I am not particularly drawn to difficult dances. My peak experience as a dance caller is to create a magical moment where the dancer, the movement, and the music are one. I suppose I have a reputation for choosing “flow-y” dances, and to attempt enough clarity of explanation that perhaps no walk-through is needed.
Set dancing of one sort or another has been part of my life since high school. In 1972, in suburban Baltimore, MD, I along with some classmates joined a Western Square Dance club. By 1973 I had started calling dances. This activity continued and increased through my college years in Pennsylvania and in my subsequent move to the Boston area. By 1983 I was teaching a club square dance class every week, and calling at least two other dances per month.
In 1981, some of my square dancer friends invited me to the Concord (Massachusetts) Scout House contra dance. I wasn’t an instant convert, but over the next few years my contra dance activity increased; I was certainly more drawn to the music of contra dance than that of Western Squares. Also in 1981 I began playing the hammered dulcimer. The Celtic and New England music I loved and learned to play went hand-in-hand with my interest in the dance. In 1985 I moved to Southern New Hampshire and found the contra dance community much more friendly than in Massachusetts, and began regularly attending the Nelson (NH) Monday night dance which was an open band — open caller format. An opportunity came in 1986 when a scheduled caller didn’t show up at one of the more professional local dances. I filled in with what contras I could remember and a few made up on the spot; I was out of the closet. There was a considerable overlap of my square and contra dancing and calling career, but there was an inexorable shift — I did my last club dance gig in 1987 at the National Square Dance Convention.
Back in the early 1990s I was part of a 4-person New England band called “Storm in the Tea.” Amongst us we had two callers, and typically split the calling and playing of each gig. We were drawn to what was at the time a rather untraditional style: instead of playing tune sets Celtic-style or fairly straight, we tried to modulate the energy through a set of tunes to create a definite mood.
I moved to Denver in 1995, and have found this — the land of some of my youth back in the 1960s — to be home. Since my move here, I have been primarily a dance caller rather than a musician up until recently. This too is slowly changing, as I have begun playing with Southwind for contra dances during the past year.
Having worn both hats — as a dance musician and a caller (sometimes at the same gig), I feel that forming the dance experience around the music is paramount. As a contra dance caller, I’m not particularly drawn to complexity. If you want that, do club square dancing.