Everyone can learn to prompt contra dances. No special talent is needed, although personal hard work is a prerequisite (and some tolerance from your spouse). You, the caller, are responsible for three aspects: to choose the dance, to select the music and to call on the phrase. To learn to call on the phrase is the element that will test your diligence as well as the tolerance of your spouse. At first you must get hold of the music. Play any record you think suitable for contra dancing. Now stand erect and count the beats of each phrase in a loud or soft voice, but not in silence: "One - two - three - four, five - six - sevn - eight; one - two - three - four ..." from the beginning to the very end. Repeat this procedure until the musical phrase becomes second nature to you. When counting, do not fail to observe also the AABB structure of the melody. Repeat the counting procedure with another record. If you feel confident, try calling a basic: "One - two - three - four, five and ladies chain; one - two - three - four, five chain back again; one - two - three - four, five and ladies chain; ..." After you have called one basic a dozen times to your satisfaction, try any other basic. Eventually let the numbers become inaudible, but continue to enunciate the dance calls loudly and clearly. The calls must be completed precisely on the 8th beat of the phrase, so that the dancers could begin the movement on beat number one of the next phrase. This synchronization of the music, the call, and the motion brings about the beauty of the contra dance.
In order to obtain practice in the basic skills of calling contras, you need no dancers to watch; you need just the music. You even may do household chores during those exercises, e.g. washing dishes or blackening your boots. This would be good training, for if you become a dance leader, you will have to keep your mind on different things besides calling.
The described manner of prompting the dancers with just a key word for the next movement is known as the prompt call, and for this reason the contra dance caller is often also known as the prompter. There is, however, no essential difference between square dance calling and contra dance prompting. Everything that you learn for contra dancing, you can also use in square dancing.
Most callers began by learning a singing call by rote. There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach - we have obtained many good callers by this means. But it is not the easiest route to follow. In this instance the aspiring caller must have a good voice for singing; and for 64 beats of music seven times through he must learn many things simultaneously: the words of the call with lyrics and filler patter, the melody of the song, and the technique of calling on the beat. He must call 7 times through 64 beats without any significant pauses, and in the end, having practiced sufficiently, he knows how to call this one singing call - no less, and hardly any more than that. Contra calling, on the other hand, can be learned and practiced step by step, and everything you have learned for contra calling can be of equal use everywhere. Those steps are, in short
Published 2006-01-06 / Heiner Fischle, Hannover, Germany