This interview originally appeared in the Bay Area Country Dancer, Fall, 1994, and is reprinted with permission.
So what attracted you to calling dances in the first place? How did you get your start?
Well, I started out as a dancer around 1980, and really enjoyed the dances. For about four or five years I was one of those dancers who, if they didn't dance every single dance in an evening, felt like they didn't get their money's worth. Then about four years into dancing, I realized, "Hey, it's Sunday night. I don't have to go to the dance tonight! I could actually go to a movie!" So I think I went to a movie that night, but then after that I went back to dancing again.
I guess the whole scene about dancing is what I fell in love with--just being around all the people, the music, and the dance. I started pretty early on imagining myself being a caller. I liked the role of caller, and I went through some gyrations trying to figure out how to learn the skills. Our local caller [in Santa Barbara] at that time was David Woodsfellow, who was a transplant from New Hampshire. He kept threatening to leave Santa Barbara, and said he would teach a caller's workshop. He eventually left Santa Barbara, but never taught the workshop, but he did drop by my house and taught me three dances: "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" and "Just Because," which are two singing squares, and "The Texas Star." After that, I started calling at the Santa Barbara Caller's Jubilee, sort of like our New Caller's Night here [in Berkeley], and I would go and do one of those three dances. Then I took Mary DesRosier's callers' workshop at Alta Sierra and Larry Edelman's at Mendocino, I think several years ago, I don't remember when. I set up a mini-dance series with a friend who was also learning to call in Santa Barbara, and we just charged two bucks to cover the cost of the hall, and anyone who wanted to play could come.
People in San Luis Obispo wanted to start a dance series, and asked me to be the caller. I went up once a week with my PA system. That's where I got my first real break, around November 1986.
As you travel around to different locations calling dances, do you notice a difference in the dancers in different parts of the country and what they expect from you as a caller?
There's actually quite a bit of difference; like San Luis Obispo, where I still call, the dancers there are in much more of a down-home scene. They never seemed to have acquired an urban sophistication that might happen at another dance. Yet the sense of being together and having fun, a sense of real community, in some ways seems to be higher than the more urban places. I find that at urban dances, some people seem to dance where the dance is the end product, and they care more about which set they get into, and wouldn't want to be in a set with beginners, and want to make sure that everyone can twirl 250,000 ties in every courtesy turn, and so on. For them the dance is the end, and they want to be personally challenged by new dances.
Others don't care that much for the level of the dance--they just want to have a good time with each other, and the dance is the vehicle for people coming together and enjoying each other. At those place, you can dance "Lady of the Lake" a couple of times in an evening and they would still have a good time dancing. For them, the dance is the means to having a good time with their friends.
Do you ever find that there is a resistance by dancers to the types of dances that you call?
Yes, actually, the Van Nuys dance, the organizer is an abhorrer of squares, so he says, "no squares," when you are booked for it. That's one thing which that organizer expects. Other places prefer a mix of squares, and then of course, there's the [El Cerrito] square dance series..., where they expect a higher concentration of squares.
But you differentiate between New England Squares and Southern Squares, don't you, or is there no difference here?
No, I call five broad categories of squares: New England, Southern Visiting Squares, Western-Southern Squares, Singing Squares, and the Big Set Figures; that is, squares of two couples, where you are traveling from one couple to another. The differences are that the New England Squares are almost like a contra dance set in a square formation; the figures are very similar, and usually repeated twice for the heads, twice for the sides, and an introductory and chorus figure that it's ended on. Visiting squares have kind of gone out of fashion, much like the more traditional [contra] dances that have a truly inactive couple. Most modern dances have equally active roles for both the first and second couple. We've come to the land of a thousand dances, you know? The Santa Barbara dances used to be very traditional, in that we had maybe fifty dances, and we would get to maybe fourteen dances in a night. If you came for five evenings of dance, then you got through the whole repertoire, and by the end of the year, you'd know the dances. So, when David would say, "The next dance is going to be a challenging dance," you'd know the next dance would be "Chorus Jig" or "Rory O'More" or something that had one challenging figure in it. If you came often enough, of course, you and everyone else already knew it. It was very rare that there was a new dance introduced.
The proliferation of dances is a relatively new thing, as well as the "everybody active" dance. No one wants to watch the active couple; everyone wants to do the dance all the tie, and everyone wants a partner swing in the dance. It's changed quite a bit from the traditional dance. There is one dance, I think it's "Lady Walpole's Reel", where you never swing with your partner; it's because Lady Walpole hated dancing with her husband. All you ever do with your partner in that dance is a courtesy turn in the ladies' chain.
People often groan at mixers, or at squares, but I've found that if you call good ones, then people still end up having a good time.
Do you get much heckling about calling squares?
Sometimes, but the biggest thing that I think is going on is that square dances are little bit difficult to call, and to learn, and it takes a little more practice. It takes more work to overcome [the bias] and it takes more work to become a good square dance caller. There's not a lot of support in the community to get over the hump to become really good. Whereas in learning to become a contra dance caller, because contras fit into such a tight formula, it's easy to start calling contras.
Most new callers go through the "dancer-who-calls" stage--you know, "I think this dance is a really cool dance so I'm going to learn to call it, and all my other favorite dances." They aren't really listening to what the dancers are telling them... That only works with an experienced crowd, of course, and when there are beginners on the floor, dancers who aren't really capable of doing it, the dance falls apart. It usually takes a while to become a caller-who-dances, where you can look at a crowd and assess what's going on, what's going to work here, and just give up on saying, "God, we've just got to do 'Lost in Space' or 'Lost Child' or one of those dances that confuse people because of the directional turns, and just save those for the late-night workshops at dance camps where everybody has an idea of how the dances go, and have done some of the more challenging figures.
How do you collect more challenging material for these dancers, then?
Ah! Well, you go to as many dances as you can, and you scribble them down after you have danced them. And plane flights, and long train trips are good, too, for writing your own dances. You get one and you have this long period of time and you think, "Hey, I should write a dance!" So you start thinking, wouldn't it be great if this happened, and then that, and pretty soon you have a dance. Most of those dances come out, they work the first time, or maybe they don't. Sometimes they are definitely more challenging.
When you travel, how do you pick a band to work with?
Well, there's two answers to this. You want to work with as good a band as you can; you really want to work with the best musicians. I have noticed in my calling experience that a good band can make a bad caller seem better than a good caller can improve a bad band. The caller is the front person, but the music is everything! I also play...and I've noticed that no one really looks at the band. I've actually played at dances where people came up to me at the break and said, "Gee, Erik, you're here? Want to have the next dance?" Whereas the caller is always seen. So you always want to pick the best musicians possible as you are learning to call.
[Once you are experienced] I like to work with musicians who don't quite know how to put sets together, if they are willing to have e help the along. It's fun to work with those who are learning how to do this, because the spirit of the whole thing is for me the sense of coming together and playing with each other. If there are musicians who like to play but aren't that experienced, I like to give them a break, too.
When I go traveling, I really enjoy going with a particular band. Most of the time I've gone with my friend Mark Mueller, because I like to hang out with him.
Do you ever have conflict with bands over tunes?
Okay, so they just play what you want, and that's it?
No, seriously, the closest conflict I've ever had is with a very famous accordion player who will remain nameless, although he is from Seattle...
How did you resolve the problem?
Well, I was going to call a dance called "Fiddleheads" which has a Petronella-like move in it, and I asked the band to play "Petronella." He said, "But we play that for 'Petronella!'" So I thought about it for a moment, and thought, oh, yeah, he's right! So now if someone plays a chestnut tune [of which Petronella is one] to another dance, it's very hard for me to listen to. I actually start calling a different dance, the chestnut, whatever it is, like Hull's Victory or something, that's because in Hull's Victory the balance figure represents cannonballs going off. It's hard to imagine any other dance to that tune, it's so welded into my head.
My philosophy for working with any band, though, is that I like them to play the music that they like the best. I figure that they'll have the best time playing that music. I haven't had the experience that this kind of tune goes better with that kind of dance.
When I started calling in San Luis Obispo, I worked with the Growling Old Geezers, who play strictly Southern old-timey music, and right now they're two fiddles and a guitar. That's not what you find [for musicians] around here in the Bay Area. People think that every band needs to have a piano in it. The Growling Old Geezers never play jigs. I forced the to play "Rory O'More" one time and they swore they were going to come in with bags over their heads.
So you don't mind how a band is composed, if it's all strings or whatever?
No, mostly what I find is that when any band has a good time playing and good energy, that it will transmit to everybody, dancers and caller.
Is that the great reward in calling dances for you, or is there something else?
Money compensates for all the traveling around, collecting dances, and losing sleep on the road?
Well, seriously, it's very hard to say what the reward is. I've gone around and asked people why they dance, and many say that there is something kind of spiritual about it, the sense of connection with other people, and a sense of the spirit of the whole thing. For me, I'm addicted to the spirit of playfulness, and that comes out in this kind of dancing for me in a way that is pleasurable. People have asked me if I make a living doing this, and I would say that yes, I definitely do. I've been sick as a dog going in to some dances to call, and when I finish, I feel better at the end; I feel more alive. That's definitely a living. I don't make much money; I do other things to do that. But there is a sense of joy that comes from making the music and calling the dance, and dancing the dances. I just got back from Harvest Moon, and I had a great tie just dancing all weekend. Not calling, just dancing.
In terms of encouraging new callers, do you see yourself in a mentor role?
Oh, yes, definitely. I've really enjoyed doing that. I've even written a book called "Contra Comments" which has various things that I think about the dance scene. Most of them came out of articles I've written, and callers' workshops I've led. I like to share what I've learned and continue to learn from others. I guess I do see myself as a mentor. My own mentors, or rather models, were David Woodsfellow initially, but the ones who influenced me were Larry Edelman and Sandy Bradley. I've spent the most time talking to Fred Park, but there have been lots of callers who I've recorded and listened to, and learned how they teach by listening to how they tell a joke, teach a move, and so on.