Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Modern Western Square Dancing

I threatened to do a post about challenge-level square dancing, and here 'tis.

Many American readers will have done some type of square dancing in grade school, or at some other time of youth. Those dances involved a few simple figures, and usually one "active couple" that "visited" the other three couples in the square, and did some dance figures with them in turn. Then the second couple became "active" and repeated that, and so on. Most of us hated it, back in grade school, and couldn't wait until Physical Education class finished with that and moved on to dodge ball or some such.

The sorts of dance figures that one did in those dances included things like these:
    circle left/right
    star left/right
    pass thru
    courtesy turn
    ladies chain
    allemande left/right
    swing your partner/corner
    dos-à-dos (or some variant spelling)

Modern Western Square Dancing (MWSD) has the same basis: there's a set of figures, or calls, and you do those calls in your square of four couples. The caller puts together a sequence of calls, and at the end of them you're back home, in the spots you squared up in. But here are some of the differences:

  • There's no "active couple". People do things when the caller tells them to, and most of the time everyone's active.
  • There's no walk-through. You have no idea, when you start or at any time thereafter, what the caller will call next. So you have to be able to hear the name of the call and do it instantly, with no on-the-spot instruction.
  • There's no repetition. When you're done with one sequence, the caller will call the next one, and it will not be the same. Again, you never know what will be next.
  • Because you have to be able to do the calls extemporaneously, they're all well defined — both the list, and the definitions. There's no fuzziness. "Pass the ocean" always means exactly the same thing: pass thru (passing right shoulders), face your partner, make a right-handed ocean wave. You never pass left shoulders, you never make a left-handed wave — those have other names.
  • The list of available calls is much longer.
  • Because the complete list is quite long, it's divided into "levels" (as most people call them, though Callerlab officially calls them "programs", to eliminate any connotation that any level is "better" than any other; they just get more challenging).

The first two programs are called Basic and Mainstream, and the first one that's actually danced much is Mainstream. A Mainstream dancer has to know around 65 calls (give or take, depending upon how you count them), including the ones above as well as things with names like recycle and flutter wheel and wheel and deal and double pass thru. At the Mainstream level (and the next level, Plus, which is the most common one in my area), dancing is usually done in "clubs". The clubs sponsor classes that usually teach Mainstream in a program that runs one night a week from late September to April or May. That's a lot of time to commit, and many people are put off by that. Some people don't manage to learn it well anyway. And some learn it readily, and do it faster than that.

Each level is "harder" than the previous, at least because it adds more calls that you have to know. They're cumulative. Plus includes all the Mainstream calls and another 25 or 30 more, bringing the total to around 90 or so. Advanced, subdivided into A1 and A2 adds another 80 (around 40 each for A1 and A2). When the caller says peel and trail or motivate or pass and roll your neighbour, you have to know immediately what to do.

At Plus and Advanced, some of the calls are a bit "harder", so in addition to the levels being harder because there are more calls, they're also harder because there are harder — more involved — calls, where there are more things to do, and different dancers are doing different things at the same time.

OK, so now we're at Advanced, there are some 170 calls, and some of them are kind of involved. What's next? Challenge, subdivided into C1, C2, C3A, C3B, and C4.

Each of the levels from C1 to C3B adds about another 80 calls, bringing the full total to something around 500 calls at C3B, the highest level that I dance. C4 is a bit open-ended, but there are on the order of 250 C4 calls in current use (and maybe another 50 or so that show up from time to time), so the grand total at C4 is around 750. Some of these calls are quick and easy, and some are more involved. I am currently studying C4 (though I'm not entirely sure why).

But there's more to it than that, because there are two other things that make "Challenge" harder (more challenging):

  • Positioning. The calls all have very precise definitions, but it's the square's job to apply the definitions to the position that they're currently in. Sometimes that's tricky. At the higher Challenge levels, in particular, the caller makes it a point to make it tricky.
  • Concepts. In the Challenge levels there are things called concepts. Concepts are not themselves calls; they're modifiers that tell you how to do any arbitraty call in a different way. A concept might tell you to do the call with a different set of people than you normally would ("ONCE REMOVED right and left thru", "CONCENTRIC right and left thru"). It might tell you to do the call in a distorted formation, rather than with the people right in front of you ("TRAPEZOID right and left thru", "PARALLELOGRAM right and left thru"). It might tell you to add phantom dancers to the square and to do the call with the phantoms — which requires more precise positioning, and a real understanding of what the call does to your formation ("SPLIT PHANTOM LINES right and left thru", "TRIPLE BOXES WORKING APART, right and left thru"). There are concepts that make other changes to the call, some of which are hard to explain.

Oh, I should add that at Mainstream and Plus, the clubs usually want people to wear silly clothing — petticoats for the women, string ties or scarf ties for the men, and stuff. That puts a lot of people off. Challenge dancers generally don't do that.

And there it is: Geometric puzzle solving, on your feet, to music. Sounds crazy, no?

1 comment:

wooddragon said...

Geometric puzzle solving, on my feet, set to music! Sounds great! Sign me up! :)