small well-practised repertoire. [See comment] Callers should hang the evening round a band's best tunes. (E.g. if they don't like playing slip jigs, don't make them dig some out, but just don't use dances that require slip jigs.)

Gordon Potts says, if possible buy the band's album and learn the tunes (he learns them well enough to be able to play them himself); or phone the band and ask for a tunes list and find out which ones are the bankers and which are the ones they'd like to be remembered by. Choose those tunes and listen to them, consider what dance has that feel, and which dance goes on exactly the number of times the band likes playing the tune.

Bands like to be asked what tune they want to end with.

Remember that dance types mean different things in different places: hornpipe, reel etc can sound quite different in different parts of the country. Maybe demonstrate the step to the band to get the beat right, and find other ways to communicate that don't rely solely on standard terminology.

Make sure you tell the band in advance how many times through, so that they can end on a good tune or (as in the case of the tune La Russe) end with the first half of the tune.

The last tune is important.

When signalling to the band, do it as one more time through the tune, not the dance. When there's a 64-bar dance tell the dancers it's the last time and tell the band (if they're using 32-bar tunes playing each one twice) it's twice more; then tell them again when it's once more. Tell everyone in the band, not just the neartest person. Wave a foot for the last time.

Some subsequent comments

"tell them a story" [see above]

One very experienced caller disagreed quite strongly with this, and recommended callers not to talk except to explain the dance and make the necessary calls during the dance. Otherwise dancers will think they can safely ignore the caller. [I think this question may come under the rubric of "What works for one person doesn't always work for another", as in the comment below. - TG]

Rules for Calling [see above]

One point I would mention is that there are very few hard and fast rules for calling - you have to find out what works for you without being blinkered about the possibility that other techniques may work just as well. I disagree with some of the items in the workshop section, although what this really means is that they don't work for me. If they work for Martin Harvey, Gordon Potts etc. that's great for them - they probably wouldn't like some of my ideas.

As an example, I don't call ladies chains or right and left throughs at beginners dances, I find that they're too much trouble to teach, I know other callers who do call them. On the other hand, I do call grand chains but I have a friend ( who has also been booked at Sidmouth ) who doesn't call grand chains with beginners for the same reason that I don't call ladies chains. What works for me doesn't work for him.

Bands and repertoires [see above]

It was felt that this remark was very much biassed towards ceilidh bands; many of the bands on the dance circuit are indeed very versatile.

Back to home page