From the outside looking in, an American folkdance appears as a complex pattern of pinwheels, circles, squares and stars spinning in harmony to live old-time fiddle music. All down the line feet shuffle, twist and stomp in unison, a constant motion like machine parts fastened together at the ankles and strung to the fiddler's bow.
The caller is responsible for catalyzing and regulating this unique interplay between the dancers and the music. Without the caller, the dance would sputter. "If something goes wrong during the evening, more often than not it's the caller's fault," says Larry Rowan, a caller, dancer, professor of physics and astronomy, and the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC-Chapel Hill. "Either he picked the wrong dances or too difficult ones."
Although the origin of the caller remains a mystery trapped in the backwoods of colonial American history, the role derives from the dancemaster in traditional English country dancing, which predates the 16th century. Like the dancemaster, the caller is responsible for walking the dancers through certain figures in the dance before the music starts. Throughout the actual dances, however, the dancemaster remains silent.
From a circle left to an aleman right, the figures of American traditional dances also stem from their European counterparts, English country dancing and the French quadrille, but it's hard to imagine a square dance without that garrulous voice running the whole time behind the music like an auctioneer:
Come on out to the side of the set
Look for your opposite and aleman left
Aleman left and round you go
Now look for the next and dosido.
This kind of lyrical calling, termed a patter call, has trickled down from dance to dance and community to community throughout American history. "Whenever I use patter, different phrases remind me of the different callers I've learned from," says caller Bob Dalsemer of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C.
Patter calling embodies not only a break from the propriety of English dancing but also from square dancing's boisterous spontaneity. While in constant motion, the dancers have to pay close attention to catch any alterations in the dance that the caller's voice may signal on the fly.
Similarly, the caller has to think on many levels at once, choosing the dance, calling it with the right volume and eloquence, fitting figure changes to the musical framework and keeping in mind the different experience levels of the dancers. In this complex triangle of caller, dancers and music, chaos lies only a wrong twist or lost partner away. "When I start to lose control, I'll circle the dancers up or throw in a forward and back to consolidate them," Gene Hubert explains. While calling, Hubert's voice stays calm and directional, breaking out in a few basic patters only after the dancers hit their stride.
Caller Ruth Pershing prefers to improvise more in her patter calling. "In general, I don't make an effort to memorize patters. They just pop out of my mouth because I've heard them quite a bit, and I just love their cadence and rhyme," says Pershing, who is also a math teacher, musician, mother of two and member of a local clogging team. Although patter calling is the preferred style for square dances, Pershing primarily calls the contra dances that the Triangle Country Dancers hold every second and fourth Friday nights at the Pleasant Green Community Center.
Contra configures a different geometry than square dancing does. Instead of incorporating eight dancers to form a square, contra dancing moves in two parallel lines positioned opposite one another. Each dancing unit consists of two couples who repeat a consistent formula of figures over a set 64-beat measure and end up interacting with every couple down the line by dance's end.
Because of this prescribed structure, contra dance callers have less room to improvise. They generally use a more understated style, called prompting, in which they give a command a few counts before the dancers make the actual move. After three times or so through, the caller drops out and only resumes command to call the dance to a close. This makes Pershing a rarity on the contra circuit. "I call contras to sound like squares," she says. "I guess I'm sort of a frustrated musician who likes being a part of the band." Pershing may also sneak a few squares into the evening when she's calling.
Although not a prevailing figure, the contra caller is still revered as the guru of the dance. "The best ones can introduce a new dance and get people to do it right the first time regardless of how complicated it is," says Bill Anderson, a dancer and EPA toxicologist from Chapel Hill.
Sometime during the 1976 American Bicentennial celebration, contra dancing, a traditional New England folkdance, launched its own invasion on its Southern cousin. Attracted to contra's unique combination of energetic vigor and formulaic simplicity, families seeking wholesome entertainment and dance enthusiasts alike picked it up. As a result, contra has all but subsumed square dancing to become the indigenous folk dance of many parts of the country, even traditionally square regions like Western and Piedmont North Carolina.
Despite the recent dominance of contra, the two forms have maintained a spirited rivalry and a somewhat symbiotic relationship. Folk enthusiasts have found that combining different forms of dance and music is necessary to preserve and disseminate these traditions. "It's important to preserve a tradition in an active way," Pershing says, "not as a relic in a museum."
Much of this collaboration happens over weekend retreats where workshops and events feature all types of music and dance from contras and squares to Danish and Scotch-Irish folkdancing. As a folk phenomenon, traditional dancing spreads through the oral transmission of knowledge from mentor to apprentice. Both aspiring and experienced callers and dancers travel over county and state lines carrying tape recorders and index cards to add new dances to their repertoires. "I learned to call the way folksingers learn music, by ear," Bob Dalsemer recalls. "I'd go to dances, tape them and try to imitate the caller. My own style evolved incorporating elements from many other callers."
Other than what's written on callers' dance cards, very little about these dances is documented. Robert Cromartie, one of the premier callers of contra dance in the Triangle, guesses that less than 20 percent of the current folkdance repertoire is published anywhere. Cromartie credits much of his own development to his mentor Gene Hubert, who has called and written many contras but prefers the challenge of a square dance. He tells a story of learning from Hubert during one of the weekend retreats: "My wife and I went up with Gene to a Valentine's Weekend Dance in Albany, N.Y. After we had danced a while, we realized that almost every dance called was written by Gene. He's one of the premier choreographers of contra in the world, you know."
Chatting with Hubert, however, one wouldn't automatically detect his prominence in the world of folkdancing. When he mentions writing dances, his face lights into a warm smile, but his voice stays reserved and demure, transferring credit to the dancers or callers in general. "Callers are dancers and dancers are callers. They're interchangeable," he says.
This sense of compatibility unites all the participants in the dance, regardless of how they spend their time away from the dance floor. "In a fragmented culture like ours, where people don't look out for each other so much, dancing can really help bring local communities together," Pershing tells me.
In the olden days, people anxious to escape their rural isolation journeyed for miles on foot to neighboring farmhouses, where they cleared out all the furniture and danced for days or weeks at a time. Today, although we can access the other side of the country in a matter of seconds, the walk to our neighbor's doorstep somehow seems farther and the isolation all the more profound. Yet while pop culture howls outside the walls of local dance halls, the voice of the caller still rings through the lamp-lit heat, over dancers engaged in a few hours of pure camaraderie.